The subtitle for this blog, “A mid-life journey from couch to 50K” was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to my tendency to go a little overboard with things that I find interesting. In other words, if everyone else is doing the “Couch to 5K” plan, then I’ll probably do “Couch to 50K”. (Thank GOD I didn’t call it “…from couch to Trans-America.”) Running an ultra-marathon wasn’t even a specific goal until a few weeks after my first marathon was complete and oh, by the way, running a marathon wasn’t a specific goal when I started the blog either. So now that my journey is complete, SPOILER ALERT
I suppose I should retire.
But then what would I do? Ooh, I know…Dragon Boat Racing!!
On to the race recap…
When bad weather threatens a road race, you might get wet but it won’t really affect your ability to run, much less your ability to finish. When bad weather threatens a trail run, you can be in for a real struggle – or worse, a DNF. When I signed up for this race, I knew that shortly after last year’s race began, it stormed for hours until the National Forest Service required an early cancellation. I wondered, “What are the odds of it happening again?” – cue eerie foreshadowing music –
Two weeks before race day, I had planned a 16 mile run on Tally’s Creek Trail at Clear Springs Recreation Area in Mississippi’s Homochitto National Forest as a final training run. Actually, a group of coworkers planned to hike the trail and I was going to join them at the start and run the opposite direction for about a loop and a half and then hike out the rest of the way with the group. I figured I would pass them at my mile 8 ( their mile 4 ) and again at my mile 16 ( their mile 8 ) when I would turn around and hike the last four miles with the group. Unfortunately, the hike was cancelled due to bad weather the night before with 4 inches of rain. – more eerie foreshadowing music –
As soon as the 10 day forecast was posted, I began tracking the weather for race day. At first, it looked like a little rain in the days before the race but clear on race day. That would have been ideal since the pine trees were already dropping pollen like crazy. A litte wind and rain to knock the pollen count down and settle the dust would be perfect. As the days counted down, the front didn’t develop as quickly as forecasted and the rain window moved just enough to include race day at the tail end. I started preparing my mind for the possibility of a muddy run but was still holding out hope that the weather would cooperate.
Hope for the best, Plan for the worst
I took the day off from work on Friday, the day before the race, to pack, prepare and travel to Laurel. Since I wasn’t sure what conditions to expect, I decided the smart thing to do would be to bring what I needed for whatever conditions I got. I brought: two pair of well worn Saucony Kinvara shoes, three pair of Dri-Fit socks, my favorite marathon-tested Nike 5″ shorts, a short sleeve running shirt, a long sleeve running shirt, Nike Storm Fly 2.0 rain shell in case it is rainy but warm, New Balance fleece lined running jacket in case it is rainy and cold, Nathan waist pack with ziplock bags to stash iPod shuffle and Garmin 305 if needed, running cap, running visor, stocking cap, gloves, two big towels and drop bags in case I couldn’t park near the start/finish area. A little extra time packing on Friday meant I would have options at 4AM Saturday morning when it really mattered.
I checked the forecast one last time before leaving and it was showing thunderstorms in the afternoon and evening and light rain until race start at 6AM then partly cloudy the rest of the day. On the way to Laurel, Robin texted that the forecast now said 70% chance of thunderstorms at 6AM. That’s not what I wanted to hear. I could deal with the mud, I could deal with some rain but I didn’t want to be out there in a thunderstorm and I didn’t want the race to be cancelled.
The first shower of the day began just as I started to unpack and finished about the time that I was through. It rained off and on the rest of the day but that didn’t stop me from driving out to the race site at the Longleaf Horse Trail in DeSoto National Forest and attending the pre-race meeting and spaghetti dinner at the Laurel fair grounds.
I was feeling tired and very stressed about the weather conditions so I didn’t feel like hanging around and meeting anyone. I fixed a plate, then sat down and ate while the race director gave his instructions. Most important was, “don’t get lost” and “be sure to check in so we know if you DO get lost”. I remember discussion about the trail markings. “The trail is idiot proof but there is always the chance that some idiot will miss a turn.” I made a mental note to not be that idiot and then headed back to the hotel before the really bad weather started.
At the hotel, I turned the television to a local channel where the meteorologist was already interrupting regularly scheduled programming with severe weather updates. Fine with me. I didn’t really need to know that Reba McIntyre’s great great great great great grandfather was shipped off from England to America to be an indentured servant at the age of 9.
