Yeah. I know this race took place in February. And I know it is April. My job has been insanely busy and stressful of late and every time I THINK I have a few moments to draft this report, something pops up and steals my free time, and saps my creative energy.
I completed my first 50K. In 7:28 in a very hilly, mountain course, with a reputation for a difficult, but not insanely so, course. This is my “home” race, if you will. I live about 20 miles from the Talladega National Forest and Cheaha State Park, where the race is held. And the idea to take on a 50K was bred deep in marathon training, in November, when I let my mind drift to life after CIM. I learned long ago, after my first marathon, to never finish a race without a goal or registration for the next one. And I told myself as I pounded pavement for CIM that I needed to push through this cycle and then I could ease up and enjoy the laid back and gently rolling trails. Yeah, right. Sucker!
Yes, the grass seemed imminently greener on the trails. As my CIM training cycle ended, I wanted something different. And it just so happened that this area has a couple of well-known trail running events and a LOT of good trails on which to run. In November, we offer the Pinhoti 100 mile race, which is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup series. In February, on many of the same trails as the Pinhoti, we offer the Mount Cheaha 50K. It was this race that caught my eye. I’d have a pretty good mileage base coming out of CIM (averaging 60-70 miles a week at peak) and I had about 2 months to get some trail time on course. So I registered, bought some trail shoes and gaiters, and dusted off a North Face hydration pack I had won back in 2010.
After returning from California after CIM and taking a few days to rest, I ran a small trail race (9 miles) in mid-December, then started each weekend with an early Saturday run along the 50K course. This race is not an easy one for the first timer. It has roughly 8,000 feet of elevation, and technical trails that require some familiarization and training. It takes the runner to the top of Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in the state of Alabama, and claims the motto “the race to the top of Alabama.”
Most of my time was spent on the much harder and über technical first half of the course from the starting line at Porters Gap trail head to a point about 15 miles in at Adams Gap. Dominated by steep single-track climbs and relentless rock gardens that force you to balance on small rounded rocks to get through (in fact, one runner broke his knee cap on these rocks on race day. A nasty sight as I ran by).
One of the hardest adjustments I had to make was running on a trail for 4 hours, but only accumulating 13 miles, especially coming off marathon training where I had finished 26.2 in much less than that. But I had to let go of my insatiable desire to get high mileage numbers and embrace what I had wanted in November– mellow trail running and enjoying the body in motion with no pressure. I learned a great deal on the trails. On the road, you can let your mind go, you can phase out and cruise at your desired pace, with no worry of holes or rocks or animal poo. The trails forced me to engage body and mind, such that at the end of a 14 mile trail run my mind was mush. At once paying attention to the yards in front of me, concentrating on an altered trail gait, reminding myself to stay in the moment and keep my mind engaged.
On race day, most runners meet at the finish line on top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama, and ride creaky old school buses to the start. There was a mixture of nervousness, camaraderie, and humble bragging on each bus as we rattled down the road to the start line. There was the guy in the seat behind me who had run a 100 a few weeks before and was just “gonna have fun” with this race (and finished among the leaders!). There were trail vets, who had their well used gear and shoes ready. There was “bathrobe guy” who travels to all his races wearing a bathrobe. And who happens to also be a great trail runner. (I think if you are gong to wear a bathrobe to your race, you really need to be a solid runner. Anything else opens you up to ridicule) And there was me–road runner guy, wondering what was he doing on this bus!
The main topic of conversation was the heavy rain that had fallen overnight. For weeks leading up to the race, I had been told stories of the 2-3 creek crossings on course and how in past years a rope was needed to assist people across waist-deep streams with strong currents, and that I should “get prepared to get wet!” Funny thing is that in all the weeks I was on that trail prepping for the race, I never got wet, save for one accidental slip of a foot into a stream. The waters were never that deep, and I could “boulder skip” across the streams. But on race day the heavy rains had swelled the creeks, and race organizers had to string a rope across the big one at Chinnabee Creek. The trail at some lower elevations was a stream itself, as we ran in water 3-4 inches deep in the middle of the single track.
My goal was to finish. No time goal other than meet the cutoffs, and enjoy this first ultra. I did just that. One ear bud in my ear with music on low, one ear exposed to the elements and fellow runners so I could chit-chat, and I was off. For miles and miles the single track put us all in this slow-moving centipede-like convoy, trying to find a comfortable pace, yet mindful of those behind and ahead of us. All the while staying on our feet and trying to enjoy the moment. This crazy dance made the day go by faster than my training runs. The first half of this course is the hardest. Steep inclines meet you a few miles in, with maddening switchbacks. But all the time I had spent on this segment ha prepared me well. I knew every mile, I knew h to expect with every turn. And I knew that all I had to fo was make it through the rough rocky section and I’d finish this race.
