24 February 2010


It was 4:30 AM in the morning and time to get out of bed. Richard was going to be here at 5:15 AM and we were going to drive my car to the race. I had to get up early, because I decided Friday night to wait and pack my running gear, food supplies and drop bag in the morning. I sometimes get consumed with the "planning and packing phase" so I decided to force myself to wait until morning, when I wouldn't have the opportunity to spend endless hours on packing and repacking. And it worked; I only spent about 15 minutes to pack my stuff. I also packed a drop bag for the first time. Rich had told me that runners were able to leave a drop bag that would be placed at aid station 2/4 (miles 12 and 22) for them. The reason it was a good idea to utilize a drop bag was the number of creek crossings runners had to deal with.
According to Richard, who had run this race before, it was really nice to have a change of clothes and shoes at aid station 4 after crossing a significant number of creeks. Dry shoes can make all the difference on the last few miles of an ultra run. Especially when you frequently struggle with blisters like myself. My drop bag included a spare pair of Mizuno Wave Ascend 3 trail shoes, Thorlos Level 1 padded running socks, a pair of running shorts and a short sleeve tech shirt. This would come in handy on the first "warm" day of the year at mile 22 of a 31 mile race.

The weather forecast showed the highest temps of the year for race day. I waited until the last minute to decide what to wear at the start. Shoes, socks and shorts were a given. On top, I opted for a long sleeve technical shirt under my ultra thin windbreaker. I figured I could drop the windbreaker either at aid station 2 or 4 depending on the temps. I just did not want to start the race freezing and I expected much of the trails to be covered by trees (since the race took part in the Bankhead National Forest) which would mean colder temps in the shade than running out in the open. I also created my own energy gel, which was a slight modification of the recipe I heard about at the "A Run Supreme" podcast. My bottle waist belt came with a water and a gel bottle as well. That was going to be my supply belt. I added 8 S-Caps (salt pills), 4 Ibuprofen, and one bag of sport jelly beans in a small zip lock bag, which I placed in the zippered pouch in the belt.
We arrived at the start of the race at 6:45 AM that morning after getting a couple of cups of coffee at a gas station along the way. The race took place near Moulton, Alabama in the beautiful rolling hills of the Bankhead National Forest just about an 80 minute drive away from Huntsville. We found a perfect parking spot right next to the race tent near the finish line. It was still pretty cold, but the forecast predicted a sunny day, so we would only need our warm-ups prior to the race start while standing in line for our race package pick-up. The race swag at this race was pretty cool. All 50K participants received a long sleeve and a short sleeve technical shirt and a copy of this month's Trail Runner magazine with a discount subscription coupon. Since I already have a subscription, the coupon didn't help me much, but the shirts were great. The 50K wasn't the only race of the day. They were also hosting a 25K and a 5 Mile race at the same time. The 25K race had a lot of local ultra runners participating. I think some of them used this race as a training run for the Mt. Cheaha 50K that would take place the following weekend in Southern Alabama. Richard and I originally set a goal of a sub 6 hour race, since this course was slightly easier than our last ultra, but when he mentioned that his PR was 5:35 hours for a 50K, I could not resist. I started to think about what it would take to try to hit that mark. Rich and I had decided to go out hard anyway and to try to hold on to a sub 10 minute per mile pace as long as we could, so why not give it a shot.
I was feeling pretty good. I had seven hours of sleep and only woke up one time around 2 AM, so I was well rested. I had no aches or pains to speak of and my pasta dinner the night before was accompanied by plenty of Propel water I had been drinking for the past two days in an effort to hydrate properly. My legs were loose as well from the short 2 mile jog Rich and I went on the day before. Everything felt just right today. The only unknown factor was the actual race course, since this was my first time here.
For the actual start of the race, all runners had to make their way to a bridge just .33 miles from the race tent, which was located at a picnic area with plenty of parking. The finish line was near the tent. All races were scheduled to start at 8:00 AM at the bridge. After some brief instructions on the race and its course and a prayer, the race director started the race with a "runners ready, set, go". And off we went.
