|The North Alabama contingent.|
My Unofficial Official Return to Ultras
After making it across the finish line of an ultra marathon for the first time in more than 12 months at the Mountain Mist 50K last month, I was feeling pretty good about having a shot at finishing my first attempt at the Mount Cheaha 50K. I was feeling so good, in fact, that I decided to finally break out my new racing attire, my polka-dotted running shirt in support of the National Blood Clot Alliance in the fight to "Stop The Clot", but more about that at the very end of this race report.
When I crossed the finish line of the Mountain Mist 50K, I was pretty beaten up physically and mentally after taking almost 8 hours to make it. So I started to doubt my decision to register for Cheaha. Then again, I didn't really have anything to lose, so I decided to put in some quality runs between Mountain Mist and Cheaha...just as soon as I got over that cold I got right after Mountain Mist. Nothing like hitting a few snags trying to derail your plan.
Since I had only had 2 really good weeks of running since Mountain Mist, I figured I'd treat Cheaha just like another long training run, allowing me not to taper and take full advantage of another week of running, kinda. I did a 10 miler and 12 miler on Monday and Wednesday, respectively during the week of the race. I also made sure that every training run since Mountain Mist had at least 100 ft of ascent and descent per mile, allowing me to get as much climbing in as possible before tackling what is arguably the toughest 50K in the Southeast with somewhere between 6000-7000 ft of climb. It also happens to be one of the most beautiful trail races out there, taking you along 30 miles of pristine single track trail just before you climb to the top of Alabama (the top of Mount Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama) where the finish line is located just in front of Bald Rock Lodge.
Getting to the Race
While the race was only a 2 hour drive from Huntsville, I decided to drive down the afternoon before the race, because the logistics for this race kinda require it. It's a point to point race, requiring participants to either make their way to the race start on their own or to take the free shuttle from the finish to the start of the race at 6AM the morning of the race. Either way, I would've had to leave no later than 3:30 AM to make it in time. Thanks, but no thank you!
Cary Long AKA Hot Wing Runner, had kindly offered to not only give me a ride to the race, but also let me crash in his family's hotel room. I initially accepted, but later declined citing my desire to give him and his family their well deserved privacy. Honestly, I just didn't want to sleep in the same room as Cary. You know what I'm referring to if you've ever run behind him. I could only imagine what happens when he has access to and makes use of an actual toilet. No, thank you.
So instead, I decided to live it up. I remembered this city's slogan "What happens in Oxford, AL stays in Oxford, AL", so I checked in to the swanky Super 8 Motel. The staff was so friendly, they had already turned on the lights in my room before I even entered. Actually, I kid, the hotel has just been remodeled and was extremely clean with friendly staff to go along with it. Unfortunately, this place didn't resemble the Bates Motel at all, like I had hoped (after all, that would've made for a much better story). Remember this place when you're coming to Cheaha next year, low price ($50), clean updated room, great service.
My alarm went went off at 4:45 AM, leaving me enough time to fix and drink a cup of coffee and take care of my other pre-race needs before driving my car over to Cary's hotel just before 6 AM. Tony and Christy Scott were kind enough to give Cary and I a ride to the race start. Thanks again, guys! Cary, Gregg Gelmis AKA photographer extraordinaire and I walked our tails over to their hotel to catch our ride. The drive to the race start was quite uneventful, Gregg only got us lost once;-)
Just after we arrived at Porter's Gap Trail Head for the start of the race, the shuttle school buses arrived with the majority of the runners. Luckily, we got to use the porta potties just in time before the mayhem that is 300 runners competing for 3 toilets ensued. Now it was time to mingle with fellow runners from near and far before taking the obligatory picture under the race banner. As always, there were quite a few Georgia GUTS runners, but the Birmingham BUTS runners were represented as well. With all these entertaining acronyms, Benj, Cary and I figured it's high time to introduce the newest chapter of "We Run Huntsville" the NUTS runners (North Alabama Ultra and Trail Running Society). It's an idea, anyway.
|Cary being his usual self.|
After some comments from RD Todd Henderson, folks lined up under the banner for the race start. Todd asked slower runners to line up in the back to allow fast runners to charge ahead and not get caught up in the congo line that would ensue a mere 50 feet after the race start, where the single track trail started. I decided to line up in the back of the pack. My strategy for running races this year is to just finish them and to try to finish them feeling good, so the back of the pack is the perfect place for me in this phase of my running life.
Cary and Benj lined up somewhere to the front of the mid pack, while Ryan Harbaugh AKA Newbie Ultra Runner and I rolled up the field from the back. We were sent off just after 7:30 AM. My goal was to stay under the 9 hour cutoff and the conga line would make sure that I didn't get any ideas of starting too fast.
|Me and Ryan in the back of the pack.|
The first few miles were relatively uneventful, it was slightly cooler than expected at the start with temps in the 40s, but the weather forecast called for highs in the upper 60s for the day, which would actually feel hot. I had been on the Pinhoti trail before during a couple of unsuccessful Pinhoti 100 attempts, but that race runs the trail in the other direction, so the entire course felt new to me, aside from the painful Pinhoti 100 DNF reminders brought on by the Cheaha aid stations that were located in the same spots as . It didn't matter what direction I came from, I immediately recognized them. Hopefully, Mount Cheaha 50K was just a prelude for my third attempt at a Pinhoti 100 finish in November, my big race for this year.
