Sunday, October 12, 2014

Race Report - 2014 Mystery Mountain Marathon

Race start.
If I remember correctly, I had registered for this race two times before and both times, I ended up with a DNS due to a previous commitment or injury. This time, I wasn't going to let that happen. After racing in the Fleet Feet Monte Sano 15K on Saturday morning here in Huntsville, AL I headed home to watch some soccer before loading up my car to head to Fort Mountain State Park just outside Chatsworth, GA. I didn't feel like making the 3 hour drive on the morning of the race, so instead I headed West Saturday afternoon to pick up my race packet and make use of one of the primitive campgrounds inside the state park that was reserved for runners. However, the weather forecast called for thunderstorms, so instead of unloading my minimalist tent and potentially having to deal with lots of wetness at night and on race morning, I decided to camp out in the back of my car. It wouldn't particularly comfortable, but it would be dry and warm.


I arrived at the state park just after 7PM with enough time to pick up my race packet. I hung out for a few minutes, said hello top a couple of the GUTS folks I knew and scarfed down some cold pizza I had brought from home before heading to the campground. It took me a couple of tries to find a level parking lot. Lots of folks had decided to camp out and quite a few decided to sleep inside their cars as well. It took me a while to fall asleep, but eventually, I did.

At 6:30AM, my alarm went off. I put on my running gear, filled up my water bottles and snacked on a banana while I drove to the start of the race. Volunteers were already out and about, directing traffic and loading up cars with food, water and other supplies to take to the aid stations. I parked my car and headed to the main pavilion, the race headquarters for the day. As I was dropping off some shoes in the donation box, a familiar face tapped my on the shoulder. Tony Scott was there to support his wife Christy, both of whom are from Huntsville as well. A few minutes later, Benj Lance and his dad Bob showed up. They also had made the drive from the Huntsville area the night before. But these guys were smart enough to opt for a nice and cozy hotel in town:-)

While I had only recognized a few peeps the night before, on race morning, I spotted familiar faces all around me. Dan Burstein, who had joined me 2 years ago on a R2R2R adventure in the Grand Canyons as well as on a couple of 100 milers on the Pinhoti trail. Candy Findley, one of my fellow RATS, whom I'd met during a desert race of the same name. Perry and Kena, ultra runners and RDs of North Georgia fame, who'd saved my bacon in a 100 miler before. And Jason and Joel and Kim and Janette and so many other familar GUTS peeps that I hadn't seen in a while, but who I was looking forward to running with once again.

Mid race snapshot courtesy of Deano.
The Mystery Mountain Marathon was to be my final tuneup race in preparation of the Pinhoti 100 Mile race three weeks later. I had heard that it was an extremely challenging course, so it would be a perfect long training run for me. I recall having run some of these trails in the state park as recently as in March, when I was crewing/pacing my good friend Jerry Abbott here at the Double Top 100 in his quest for the Pinhoti Slam. While I didn't actually see much of the trails, I paced him between mile 60-80, I do very vividly recall the steep climbs and descents of that particular race course. I had an inkling that this race course wouldn't disappoint either and I would be right.

Janice, the GUTS pres, was kind enough to give me some intel on the race course, so I could try to plan my race a little better. Go fast for the first mile to avoid the train, then be ready for a few steep climbs, bomb the steep downhills, if you can, the rest is rolling hills. While this was definitely sound advice, I must have missed the rolling and very runable terrain somehow:-) Thanks again or the pointers, Janice, they were much appreciated.

The race hosted both a 12 miler and a marathon and both fields of runners would take off at the same time. While there were volunteers to mark runners' calves with their respective distances in an attempt to keep marathoners from trying to chase down the 12 mile runners, not everyone ended up getting their legs marked, but it really didn't matter. There will always be some runners that are going out too fast and some that are going out too slow. I decided to do what had been working for me, set a goal pace for the entire distance, go out hard to avoid the train, then settle into your goal pace. I still didn't really know the course or had an accurate elevation gain estimate, but I had a goal pace. I could always adjust it according to the terrain as needed. This was supposed to be a training race for me, after all.

As we were all getting ready to line up at the starting line, Tony got all of us Huntsville folks together for a quick group shot. Thanks, Tony! Christy and I lined up near the front third, while Benj and Bob lined up somewhere in the middle of the field. The race started at 8AM, even though there had been some trouble with downed trees blocking one of the lanes leading up to Fort Mountain State Park. Luckily, local police made sure runners could make it to the start in time, to "serve and protect", indeed.

The air was quite humid throughout race day, but the temps had cooled off just a little due to the rain the night before. Less than a quarter mile into the race, runners were lead from the pavilion parking lot onto a trail along the side of the lake. We would loop around this lake before heading up a steep single track trail, allowing runners to jockey for positions before starting the first climb of the day. I ended up with an 8:30 min mile before slowing down and settling into my pace. I decided that I would run every hill in this race, but that I would slow down as necessary so I wouldn't blow up. That strategy worked out perfectly. I walked maybe a tenth to two tenths of a mile during the entire race, but those were definitely not planned walks.

