Slapped Silly at SweetH20

Sweetwater Creek mill ruins
photo:  civil war era textile mill ruins, smack dab in the middle of the park.

I forgot how hard the SweetH20 50K really is.

In 2007, the inaugural year for the Sweetwater race, and my first year running ultras, I completed the race in around eight hours and fifteen minutes (8:15), and last year, I shaved off an hour and twenty minutes, to finish in 6:56 — so this year, I set another lofty goal, hoping to shave off another hour and some change, and roll in somewhere around five hours and forty-five minutes (5:45) — a huge goal, but I felt strong and determined.

You’d think after running the race twice previously, and writing race reports from each experience, plus managing the SweetH20 race web site, and training on the course from time to time, I’d have some idea how to approach this race by now.

Nope.

A family reunion

Local races are starting to feel like family reunions for me. I love showing up and seeing many of the same faces, shaking many of the same hands, and all the familiar hugs.

I especially like the hugs.

On race morning, the buzz around packet pick-up was energizing. Everybody looked happy, and excited. The weather was b-eau-ti-ful, and looking around at the field of talent, it was beginning to feel like some records were about to get broken.

It was great having the opportunity to cut up with ultrarunning icon David Horton.

Dr. Horton is a true legend in the sport of ultrarunning, and for someone like me, so new to ultrarunning and just starting to dip my big toe into the experience bucket, it was surreal to spend some quality time with him pre and post-race.

I met lots of new people that knew me via the run100miles blog, the ultralist and/or Facebook, and as much as some of the old-timers and grouchies like to beat up on Twitter, Facebook and technology in general within our sport, it’s really cool to see the power of social networking and ‘same-interest’ communication flourish.

It’s simply fun to share your stoke and excitement with others who are feeling the exact same ways.

30 more seconds…

…was the last thing I heard. I started looking around, overwhelmed by the number of runners at SweetH20 this year. More than twice the number of runners from last year. I exchanged some positive vibes with those around me and…, bang!

The first mile of the race is on a road, and I shot out of the gate for a number of reasons:

  1. I really wanted to get in the front pack so I wouldn’t get caught up in the traffic jam when everyone entered the forest, and the single-track trails.
  2. I had some lofty ‘personal best’ goals of shaving 74 minutes off of my last year’s finishing time on this race course.
  3. I wanted to see how the speed training has been working out and how long I could maintain a fast foot turn-over.
  4. And, as always, I was testing how long I could maintain POSE running style.

I found myself running with the front 35 when we ducked into the trails for 30 miles of challenging single-track. I knew damn well I shouldn’t be running in this group, but I decided to roll with it anyway.

Once again I got some trail time with one of the most interesting characters of the Southeastern scene, John Dove, and really enjoyed catching up with him, learning from his experience regarding my upcoming 100-miler at Cascade Crest, listening to his cycling stories, …and then watching him do this crazy, sliding-save-thing, down the spillway, at the first water crossing, the effects of which would later serve as a cramp machine for him throughout the rest of the race.

He still finished sub-6 …even hurt. Sheesh.

Christian Griffith and John Cremers rip the Sweet H20 trails
photo: John Cremers leads Christian Griffith, exiting the white loop.

High ho – high ho, to “Top of the World” we go

You know it’s coming.

You talk to yourself silently the entire first 8 miles or so to the spot.

“How am I going to approach top of the world this year?”

“Should I try to run? …walk when fatigued?

“Should I walk the entire thing hard, and use the banked energy for speed later?”

“Wonder how hot it’s gonna be out there all hot and exposed?”

Cross the bridge, hang a right… and,

THUMPIDY, THUMPIDY, THUMPIDY

“Dude …look out!”

“Whoa!”

WHOOOOOOSH!

“Holy sh$@!, did you see that!”

Dude behind me nodded, grinning from ear-to-ear, and said, “yep”.

Right after I crossed the bridge a big ol’ deer came sprinting down the hill, jumped the creek, and flew past my face about 10 feet in front of me. Close enough where I could feel the energy of all the mass flying past me.

