I was arrogant to think that I could finish this race through will-power alone. Because not long into the race I realized that without the proper training, I was doomed. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start from the beginning.
Christine & I rolled into town Friday afternoon after spending Thursday evening with Mason at Gardner-Webb. We checked in and headed to the race site to pick up our packet and enjoy the pre-race meal and debrief. It should have been a warning that we weren’t in Louisiana anymore with the narrow, winding two-lane road and near death turns everywhere. Thank God I don’t wear a heart rate monitor or it would have spiked.
When we arrived at the race site and looked around, I felt really small next to the mountains. The same mountains I was supposed to be climbing the next day.
After enjoying the festivities and meeting some folks running the next day, we headed back down the winding road to the hotel. Where we did not sleep at all because two women decided to have a “who can talk the loudest” convention outside our hotel door until 1 something in the morning. We cranked up the AC to muffle the noise so we ended up freezing to death.
After arriving at the race start, I got all my gear ready and prepared for the onslaught that was before me. Christine would have 2 hours before her race started. We were both a little nervous but ready to see what we had signed up for.
After a no frill start (one thing I love about ultras), we headed down a paved road before hitting an uphill gravel road. And the power walking started. This photo does not do the incline justice, but I was breathing hard already.
After a short trip on the gravel, we headed into the woods. And started climbing. And climbing. And climbing. Then we would bomb a short downhill and climb some more. Rinse and repeat….all…..day…..long.
A recurring theme was finding false peaks. You could see the top. It had to be the top. Any higher and I will need oxygen and a space capsule to get back down to earth. No. It still isn’t the top.
As I was powering up the second big peak to the first aid station at mile 6, reality began to set in. This climb was unbelievable and nothing I could have imagined would have prepared me for this. My legs were already burning, my breathing was labored and my heart rate no longer had a beat…..it just hummed.
And that is when the first black cloud passed through my mind suggesting I was in trouble.
I eventually made it to the aid station and filled up my bottle while downing a PB&J sandwich. According to my watch, I was doing very well. Unfortunately, I did not fully comprehend the effect it was having on my legs. But I pushed on.
When I made it to the 3rd major peak, I reminded myself that I was supposed to be smiling. Here is my attempt:
Of course, I really did have a reason to smile. Yes I was hurting, but I was there doing something I love and the views were incredible.
From mile 9 to 10 was an awesome downhill. So I took off! Even though they had some tricky footing, it was good to run some instead of the non-stop grinding I was doing. But you know the saying “What goes up must come down.” Well, the opposite is true at Leatherwood. Every time I went down I was internally screaming, “NOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! This means we have to go back UPPPPP!!!!!”.
When I hit the bottom and started back up, things began to come unglued. As I started up the hill, my heart rate was still high and I felt the initial stages of charley horses in my quads and calves. My first reaction was that it was awfully early to be starting my cramp management routine. Hell, I had 21 miles to go!
This entire climb consisted of pushing until I felt my legs about to revolt and then stop. Push and stop. This routine continued until I made it to peak at the aid station around mile 11. By then my bottle was empty and I was getting gassed. I filled up, drank 2 cups of coke and ate about 5 slices of watermelon. I knew I did not have any time to waste with my latest predicament, so I took a few photos and hauled ass.
At this point, I was mentally dealing with the slow progress on the climbs. My overall average was about 14-15 minute pace and I was still way ahead of the 18 minute cutoff and running the down hills well. That is until…
I’m pretty sure because of being fatigued and not focused, I rolled my right ankle on the next downhill. There were a lot of rocks intermixed with leaves on some of the trails and I found one. I limped it off down the hill and even managed to run a little towards the bottom.
After another cramp-resisting climb, I headed down again and rolled my left ankle. Twice. I had just recovered from the rolling it once when I hit another rock. And during the second time, my right calf cramped while trying to catch myself. Well shit. This one took a little more time to walk off. And unfortunately, my trail bombing was over. I became skittish on even the easier downhill trails and my pace dropped to a crawl. And my ankles were feeling every foot strike.
So here I was about 12 or so miles into a 31 mile race and I could barely go uphill and couldn’t run downhill. Did I mention that the course only had uphill and downhill? I pushed as hard as I could go but my miles were over 22 minutes per mile and my average was creeping up. It didn’t take long before a steady group of people were passing me, all asking if I was okay, and winding off out of site.
By the time I was about 14 miles in, I had done the math. I could probably make it back to the end of loop 1 in time, but there was no way I could beat the cutoff at the first aid station. Not unless it was completely flat. It was not going to be my day. And that sucked. All I could do was smile, enjoy God’s beauty and keep moving.
As I was hobbling along, I started to contemplate on how I ended up there. And then I remembered why I was doing it in the first place. I wanted to push myself. I wanted to push myself as much as Mason pushes himself. I wanted to feel the pain that comes with giving all you have. Because he does that all the time. As a Division 1 swimmer. And as someone who has Crohn’s Disease.
I was able to raise $3300.00 for The Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation and all I had to do was suffer for one day (actually a few days). But he will be fighting it his whole life. So as much as it sucked that I failed to finish, I still won because we were able to help others.
And then I realized the day was not over! Christine had started the 10 mile run two hours after I had started. Somehow I was going to make it back to see her finish. More pushing. More grimacing. More struggling. I had to make it back!
As I came into the transition and told them I was done, they tried to talk me out of it. They said the 2nd loop was easier and that I still had time. If there were no up hills or down hills, I would have hauled ass. But I knew my body. I knew the math. And I knew I was done. It was not my day.
A little while later……..
I expected nothing less. Of course, Christine came running across the finish line with 2 new friends laughing and giggling! To say that I am proud of her would be a huge understatement. This was her first mountain trail race and only the second different trail race she has done. And with all the hip, back and leg issues she is having it shows how strong she really is!
So what did I do wrong?
- My preparation sucked.
- I didn’t spend enough time on trails to strengthen my ankles.
- I trained for a 50K. Unfortunately I trained for a flat 50K. This was a different beast.
- I thought I could mentally force myself to finish this race. Nope. Needed a body that was ready too.
- I never really understood what over 9,000 ft of climbing meant.
These were the most brutal trails I have ever been on. It was also the most beautiful course I have been on.
After we got back to the room, I started composing my thoughts while icing my ankles. After talking with the race director, they are not putting on the race next year. So I will have at least two years before I can avenge my DNF. That means I will have an awesome hoodie hanging in my closet unworn for two years. Unless Christine’s is dirty and she wants to wear mine. Because she earned it!
I will go back. And I will be better prepared next time. And maybe, just maybe, I will drag a bunch of local folks up there to test themselves.