I continued to run with Ryan for a while, but as I was trying to pass some folks to get off the train in order to run at my own race pace, I ended up losing sight of Ryan. Sorry, buddy, I really wanted to run together a little longer than we did. As I was working my way up the field, at a very slow and easy pace, I caught up with another fellow runner and FB friend, Gregg Ellis, who's had his own health and injury woes to deal with and who is also on his way back to a full recovery, I'm sure. Thanks again, Gregg, for the company along the trail. Glad to see you finish strong!
The night before at the race packet pick up, I also met a fellow from Denmark, Michael, who happens to live just a few hundred miles north of where I grew up and where most of my family still lives. A Disney song comes to mind: "It's a Small World, After All!" Ha! Try getting that song out of your head by the end of the day. I bet you can't!
Just after I caught up with Gregg, we came up just behind Michael and the three of us ended up running together for a while. I started to feel the urge to step of the trail to pee, but I enjoyed the company, so I decided to wait. When I couldn't wait any longer, I decided to just run ahead, build a small cushion, step off the trail and be done in time before they caught up with me. Just as I turned back to the trail, I saw a couple of guys in red shirts and I figured one of them must be Gregg. Well, I was wrong and I wouldn't see him again until much later. And I didn't see Michael again until the finish line. On that note, it was good to catch up with you and exchange stories, Gregg! And Michael, I will try to Facebook or Google stalk you, so we can connect! I hope you had a great experience running your first ultra in the US, and the Mount Cheaha 50K no less!
I continued to run at a slow and steady pace, walking serious hills and running the rolling hills and flat sections (there weren't many of those). There were a couple of fun creek crossings and really not a lot of mud to speak of. Unfortunately, due to my slow pace, Gregg and Tony were already heading back from the big creek crossing and I think I might've actually startled Gregg as I was running by them on their way back to the trail head. Thanks again to both Tony and Gregg for taking a couple of snapshots of me running, much appreciated!
|My new buddy Michael from Denmark.|
I ran most of the second part of the race on my own and I figured it was time to break out the iPod Shuffle. I had added a couple of newer songs in addition to my "go to" ultra running playlist that largely consists of AC/DC's Greatest Hits. A couple of songs provided just the perfect soundtrack to this race. First, there was Daft Punk's "Get Lucky". How can you not feel lucky as you are running the Pinhoti trail with these amazing vistas of the surrounding hills and mountains. Yeah, yeah, I know, not exactly what the song's referring to, but who cares. It definitely worked for me.
And then there was the sections that is lovingly referred to as "Blue Hell". Call it karma, coincidence, whatever, but as I approached the bottom of this section of "trail", if you can even call it that, AC/DC started blaring "Hard as a Rock" through my headphones. Next followed "Highway to Hell". I couldn't make this up. So I started climbing this thing with a huge smile on my face. No joke, while I am always happy to be out there running, I usually do not expose my teeth for a smile unless I sense a photographer nearby. This smile was real, this smile was sincere and I had a blast! I cannot describe it any other way! Everything felt perfect in that moment. I wasn't tired, I wasn't ready to be done, I was just happy to be out there and doing what I was doing, just happy to be able to do what I was doing. I even passed a couple of guys during the climb.
When I finally neared the top, I made another new ultra running friend, Michael Bloom. We chatted for a while and he asked if I minded if he stayed with me for a while. Did I mind? Heck no, I just didn't want him to be held back by my slow pace. So we decided to stay together and finish together. He started to pick it up and I just tried to hang on (Michael, for not having run more than 10 miles at a time this year, you sure kicked my butt on that last stretch!). Another big climb and a short trail section later, we were dumped out onto the road leading to the finish line. As the announcer shouted out our numbers, I knew I did it and when I checked my watch, I realized that I was actually going to finish in just over 7 hours, comfortably below the 9 hour cutoff. Thanks again #93 for running with me for the last section of the race!
|Crossing the finish line with Michael Bloom.|
Jerry Abbott AKA Mister Consistent, Cary and Benj as well as most other Huntsville runners had long finished by the time I crossed the finish line, but I couldn't have been happier. I felt great, I wasn't in pain and I had had a great race, period.
|Yep, that white stuff is salt.|
I hope you're still reading this, because before I conclude this "short" race report, I wanted to mention my new polka-dotted race shirt again. As most friends and family already know, along with my ankle injury a little over a year ago came a near brush with death due to multiple Deep Vein Thromboses (DVTs) in both of my legs and Pulmonary Emboli (PEs) in both of my lungs that had developed as a result of that injury, putting me in the hospital for a week, resulting in an extensive rehab and recovery phase and making me extremely thankful for the family and friends I have. For this and other personal reasons, which I gladly share with folks in person, I had decided that if I got to continue to run, that I would do so in honor of other PE and DVT sufferers and to raise both awareness and funds for the National Blood Clot Alliance and to support them in their fight to "Stop The Clot" in any which way I can.
I consider my continued ability to run a privilege and raising awareness for this very personal cause is my way of being thankful. Please feel free to hit me up at an upcoming trail run or race and I will gladly share with you the ways you can exercise prevention for yourself, your family and your friends as well as learn how to recognize when someone might be suffering from DVTs or PEs. And just in case you're thinking this cannot happen to you, think again. I had no genetic markers nor was I otherwise predisposed to blood clotting disorders. Yet, it did not keep me from being affected. Furthermore, only 2 out of 3 people affected by PEs are as lucky as I was. We actually get to tell our story.
I encourage you to make a small donation for this worthy and, in my opinion, underserved or under-appreciated cause. Click on the donation link in the upper right corner of this blog and visit the National Blood Clot Alliance website to support my efforts as a NAThlete in the fight to "Stop The Clot".