And just when you thought I couldn’t possibly have yet another emotional, exciting, entertaining and euphoric running experience…
The girls That Made Me Faster
Influence is important.
You know the general theme of my race reports this year. I’m trying to be serious with my training. I want to be fast(er). I want to keep pushing myself until I either explode, or finally get to the point where I just might be a real contender in the Masters ranks.
One of the ways I plan to get there is to continue training with two athletes who have had a major influence on me, both in and out of running shoes.
Amy Massey and Laura Hill are a couple of my heroes.
They are fast, smart athletes, who train with the kind of intensity and smarts that makes people take notice. If you train in our “area”, you know who they are. Mature, grounded, strong, confident – they’re really in another league compared to me, and I’m extremely lucky that they have accepted me.
Have you ever had friends where you sorta feel like the the little, dumb dog that’s always jumping up to the cool, big dog, just trying to gain their acceptance ‘cuz you respect ‘em so much? That’s kinda what it’s like for me.
Sorta how I feel around Laura and Amy
So when they told me that they were considering doing the Mount Cheaha 50K as their first ultra, I was ecstatic.
For one, I’ve done the race four times now, serve as its webmaster, love the RD and consider it one of my all-time favorite races in the southeast. Finally, there was something that I could offer them …at least, in terms of course knowledge and trail experience; and as a trio, we did a lot of training together:
- Running roads around Peachtree Corners
- Early morning Wednesday track sessions
- Gnarly, freezing-cold hill-climb intervals
- Snowy, 20+mile grinds at Kennesaw Mountain
- And even a li’l Meat Grinder love in North Georgia
You don’t know what you don’t know, and with me having had zero real running experience or training, being well-known instead as the king of “winging it”, this was really the first time I ever had any training with this kind of regularity and intense focus. It just comes natural to them – I just followed along – and became a stronger athlete in the process.
Cheaha was playing out to be extra special this year because not only did I have new goals for myself, but I was also just as excited to see what the speedster girls could do in their first 50K.
Couple all that coolness with the expectation of chillin’ with my usual suspects, Crazy Asian, Weezly Weazel, and Mad Mexican, and by Friday afternoon I could no longer contain myself.
I was ready to RUN!
No Prison Bus for Me, or, Riding Shotgun with a Mexican
Every Cheaha 50K I’ve run, I’ve ridden the prison bus to the start. It’s got cages inside, cages on the windows, is completely devoid of any kind of shock absorption, and crawls up the mountains like someone is back there pushing it; but this year, I was running my yap in the lodge and it filled up before I got a chance to get outside.
But at least I got to roll out next to Vic’tah and the rest of the crew. Something about that Mad Mexican calms me when I’m nervous, kinda like I expect him to have all the right answers since he’s an ex-marine and LAPD cop – Vic’tah, the tactical genius.
Sweet Home Alabama to Aid Station 1
As the Lynyrd Skynyrd song dropped, 200 runners hit the trail, headed off into the Alabama mountain wilderness, ready to tackle to the gnarly terrain along the Pinhoti trail.
Having raced every single weekend since January 16, I was starting to feel some obvious fatigue. I feel I sorta “peaked” running the 3:13 marathon in Birmingham and simply wasn’t really recovering as quickly as usual. Add in a disappointing 18:54 5K the next weekend (while chasing a sub-18:20), and it was becoming obvious that my body might be crying out for some rest.
But I don’t do that very well, and instead, I had a very simple strategy for Cheaha — go out relatively hard, hold it for long as I could, and then just deal with whatever happens.
I busted into the trails at ~8:30 pace expecting that to feel easy.
Just shows I’ve been running too much road, ‘cuz those 8:30s, that early, jacked my heart rate instantly. I wasn’t quite sure if it was nerves or what, but I wanted to keep the leaders in my eyesight as long as possible, but…
That lasted 5 minutes. It’s comical when I think I can do some of the crap I think I can do when clearly I can’t even come close, but anyway…
The heart rate did settle, …for about 5 minutes, until I hear someone hammering behind me on one of the fast descents just before the first aid station.
“Damn, who is that coming so hard?” I thought to myself, but I didn’t want to look back. “Screw it, if they’re gonna pass, they can pass me when we get to the road.” And I did my best to fight off whoever it was.
Once we hit the road, dude passed. It was Marcus Farris, and boy did I feel stupid. Dude is a uber-fast twenty-something who ended up taking 4th place overall, just breaking 5 hours with a kick-ass 4:59. Super humble, nice kid who is seemingly getting faster each and every race. Keep your eye out for this up-n-coming speedy youngster.
No need to stop at aid station 1, so I tossed out a few greetings and “thank you’s”, and made my way up the choppy, divet-filled jeep road towards the next section of single-track trail.
Aid Station 2 – Before the Fall
Now we climb.
It’s not that it’s a ridiculous grade, and 90% of it is runnable if you’re into that sorta thing, but it does wake you up and let you know you’re trail running for reals now. And while this early section does have some challenge to it, it also rewards runners with lots of beautiful views early on, and interesting forest throughout.