Freaked me out.

I started looking for a second one coming up behind him, since they usually run in packs, but nope – he was solo, and I sighed in relief.

sweeth20 50K course profile
photo: SweetH20 course profile – click for larger version

You never get used to these hills

“Top of the World” is just plain hard. The series of hills consist of steep, rocky, calf-clenching climbs with even steeper, quad-pounding descents. The bright sunshine and heat was an added challenge since the hills are completely exposed, and the weather on this day was climbing into the mid-80s, with brilliant blue, cloudless skies.

During this first trip, runners have a very steep approach climb up a leaf-buried hillside before beginning the series of four hills – one baby, three killa’s.

Runners run down, and power hike up, run down, power hike up, run down, power hike up, run down, power hike up – zero flat – straight up, then straight down.

There is no easy way to handle it – just keep the ol’ head down, the heels up, the stride short and grumble-to-yourself as you move at a snail’s pace.

You just gotta open up

From a pure running performance perspective, I wasn’t having the best day. Mentally, I was excited and happy and driven for a solid course PR (personal record) – but my legs were just not cooperating.

I felt fatigue from the first tiny climb of the day, and that dead-legs feeling hung around pretty much the whole day. This was a very weird, unusual feeling for me. Typically, if I’m having a bad day physically, I struggle mentally too; but not today. I stayed very upbeat, happy and alive despite my weak physical condition.

There are some tough climbs, and lots of ‘em at SweetH20, but there are also many nice sections where runners can really open up, let the legs go, and chew up some miles.

I couldn’t seem to take advantage.

I felt like I was pretty much running the same, slow, mincy pace whether I was climbing, descending or running down a flat, pine-needle covered speed section.

I just couldn’t find a fast gear, ever.

But, if you’re ever considering this race, keep that in mind – as hard as it is, there are some really fast sections to take advantage of if you’ve got it in ya.

Halfway home

After the halfway-point aid station, runners enter the yellow loop, personally, one of my favorite sections in the park. A beautiful, flat and fast approach drops you off at the base of a very steep, creek-bed type climb that really chips away at runners this deep into the run. I saw many runners stopping on various sections of this climb, resting against trees, and trying to manage this lung-buster.

“Sorry to be breathing down your neck”

There was a girl behind me, huffing and puffing like crazy, but in a perfect rhythm, which I was sort of timing my steps to.

“No problem”, I said.

She must not have been too bad off – she passed me at the top.

Dying for a dip in the raging river

You spend a significant amount of time running with a wide view of refreshing looking river water. The water was calling me and I was dying to take a break and just flounder in the water like I would at Laurel Valley; but I knew the rope-assisted river crossing was coming and chose to wait for that little bit o’ fun instead.

We slugged through the backside powerlines section, up a short gravel road, and ducked deep into sloshing, knee-deep bush-whacked trail, before sprinting down a very steep, leaf-covered approach to the marquee race challenge – the river crossing.

And once we got to the rope, were presented with a waiting line, 15-runners deep, waiting to cross the river.

“Doh!”

Because of the conditions of rapidly moving water, the rescue team responsible for this potentially problematic crossing limited the rope to one runner at a time. It was definitely the right decision, and as much as I wanted to rogue it, I didn’t want to risk disqualification nor make things difficult for the RDs and volunteers.

So I stood in line like a good little boy.

I was bothered for about 30 seconds, but quickly got a grip.

This is what ultras are all about: Dealing with the unexpected. How you deal with the challenges you encounter in a very long, difficult mountain race can be very telling of your overall character.

Negativity breeds negativity.

And once I shrugged my shoulders and shelved the 5:45 race goal, it lifted a lot of self-induced pressure and actually made my second half of the race a lot better than the first half.

I’m 15.

What?

