Sunday, August 21, 2011

Race Report - 2011 H9 50 Miler

A map and some waypoints are all that's needed for an adventure
Pre-Race
I arrived in Blairsville, GA at around 7PM local time on Friday evening. I had left work early to pack my gear and to make the three and a half hour drive on Friday night in the hopes of getting some much needed rest prior to the race start at 9AM on Saturday morning. Race director Perry Sebastian wanted to make sure we got to "enjoy" as much sun as possible during our run.

After making my way to Vogel State Park just 10 miles outside of Blairsville, I checked at the Visitor's Center to see if I could get a camping site for the night. Of course they were fully booked. The one time I try to be spontaneous, I fail miserably. Luckily the lady at the desk was kind enough to hand me a list of local hotels and motels and after just one call, I had a room reserved at the Season's Inn. When I arrived at cabin #12, Vikena and about 4 volunteers (Kim, Amanda, Aaron and mystery volunteer X, sorry I'm very very bad with names) had already arrived at "race headquarters" and were making final preparations for the race. In other words, they were drinking beer.

After checking in with Kena and being informed that Perry was late...apparently as usual, I took off into town to get some much needed pre-race dinner and some sleep. I had been nursing some minor injuries from a Wednesday night soccer match that had been keeping me from getting the rest I needed. I also planned to drive back home right after the race, which meant that I needed to get some sleep now before the start of a very long day of racing...and driving. After following the recommendation at the front desk of my motel, I headed to Antonietta's for a pre-race chicken & pasta dinner. It was excellent. Next on my to do list...counting sheep.

Race Day
I had set my alarm for 7:30AM, but woke up on my own at 7AM. After a quick shower and getting my running gear sorted and packed, I headed to the lobby for some much needed coffee. By 8AM, I had loaded up my jeep and was headed to the start line at Vogel State Park. As I pulled into the parking lot, I saw some familiar faces and my usual pre-race tension eased a little bit...until I realized that only 9 folks were "crazy" enough to attempt the 50 miler. Apparently, the local runners knew better than to attempt the full 50. Oh well, I was already here so I might as well go for it.

At 9 AM RD Perry sent us on our way quite spectacularly by saying "Go"...and off we went. This race was supposed to be my last major distance event prior to the Georgia Jewel 100 next month. I wanted to use this race to see where I was at. I knew it was going to be a very tough course, so I set my sight on finishing and not racing. We ran a very short road section before entering single track trail and starting to climb pretty much right away. After climbing for a mile straight, we got some much appreciated relief in the form of 2.5 miles of downhill running. What goes down....must come up again, so we started climbing...and climbing...and climbing  for almost 6 miles with a couple of tiny descents in between.

At this stage of the race we had already passed two of the aid stations on the course. By the way, calling this race a "Fat Ass" event wasn't really accurate. The fueling options at these aid stations were on par with the best ultra aid stations I've ever experienced. There was Coke, Mountain Dew, Sprite, Gatorade, Potato Chips, you name it, they had it and the volunteer staff was excellent. One aid station crew even managed to change the tire on their car (you know who you are ladies;-) and provide us with aid all at the same time.

Shortly after we left aid station 2 at Fire Pit Point and its illustrious volunteer, we experienced a moment of confusion. One of the 25 mile runners (Caleb Dyer) came running at high speed in the opposite direction. Did we all take the wrong trail out of the aid station? What was going on? Well, he cleared up the confusion we he exclaimed while passing us: "There is a huge rattle snake on the trail ahead! I'm heading back to let the aid station crew know. It's about a minute ahead." A minute ahead? What does that mean? By the time I turned to ask Caleb was already out of sight. A minute ahead? A minute walking? Running? How fast? Crap! At this time I was running with two other runners (Shannon and Margaret) and none of us knew what that meant. But we all agreed that we did not want to stumble upon the snake. So we slowly, very slowly continued to walk down the trail.

By the time we had almost reached the spot where the rattler had made its camp, Caleb came up behind us wondering why we hand't made it to the spot yet. "My running buddy is waiting at the spot!" he proclaimed...duh! He could have mentioned that earlier, right? When I finally spotted the snake, I couldn't believe the size of it. I'd never seen a rattler, let alone the size of this one. See for yourself below, but I could swear that stretched out that thing had to be close to 5 or 6 feet. It didn't start moving a sounding its rattler until we started taking its picture and getting up close...I guess it was camera shy. Anyway, when we finally continued our run, we couldn't seem to get over the excitement for a while. Every freaking stick on the trail looked like a snake to me...causing me to jump straight in the air more than once...to Shannon's amusement. It was all his fault anyway...he just kept talking about it;-)


This "little" fella wanted to join us for the fun.
So we had now just been 9 miles into the run and I was already maxed out on excitement. But there was more to come. As we finished our climb up Coosa Bald, we got another taste of nature's creatures. The trails in this area were a little overgrown, so we were all just focused on staying on the course. Suddenly, I heard an all too familiar noise that brought back bad memories, very mad memories from when I first made the acquintance of the lovely creatures that attacked us next. I was mowing the lawn of my first home in the US, when I felt a sting on my left arm..and then on my right arm, my shoulder, my back, and on and on, until I realized that I was being attacked by a swarm of what I thought to be bees, but later found out to be yellow jackets. After ripping off all of my clothes (yes, all of my clothes) while running back into the house and freaking out (possibly screaming in a high pitched voice), I guzzled down half a bottle of Benadryl...just in case. I'd heard horror stories of people having allergic reactions and dying after multiple bee stings. I wasn't gonna be one of them. We didn't have yellow jackets in Germany and I was not going to go down that easy. But I digress.

