The Tashka Trail ultra was held for only the second time this year after having its inaugural running last year. It is a two loop trail race around beautiful Lake Lurleen in the aptly named Lake Lurleen State Park (duh!) just outside Coker near Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Race directors Mike Higgins and Walt White picked a fantastic spot for a trail ultra. For me, this race was a tale of two halves. It resulted in not one but two firsts for me in ultra running. Coming off a new 50K PR just three weeks ago, I clearly overestimated my abilities when I toed the starting line. More about all that later in this race report.
It took a couple of text messages (close to ten, I think) to convince Richard to squeeze another ultra into our schedule. I just could not resist entering an ultra so close to home that I had read about on another ultra race website less than a week ago and I wanted Richard to partake in the fun, too, even if it took a little convincing;-) We decided to drive to Coker, Alabama the morning of the race rather than spending the night in a hotel. That meant getting up at 2:50 AM to drive down there in time for the race. After picking up Richard at 3:30 AM, we made our way to Lake Lurleen State Park in less than 3 hours including a couple of pit stops. We arrived in time to pick up our race packets, admire our newly acquired swag (see picture above) and put on our trail shoes. We got to the starting line just in time.
The Race - First Half
The race start was signaled with "Jingle Bells" (bells that were actually jingling, not the song;-) at 7 AM sharp. At this time, both the 25K and the 50K starters took off. The 5 mile race start was scheduled for 7:15AM. After doing some preliminary race research about the actual course elevation, which required some serious math (actually, guess work would be a more appropriate description) and looking at the results from the inaugural 2009 race, I set a couple of goals for myself. First, I would try to finish in the top ten for the first time in an ultra race (this goal was purely based on my evaluation of last year's results and ranking myself in comparison to last year's participants' rankings on a handy website called Ultra Signup). Second, if the course was as "flat" as I figured it could be, I would also attempt to shoot for a 5 hour finish. Looking at my previous results, the second goal was the loftier of the two, but I was going to try anyway.
With these goals in mind, I lined up in the second row. I was focusing on my pace with the goal of completing 6 miles for every hour and I was well on pace for the first 6 miles. Actually, I completed the first 6 miles in 57 minutes and if you think that was too fast, you are correct. It was way too fast as there was no way I would be able to maintain this pace. As expected I completed 12 miles in almost 2 hours flat, which meant I really slowed down on this section, but I was still on track overall. As I was following a group of runners for almost the entire first loop, I kept wondering if all of them were running the 50K or if all or at least some of them were running the 25K. I have the tendency to get sucked in with runners in front of me. Even though I knew the runners around me could potentially be in the 25K race, which meant that their pace would be much faster than mine to begin with, I stayed with them.
When I came around the corner and saw the finish line for the 25K runners as well as the halfway mark for us 50K runners, I checked my time...2 hours 30 minutes. If I continued this pace I would finish in 5 hours. Of course that would only be true if I had the ability to maintain this pace for another 25K. Had the course been flat, I might have had a 1:100 chance of doing so. It was not...
The Race - Second Half
While the course did not cross any mountains or dip into valleys, it did have its share of challenges in form of continuously rolling hills, a handful of switchbacks and a couple of very short but steep climbs. When I arrived at the halfway mark aid station at the South Trailhead and checked my time, I quickly realized that there was no way for me to finish in 5 hours. Although I had been feeling great for the entire distance so far, I was getting tired quickly. I had skipped a couple of aid stations and really didn't feel like eating. The pacer I'd been running really caused me not to be as hungry as usual. I had stuck to my schedule of one SCap per hour and one gel per hour, but I didn't eat anything else. I also was not able to check my fluid intake as usual. Not being familiar with the exact distances between aid stations, I was struggling just a little in calculating my appropriate amount of fluid intake. I did stay hydrated, but I wasn't as confident as usual that I was doing it as well as I should.
As I refilled my bottle, my mind started wandering and wondering how to proceed from here on out. I quickly decided to fall back on my secondary goal of completing the distance in just under 5 hours 30 minutes. Not knowing where I was in the field, I figured that would still give me a shot at finishing top ten (this guess was purely based on last year's results). However, as I took off running, I just did not feel the same anymore. The spring was gone from my step and I felt deflated for some reason. My heart rate was fine but I felt out of breath. I was about 2 miles into the second loop and realized that there was no one around to have idle conversations with. When I'm in a slump talking to fellow runners usually helps me find my rhythm back. I figured that I would soon see other runners as they would slowly but surely catch up to me. My pace had slowed significantly, by almost 3 minutes per mile. I was thinking to myself that this was even worse than by crash in my very first ultra just a little over a year ago. However, this time there was no one around to keep me going or to take my mind off it. Instead, I had to dig myself out of the hole I had fallen into.