I had briefly glanced at the race info sheet that was handed out with our race package and I caught a glimpse of one line in particular, "YES THE FIRST MILE IS ALL UP HILL". What a way to start a 50K. I figured let's get those uphills out of the way early, because I would not have enough energy left to run them at the end. It was only barely over 2 miles of a gradual incline on a fire road until we turned onto single trails but those 2 miles were mostly gradual uphill with slight downhills scattered in between. I took off my windbreaker before we ever made it off the fire road and into the woods. I used the bungee cord on my water belt to secure the windbreaker. Richard and I were on pace as planned, staying around 10 minute per mile tempo. The trails were rather narrow and soft and it became evident fairly early that lots of trail sections would be muddy due largely to a combination of rain in the days prior to the race and the fact that we were sharing the trails with horses. The course did not present any major climbs; rather it was what I would call hilly throughout. Richard and I completed mile 6 and reached the first aid station after 1 hour 2 minutes and 38 seconds. We were just slightly off our target pace but still within the range we had hoped for. The volunteer staff at this first as well as all other aid stations was very helpful, supportive and encouraging to all runners. I started to walk as soon as I had my bottle refilled and was able to grab some pretzels and a couple of cookies. Once Rich caught up to me we picked up our run again. Around mile 7 I decided to take my first S-Cap in addition to some gel. It had decided before the race to take one S-Cap after every hour of running. I wanted to avoid legs cramps late in the race and S-Caps would help me do this. The homemade gel went down with ease. The flavor was actually not as bad as I originally feared. The smell of the molasses always makes me think that it will cover all other preferred flavors in the gel. Not so.
After aid station 1, our pace stayed just slightly above 10 minutes with a couple of 11 minute miles during the uphills. Again, the pace was still in our expected range, although Rich felt that it might be time to back off a little. It was at this stage that I divulged my intent to target a 5:30 hour finish for the race. I did not think it was really feasible as I expected to fall off later in the race, but that didn't mean that I wouldn't try anyway. While Rich did manage a slight smile, I knew he wasn't going to push for the same time. His goal continued to be a sub 6 hour finish.
We reached aid station 2 after approximately 2 hours and 7 minutes. One the split times will be officially posted, I hope to confirm my estimates. We lost a couple of minutes at this aid station. This was the first chance to access our drop bags and I decided to leave my windbreaker behind at this point. The weather would continue to warm up and I wanted to drop any access weight, no matter how little. As soon as my bottles were refilled again and I had grabbed some pretzels, I started walking again. It was my goal to walk every aid station to minimize the impact of time lost at aid stations. For the most part, this strategy really worked. I continued to walk while eating my pretzels and started running again as soon as I washed down the food with some Gatorade. Again, my strategy at aid stations was to take in some salty pretzels and any fruit and to have one full cup of Gatorade to go with it. I would also drink one bottle of Gatorade between aid stations accompanied by some gel and one S-Cap per hour. I stuck to this routine throughout the race.
Shortly after Rich and I made our way out of this aid station and back into our usual running rhythm, I started to push a little again. I continued to think about my new finishing goal and that made me feel like I needed to push a little harder as long as I could. At the same time, Rich wanted to back off slightly to recover from a couple of uphills we had encountered. At this point, I made the decision to try to push on. I fully expected Rich to catch up with me at a later stage of the race but I wanted to see how far into the race I could press.
I reached aid station 3 at slightly above 11 minute pace. If I wanted to have a shot at the 5:30 finish, I would have to continue to maintain this pace for the rest of the race in order to still have the time needed to refuel in the remaining aid stations. As a result, I came out of this aid station "flying" at 10:30 pace for the next two miles. And I had to pay the price for that by following with a 13 minute mile to recover. That allowed for another 11 minute mile of mostly downhill running.
As I neared aid station 4, my pace had slowed significantly. There were a couple of major creek crossings that required quick decision making. Would I plow right through or try to keep my feet as dry as possible? After watching one runner ahead of me putting his shoes back on after the creek crossing, I opted for the first choice and ran straight through. The initial feeling of refreshingly cold water on my feet quickly turned into the realization that I would have to deal with wet shoes and feet until aid station 4, which could wreak even more havoc on my feet. The creek crossings paired with the time needed in the aid station cost me dearly. This mile clocked in at almost 15 minutes. Because I still believed that there was a long shot at finishing near 5:30 hours, I opted against putting on dry socks and shoes and just continued on with the usual Gatorade refill and pretzels.
