The race preparations did not begin as expected. A pretty bad quad bruise from a soccer match three days before the race put my participation in jeopardy. Even on the evening prior to race day, I was still unable to even jog.
We arrived at the host hotel for the race late Friday afternoon and after a quick race and hotel check-in decided to head to Atlanta to pick up a new road bike for Richard that we found on Craigslist. After returning from Atlanta, we met up with local fellow runner Candy, who knew just the place to get some great wings. The weather was scary, thunderstorms and tornado warnings all around and us right in the middle. The things we do for some good food;-)
We headed back to the hotel for some pre-race planning and to get some sleep. The hotel was a mere 5 minutes from the race start. Candy's updates and pictures of the course made sure that we would not underestimate it. Either way, I was just going to try to start the race, see how my leg would hold up and go from there. My pace would be very very conservative.
Richard and I woke up about 45 minutes before the race and after a quick cup of coffee we headed to the Sweetwater Creek State Park. After a couple of wrong turns, obviously Richard's fault, we made it to the race location. There were quite a few familiar faces at the start. Dan, Candy, Christian, Jason and many other GUTS runners were all out for a fun day at the park.
However, the pre-race excitement was slightly dampened when the RD had to announce that, due to the torrential downpours over the past couple of days, the most exciting section of the race, the Sweetwater Creek crossing had to be eliminated from the race course. As a result, the course had to be rerouted. But it still had a couple of smaller creek crossings and a drainage canal crossing to make sure that our feet would get wet.
Richard and I started in the middle of the pack, but the pace was still pretty fast. It seemed the entire (sold out) race field was eager to get going. After a short 1 mile road section we entered a single track trail section running along the Sparks Reservoir. The course was mountainous initially, but it was definitely hilly. Every time Richard and I look at the waterlevel, it was either right next to us or way below us. Shortly after leaving the reservoir we started running alongside the Sweetwater Creek. This was by far the most beatiful section of the course, at least in my opinion. There is also a pretty neat ruin of an old manufacturing building right at the creek that also happens to provide the backdrop for the cool tech shirts all race participants received.
While this was the prettiest section, it was most definitely not the most challenging section. That was still to come. And it was a double whammy. First, runners have to continuosly ascend and descend along a gas pipeline cut before making it to the infamous "Top of the World". This section of the course is quite deceiving. As runners reach the top at one of the gas pipeline cuts, runners on top of the next hill give you the illusion that you have to run straight down and straight up the next hill. Instead, runners are lead down a switchback before climbing a steep rocky section before reaching the top of the world. Once you reach TOTW, the view is spectactular.
The next section was a 2 mile out and back run to the next aid station. This section allowed you to see your fellow runners ahead and behind you as you are passing each other on your way out and back. The encouragement you give to your fellow runners comes back tenfold. I've found givving encouragement also gives me a boost. That was particularly true when I came to this section for the second time, starting to run low on energy. Richard and I stayed with our race plan, keeping a steady but manageable pace. My leg was hurting and I had unknowingly adjusted my gait to compensate. However, the effect of this change wouldn't become painful until after the race.
After returning from the aid station, the next challenge presented itself just around the corner. Just as I was telling Richard that it would be great if the next section was downhill and that it seemed it was, the poweline cuts showed their face. Steep descends followed by sharp ascends. Richard loved it, or did he? Anyway, we continued on, taking in little food but srating to increase our fluid intake as the day got progressively hotter. The temps were never a factor for me, however, as I made sure to stay hydrated. I kept up my salt intake as well, while eating a couple of Orio cookies here and there along with the occasional orange slice.
When we completed our first loop, Richard briefly considered packing it in. However, he didn't come out and sy it that way. Instead, he asked me if I wanted to continue on, with my leg pain and all, but I knew what he really wanted to say. So I suggested we just continue on and call it a day later, if we had to. Making our way around the course the second time, we noticed that the creek continued to rise. Some trail sections along the creek had actually been washed away or were underwater, requiring us to climb a couple of boulders and rock sheets. The smaller creek crossings and tiny climbs kept the race interesting and required runners to stay alert.
Once Richard and I reached the gas pipeline section for the second time, I felt a little surge coming on. As Richard enjoyed climbing up these hills once again, I started to push the pace just a little on the hills. I was feeling it and I wanted to see what I could do. Since we had started slow, there really wasn't any exciting time goals possible. However, I figured maybe I could push for a sub 7 hour finish. It wasn't meant to be, but I did make up some serious ground on some other runners. We I came around the final bend of the course to climb up to the finish, I was spent.
Unbeknownst to me, Margret Curcio was actually handing out the finishers awards (great SweetH2O running hats). I hadn't seen her since Delano and she was being smart, resting before leaving for Boston the next day (Kudos to you, Margret for you BQ and your finish). Dan was nice enough the make a chair available at his table and while consuming the excellent BBQ that was served at the finish area, I had the opportunity to briefly chat with fellow runners including Tood Henderson, the Pinhoti 100 RD. He confirmed that his race registration was open. This was great news, since I had announced to Richard during the race that I would be attempting Pinhoti again this year and that he had two choices, pace me or race himself. I set my goal for a sub 24 hour finish. That means some serious training. No more first time 100 mile training but some serious mileage and speed and hill workouts.
Once again, racers were treated to a fantastic course, a great RD, awesome volunteers and aid stations at just the right spots. Thanks to all of you for your hard work. You made this race a very enjoyable one.
The final race results for the 2011 SweetH2O 50K can be found here. See you guys on the trails.