At mile 4, I was forced to walk for the first time. Anyone that ran the race will probably know why. Yes, I played a part in the "Attack of the Killer Yellow Jackets". My character was stung "only" three times. That doesn't seem that bad...unless you're allergic. Yep, Benadryl or EpiPen to the rescue. After I was done freaking out and sprinting a quarter mile down the trail to get away from these angry little insects, I inspected the damage. My ankles were on fire, I noticed three areas that were swelling up fast. I went into my pack and took out two Benadryl, hoping that it would reverse any negative affects. I started to walk, slowly, to try to relax again. Another runner approached from behind, indicating that he had been stung as well and that he night be allergic. I shared a couple of Benadryl with him as well before I continued on my short walk.

As I was being passed by a couple of runners, I decided to start running again...I do not like being passed. The trail went straight up a hill and as my heart started to work a little harder, my hands started to itch and my lips started to swell. O-oh. Not good. I decided to slow down. Making my body work harder also meant I was pumping the poison through my system faster and the Benadryl had not had a chance to be absorbed into my blood stream. All I could do to avoid the worst is slow down and to keep going slow until the symptoms would hopefully eventually subside. I started to jog and before I even completed another mile, I ended up on my back after stubbing the toes on my right foot on a rock. Great, now I am falling all over the place, too. This is going greeaaat. Oh well, I tried to brush off some of the worst mud and continued on my way...but not before being passed...again. My hands were still itching like crazy and my lips still felt swollen as well, but there was nothing to do but to continue moving forward...until...I fell again. Come on! What is the deal? Can I at least stay upright for a couple of miles, please. The mud and dirt started to leave permanent imprints on my @$$. I tried to brush it off...again and I continued to move ahead...again...but not before being passed...yep, again.

Alright, either the symptoms are going to improve by mile 11 or I'm going to call it a short day and finish along with the 12 milers. Thankfully, by mile 9, the symptoms had indeed started to disappear and I was able to start focusing on the race again. I was now moving a lot better and I was finally able to really take in and enjoy the amazing views that these mountains had to offer. The race course actually led runners straight through a couple of overlooks and along some beautiful ridges. This race was hard, but it definitely made up for it tenfold with it spectacular views.

I continued to take the race one mile at a time, hoping to stay upright and allowing myself to run harder as the race progressed. This race is extremely well supported with aid stations appearing along the course after what felt like every 203 miles and over 60 volunteers taking care of our every need along the way. Never before had I taken part in a trail race where there were that many folks cheering you on and helping you succeed at the same time. I had a blast. We even got a little shower midway through the race to cool us off:-)

Some sections of the course were harder than others. Thankfully, I met a fellow named Brack during one of the tougher sections of the course, both physically challenging and mentally difficult. We chatted for quite a while as we neared the 301 section of the course, also referred to as the waterfall climb. I remembered this climb very vividly from earlier in the year, when I was pacing my buddy Jerry for a 20 mile loop that led us up this climb. While we were walking quite a bit of it then, I was determined to run the whole thing and I managed to do so...with one exception. There was a very short switchback section that was just ridiculously steep, so I decided to take it easy for just a moment. After I completed this climb, I recovered fairly quickly. I was now just about a 10K from the finish line and I still had some left in my tank. When I approached the second to last aid station, I thought I still had 5-6 miles left. Once again, I had trusted my GPS watch and once again, it was wrong..but this time, it had worked in my favor. I was basically just a 5K from the finish when I thought I still had at least 5 miles to go. Score!!!

That gave me even more energry and I started to hammer the final 5K...until I came to an intersection at the top of a powerline cut and the final descent. There was an arrow point straight ahead, but I noticed runners heading down the powerline cut. Had they gone straight down, looped around to get there? Crap, where do I go. I tried to shout my question down the powerline cut to the aid station about a half mile ahead, to no avail. They couldn't possibly hear me. So I decided to wait for the next runner to approach in hopes that he knew the way. He was initially as confused as me and when he and I headed the wrong way, he suggested we stop and take the course straight down the powerline cut, instead. Otherwise, we would be headed down that massive descent again from earlier in the day, basically taking us back out on the course again. Now I was even more fired up. I passed the other runner again as we made our final descent down the powerline and towards the final aid station, where a huge throng of volunteers cheered us on as we made our approach. I nodded my thanks and kept on going. I was ready to get to the finish. Not because I wanted the race to end, but because I was feeling great. I crossed the finish line in 4 hours 37 minutes, well below my primary goal of sub 5 hours and very near my "lofty" goal of a 4:30 finish.

Kim was waiting at the finish line along with loads of volunteers, fellow runners and lots of great food and drinks. As it turns out, I managed to finish 4th overall and 1st male master. It appeared my 100 miler training continued to go well. Along with the finish came an awesome pint glass and a very unique medal as well as a fantastic beach towel and a gift card. You can't beat that.

Thanks again to Kim, all of the volunteers and the entire GUTS crew for putting on such a fantastic event. I fully expect to be here again next year and I am definitely spreading the word about this awesome race that's almost in my backyard:-)


The Huntsville contingent.

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