I must suck at fast descents, because just as eventual female 1st place runner, and new female course record holder, Sarah Woerner picked me off, I busted face-first. Bottle flying, chest thumping, knees scraping… it knocked the wind right outta’ me and I just laid there for a split second trying to collect myself as three dudes passed on by.
“Good thing you got that over with now,” dude says as he jumped over my heaving, contorted carcass.
I eventually picked myself up, wiped the dirt off of my watch so I could stress myself out over the 13:00 minute pace that was now showing, and started shuffling, trying desperately to shake that fall off and find my groove again.
Aid Station 2 – After the Fall
Somewhere near the 7-ish (?) mile mark, the trail dumps us out to another gnarly jeep road that climbs for about a mile. I actually found this refreshing as I was still shaken from the fall and climbing slowly was just fine by me. This climb can be a race changer, even that early, because some overly ambitious runners can hit this jeep road and find the long climb too challenging to maintain pace.
It’s happened to me, but not this time. I ran the entire climb, at a decent clip, and had recovered pretty well just in time to hammer the long descent into aid station 2.
I felt surprisingly strong on this descent, clocking a few 6:15 and 6:20 paces, while staying in complete control.
I rushed through the aid station in 30 seconds, quickly filling my water bottle and swiping some peanut butter pretzels for the long stretch ahead.
“What a minute, is that Annette Bednosky?”
Aid Station 3 – The Climb
“Ok, no way.”
“There is no way I should ever be anywhere near Annette Bednosky in a trail race.” I thought to myself, “she must be hurt.”
I stayed back behind her for the long series of switch-back climbs, but as we got to the summit, I blurted out, “looking for your legs, speedy?”
In retrospect, it feels like it was probably a pretty stupid thing to say, but I meant it in terms of surprise to be seeing her here, and not up running a 4:30 pace with Dink and “Shatter”field, but being the gracious, humble lady she is, she entertained my stupid comment anyway and we chatted a bit before I finally, but with hesitation, went on ahead.
It just felt wrong passing her, but I knew it most likely was short-lived.
Aid Station 3 – The Crawl
I have a love/hate section with this ridge at the summit. Sure, it’s mostly flat (if not a little downhill), but it’s sneaky-rocky. By “sneaky-rocky”, I mean those loose rocks, hidden under leaves, that if they roll out from under you, can spell certain disaster.
This goes on for miles. Very skinny single-track trail that gets progressively rockier and rockier all the way to the aid station. In fact, the last two miles is so ridiculously rocky it borders on obscene – at least for any kind of faster running.
The race becomes a game of “granite roulette” – step on the right rock, and you’re golden, …but step on the wrong one, and it rolls underneath you, throwing your leg out to side as you hurriedly try to collect yourself before getting hurled down the steep embankment to your left – Oh, but wait! While you were being all slick-willy trail runner dude with your fine side-stepping, you “side-stepped” another “wrong” rock and now you’re just spinning like a cartoon character just waiting to kiss the earth with a giant wet one.
Ah, Pinhoti trail love.
Having taken at least five good spills in this 6-mile section, I rolled into aid station #3, the halfway point, feeling very beat up, and with Annette (now with Laura in tow) bearing down on me quickly.
Aid Station 4
Remember my strategy? Go out hard, hang on as long as I can, and then see what happens?
Between aid station 3 and 4, we officially entered, “what happens.”
I was already stressed out with Annette and Laura hot on my tail. Sure this was all expected, and I’m well aware of the fact that they are better runners than me, but the little competitor inside still wanted to fight them off. Because of this, I pushed a little harder than I should have and once again, face-planted, this time squarely in front of Annette.
“That was a nice one!” she yells a couple steps later.
I just felt embarrassed.
We leap-frogged each other for awhile through some sunny switch-backs before she finally dropped me for good around mile 17. I knew Laura was back there, and yea, I wanted to beat her, too, but I also couldn’t help but be excited for her as she was obviously having a great day in her first 50K.
I rolled into aid station 4, mile 18, and saw a familiar face in Kirsten Nash Jones from the DCRR. This was nice and she took good care of me filling my bottle quickly while I skarfed some pretzels and staggered around looking for any semblance of my legs.
Here comes Laura. In and out.
Passed me before I could blink.
If you know Laura, you know her pacing skill, and I started to wonder how many others she’d be soon clipping off, all wondering, like me, where in the Hell she came from.
Aid Station 5 – the Creek Crossing That Wasn’t
I really don’t have much to say about this section other than, yup, I fell again. I was in my typical 20-mile low point and feeling lonely. Even though having Annette and Laura breathing down my neck for a few miles was stressful, it was at least entertaining. Right now, I was just feeling slow, tired, shot-out, and over-ambitious …and all I could hear in my head was DC Lundell on my Facebook page: “Dude, I told you.”
I must of looked like a crazy person swatting at thin air and yelling, “shut up!”, “go away!”
Ok, I’m kidding about that, I wasn’t really playing cuckoo, but dude is always on me about resting and I never listen. Although I was still having fun, I started to think he might be right, and swore that once I got home, I was going to factor more rest into my routine.
