Race Report - 2022 Fall Creek 100 Miler

11/20/2022 12:00:00 PM

 

Check out the full race video on my YouTube channel here. This adventure came unexpected and unplanned. My better half figured we should do one more ultra before the end of the year, so we started searching online for an event that looked interesting to both of us. I wasn't interested in short loops and she wasn't interested in a ton of vertical gain. It also had to offer multiple distances as my wife wanted a 50K and I wanted to try for one more 100 mile buckle to close out the year. 
After narrowing down our search, we both agreed that Fall Creek 100 fit the bill. A new event that was cancelled in its first year last year, it takes places at the Fall Creek Falls State Park in Tennessee. It also was only a short 2 hour drive from our home with reasonable registrations fees for the various race distances (33M, 50M, 100M). Along with plenty of campsites inside the park, they also offered free camping for race weekend at the race start/finish area (large group campsite). Having been to this park earlier in the year for the Frozen Falls 50K put on by a local Huntsville crew, I knew some of the trails already and I really liked the start/finish setup with free camping.
Anya and I left our house in our camper van on Friday afternoon. Even though packet pickup wouldn't happen until race morning Saturday, we booked one of the campsites inside the park, so we could "sleep in" until 4AM with time for coffee and a small breakfast prior to the 5:30AM packet pickup time. We got  a campfire going, had a past dinner and a couple of beers, got our race kits ready and went to sleep at a reasonable hour. 
Our biggest concern for race day were the expected temperatures. We had been following the weather forecast for the last 10 days and it did not look promising. I may not be a fan of hot weather races (see my last race report about our Mexican UTMB race), but low 20s to low 40s seemed a little too cold, especially considering the night time temps. I went back and forth on what layers to wear or not to wear, but I ultimately opted for one of my favorite Compressport hooded LS shirt coupled with my trusty old Patagonia Houdini windbreaker. I used an old pair of UD running gloves and a rolled up buff to cover most of my head and ears while still allowing excess heat to escape at the top of my head. For my lower body, I went with a pair of Path Projects shorts and one of their baseliners. I wore a pair of Altra Time 4 and a pair of my favorite Merino wool CEP socks. 
We would have access to one drop back at the Gilbert Gaul AS, which we would visit a total of 4 times during the race. Runners were also allowed a drop bag at the start/finish, which 100 milers would only access at the 50 mile mark...and at the finish, of course. Speaking of the course, the 100 mile course consisted of two 50 mile "loops" that contained a couple of smaller loops. The total vertical elevation gain was advertised as 8000', but I recorded nearly 12,000', which still isn't too bad at all and still presents as a fairly runnable course, overall. However, the leaf cover made the course much more challenging than the elevation profile would suggest.
Since I was able to access my single drop bag at Gilbert Gaul AS 4 times, I only had to carry enough nutrition to get me to and from this aid station. I chose my UltrAspire Legacy 2.0 race vest as it provided the storage needed for my bottles, Spring Energy gels, drink mix powders as well as additional layers, phone, GoPro and batteries. Speaking of GoPro batteries, the extreme temps were too much even for the batteries GoPro touts as cold weather batteries. I've already done some research to confirm an idea that I had during the race and it seems the hand warmers I used all day and all night are just the ticket to keep camera batteries warm when conditions require it. During my post race research, I also found a solution for annoying waterspots that create blurry GoPro footage. I will be putting both of these solutions to the test soon and hopefully do a blog or video about it, but back to the race.
As this was the first time this race actually took place, the race field across all distances was rather small, but there were still more than 100 runners lined up to tackle one of the 3 distances on offer. All races started together at 6:30AM. Anya and I stayed in our toasty warm van for as long as possible before making the short 2 min walk to the race start. We made it just in time for the countdown. 
My race strategy was simple. Keep moving forward until I cross the finish line. Since I had not really trained specifically for this event other than trying to keep a weekly average of 50-60 miles, I could not really have any ambitions other than hoping to finish. Now I am believer in having a lofty A goal along with a B or minimum goal, so I decided to plan the nutrition to carry and use based on a 24 hour plan. I figured a sub 24 finish could be a possibility, if all things came together just so. However, once the race started, I never looked at the pace chart. I did check my time at the turnaround point, which I realized post race was actually to the minute on pace for my sub 24 hour finish schedule. However, since my wife misinterpreted my actual pace and told me that I was 40 minuted behind at mile 50, I decided to take extra time to reset before getting back out there for the second half of the race, but more about this later.
The first 5 miles were pretty uneventful, but in a good way. I was feeling good and slowly warming up enough to have feeling in all of my extremities by the time I rolled into the first Fire Tower aid station at mile. If I remember correctly, the next section was quite challenging. There was heavy leaf cover and the course marking was rather sparse. At times, this section felt more like an orienteering race than an ultra, especially at some of the confusing intersetions and it had me worried for the night, when we had to cover this section again, but in total darkness aside from our own light sources.
While this section felt more difficult, I was still moving well. My pace felt steady and on track. I was running entirely by feel, so I really didn't know my actual pace. After 9.50 miles I arrived at the second aid station, Nature Center, which I recognized from running a 50K here I ran earlier in the year. Next up would be a section with some ups and downs, but that just gave me a reason to walk some after doing a lot of running. Next up would be the Piney Falls AS, which we would visit for the first of four times at mile 13.9. This AS was on the smaller "loop" we'd run twice during each 50 mile loop. I mostly relied on my Spring Energy gels along with my drink mix, but I would supplement at some of the aid stations with a piece of banana and coke and later on with mashed potatoes and broth. 
Speaking of the aid stations, they really stepped up their game throughout the day, providing warm food choices as the day turned darker and colder. The mashed potatoes coupled with the vegetable broth were absolutely amazing in the middle of the night. Next up would be the Gilbert Gaul AS, where I would access my drop bag for the first time. Along with 4 zip lock bags with various nutrition choices, my drop bag also contains an extra pair of shoes (Altra Olympus 4.0) along with various long and warm layers and my main light source for the night, The UltrAspire Lumen 600 3.0.
I was now 20 miles into the race and still moving well, but I had already taken a couple of tumbles catching roots hidden under the thin leaf cover. I had also rolled my ankle a few times even with the preventative tape job I had done prior to the race as I had all year. Thankfully, none of these issues ended my race prematurely, but they did have a major affect on my performance and ability to keep moving quickly later on in the race.
We would repeat some of this last section on the smaller loop before continuing on the larger loop. When I made it back to my drop bag at the Gilbert gaul AS for the second time, I had covered 50K and had to pick up my primary light for the night as I knew I wouldn't be back here until mile 70 much later in the night. I was still feeling great and moving well, but the next section along the lake was much more technical and way colder than any other section before. Lots of exposed roots made running impossible for me as I had to protect my left ankle. The cold air blowing from across the lake added to the challenge as I now pulled up both of my hoods to stay warm during this slower section.
When I arrived at the Bridge AS at mile 39 having covered the last 8 miles rather slow, I was ready to pick up the pace again. I was motivated to make it back to the mile 50 turnaround at the start/finish before it got dark, but first I had to cover the biggest climb on the course before it would level out again for some more runnable terrain. By the time I made it to the Fire Tower AS for the second time, this time coming back from the other direction, I had slowed again. It was here that I joined up with fellow 100 mile runner Rob, who was running much better than me at this point. As he caught up to me, I latched on to try to keep up with him until mile 50. With 2 miles to go to the turnaround, I finally had to let him go. I decided too slow to a more comfortable pace and to hit the reset button at the halfway point to revive my race.
I arrived at mile 50 in 11 hours 15 minutes, well on sub 24 hour pace. However, due to a misinterpretation of my pace by my wife AND my desire to take a longer break to change into warmer and dryer clothes and to sit down for some food, a sub 24 hour finish was no longer on my mind. Just finishing was now the plan.
Refreshed and ready to tackle the second half of the course to earn that buckle, I bundled up in some warm clothes and got back out there. Miraculously, I actually had my best 20 miles from miles 50-70. I was moving well again and clocking some fastish miles. In fact, sub 24 started creeping into my mind again, which isn't a bad thing when you are trying to keep moving through the night. I even overcame the sleepies with the help of some caffeine.

