Race Report - 2022 Grayson Highlands 50K

5/07/2022 09:17:00 PM

The Grayson Highlands 50K had been on my to do list for a few years, but I always had a conflict. I even registered a couple of times and ended up having to back out. This year, I was not going to miss out. The race woulds be part of my ramp up for the Tahoe 200 in June and I finally wanted my chance to check out the wild ponies that the race is known for.
After 6 hours of driving I finally arrived at the state park the evening before the race, just in time for packet pickup. I picked up my bib and headed back down the mountain to a campground adjacent to the Virginia Creeper Trail, a National Recreation Trail. Unfortunately, it had been raining and storming ever since I left Alabama. in fact, I received multiple tornado warnings on my phone as I was making my way to Virginia. I found my camping spot for my camper van, fixed myself some dinner, prepped my race gear and went to sleep. While the race didn't officially start until 7:30AM, I wanted to make sure to get there an hour early to chill, so calling it an early night was the best decision.
After a making a fresh cup of coffee, I made it to the race start with plenty of time to tape my ankle and hang out in my van. Temps were in the 40s, so I had no intention of standing around outside any longer than necessary. I actually decided to wear my favorite Patagonia Houdini windbreaker to provide both some protection from the constant rain and wind as well as some added warmth. That ended up being the right decision as I wore that windbreaker for the entire duration of the race.
I lined up at the starting line about 5 minutes before the official start time. It...was...cold. RD Sean Blanton informed us of the "minor" change to the race course vs. previous years, essentially adding 4ish miles to the race course at the beginning of the race to ensure that it is a full 50K rather than a longish marathon. This added section really set the tone for the remainder of the race, easy descents but technical and steep ascents. This would be the theme for the day, at least for me. I had no idea that this course was so technical. Sean sometimes like to "oversell" the terrain or difficulty of a race and after seeing some of the fast finishing times of previous years, I expected this course to be easy. Quite the opposite was the case, even if this year's sub 4 hour winning time did not reflect that. On that note, congrats to the winner Michael Babinec, who not only set new course record and fastest time ever on this course, but he did it on a course significantly longer than the previous years. This guy is still new to the sport of ultra running, but I fully expect him to be a serious contender in the ultra scene, if he sticks with it.
While I kept Michael in sight for the first mile of the race, I quickly made the decision not to stick with the lead pack of three runners that included some speedy guys. Instead, I stuck with the chase pack of 5 runners for the first few miles that also included the leading lady and eventual overall female winner. Our pack of runners started to stretch out after the first 5 miles. At this point, we had long lost sight of the top three runners and that was just fine with me. I wanted to run my own race. I had run the Devil's Race Track Backyard Ultra the previous weekend, which extended the number of ultra marathons I had run since late January to 13. Not only that, but every single one of these races had gone exceptionally well for me and I wanted to keep it that way. Getting sucked into someone else's race or race plan would be a sure fire way for my race to fall apart early in the day. 
Unfortunately, there wasn't much to distract me from racing as the weather continued to be overcast with rain and strong winds for the entire day. That meant I was solely focussed on executing my race plan, which was to work hard without overextending myself. After all, this was supposed to be a hard training effort for Tahoe 200, but it should not keep me from continuing training the next day. 
As our pack stretched, I quickly lost sight of runners ahead and behind me, which allowed me to run my own race and pace pretty early on. It wasn't until the aid station near the half marathon mark that I caught back up to the female front runner as well as another runner ahead of me. I would eventually pass both of them. I would not spot another runner behind me until 3 miles from the finish. As I looked over my shoulder climbing the road out of the final aid station, I spotted. runner behind me. Oh no, I am not going down without a hard effort to the finish. Getting passed in the final 5K of a 50K stings, so you'll have to earn it, because I won't be surrendering my position at that point, be it for top 10 or top 100. You gotta earn it!
Aside from the inclement weather, the race really went well for me. I consumed a total of 5 Spring energy gels, split between my favorites Awesomesauce, Canaberry and Koffee plus a couple of cups of coke. For fluids, I started off with Nuun and used the drink mix provided by the race's aid stations thereafter. My nutrition was on point, no issues, no complaints. Allm of my gear choices were spot on as well, I continue to love the Altra Mont Blancs for any terrain and ultra distance. My Legacy 2.0 UltrAspire race vest provided the perfect amount of gear space necessary for this 50K. Lots of storage space in the back and pockets in the front to carry any essentials you can think of. Cinch it down or expand it as needed, it's my go to vest for 50-100K races. 
After a lung burning final ascent over the last 2-3 miles I finally spotted the finish line arch and RD Sean to greet me. I was excited to cross the line in 5th overall out of 200+ runners with a total time of 5 hours and 9 minutes. Considering the longer than usual course, I was happy to have missed my sub 5 hour goal by just 9 minutes. Thanks to the entire race crew for putting on another awesome ultra event. While I may have missed the spectacular views and sights this race is known for, I was still blown away by the beauty and gnarly nature of the actual course. 5000 feet of vertical gain is nothing to sneeze at on this terrain and I was happy to have finally tackled this race.

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