A technical descent, followed by the famous creek crossing caps off this section of nice trail running, but it was pretty anti-climatic. The creek was low and instead of the usual waist-deep, rope-assisted experience, we just hopped a few rocks and carried on with our day.
Aid Station 6 – The Silent Trail that A’int
This is a really cool section of trail.
After leaving the aid station, where I think I broke the world record for the number of orange slices consumed in under 45 seconds, the trail turns technical and cruises along the rushing creek. The heat was kicking in pretty good by now, and I was loopy as Hell, so I headed straight for the water.
Full soak, baby. Shirt, shoes, total head-dunk.
I felt like a million bucks after that, but opted to continue to keep the pace slow in anticipation for the upcoming long dirt road, and paved section, where I had hoped to make up some ground.
I hit the dirt road and ran 8:30-ish pace all the way to the jagged pavement turn, and expecting water at that intersection, I totally drained my bottle during that uber-long, hot stretch.
But luckily, a really cool dude who had to drop at mile 18 was sitting there and offered me his bottle of water. It wasn’t a lot, but it would get me one more mile to the next aid station at mile 28.
I drained it instantly, and shuffled on down the road.
Aid Station 7 – Blue Hell
At the end of the race, when people asked me how I did, I seemed to have a shy demeanor about me when relaying my time, and this is why:
I pulled a total punk move.
…like a little baby; and I don’t feel like I deserved reaching any of my goals in this race because of this bad attitude and wimpy approach, and quite honestly, it totally colored my entire race in my own head.
When I reached the last aid station, and looked my watch, it read, 5:01.
I was totally shot-out, especially now after running the dirt road pretty hard, and I let the upcoming Blue Hell climb TOTALLY psych me out.
I gave up y’all. fo’ reals.
I grabbed 4 chocolate chip cookies, and just started walking to the trail head with two other dudes who also seemed thrashed out.
All other times I’ve run this race, Ive at least run along the water of the blue-blazed trail until the nasty climb started, but not today.
I just walked.
I walked all the way down the trail, and once the steep climb started, I just approached it, too, like a little dejected, pathetic weenie. I don’t even remember what I said to the dudes I was with, but something really lame like, “well, I have no chance of getting my goal so %^$#! it”
…and they climbed on past me.
I apologize, dudes, if my negativity was way outta’ place in such a beautiful place. I suck sometimes.
I struggled miserably up Blue Hell. A couple of times, I just crawled along the boulders near the top, and I could not have climbed that stretch any slower. Not only did I feel like total crap physically, but I was embarrassed that I’d have to admit defeat publicly, and while that’s shallow as can be, it’s still an emotion I was dealing with…
I pushed up and out of Blue Hell and my watch read 5:38.
“Hmmm… can I actually still break 6? …Really???”
I knew there were a couple of short pavement climbs, and one more trail climb, followed by the winding single-track to the finish, but man, I just might have a shot if I run my ass off right now.
So I did.
And, by the time I hit the final stretch of single-track that dumped us out to the finish, I had passed those two dudes back up, and looked at the watch…
Holy crap, I was gonna break 6 hours after all! Hell yeah!!! And I ran like I was racing a road 5K.
Heard the loud speakers at the finish line, and knew I was close. As I came up the road, I heard my name being called and looked up at the race clock and felt total relief.
5:46:54 – a 22-minute personal best for me from 2010, and obtainment of my goal of a sub-6 hour Cheaha.
But, I just didn’t feel worthy.
Why the long face?
No long face, but I can’t shake the fact that I gave up early. I might have shaved a few minutes had I run that flat approach to Blue Hell, and scored a sub-5:45, which would have been closer to my dream goal.
It just really bothered me. Still does.
I have a really hard time completely accepting the congratulations from people when I know how I approached that final section. I wish it wasn’t so. I hope it doesn’t make me sound ungrateful or too sensitive or whatever, but these runs mean a lot to me and I pour a lot of myself into them, and punking out just sucks to carry around.
All’s Well that Ends Well
But then, here comes Laura sipping a Coke and she’s all smiles, and I was so happy for her. She broke top-20, and we actually finished 20th and 21st respectively, and that is just flat-out cool stuff. Her first 50K and she smacked it around like her little b*&^!.
Then, unexpectedly, here comes Sean O, about to break six hours as well, Amy soon after, and all of a sudden, I no longer worried so much about my disappointment …the race had become all about everyone else, and I liked it better that way.
I stayed there, sitting on the rocks, and cheered in all of my friends, and shoots even people I didn’t know. I remembered how much fun I had doing that at Ghost Town, so I did it again.
It’s like a little secret. You get to relive the joy of finishing over and over and over, even if vicariously through others, and it feels almost just as good.
What Did You Learn?
- I learned that I still have a lot to learn – about pace, about rest, about smart training
- I learned that the pain of quitting on yourself lasts longer than the pain of pushing on
- I re-learned that I truly find joy in cheering for others and sharing in their finish excitement
I learned that the more I do these events, the more I become emotionally attached to the sport, the people, the organizers, the vibe, the stoke, the lifestyle, the dirt, the pain, the beauty, and the life that is ultrarunning.
’til the next one…