However, around mile 73 or so, I was stopped dead oil my tracks. I guess my left knee/leg finally decided to lock up completely. It may just have been too many falls that ultimately tweaked my left knee and inflamed my IT band. I barely made it limping into the Gilbert Gaul AS. I had to sit down, change into some warm/dry clothes from my drop bag and ask the AS crew for some Ibuprofen. I have never ever taken any kind of pain medication during an ultra for obvious reasons, but I knew I needed the left knee to release, if I didn't want my race to be over right here and now. I sat at that AS for a while to warm up and to eat some more mashed potatoes and broth before deciding that it was time to try rot keep moving.

The next 8-10 miles were as slow and ugly as I expected, but I was happy to start feeling better by the time daylight returned. I didn't get the proverbial second wind, but I was able to move. I was ready to be done at whatever pace my body would allow me to go. I was excited when I finally spotted the final aid station before the finish, Fire Tower AS. One more hole punch at the base of the fire tower and it was time to make my way to the finish, but not until the awesome AS volunteer handed me a couple of freshly made hasbrowns. I made quick FT call to my wife, who was happy to see me moving still, to let her know that I was less than 6 miles from the finish. As is often the case, the final miles in a 100 miler always feel the longest and this rare was no different. I was so happy when I finally spotted my wife at the end of a long first service road section that would take me into the finish. A "short" 25 hours and 49 minutes later, I crossed the finish line, elated to be informed that I finished 3rd Overall along with earning that sweet handmade Fall Creek 100 Mile buckle.

I encourage you to check out my race video at YouTube for a more immersive race experience and for a reveal of the beautiful buckle.

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2 comments

  1. Great write-up and thanks for taking the time to post this! I'm thinking of doing this race next year and this report is very helpful.

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    1. Glad to hear it, check out my race video for more details about the course if you have the time: https://youtu.be/LWxPjbu0UeA

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