There was a tornado warning for a county just west of Jones but the weather guy was skeptical. I wondered where I would go to ride out a tornado if one were headed my way. My 1.5 star hotel didn’t seem all that sturdy. With the door shut and deadbolted, I could easily see a ring of light outlining the door. Fortunately, the warning was cancelled and the weather guy was vindicated.
It was raining hard and steady but with only a random clap of thunder every once in a while. Apparently, the worst weather skipped Laurel and headed straight towards home. Robin was sending me regular weather updates from her hiding place in the laundry room.
“The weather radio is going off here.”
“Tornado warning in Madison and Ridgeland.”
“Sirens are going off in Madison.”
“Hailing like crazy…sounds like all the windows are breaking.”
Good luck. Don’t be stupid
I selected the most appropriate clothes for the conditions then repacked everything else. I checked the hourly forecast one last time before going to sleep with the TV on. I would wake to recheck the hourly forecast several more times throughout the night, always with the same result. 80% chance of thunderstorms at 6AM changing to rain at 8AM.
Apparently while I slept, the major front finally blew through leaving only light rain to deal with. When my alarm went off at 4AM, the forecast was light rain throughout the day. I texted Robin “Weather has passed. It will be a muddy run but no more thunderstorms.” She was awake and texted right back “Radar looks otherwise. Good luck. Don’t be stupid.”
Welcome to the DeadZone
About two miles southeast of Laurel is the edge of a huge deadzone for AT&T cellular coverage that encompassed the entire race route. Robin wouldn’t hear from me again until after the race was over and I was back in civilization. I had also seen my last hourly forecast.
Getting to the race area required driving about 10 miles of gravel road which held up surprisingly well to the overnight storms and then hundreds of cars arriving for the race. I hoped the trails might have fared as well. In answer to hundreds of runners’ prayers, the light rain stopped just as I pulled into the parking area near the start/finish line.
I found a great parking spot where I could access the Durango as I passed by after each loop. This allowed me to set up my own transition area in the back cargo section. While unpacking the drop bag I had prepared, I realized I had forgotten to apply Body-Glide before leaving the hotel. This was an important step, especially knowing I would run the entire race with wet feet. I had time so I removed shoes and socks and coated everything well.
What? Oh, the race started?
At the start line, runners were bouncing around with way more energy than I could muster so early in the morning. I wondered if they were up all night watching the weather like I was. I had just started talking to a guy that had driven down from Chicago for this event and then without warning, the whole crowd started moving. The race was underway and I didn’t even hear anyone say “Go”. Chicago guy interrupted himself mid-sentence with a quick “Good luck!” and then he disappeared into the darkness. I fell in with the group and started running down the gravel road.
Just past the parking area, the crowd suddenly split into two groups, one going left and one going right. I followed the right group around the closed gate blocking the road before rejoining the left group on the other side. Dawn was breaking and it was light enough to see and avoid a few mud puddles. I thought “This isn’t going to be so bad afterall.”
Pictures or it didn’t happen!
I started hearing excited whoops and hollers from farther down the trail and quickly realized the reason…the first creek crossing of the day. I looked around for the photographer. Surely someone would be there to capture this moment. I heard someone shout “Let’s get this over with” and I did. The water was cold and about thigh deep. I wondered how my feet would take 31 miles of running with wet socks but kept going anyway. I didn’t know it yet, but later I would be looking forward to the creek crossings as a chance to rinse my mud filled shoes. There would be plenty of chances to do this as it seemed there was a water crossing at least every few miles.
My initial hopes that the mudholes would be mostly avoidable was just a case of extreme optimism. The first time around the big 12.5 mile loop left a few options for a “better” line through the mud. If you chose not to take the most direct route, you might get lucky and only sink one foot. Of course, there was a tradeoff. There was thick undergrowth mostly consisting of various types of thorny plants on either side of the trail so attempts to skirt the edges of the mudholes left bloody scratches across the knees. More than once, I had to stop and dig thorns out because those suckers hurt.
Sometime during the first loop, it warmed up enough that I removed my jacket and tied it around my waist. Three miles later, I realized I had stopped my Garmin watch in the process. After restarting, my elapsed time, average pace and total distance were all wrong. I had to guess by how much until I reached the start/finish line at mile 12.5. Comparing the race clock and known distance to my watch’s display, I calculated that my watch was behind by 3 miles and 34 minutes. From that point on, I had to do math every time I checked my progress. Not that adding three is hard, but still…
After checking in with the scorekeeper, I made my way to the truck for a change of socks and a few adjustments. Throughout the run, I had noticed that there were strange hard lumps under my feet. I figured it was just the socks bunching up. It turns out that sand and grit had accumulated in pockets under my socks. I scraped out the sand and shook loose a few pebbles that I was very glad to get rid of. Since the start of the race, it had only rained once and for less than a minute so I decided to leave the jacket in the truck. One less thing to deal with.
