When I started running trails and ultras last year, I heard people speak of Mtn. Mist, of its beauty, of the great people you meet, and of the difficulty of the course. It kind of scared me away from it, especially since I was so new to trails and considered myself (and still do) a relative newbie in the sport. I’m not at all a fast trail runner and the cut-off times for this course spooked me a bit, to say the least. At that time, Cheaha 50K was my singular focus, and I told myself I needed to live through that race before I considered anything else.
I hadn’t intended on running it this year either, but I got caught up in the excitement of registration. You see, this race is capped at 500 entries and usually fills-up in a matter of hours. I think registration closed within a 6 hour period this year. I didn’t want to miss out. What if I grew brave and decided to run it, but found it closed? I better register now, I thought. That was October. I was in marathon training for Fresno and looking for greener grass. I didn’t anticipate that I’d travel a lot during December and early January, keeping me off trails, and leaving me woefully undertrained– my longest run came in late November at the Tranquility Lake 25K. And I’d only run on trails 3 other times after that. Not ideal for this kind of race and course.
After flirting with the idea of a DNS, my friend Michael convinced me to give it a shot as we ran along the Pinhoti one weekend. He said, “You’re registered, the worse that can happen is you get to run new trails and bail out half way through.” Monte Sano State Park is a stunning place to run, and I’m glad I decided to do this. Plus, I concluded, I’d get a cool race shirt, which I could proudly tell folks I DNFd and make up a story about a bear attack or something.
I drove the 2 hours to Huntsville, Alabama on Friday night, went to packet pick up at Monte Sano Lodge, and saw a few friends. Hustled back to my hotel which was off the mountain (a lot of people taped in the lodge at the start/finish line, but since I was so wishy-washy about running, there were no rooms left by the time I decided to go). I had dinner in the hotel room, prepped gear, and slept well. I worried about dressing properly. Forecasters predicted the temp at race start to be 25-ish with a high of 45-ish. Factor in the wind on top of the mountain and you’ve got a pretty chilly first few hours. Tights? Shorts? How many layers? I hate such divergent start-finish temps, they make dressing properly so difficult. I settled on shorts, calf sleeves, and two t-shirts covered by a half-zip technical pullover, and ear warmers under my hat with heavy gloves. I can get cold, but climbing makes me sweat and I didn’t wanna have to strip and carry too many layers.
The more I run trails and ultras the more friends I make. And I get to see them at every race. I love this part of it. New friends sharing the same old complaints and news about our training. I love this trail camaraderie. It was hard to leave the warm lodge for high winds and cold temps. But I planted myself in the middle of the crowd and let my “friends” block the wind. After running about a mile on paved access roads, we dove into the trail. As you can see form the elevation chart, the first half of this race is the “easy” part. You stay flat and descend the mountain a bit. You must make a hard cut-off at 16.9 miles in 4:15 in order to finish before nightfall and to meet park rules. (The other two hard cut-offs are at 20.9 in 5:10, and 24.9 in 6:30). Stream crossings were frozen, which slowed us a little, but all in all the early running was mellow. It was an hour into the race when I took an epic face-plant. You know how many times when you fall on the trail, you see it coming, you can feel yourself fall? Not this time.
I was cruising along, let my attention lapse, felt something hit my toe, and the next thing I know I hear some loud grunt and feel myself on the ground. No falling sensation at all. It was fast and hard. (That’s what she said) and it was epic. It was so cold that I popped up and felt nothing, but about 5 minutes later, my right leg felt weird and my entire body hurt like I’d been punched by a pro boxer. Turns out I had banged both knees hard on the rocky trail and jammed my left index finger into the ground. Jeez, it hurt. It took a little while just to get my head back in the race. I was in pain, feeling sorry for myself, and realizing I was at the beginning of what was to be a long day. Huge pity party. Of course, I was joking about it, all macho like, with those around me. Bragging of my epic-ness in the fall. Inside I was a mess.
I hit 16.9 about 20 minutes ahead of the cutoff and felt good about myself. I had a much better pace than expected, but remembered that the hard stuff on this race was still to come. The next 10 miles were incredibly technical and slow going. I fell in behind a guy from Franklin, Tennessee who had run the course before and we chatted about running longer races–50s and 100s. I moved past him after a while and picked up my pace on one of the few mellow sections of this area. At the mile 21 aid station I ran into Erin, a new friend I met at Cheaha last year. And I followed her and her friend Jeff for a bit.
