Saturday, February 11, 2017

Race Report - 2017 Black Warrior 50K

Coming into AS#2 early on in the race.

The Black Warrior 50K is a low key trail race (and that's a good thing) about 75 minutes from my house at beautiful Bankhead National Forest near Moulton, Alabama. Folks will tell you that it's a flat and fast course, but I disagree. It's always rolling (even though there aren't any serious climbs) and the terrain can be difficult depending on weather conditions. The race is run on horseback riding trails. One year, it rained for a couple of weeks prior to the race followed by a sudden freeze, turning the entire trail into terrain that was covered with frozen potholes and postholes from the horse tracks, making turned ankles extremely likely. This year, thankfully the trails were mostly dry, but it was a rather balmy day making hydration a priority to avoid muscle cramping.
I had lined up this race as a training race, i.e. solo long runs can be a chore, so races are an easy cop out for me to still get that long run in and to have a great time as well. After getting very little sleep the night before the race after taking my son to visit his future college campus at Troy University that Friday, my alarm awoke me at 4:30AM Saturday morning to allow me time to get my race gear together and make the 75 minute drive to Moulton. Since this was just a training run, I hadn't tapered and I was feeling pretty relaxed as I made the drive to Bankhead National Forest. I had run a pretty good race here last year placing fourth overall chasing a bunch of old guys around, you know who you are:-) For this year, I just wanted to take it easy, run by feel and finish the event without any issues.

I arrived at the race site at Brushy Lake Campground with plenty of time to get my race bib, but not until getting lost again first, as I do every time I make my way to this race. I managed to find and say hello a few fellow Huntsville runners (thanks for the ziplock bag, Emily:-) before getting I race bib pinned on my shorts and making my way to the race start at the bridge about half a mile from the registration tent. After getting last minute race instructions and watching a fellow racer drop and loose one of his two water bottles into the creek below even before the event started, we were off. I knew what lay ahead, so I just tried to settle into my own pace right away as we started the slow 2.8 mile incline on the jeep road before entering single track trail. I was surprised to see so many runners ahead of me, but told myself that they must be running in the 5 miler, 25K or 50K relay races. I was surprised to see only one runner turn as we passed the 5 mile turnaround point. It did not matter anyway, it was just a training run, so this took any potential pressure to push harder away immediately. I had been running with Stephen Brown from Decatur from the start and we both seemed to be running a very similar pace. Once we hit single track trails, we were able to relax and naturally pick up our pace as we descended the first section.

From here on out, the race course continued to just roll, up and down, never really keeping you from running, just reminding you all day that this was not a flat course. Stephen and I stayed together for most of the early miles and the first aid station. Since I was running with a single hand bottle, I made sure to completely finish my water bottle between aid stations from the start, since the weather forecast had predicted warmer than usual temps and I had no desire to be in a hydration or nutritional deficit at any point at this race. I took a gel every 5 miles right after getting some base salt. That all worked great until mile 10, when I once again noticed that the tube of basesalt had come open inside my hand bottle pouch, emptying its contents out inside the sticky pouch. For the next hour, I tried to lick every bit of salt directly out of my pouch. Clearly, I was desperate:-) Thankfully, as I came into aid station #2 at about 12 miles, they had table salt containers available for runners. I went for it at every aid station, shaking as much salt into my open palm as I could before licking it all up and washing it down with some coke or water. This way of getting sufficient salt worked until mile 29.

As I left aid station #2 I could see Stephen roll in ready to refuel and move on. We were both still running the same race. As I was leaving the aid station, one of the volunteers sent me off with a "good luck" and "you're the first runner through".  What?!? At first, I couldn't believe it and when it did sink in, I was almost disappointed, almost. At this point, I was no longer just running a training run. I was now leading the 50K race distance and until someone was going to pass me, I now had every intention of keeping my top spot. I still opted to not check my watch and only run by feel. After all, once someone did pass me, I could just dial it all the way back again and continue with my "training run".

Slowly but surely, the miles ticked away and although I had run this event at least two times before, I actually picked up my head and looked around to smell the roses (or horse manure), so to say. This course was way more beautiful than I remembered. I'm sure it's always been a beautiful course, I just never took the time to see it. In addition, this course has runners cover some serious ground in the National Forest as they run a course that looks like three connected circles or two overlapping figure eights.

I came into AS #3, again going straight for the table salt and fluids. I felt significantly fueled eating a Honey Stinger gel every 5 miles and refilling my bottle with the fluids available at the AS. Other than half a banana, 5 gels would be all I'd consume during the race. I also start races on a empty stomach, aside from my morning cup of Joe that serves multiple purposes;-) At this point, I was running alone. I hadn't seen or heard Stephen, but I was certain he was just a switchback behind me. To be honest, I was running skeeerd. I much prefer following someone than being followed and it doesn't matter if I'm running in the front, middle or back of the pack for the day. I just don't like hearing someone breathing down my neck, neither literally nor figuratively.

However, "running scared" did something for me, it kept me and my pace honest, not fast, but honest. I did not want to just give the lead away. If it happened, so be it, but just backing off because it was hard or because I hadn't expected to be in this position anyway didn't seem or feel right. So i didn't and as the miles continued to tick away every so slowly, I caught myself looking back over my shoulder here and there, just taking a peek to see how close the next runner was. I never saw anyone after about the halfway point.

I continued to run by feel and i could tell that I was now slowing. My legs were getting a bit tired and I kept worrying about muscle cramps. At mile 27, I finally checked my watch to confirm distance and pace. Yup, I was slowing, but I was still moving. I would probably get passed, but I wanted to fight for a course PR. After running a 4:36 last year, I knew what I had to do and looking at my watch, I realized it would be very very close. My motivation had now shifted from winning to "don't slow any more or you will not get that course PR". Just as I was inside my mind, a massive buck flew across the trail just 4-5 yards ahead of me and all I could think of in that moment was that youtube video of the XC runner that got nailed by a deer. Whew, that was close. Anyway, there were no video cameras around and you know what they say: Does a bear shit in the woods when nobody is around to see it? No wait, that's not how it goes. Anyway, I kept moving, sometimes questioning if I was still on course, only to spot another reassurance flag at just that moment. This course was very well marked and only my usual ultra brain would sometimes make me question if I was still on course.

I hit the last aid station and knew I had to keep moving to break 4:36. As soon as I was dumped from the single track trail onto the jeep road, I knew I still had about 2.5-2.8 miles to cover, just under a 5K. Just don't fall apart completely now, I thought and just as that thought crossed my mind, the muscle in my left inner thigh started twitching. Oh no, you must be kidding. Actually, that's not exactly the words I used and I didn't say it quietly inside my head either. I slowed down, trying to change my gait to avoid any sudden moves in that muscle. I focussed on that leg for the next 5 minutes, hoping it would not completely debilitate me. I never could figure out how to possibly stretch it, but thankfully, it never went beyond a slight twitch here and there. I continued my shuffle to try to get that PR. As I rounded the curve and saw the finish line, I knew I barely had it, by 2 minutes.

I crossed with my arms raised in the air, elated to have finished another ultra...and excited to have finished in first place:-) Let the Fat Dog 120 and Everest Trail Race training continue...

One happy puppy, winning the Black Warrior 50K ultra marathon.

Thanks to the awesome volunteers and the RD who all spent countless hours to keep us runners happy and moving. Check out this race if you're in the area, you won't regret it. Thanks also to Fleet Feet Huntsville, Altra, CEP, Nuun and Honey Stinger for keeping me dressed, shod, hydrated and fueled during these awesome adventures.

Hanging out with Stephen after the race.

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