Second verse, same as the first – only worse
The course was laid out in two loops. The big yellow loop was 12.5 miles and the smaller blue loop was 6 miles. To complete 50K, I had to run the yellow loop twice and the blue loop once. The 50 milers had to run the yellow loop three times and the blue loop twice. The 20K runners completed a single yellow loop. By the time I started my second loop, about 800 shoes had already smushed through the trail turning the flat mudholes into deep shoe-sucking monsters. The climbs became difficult and the descents treacherous. A strategy developed out of necessity: run any chance you get and walk when it is too tough to run. On the rare occasions when there were long stretches of runnable trail or gravel road, I made myself run even when my legs were tired because I would be forced to walk soon enough. This technique had me averaging around a 13 minute mile.
I noticed the temperature had dropped a little bit at the start of the second loop. Rain soon followed and I was without my jacket. I was already wet so the rain didn’t bother me but my hands were getting cold and stiff. I had gloves back at the truck so my goal became: finish the second loop so I can get my jacket and gloves.
In the prior two marathons, I have dealt with stomach issues starting around mile 16 or so. This time when I started to feel a little nausea, rather than forcing myself to continue with the fueling plan of 1 gel every 4 miles, I stopped eating until I felt better. At the mile 22 aid station, I allowed myself to drink a small cup of coke and eat a saltine cracker with peanut butter and that was exactly what I needed to find my second wind. I also recognized that I was not drinking enough and made an effort to take in more fluids.
An inspirational thought
Crossing the start/finish line at mile 25, I was actually feeling pretty good. No doubt, I already had all I could stand of the mud, but I definitely felt like I could run 6 more miles. By the time I had made it back to the truck, it had warmed back up and I didn’t need the jacket or gloves after all. I didn’t feel like changing socks again because the wet and muddy shoes were difficult to deal with. I did have a rock in my shoe that needed to be removed so I only took off that shoe. I got my shoe retied and headed back down the gravel road for the third time.
Just as I was about to let myself get frustrated by the deepening mud, I had an inspirational thought. The blue loop is relatively fresh. The only people that have run this loop are the 50K runners who were ahead of me. I wasn’t sure how many that was, but surely the mud wouldn’t be as bad. As it turned out, I was right. I had six miles to go and it was the easiest yet.
Feeling another second wind (or is that a third wind?), I caught up to and passed several groups of runners. The mudholes were still frequent but there was usually room to avoid the worst parts. On a steep downhill, I passed a few more runners as I let gravity work for me, just moving my feet fast enough to keep upright. Gravity got its payback at the next mudhole. I tried keeping my momentum and running through the slop only to discover a hidden root. At full speed, I “Superman that ho” (My regards to Soulja Boy). I landed on my hands and knees at the same time but somehow managed to keep from faceplanting in the deep mud. The runners I had just passed no doubt had a good laugh at my expense but I didn’t hang around to take a bow.
Adding insult to injury (hypothetically), I took a drink from my water bottle only to end up with a mouthful of mud. The bottle was strapped to my hand when I dove into the mudhole and I hadn’t realized the top of the bottle was covered with nastiness. I cleaned it by squirting water into my mouth and then spitting it back out. Sounds gross but it wasn’t as bad as the mouthful of mud.
With about a mile and a half to go, I set my sights on the runner far off in the distance who appeared to be walking and started reeling him in. I caught him easily and proceeded to run through to the finish to complete 50K. The actual finish was very anticlimactic. The race director noticed me standing at the scorekeeper table and asked “Are you finished?” I smiled and answered “I am.” He then handed me a medal still wrapped in a plastic baggie and an Amphipod handheld water bottle and that was that.
I suppose I could technically call myself an ultra-marathoner. I don’t think I will. (Well, except when in the company of certain coworkers.) The real ultra-marathoners finished their second grueling loop and kept on going for a third in even worse conditions. I might run another 50K someday but I’ll pass on 50 miles.
Congratulations to everyone that showed up to run in those conditions. We all earned every step.
Final time: 6:41:21