I fell back onto my old tactic of "running from aid station to aid station", which was just a little sad being that they were only about 3 miles apart. But I needed something to get me going. What happened next really didn't help. As I looked across the beautiful lake I could see the finish area in the distance. I knew I still had about 10 miles to go when I heard the echo from the finish line race announcer proclaiming "and here comes the winner of the 50K in a time of 3 hours and 59 minutes". No joke, during the brief time I could see the finish area across the lake and hear the echoes of the crowd rippling over the water, the winner of the race was announced over the bullhorn. That really didn't do anything for my mental state. I started to do other calculations in my head as I slowly continued to move forward..."now it should only be another 2 hours before I'm done...not even a half marathon...just another 10K...I might still be able to finish in five and a half hours", etc. I am sure most of you have had these types of conversations with yourself at some point in your ultra running adventures. As the miles and minutes slowly ticked by, I waited for someone to pass me, but no one did. It was strange. Finally, with 5 miles to go another runner passed me...let me rephrase that, he smoked me...flew by me...made me feel like I was literally walking...yes, that's how fast he went by...a "now you see me, now you don't" kinda moment. Very humbling...no, actually embarrassing is probably the better term at that time. Sure, after the race I felt truly humbled, but during the race I just felt stupid.
As I was approaching the final aid station before the finish line, an out and back aid station at the North Trailhead, I was welcomed by the cheering and clapping of the volunteers. Knowing that I only had about 2.5 miles left to the finish kept me moving, but their encouragement meant so much more than that knowledge. However, this aid station also left me with the only regret of this entire race: Since I couldn't really stomach any food other than orange slices since starting my second loop, I missed out on the already world famous hot potato logs. As my running buddy Richard confirmed, they were to absolutely incredible.
As I was readying myself for the final leg of this race and the two short but steep climbs during this stretch of the race, the encouragement of the aid station volunteers got really loud again. This time it was for a lady runner that now appeared on the trail. She must have been a local because the crowd got really loud;-) It was at this point that I decided that I had to try to push one last time to try to finish strong. I am sure most of you assume that I didn't want to get "chicked", but honestly, I really didn't want to get passed by anyone with just over 2 miles remaining in the race. I had not seen a fellow runner over the last 2 hours or so and that little pride I had left at this stage did not want to get passed now. (The guy passing me at mile 25 was the exception, of course. I was convinced that he had to have been the winner of the 50k race going for an extra lap, lapping me in the process; he was just that fast when he passed me. As I found out later, he was just a fellow runner with a much better sense of pacing than me.)
I started to pick up the pace ever so slightly. I was ready to finish this thing. I knew there was not much left and I would still be able to put a respectable time on the board, at least from my personal perspective. I power walked the last two climbs and tried to push the pace on the downhill. As I was descending down the trail for the last time before being spilled out onto the final road section, I managed to turn my ankle just as I was entering the road. That figures. I had stubbed my toes a couple of times during the second loop as I was dragging my legs behind, but I did manage not to fall once. The trail was deceptively technical with its many roots hidden by the fall leaves. But it was mostly runable terrain.
As I saw the finish line around the bend, I picked up the pace once more. I crossed the finish line at 5 hours 40 minutes and thirteen seconds. While I did crash badly during the second half of the race, I did manage that top ten finish (tenth overall) that I had set as a lofty goal before the race. I did not accomplish my original time goal, but how could I not be satisfied with a top ten finish? As I "collapsed" at the finish line to catch my breath before filling out my race card, Richard tapped my shoulder from behind. When he completed his first loop, he had decided that he would not wait for that hamburger for another 2-3 hours and instead opted to call it a day at the 25K distance and to enjoy the great food provided at the finish area right away. Having accomplished one of my goals at this race and having enjoyed the experience and the course, I am definitely going to be back next year to get that 5 hour finish I was striving for unsuccessfully this year. While this was a small race, I am sure this thing will reach its capacity in the near future. Thanks very much to the RDs for putting on a great event on an excellent course, with awesome volunteers, great food, and fantastic swag. I will be sporting that Tashka 50K beanie for all my upcoming ultras during the winter season;-)