This happened 10 years ago but was still fresh in my memory, especially when I heard the all too familiar buzzing again. I turned around quickly and asked if Shannon and Margaret heard and saw the same thing. All I heard them say was "RUN!"...so I did. I remember Margaret saying to keep going. Luckily, none of us got stung...at least as far as I know.

After 11 miles or so it was time to say goodbye to Margaret, who was running the 25 miler. The 25 and 50 mile courses split at this point and Shannon and I headed left at Broad Camp Creek Road. So far, I was feelin' ok, keeping my little nagging injuries in check. My initial goal was to finish in 12 hours. Obviously that was before I realized the difficulty of the course. I readjusted my expectations to 15 hours or to finish by midnight. Well, that had to be adjusted as well and I targeted a finish within 16 hours. While Shannon and I were on track to do just that, the section between the Jct FS 261/33 aid station and Fish Gap provided some confusion and mental frustration. For some reason, Shannon and I started to doubt that we had stayed on course. Some of the waypoints just didn't seem to add up with what we saw. This whole episode had left some doubt in my mind that I could finish this thing. We later determined (after confirming with RD Perry) that we had stayed on course all along.

The Duncan Ridge Trail section was pretty tough, lots of climbing and lots of technical trail, sometimes more like "half" track trail than single track trail. As we exited the Fish Gap aid station, we were informed that we had a "lollipop" loop of 13 or so miles ahead of us with no aid. I could have sworn there was aid listed on the waypoints, but neither Shannon nor I bothered to check. Instead, we calculated how long it would take us to complete this loop. We wanted to get it done before darkness fell and we were certain we could do it. At this point, we were running in second and third place respectively. Apparently, some runners had taken a couple of wrong turns here and there. Imagine our surprise when we came upon another aid station just before the out & back section on the course. I gladly accepted a couple of glasses of Coke and Mountain Dew before we continued on to the 3 mile out & back section requiring us to turn around after 1.5 miles and collecting a playing card at that point as proof that we reached the turnaround. Once we got back to the last aid station, we received the news that the toughest section was yet to come, including a climb straight up the side of the mountain for about 1000ft with no trails. Yippee! No, not really. I was gassed...tired...spent and I told Shannon all about it.

My frustration only grew when we finally reached the turn off point from the forest road to climb up Rhodes Mountain. We found the first markers pointing up the mountain right away, but as we climbed and bushwacked our way up, we didn't find any other markers or flags. We continued to climb but never found any flags. This just couldn't be right. We were at a loss so we made the tough choice to track back to the last aid station. Luckily for us, Perry was there to greet us and we told him about our dilemma. Perry offered to take us to the turnoff point and Shannon accepted. I on the other hand declined. I had grown frustrated and tired and the prospect of running 55 to 56 miles instead of 50 miles just did not appeal to me at this point. A couple of blisters sealed the deal for me and I called it quits. This was only my second DNF ever, but it just as bad as the first one. I was frustrated beyond belief, but I had another goal race next month (Georgia Jewel 100) and I wanted to keep my hopes alive of running that race as best prepared and healthy as possible.

When Perry returned with his truck after dropping off Shannon so he could continue on his way, he told me what happened. Apparently, some "idiot kids" (my words, not his) that were camping in a large group near the course decided that it would be fun to move the course markers 100 or so yards up the road. As a result, Shannon and I ended up off course with an additional 3 or 4 miles in the books. Either way, my race was over thanks in some part to those ignorant kids.

Even the most accurate waypoints can't prevent juvenile delinquency.
At this point, I would like to state my intention that I will be back next year to finish this thing. I might have lost this battle, but I have certainly not lost the wear;-) I would like to thank Perry Sebastian not just for a great event, but for hours of interesting ultra chatter after my DNF. Another big thank you goes out to Kena and the awesome staff of volunteers for providing the much needed support during the race and for being just great human beings to be around.

I would also like to thank Shannon Wigley, who I met during the first couple of miles of this race and who I spent the next 10 hours with on the trails. Thanks man for listening to my sometimes meaningful but more often than not useless chatter during these hours. Congrats on making it as far as you did, especially after tackling a distance beyond 31 miles for the first time...and on this course no less. I am sure you're gonna rock the next 50 miler you attempt. 13.5 hours on this course qualifies as a 50 mile finish in my book;-)

Almost 9,000ft of climb over just 35 miles and 13,000ft for 50 miles

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