Things got interesting at Waterline. This is what felt like an endless climb of what I’d guess was at least a 6-8% grade up a path made by a water line that comes from a well at the top of the mountain. This climb went on for about 2 miles I’d guess, but I swear, every time I looked up thinking we were at the end, there seemed to be MORE trail. It just went on and on and on. And when we finally reached the end of Waterline, we faced the “rock climbing” portion of the race. The pic says it all. There was a frozen stream crossing. Careful with footing or slip over the edge. Then, it was a rock climb up a fairly sheer wall to the top. Grab branches, rocks, exposed pipe. Grab anything to get up to the next rock. Hands and knees, don’t look back. Don’t stop to take pictures like a fool (I did, like a fool!). If you look at the elevation chart this is the beginning of the first of two “straight up” sections in the last half of the race. As we struggled up the face of this rock, we all wondered how the fast people did this. How they could move so fast over “trails” like this? Insane.
After this you descend and cover some crazy technical trail again, very rocky, very stumpy, just treacherous footing. Veterans of the race remarked how they were thankful the ground was frozen, since this part of the course had underground streams and it was always muddy. The hardest part here for me were mountain bike ruts made in mud, but now frozen. No give, no flat. So my ankles worked overtime to keep me upright. After my bruised knees, my ankles were the most tender part after the race. I’m happy with that. Shows I’m a better trail runner than a year ago, and that I’m learning how to run/walk tougher trail sections without falling all the time.
I reached the 25 mile cutoff in 6:08. That’s pretty quick for me on a 50K course like this. I got stupid for a moment and started doing math. “Only 6 more miles, to go, Gordon. You might have a new personal best for 50K. You might smash it.” Yah. I know. Dumb. Dumb. The next 4 miles took almost 80 minutes. Crazy technical trail, with a climb back to the top of the mountain. On the elevation chart, this climb is the last “straight-up” section you see before the finish. My foolishness in thinking about fast finish reminded me of what I was thinking before the Choccolocco 50K in June, a relatively flat, rolling course that “should” produce PRs, if it only wasn’t held in June, in Alabama, in the heat. I went into that race thinking I could do a sub-6 hour 50K and finished much slower in a race where the heat left me hallucinating that tree branches were deer leaping at me.
By the time I reached the last aid station at mile 29.1 at the top of the mountain, all I had left was 1.9 miles of “easy running,” they said, cheerfully. Sure. 1.9 miles is easy running, but not after 29 miles before it. C’mon people! All throughout the race, I kept hidden the mileage screen of my watch. I didn’t want to know how little I had run, or how many miles remained. But now I made the mistake of looking at my Suunto every 5 steps, cursing that the tenths weren’t clicking fast enough. I drafted in my head an angry letter to Suunto, a complaint about their crappy watch and why couldn’t they make miles go by faster. What’s the deal, I planned to ask them. Do the these Fins hate Americans? There’s no way that wasn’t at least 2 tenths of a mile. WHY IS MY WATCH DEFECTIVE, SUUNTO!? ANSWER ME, YOU %$#^&*&^%$#@$%^&*(!!! My rage at Suunto diminished as I heard finish line sounds and music that ALWAYS sounds closer than it is (I suppose that my watch WAS accurate and that perhaps in my fatigue I wasn’t running THAT fast after all, LOL). Finally, I could see that glorious line, I mustered the wherewithal to look like I had energy and pep and good cheer and ran strong across the line. Done. Proud that I stuck with it, resolute that I would never again run another ultra so under prepared.
1. I’ve learned a lot in the past year. This was my 4th 50K (three “official races, 1 fatass). Every race teaches me something new.
2. I’ve learned to let go of my road mentality on the trails. I can’t think in terms of mile accumulation, but enjoy the time I’m out there. There are plenty of months left in the year (when the snakes and tics come out).
3. I’m better at covering technical trails than last year. More confident with my feet. I still need to work on downhill running. I’m holding back a lot (face planting will do that to ya), and need to relax and let gravity do its work.
4. I ADORE trail running culture. So different than anything I’ve ever done.
5. I am chewing on the idea of a 50 miler and for sure want to do some stage races in the fall. I want to see how far I can go.
6. This was the first longish race wearing my Salomon Sense Mantras. Light and comfy, they felt great throughout the race, unlike my Cascadias, which tend to feel heavier as the miles accumulate.
7. I loved my Salomon 10+3 hydration pack. More storage than the Nathan I wore at Cheaha. I could stow food, gloves, my ear warmers, and without any bounce or chafing.