That I did. I reached the aid station at Adams Gap having completed the toughest portion, and breathed out a bit. The next 9 miles or so would be a slightly easier task, fewer rock gardens but more water. Al the big creek crossings and BLUE HELL awaited me on the back half . By this point, I settled into my groove, found a nice eating balance, and looked forward to eating salty things at aid stations! The crowd had thinned a great deal and while we were not alone, we remained in smaller groups of 3-7, who moved back and forth in the line as people stepped out or fell back.
Once I embraced the wet, I had more fun. On an early training run, I wore the wrong socks, got my foot wet, and fought a blister for the rest of the day. That experience left me leery of getting my feet wet again, but I made sure I wore drymax socks and after the first few miles when I let go of the dry and decided to get wet and messy, the fun began. Of course, this made creek crossings easier! The water was cold but soothing on tired legs and feet. And after a few hundred yards following a creek crossing, my feet and shoes had drained enough to stop slushing around. I was having a blast.
The hallmark of this course is Blue Hell, so named because of all the blue painted arrows instructing runners on which direction to go. If you didn’t see these, you would find yourself easily off course, which I did in training a couple of times, even with all the blue. It comes 28 miles into the race, and is comprised of a one mile climb straight up. And by straight up, I mean you find yourself on all fours crawling up the mountain at times. Your legs are tired, you’ve been at the race for several hours, and the one mile climb, which took me about 25 minutes, is relentless. And to make things more fun, once you reach the top, you still have 2-3 miles to go before you finish. For me, Blue Hell was not as bad as the miles-long rocky trail in the first half of the course. It wasn’t easy, don’t get me wrong. It was hell. And I was in no mood for it once I reached the start of the climb. But it had to be done, and my first ultra finish was waiting for me at the top.
With Blue Hell done, I settled in with a couple of people and slogged toward the end. I found myself following Leah from Georgia (she’s the one doing the cart-wheel in the finish line photo above). I followed her foot path through the trail and let her pull me to the finnish. We ran across the line together and as we did, she said, “watch out, I’m doing a cart-wheel.” I told her no worries, but if I tried one of those, I’d surely break my neck. In retrospect, I should have dropped and did 50 push ups. But My mind and body were tired. I had no wit left.
Unlike my first marathon, I never doubted that I could finish the race. And it wasn’t as BIG of an event as my first marathon. But finishing my first ultra means a great deal to me. Like my first marathon, it is another example of things I never thought I would or could do. In 2007 when i started running, I was convinced I’d run 5Ks and 10Ks. Maybe a half one day. But marathons were, to me then, crazy ideas. At Cheaha I proved to myself that the world of ultras were fun, enjoyable, an achievable goal. I fell in love with the trails. I started thinking about other ultras. Longer ultras. It opened my mind to new possibilities and new goals.
I adore the ultra community. So laid back. But that doesn’t mean ultra runners don’t work hard or take the sport seriously. But compared to some triathlons I’ve raced, the OCD level is about 500 notches lower at Ultras. And that is so refreshing. Aid stations are magical places. Volunteers serving me potatoes at mile 28. Oh man. potatoes never tasted so good. Chatting me up, asking me how I’m doing. Laughing, joking, snapping pictures. Something about the ultra culture, and especially that of the aid station, really attracts my attention and affection for what the volunteers do for us. I plan to work an aid station and/or offer pacing at the Pinhoti 100 in November. Time to give back. I’ve let people serve me at races or far too long. I need to return the graciousness and generosity that has been bestowed upon me for so many years. And I am thankful for my new trail running friends. So many who showed me how to run trails, taught me about the course, ran with me on race day, struggled along side as we ran an ultra.
I can’t say enough good things about the race director, Todd Henderson, who also directs Pinhoti 100 and the newest race here Rockin’ Choccolocco 50K and half marathon. Accessible, fun-loving, organized, encouraging, he ran with us on some days and prepped a great course. Its like I’ve found some new family members here on the trail. I’ve met new friends, found new places to run, and discovered new goals for my future in ultra running. I’ll go back and forth from road to trail. Road running is still my first love, what got me here, but trails are my new best friend.