Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How Hard Was That!?!

Saturday's race was the Georgia Jewel 35, 50 and 100 mile race held on the Pinhoti Trail in Dalton GA. This race had a lot of "firsts" for me other than just place. It was my first race solo, my first 35 miler, and the first time I was doubting myself and the first time I would forget my essentials...more on that later.... I left Friday afternoon to travel the 5 hours to get to the packet pickup and decided to stay for the pasta dinner. Hindsight, I am not sure why I don't do that more often. I met so many nice people and had dinner with a few runners that were trekking the 100 miler. As I spoke with other runners, I began to realize that I did not do the best job at looking at the layout of the course. The words "hilly" "rocky" "climbing" kept popping up in race conversations. I was intimidated to say the least at the pickup seeing that most of the runners that were there not only looked well seasoned, but were bearing the evidence that they were on their shirts. Included in the chest trophies were the Umstead 100 miler (coincidentally that will be my first 100 miler) and the ever famous Western States.  After dinner and checking my drop bag one last time (I felt very inadequate since all I had was a tiny bag with an extra pair of shoes in it) I headed off to stay with my Aunt and Uncle who live in Dalton. After catching up with the family and seeing my cousins, Gina, Joe and Hannah, who came up from Fort Benning for the weekend, I eventually crawled into bed way past when I should have. It was going to be an early morning. I tossed and turned and had numerous occasions where I dreamt I slept through the alarm and thus missing the race, only to discover it was 1am or 2am. When the alarm finally chirped at 4am...I was up and ready to go. I donned my Michelob Ultra shirt, Nike Compression shorts and navy knee socks with sparkly silver tops for the race. These socks were by necessity, not choice. Let me briefly interject here and describe the terrible job I did in packing for this race.
After realizing on the Monday before the race that it would take me 5 hours to get to Dalton, not the 3 that I originally thought I was totally disoriented. I packed on Thursday night and had everything in the car ready to go. As I poured over maps and routes to get to Dalton, I realized that not only had I left my Garmin Forerunner at home, I had a sneaking suspicion that I hadn't packed a sports bra. After racing home to grab the watch and checking my bag....which had no sports bra....I also noticed  hadn't packed and extra pair of shoes or a drop bag. So grabbing all of it and finally heading down 85S towards ATL, I then realized that I had also forgotten knee socks. Now this isn't something I normally race in but after two rounds on Prednisone due to poison ivy, it has become a necessity. Groaning, I swore I would just pick some up when I got there. This is where the doubt began to creep in as to whether or not this whole racing thing was a good idea. After my dinner I stopped into a local K-Mart and located the socks. To my horror, the only thing I could find was a pair of navy socks with silver sparkly tops....anyone who knows me will tell you I am not a "sparkles" kind of girl. I prefer by fluorescent knee highs in the yellow/green or purple/blue stripes.  But forgetful girls cannot be picky and they would have to work and they just so happened to match the rest of what I was racing in.
So after I decked myself out in multiple shades of blue, I quietly crept to the kitchen for my traditional oatmeal and peanut butter breakfast. My cousin Joe had offered to drop me off at the race so he stumbled in shortly there after. After last minute consideration, I filled my Nathan pack pockets with 3 Honey Stinger Gels, a pack of Honey Stinger Chews, a strawberry jam Uncrustable, Gu Tablets, A pack of Justin's Nut Butter,  salt capsules and electrolyte caps. I was determined this race to not carry so much food on me and rely more on the aid stations, but I thought hey...I brought them so I may as well pack them. This would turn out to be a very smart decision later on. Then we were off to the Dalton Convention Center and the start of the 35 and 50 miler.
Pre Race Photo
The morning was a chilly 56 degrees with a small breeze and humidity. I was perfect racing weather.  After thanking Joe and saying I would see him in about 5 1/2 hours...I checked in and settled down near the base camp fires. Something that you may not know about Ultras is that there isn't a "warm up" for our races. Rarely will you see anyone jogging to get the legs going or stretching prior to the race. Many of us choose to sit down seeing that we will be spending the next umpteen hours on our feet. The other runners were friendly as we discussed past races and upcoming ones. I met Ellen, who grew up in Charlotte and has a friend who wants to find some Ultra runners in the area, so we exchanged info. I took the mandatory pre-race photo in front of the sign and got ready to go to the line. At 6am sharp, the race began. I had been warned that the first 2-2.5 miles are almost straight up hill and was glad for the advise to "take it easy as the start". As we climbed the hills, I remember thinking "this isn't so bad" and then looking up to see one of the leader's headlight bobbing up in front of us at a significant height. I settled in with a group of guys and we joked when we hit a small decline. We turned left into the woods and continued to climb
Coming into Snake Creek Gap Aid Station
until we finally took a final switchback with a hill and leveled out. Just before this, a green short clad girl squeaked around me onto the trail. She introduced herself as Kathleen and took the lead of our little group. It was completely dark other than the headlights and we wound our way through the trails. At this point, my strategy was to stay with the group and allow them to pull me out as far as I dared. The pace was quick but I was feeling good and my estimates had us in the front 1/3 of the pack of runners. As dawn broke, we quickly began to realize that the trail was not only technical but was rocky as hell. I made a few mental notes on some steep downhills knowing that I would have the reverse when I returned. We chatted along the way discovering that we had been at the same race back in May (the Black Mountain Monster) and talked about husbands, races, and home improvement projects we had to do on Sunday. I stayed ahead of my nutrition plan using my watch as a guideline on when to drink/eat. We alternated running and walking through some of the heavier rock out croppings. Kathleen was a stud, she ran up hills that I had no choice to walk and she was tough.
The turn-  Tony in front (50 Miler)