After the crossing, I ran with a 15-year old kid. It’s humbling to be toughing it out with a 15-year old only steps behind you. He seemed shy and didn’t really say much to me during the hour or so we ran near each other, but then, halfway up one of the climbs he yells out, “you know what? After I finish, I’m going to Zaxby’s for a basket of chicken fingers and a Coke!”

Running a 50K, but still I kid. {grins}

For some reason that made me laugh as I think of my own step-fella’ and the teenage love affair with chicken fingers.

The kid sort of dropped behind around the 22 mile point, but I hung around at the end to see him finish and shake his hand.

15 years old, y’all…

Let’s make it just a little mo’ harder

From the time you cross the river, the only thing on your mind is heading back out to “Top of the World”.

Here’s where I caught up to Florida runner Jeff Bryan, and together we ran down Jack’s Hill at a hobble. I want to thank whoever left the styrofoam cooler, at the top of the single-track steps, leading to Dave and Orlando’s aid station. It was full of ice cold Cokes and Mountain Dews, and came at a time when I was out of fluids, thirsty and craving sugar.

God, that Mountain Dew was good.

…and necessary, because the second trip to “Top of the World” hits you at about marathon-deep, 26 miles, and is harder than the first time you had the pleasure.

The race directors bring runners around the backside of the mountain this time, throwing a couple-four bonus climbs at ya, before taking you to that same grueling approach to the same series of grueling climbs known fondly ‘roun here as “Top of the World”.

But once it’s over, it’s time to sniff for the barn.

And I was sniffin’.

I was hot, fatigued and ready to wrap this beast up.

But no…

Feeling a little frisky, the RDs decided to cut a climb, straight up, from the trail along the river, to the blue-blazed ridge a few hundred feet above.

I mean straight-up. This is no exaggeration. Straight, freakin’ up!

This hurt me bad.

Mentally, it popped my “all-the-climbs-are-done” balloon, and physically it wore me down to a point where I had to use small trees for leverage, stumps for rest, and endured doubled-over gasping periods for some small semblance of recovery along the way.

This was totally unexpected and the grade was easily over 75% for a majority of the trek up.

“Please let this be it for the surprises”, I prayed to the trail Gods.

Put the hammer down

Perhaps “put the hammer down” is grasping a little for pace description, but I definitely was ready to finish and decided to run as hard as I could until I either fell out, or finished.

I passed quite a few people who seemed content to walk it in from the last aid station, but nobody I knew or I would have heckled them to start running.

I was fighting the fatigue with all I had, just kinda hoping that even though I lost 20 minutes at the river crossing, as well as a couple of minutes of self-induced, missed-the-flags bonus miles, I still had a shot at a personal record for the course.

Turned the corner, looked at the clock, 6:25:34 – a tad over 30 minutes better than last year, and a new personal course record for the SweetH20 50K.

But, if I choose to shave off the time I was stalled at the creek, I could claim a 6:05.

That’s cheesy and I won’t do it, but at least I know what I’m capable of doing under different conditions.

SweetH20 is big time now

This race will fill very quickly next year. It’s got its mojo now. It’s run very well, with an incredible volunteer crew, great RDs, and heavy southeastern following.

The Virginia runners came down here and did very well, but I’d also be curious to see what some of the Alabama gang could do here – we better see y’all next year.

10 Big Ups

I sorta hate to do this because I don’t want to forget anyone or any cool situation, but I wanted to take a moment to share 10 performances or circumstances that stoked me during this year’s race:

  1. My friend of almost 10 years completing his first ultra distance – in 6:45!
  2. More friends, Colt and Dale, completing their first ultramarathons – both also breaking seven hours!
  3. John Nevels super-impressive 5:01
  4. Matt Kahrs – what can you say about this kid? He’s a phenom and he’s coming for you West coast guys at Diablo next weekend. Watch this kid because I think he’s about to change things. You heard it here first.
  5. Kate and Jon, ultraunning’s newest couple and uber-nice and positive characters, finishing together in 5:39
  6. Sally Brooking, female masters winner and absolute hero of mine, rolling in at 5 hours, 24 minutes. Sheesh, girl.
  7. Marty breaking 5 hours. Less than five hours on this course is impossible for me to even wrap my head around. Dude is a STUD.
  8. All the GUTS runners and fellow club members finishing strong on a meaty course.
  9. The Rogue Runner volunteers, Lerch’s, Cindy, Dave, Orlando, and everybody else who kept the positive vibe flowing and supportive cheering coming!
  10. Seeing the biggest snake I have ever seen in my life on the blue-blazed trail with Andrew Hackett, Jeff Bryan and few hikers.