It was during this stage of the race (miles 22 to 28) that I encountered numerous runners that really helped me during this most difficult part of the race. Meeting runners during the late stages of a race always helps me. No matter where I am mentally and physically, I always take this opportunity to try to stay with the runner in front of me or have a runner push me for as long as I can manage. Because most runners are on their own at this stage of the race, I really enjoy the company even if just for a couple of miles here and there. It really helps me mentally to try to stick with someone for a brief time of the race. It makes you forget about the distance to the next aid station and the pain you might be feeling and at the same time gives you an opportunity to meet fellow runners in brief but very interesting conversations. It was also between aid stations 4 and 5 that a runner passed me with incredible ease and speed at this stage of the race while passing on some words of encouragement to me. I wonder how someone this fast did not lead the pack or pass me much earlier. Anyway, you never know what happens to runners during a 50K. In this instance, the runner ended up finishing the race long after me. As it turns out, numerous runners took wrong turns at some stage of the race, which cost them significant amounts of time and energy. Shortly after my encounter with "Speedy Gonzales" and just before the final aid station, a very large tree blocked the trail. It was about 4 or 5 feet in diameter and there was no way around it. You had to go over or under. Under would have meant to crawl on your stomach to be low enough to the ground to manage this feat. That would mean that I would have to be able to get back up afterwards, which I knew I would not be able to. That left climbing over. If someone could have seen me stand in front of this obstacle scratching my head like I had to solve the world's problems right here and now. It was probably just as entertaining as watching me actually climb over that tree, once I made the decision. "Tree hugger" is the term that came to mind once I made it half way over the tree. Following this almost "insurmountable" obstacle were a couple of smaller trees laying across the trail. In my deluded mind, I somehow thought I could still hurdle these trees. After all, they were tiny compared to the last one. What followed were to back to back introductions at the first and second tree obstacles, respectively. First, tree meet shin, shine meet tree, followed by tree meet knee, knee meet tree at the second obstacle. I finally received my first bloody battle scars from an ultra.
I entered the fifth and final aid station after what seemed to be eternity. I wasn't sure how much was left after this aid station, but I figured it could only be 2 miles and I arrived at this aid station after about 5 hours and 20 minutes. There was still a chance for a 5:3something finish if I could muster my last reserves. This determination lasted until I was informed that I had closer to 3 miles left to run. The first two of those would be mostly uphill, followed by what seemed to be an extreme downhill section at this stage of the race. But I did not quit, I managed to pass 3 or 4 runners on this last three mile section and I ran the entire way, managing 9 and 8 minute miles respectively, even on the uphill runs.
I finished the race in a personal best of 5 hours 43 minutes and 4 seconds. While I was a little disappointed that I did not manage the 5:30 finish I had hoped for, I was very pleased with my ability to push on the last 3 miles. Hopefully, I can learn to run more consistent throughout the entire length of a race. Who knows, maybe someday I will be able to run a negative split on a 50K. After struggling with some stomach issues around mile 20 and a couple of bad decisions on his part regarding food and water intake, Richard was still able to finish the race as well. As always, thanks for all the volunteers and the race director who put on this great race. I cannot wait to see the official results online and hope to be back again next year.


  1. Ultra Kraut, Great Race Report, I actually remember running with you from probably the last creek crossing to just past the final aid station, if I remember correctly we we're running with a slightly older gentlemen who we would leave as we we go closer to the aid station. It was a great race and it's always fun to meet new ultrarunners.


  2. Roy, thanks very much for the feedback. I remember running with you and the gentleman you mention. I look forward to seeing you at an upcoming ultra.

  3. By the way you have a very nice blog. Good luck in your upcoming 100 miler.




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