Sunday, March 1, 2015

Race Report - 2015 Mount Cheaha 50K

My Huntsville crew.
Coming off a very satisfying performance at Mountain Mist 50K in January, I had big goals for this year's Mount Cheaha 50K...and then I got a sinus infection along with a cold just one week after the Mist. A steroid shot and a round of antibiotics eventually fixed it, but I did lose a whole week of training. I got back into my weekly training routine and ended the week with a self-supported training run, the Dismal 50K, which boasts over 12,000ft of elevation gain, feeling great. Weather kept me to only two training runs the following week, but I had the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham to look forward to as a training run. I had signed up as the 3:45 pacer and was looking forward to helping some folks accomplish some goals or maybe even qualify for Boston. I arrived in Birmingham the afternoon before the race and settled in to my hotel, when sickness struck for the second time in less than two weeks. Without being too graphic, I spent the next 24 hours more or less exclusively in the bathroom of my hotel room before driving back home. Suffice it to say, I did not run the marathon Sunday morning. Whats more, my last run had been 4 days earlier and I was unable to run for another 3 days due to the stomach flu. I was also on yet another round of antibiotics that I would have to continue to take all the way thru race day and beyond. Let's just say I drove down to Oxford, Alabama feeling slightly underprepared and undertrained to be having any goals other than finish the race, hopefully in better shape than last year, but that was not a given considering my last 2 weeks.
I arrived at the hotel in Oxford, Alabama just after 7PM, just in time to meet up with the other Huntsville folks that had made the drive down earlier in the day. We all got together at a local steakhouse and after everyone ordered their preferred pre-race meal, the conversation quickly turned to everyone's goals for the next day. Thanks Sarah, Janice, Christy, Cary, Rick, Jerry and Paul for a fun dinner. I mentioned my original goal of sub 5 hours or maybe sub 5:15, but I didn't expect to have a shot at either after my lousy training leading up to this event. After all, Cheaha has close to twice the elevation gain of Mountain Mist and the terrain is nothing to laugh at either, as my ankle tendons can attest to. A respectable finish would be anything faster than my "shuffle" last year.

But come race day, I know that I always try my best to do well, so I knew the next day would be no different. Problem was, I didn't know or remember the course well enough, other than Blue Hell, to come up with any type of racing strategy. I knew one thing for sure, I had to start conservatively, if I wanted to have a chance at a good race. It worked perfectly at Mountain Mist, where I followed Rob and DeWayne for the first half of the race (thanks again, guys!), so I figured it could work here as well. But who to follow? Well, I happened to know one guy who'd done this race 9 times already and who I knew ran as smart a race as any guy out there, with plenty of wins to show for it as well, so I opted for the same game plan. Try to hang with him for the first half of the race and if I'm still in one piece, go from there.

Paul was nice enough to let me crash at his room with him and Jerry and I gotta say, that rollaway bed was more comfortable than many hotel beds I've slept in. What's even better than a nice room, you ask? How about a freshly made organic pre-race breakfast with freshly cooked Avocados, poached eggs, sausage and toast, because that's exactly what Paul whipped up for the three of us. Thanks Paul, best pre-race fuel ever!!! We had gotten up just after 4 AM, since Jerry and Paul were going to catch the bus to the race start while I was catching a ride to the start with Sarah and Rick, thanks guys!

My Georgia peeps.
We arrived at the race start about 30 minutes before the official 7:30AM race start, enough time for me to say hello to Jamie and Todd Henderson, RD extraordinaire and to pick up my race packet. Mount Cheaha 50K is a point to point trail race that offers runners pristine single track of the Pinhoti trail along with around 6,000ft of elevation gain before they finish the race "to the Top of Alabama" on the top of Mount Cheaha. Since I missed the pre-race dinner and briefing the night before at the Cheaha lodge, I had to get my bib on race morning. After that was done, I was able to say hi to a bunch of folks I consider very good friends, both from Alabama and from Georgia, you know who you are:-)

Seeing so many friendly faces of fellow trail runners made me happy and pumped for the race, all at the same time. It was finally time to get lined up for the race and I made sure to line up right next to Dink, who I planned to follow for the next 2-3 hours, in hopes that I could hang on. He mentioned that Tim Pitt was planning on running with him for a while as well and that made me nervous. Tim just came off an awesome 2:54 performance at the Mercedes Marathon a week earlier, so if the two of them decided to put the hammer down earlier than I was hoping, then I would be on my own.

We all lined up in the second row of starters, hoping to avoid the Conga line that was sure to develop pretty much right away, since the race leads runners immediately down single track trail at the start. I was slightly baffled when we were passed by at least 20 runners before even taking the first step across the start line, once the song "Sweet Home Alabama" indicated the start of the race.

I followed right behind Dink. Tim appeared to be slightly ahead, leading a small group of runners. We quickly settled into a comfortable 9:30 min per mile pace, which would pretty much be the pace required to get close to a sub 5 hour finish. Before long, we caught up to Tim and the three of us continued on together. My game plan continued to be to try to stay with Dink (and now Tim, too) for the first half of the race. I needed to pace myself and Dink was just the guy to keep us steady and on track. I figured there were about 20-25 runners ahead of us at this time.