I’m not going to congratulate Spurgeon because I kinda wanted to beat him. I never really had that goal until I found myself in the same pack as him a few times, and kinda-sorta thought I could reel him in.

Nope.

No chance.

Never saw him again after about the second trip to TOTW.

Will this report ever end?

Maybe not.

I continue to feel more and more love for the sport of ultrarunning. I can’t believe, as I roll into June, that it was this very month, June 2006, when I first laced up in Las Vegas, NV to run three miles down the strip, working towards my new goal of becoming a runner.

Just’a fat, lethargic man in clunky fat-boy running shoes with wide-eyed, kid-like goals and dreams.

Sticking to it has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. I have made hundreds of new friends all over the country, and a few internationally, and I’ve learned that I LOVE to run.

Anything and everything…

I’m running all over the country, with all kinds of unique, cool and interesting people with opportunities popping up all around me and I’m loving every, single minute of it.

So, the question is – who’s headed to Chattooga 50K next weekend?

Get some!

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Comments

[...] Christian, a fellow GUTS member, always writes great reports for his adventures.  I haven’t actually met him yet, but feel like I know him a bit from his blog.   [...]

I soooo want to do this one next year. Sweetwater’s one of my favorite training spots.

Christian, excellent run man!! And very eloquent report as always.. You capture so well the pain/beauty of ultras!!! Running together with Kate really enhanced, took the experience to a much greater height for me~

Happy Trails

Wow, what a great report. I shared so many of your thougts as I was running, especially at mile 28. I had more than one choice word for Johnny and Scotty when I hit that section. This was my first Ultra, my first Marathon was two months ago at The ING. I posted a 5:57 at Sweetwater and cant wait to run another. I have been really fortunate to have made some great friends at Big Peach, The Rogue Runners, and Guts. Without them, I would not have done so well. Passing the last aid station, Desire gave me the time, and I knew I could still beat 6 hours, and really went for it, Whew, next year Im looking to go under 5:30!!!

You ran a great race out there Christian! Everyone I talked to though I was totally insane for picking this race as my first ultra but I tell you I could not have asked for a better first time experience! See you next year for sure!!!

The report is great!!!! Race was not over till i read it, cant wait till the next!!!! Great seeing ya at the finish, nice job!

Christian, Great report! Thanks again for the advice on TOTW! Last year’s race report was a huge help for this newbie (along with David Ray’s). Seeing that deer was pretty cool…John

SOOO happy about your PR (which you’ll definitely smash again next year). Congratulations to you… and to your buddies who ran their 1st ultras!

You’ve got the best attitude, Christian. If your reports don’t inspire, I don’t know what can. Congratulations, also, on the 3 year anniversary of when you first decided to go out for a little run. You’ve done more in 3 years than most folks do in a lifetime.

Great race report Christian! Congrats on making a tough physical day and winning mental day…and nabbing a PR to boot. I need to get me some SweetH2O next year! Looking forward to meeting you at one of the races some day.

Good luck next weekend.

WOW – great report. I think I’m inspired to start running…but I’ll need a baby run. Good job, Johnny.

Gammy

As always its a pleasure to read your race reports. Thanks for the encouragement. I can now say I’m hooked on ultras even though I could barely walk and with 3 black toenails after the race. Good luck this weekend! Holla!