Slightly before the first aid station at mile 10, we strung out a bit and I found myself mostly alone. This is when I took a nose dive in the dirt. Not the last time I would fall, but the most significant time. I split the webbing at my first finger and banged my knee pretty hard. I got up, brushed most of the dirt off and cursed my heavy feet. I vowed that I wouldn't let nature beat me. The trail was very remote and very lonely. I knew that if I got hurt, I would have to walk to find help and that walk may be upwards of 7+ miles to anywhere. At the aid station, we all stopped to laugh catch our breaths and refuel. I pulled out my PB&J after realizing that the station had little more than cookies and water and munched it down happily. I was ten miles in and feeling good...I wanted to keep moving so I strolled down the road, finished my sandwich and picked up my pace.Most of the next two miles was a nice steady downhill, which again I knew would prove tough on the way back in. Tony, a new friend of mine, lead us as cruised through the switchbacks and rocky outcrops. There were four of us that stuck relatively close at this point in the race and as we descended into the manned aid station, I realized that none of them were turning. Most had been 50 milers...I would be heading back on my own. As I filled my pack, dumped my headlamp in my drop bag and headed back out, I glanced at my watch. I wanted to know how far behind me the next female was. I had lost count of the guys we passed who had already turned, but I knew I was the first woman. When our paths crossed, it had been about 3 minutes after I left the aid station. I did the math and figured I had a little over a half mile lead on her- give or take a few minutes- long story short...I ran the next 17.5 miles scared. I wanted more than anything to win the race. I honestly didn't expect it but once I was in the lead, I wanted it. I told myself that I couldn't loose, if I was going to spend 5+ hours running in the woods, I better make it worth it. Before I knew it I was at the aid station with 10 to go. Unfortunately there was no water and very little food other than peanut butter cookies. My stomach would have none of it. I tried to eat one, but spat it out...to much sugar. I decided the only think I could do was ditch taking the Gu tabs in my handheld to save water and stick with S-caps and salt tabs. Thank goodness I had stocked my pack with food....I was down to one gel, peanut butter and the chews. I vetoed the peanut butter because of rationing water and went with the gel. Downed it and headed homewards. I knew that most of back 5 of the trail had been small up hills and down but had been rocky and technical as hell. I went as fast as I could without killing myself. I eventually passed another runner who told me had was having leg cramps ..as I chugged on, he tried to go with me...I heard the horrible sound of a foot catching rock and my gut wrenched as he fell. I asked if he was ok and thought "what the hell am I gonna do if he says no?" He waved me on and I continued home-bound. My watch started to inform me that it was running out of battery life. At this point I knew I would be in those woods for about 7 hours. Poor Joe would be at the finish wondering where I was.  I prayed it would last that long and started to sing to myself. I make it a habit not to run with headphones for two reasons....I want to feel what's going on with my body and want to be aware of other runners around me. So I had my voice and the song "Yes Jesus Loves Me" to keep me company. I begged, bargained and promised out there in those woods. I'm not a religious person but that is what popped into my head; a song from my childhood. I caught two more runners just shy of the 4 mile mark and my hopes started to lift. I sped up only to be thwarted by my calf cramping in my right leg. I yelled a disapproving "no dammit" and did the only thing that seemed logical...I stopped and punched it,  downed an electrolyte and salt cap and trudged on. I didn't want to stretch fearing that I was well past that having any benefit. When it seized I slowed....when it relaxed I ran. I will say the trail runs along a beautiful part of the mountains, horizontally across them so the vistas are gorgeous. But to someone looking for the trail exit, they were excruciatingly long. I knew once I came out, it would be all down hill. That moment came and two things happened: 1. I ran out of water 2. My left calf joined the cramping party. I am sure I was an awkward sight trying to keep from going downhill too fast to save my sore quads but keep my calves from cramping. As I came out of the trail and onto the road, I was filled with the idea that I was going to be run down. It wasn't until the bottom of one of the hills where I had about a 400m view that I could convince myself I was going to win. The sun was hot, I was exhausted and I had nothing left but to finish the road I started on. As I got closer to the convention center, Joe and his wife Gina passed me in his car waving and honking for me. The volunteers at the race started cheering as they saw me approaching and I turned into the home stretch. It was a lonely sight with only about 10 people at the base camp,  my aunt and cousin Mandy (who came from Chattanooga that morning) and the photographer who insisted on taking a "finishing picture" as I crossed the line. I was handed some water and ushered to a chair with congratulations mixing in the air. After resting, giving an interview,  reliving some of the trail with my fellow runners, peeling off my shoes and socks and cheering a few more racers in, I headed back to the house for a shower, dinner and hit the road home to Gastonia. This race may have been one of the hardest things I have completed mentally. There were times that I wanted to cry, times where I was completely exhausted, and times where I just didn't think I could. But I did and I did it pretty damn well. I am proud of myself and everyone who ran that race. I found a new strength inside myself and made some pretty fantastic friends along the way.

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