The first 2 miles consisted of a steady slow climb, but it felt pretty easy at this point. That was followed by a mile of slight downhill before climbing again for another 3 miles before another 1.5 mile descent. The course is mainly pristine single track trails with amazing views and a few very short jeep, gravel and asphalt road sections. Basically, the course continued to "roll" along, but it did feel like were were continuously climbing, every so slowly, towards the top of Alabama. Dink and I continued to run everything, up or downhill. Tim preferred to powerhike the steeper climbs, but would catch us easily on the backside of each climb. I was thankful for the company and the conversation, because it detracted me from the difficulty of this course. Before I knew it, we rolled into the halfway point aid station at Adams Gap. Dink left ahead of us while Tim and I decided to grab a few more itms from the table before we headed out. My watch showed 2:25, which, according to Dink, put us in sub 5 hour territory, say what?!? That excitement only lasted a minute until I reminded myself that I would not be able to sustain this pace, especially with Blue Hell looming at the end of the race.

Heading in and out of Adams Gap, runners follow the only out & back section of the course and you get to see some of the runners ahead and behind you. This short section is followed by a nice 1.5 mile downhill section with mostly sweeping turns. Dink took this opportunity for a surge. I tried to follow, but decided to not push too much. Within a couple of minutes, Dink was a quarter mile ahead and Tim was a quarter mile behind me. However, Tim caught up quickly and Dink had slowed down to our previous pace again, so we were all back together again after a couple of miles. So far so good, I was still feeling pretty good, but I definitely started to feel it a bit in my legs. I had already decided to not try to stay with either Dink or Tim, should either one of them decide to surge and sustain that faster pace. I wanted to stay "comfortable.

The next 10 miles, between mile 15 and 25 are pretty much rolling hills with climbs that are much shorter than before. This section of trails also includes a few creek crossings, most of which resulted in wet feet. Unfortunately for me, the biggest crossing resulted in more than just wet feet. As I was advising Tim to take it easy and to be careful as he was crossing the creek ahead of me, I managed to step on a submerged rock that was much slicker than expected. The result, me sitting on my butt, submerged to my waist. Well, nothing to do but continued on and hope that I'll dry eventually.

This section also contains some of the more technical terrain of this course. There are leaf covered rocks that will wobble under every step. There is also an especially treacherous section that had us running along a severely cambered or angled section of trail putting severe stress on my ankles for a sustained period of time before they would finally level out. By the end of this section I was begging for the trails to level out again. I had developed a severely inflamed tendon in my left ankle and I was getting worried. This was the ankle that had reconstructive surgery two years ago and this was the first time I had had any kind of issues. Luckily, the "flatter" trails brought the relief I sought.

With about 6 miles to go, we left single track trails and entered a 1.2 mile gravel road section followed by a 1.2 mile asphalt road section before entering the final section of the course which features "Blue Hell". As we approached the second to last aid station at the beginning of the gravel road section (there is one more AS just before Blue Hell) I was jonesing for an ice cold coke. I stopped to have a couple of cups of coke. Tim also took his time to refuel while Dink decided to keep his stop short. As he exited the AS, he picked up the pace. Before I knew it, he was a quarter mile ahead of me and out of sight as we entered the asphalt road section. Tim had caught up to me and considered to chase Dink down, for about a minute. He started to have some cramping issues with his legs, so I continued my slow shuffle (I only had one gear left at this point, slow and steady) while he slowed down to take some extra salt. We figured Dink was making a push to break 5 hours, but I knew that just wasn't in the cards for me. I was just glad to be moving at all.

By the final AS, Tim had caught up to me and he shared some great news as we continued on together to the bottom of Blue Hell. Apparently, as we had moved up in the field one runner at a time, the three of us had actually managed to break into the top ten. We were running 6th, 7th and 8th overall, respectively and looking into the rearview mirror, it didn't seem like anyone was close to catching us over the final 2 miles. This was great news. While I had been running the entire course until now, I had no desire whatsoever to run any part of Blue Hell. Blue Bell is basically a one mile bouldering section that leads straight up the side of the mountain. Tim started to charge ahead with a steady hike and I quickly started to fall behind. My legs started to twitch, so I slowed to take another dose of SCaps. I had taken 6 SCaps over the last mile just t fight off leg cramps. Thankfully, it worked. I continued to climb slowly up the mountain when I heard voices ahead.

Suddenly, I saw Dink up ahead. He had slowed and Tim had passed him. I continued just behind Dink for a short while before passing him, both of us way too tired to talk much and too busy breathing. I continued the climb and was glad to see it finally end, well kind of. As soon as you reach the top of Blue Hell, the course actually continues to lead you up to the highest point of Mount Cheaha for about a mile before you get to enter a downhill trail and road section to the finish.

One happy "lumberjack".
I started to hear the finish line music and announcers with about a mile to go and it definitely gave me energy for a final push. As I dropped on to the short stretch of road to the finish, I was pumped. I was feeling great and I was about to finish this race almost 2 hours faster than last year. I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 9 minutes. To my surprise, I was also the first "old" guy to finish the race for Male Master OA and 7th OA. Tim had finished a couple of minutes ahead of me and Dink followed a couple of minutes behind me and Christy managed to add another Female Master OA title to her list of wins. My training buddies Paul, Jerry and Cary also finished strong to get yet another Mt. Cheaha 50K finisher award. Thanks to Todd and Jamie for another fantastic event on the Pinhoti trail. I can't wait for next year.

If this elevation profile doesn't worry you, it should:-)

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