You definitely have me watching Matt’s time next weekend now. I’m probably one of the few who has seen both courses (well, not all of Diablo, but enough), so I’m definitely curious. A lot of the local fast guys (and gals…watch for an upcoming interview) ran Ohlone this past weekend. Graham Cooper will be at Diablo though and that man has some serious legs. We’ll see what happens.

There are two runs out here that I’ve run that are definitely harder than SweetH20 (Sequoia and Rucky Chucky). However, with SH20 being so much later this year (i.e. hotter and more humid), it’s tough to compare. I guess, you’re gonna have to come out here and see for yourself! :)

In the end, each race is unique. And every year is different.

Finally, congrats on a race well run! I don’t miss those power lines. At all. :)

Great Report Christian. It was good seeing you out there. I see it didn’t take long for you to get amp’d for Chattooga (so much for rest). :) I wish I could make White River with you guys, but I look forward to reading the report.

Great report, Christian. Your previous reports served as preperation for this, my first 50k.

My wife spoke with that 15 year old’s Mom. She said he entered practically on a whim and she was visibly worried about him. He’ll definitely have braging rights when he rejoins his cross country team this fall.

You can’t do a wrap on the race until your report is read Christian, no one does it better, seriously..W/ the changes to the course(no stops, no delays river crossing), wink wink, we hope to make next yr, I say you’re going sub 6, no doubt…can’t wait for the next read from ya…thanks again, you get the credit for the bump, what a crowd//party..

Congratulations, Christian! Another very entertaining report. Love it!

Geez… what a tough day! I was loopy the last time around Top of the World. I ran with that 15 year old for about 4 miles earlier in the race. Just finished 9th grade. As a cross country/track coach, I was impressed.

Oh man! Way to get it done! Great race and great report. You’re having a huge impact on folks I talk to. People want to get out there and do it after you write about it. I’m included on that one.

See you at Chattooga. Shorts and all. :)

Christian,

Great report. I mean GREAT! Keep Up, Be Great,
Sat Nam,
Christopher

great report, I especially connected with the last section about your run in Las Vegas. I had the same experience in July 2007 as I laced up a pair of worn out running shoes that to that point had not been used for running and headed out my front door to run. 1/4 mile later I realized I had a long way to go…my first ultra is in the future, but your race reports certainly help with the motivation…thanks!

Great report. Christian. But stop claiming virgin status, you ain’t anymore…

G

Great report Christian! Dude, you just keep getting better and better. Next year I won’t even be on your radar. You’ll be gunning for Sally instead!

BTW – to me, David Horton was the amazing finish of the day. I was right behind him when he took his first step into the woods from the road. Unfortunately, that first step was a doozy. He tripped and went face first to the trail. His hands slipped out from under him as he tried to break his fall and he slid down about four or five earth and wood steps on his belly. I was scared he might have broken some ribs. When he got up both of his hands were pretty bloody, but he still had a smile on his face. This was only a mile into the race, but I guess that wonderfully positive attitude of his carried him forward as he toughed it out and finished the race.

Awesome report Christian, as Co-director it’s very rewarding to hear such positive comments and read how much you enjoyed this course that so much work was put into. The volunteers have been great since the 1st year, but this year I think they all stepped it up a notch. The “surprise” at Mile 28 was innocent in its conception, but it was cool to hear so much talk about it at the finish. Keep on Keeping on and I look forward to reading your future endeavors.

Scotty

Sick report! Thanks for the encouragement. Look foward to the the rest of the summer season and pulling off the double Vogel with the CREW. I smell a sub-6 hour at Chattooga without a doubt. HOLLA!

Hey Christian, Great story, great race. As a volunteer and fellow runner, it really means a lot to know our work paid off and you guys enjoyed the race. It was made all the better seeing so many familiar faces running on our favorite trails. Can’t wait to see where else you are going with you ultra running career. I felt so inspired by you all, that I came home and signed up for Stump Jump, my first 50k. See ya, Jennifer

Great report as always! Sounds like you had a blast. Im looking forward to seeing you at the Chattooga on Sunday.

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