12 March 2022

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 Well, this one was a doozie. First challenge was just making it to the start line. Severe winter weather was forecast with up to two inches of snow and icy roads. So my better half and I made the spontaneous decision to head to Desoto State Park in Fort Payne, Alabama, the location of the Lost Falls 50K, the night prior to the race to avoid getting caught in treacherous road conditions on race morning at 5AM. This plan worked out perfectly and even allowed us to sleep in, a little.

We made the short 5 min drive from our campground to the race start an hour ahead of the 8AM start time, but apparently everyone else got there even earlier, so we ended up with a short hike to the actual start line. Normally, that wouldn't really matter at all, but when it's 20 degrees with a felt 9 degrees due to the windchill, then it does matter. This cold snap also had me changing my usual running kit to something much warmer.

The field of 50 or so runners took their time getting ready to line up at the start, trying to stay warm as long as possible, well at least I was:-) This was the second running of the event and I also my second time running it. Last year, it ended up being an extremely hot day and the course was a bit long as well. This year, organizers promised a course closer to 50K and the temps, while extremely cold, would eventually feel pretty good for a day of running. The course is fairly non-technical with very little elevation across single track and forest service roads.

I figured I may have a decent day as long as I settled into a pace that I could sustain all day. It just so happened that that pace put me in second place for the first third of the race, until, well, until the craziness started. Fairly early on, I was missing some reassurance markers after trail intersections, but I followed my instinct to stay straight whenever there weren't any markers in sight in any direction. I recognized some of the course from the previous year, but specific turns in the course were generally difficult to remember after just one running. 

Clearly, my memory combined with a series of unfortunate events (ie. volunteer not knowing the exact turn, fellow runners not familiar with the course, hidden course flagging identifying a 180 degree turn) led to the biggest error of the day, a 3 mile off course excursion that kind of turned my race and that of the 4 runners behind me upside down. We had been in a chase pack of 5 and had completely lost sight of the front runner a couple of miles earlier. Once the volunteer got to us and had us back track to get back on the course, we had a giant deficit over the remaining field of runners. 

All hopes of making the podium had been dashed, but I was ok with it (after a bit of frustration). At the end of the day, i needed 31 miles to meet my weekly training goal and any extra miles would be miles I wouldn't have to run on Sunday. In fact, I turned to trying to chase down as many runners as possible, Ragnar relay race style:-) The only difference, I really had no idea whether a runner was running the 50K or the half marathon. By the time the half marathon course deviated from the 50K course, the field had spread out significantly and I was no longer seeing fellow runners at regular intervals. However, I did continue to pass a runner here or there, which felt reassuring in regards to being on course. I remembered the back half of the course fairly well, so when we once again ended up at a confusing intersection, I knew which way to go. Flags were pointing in all directions in this instance, so I relied on my memory from the previous year, remembering that this was the out and back section of the course.

At this point, it was only me and one other runner and we chose to follow the flagging on our right at the intersection. Unfortunately, just a quarter mile down the service road, I became uneasy. There were absolutely no flags on this section, so I made the decision to turn around to head into the other direction at the intersection. Once we got there, the race director had arrived to give us an update and to reassuringly point us in the right direction. With approx. 7 miles to go, we didn't get lost from here on out. However, I was sure other runners had passed us once again while we were on that final additional detour. At this point, it was a crapshoot to know where we were in the field.

I decided to at least finish strong. I knew I'd get the full 31 miles, while most other runners only ended up with 27 or fewer miles. Why? Well that's the really crazy part. Apparently, and for some still unknown reason, a couple of rangers decided to remove an entire aid station along with almost all of the flagging on that out and back section. As a result, nearly all runners skipped that entire section causing them to end up seriously short in mileage. I still hope to get the full story to this inexplicable situation at some point. With all that said, I was quite surprised when my wife informed me (confirmed by official results:-) that I actually finished third overall, even with those extra miles.

All in all, it was another great day on the trails. I did want to take a moment and mention that I hold no ill will whatsoever towards the awesome race crew. They had to deal with a whole lot of unforeseen circumstances and to their credit, they made things right by contacting everyone that afternoon and offering all 50K runners a free entry to a future race of their choosing. Well done, guys.

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