Monday, November 28, 2011
Sunday, November 27, 2011
Before anything else, I need to thank the people who helped with this endeavor. At any race, there is an RD and numerous volunteers at multiple aid stations assisting hundreds of runners. A solo undertaking such as this, however, is fully dependent on a few friends and family generously giving their time to help just one runner. Barry Burns spent 14 hours on this endeavor, including 33 miles pacing on the longest run (time and distance) of his life. Justin Cole spent 13 hours, including 22 miles pacing on the longest run (time and distance) of his life. Ken Sturm waited many, many hours and paced for 2 hours. And last but not least, my Dad spent 23 hours, including 1.5 hours pacing, all to help me finish. Thanks a million for your time and help, guys. And thanks to my family for supporting me in my time away.
The Foothills Trail traverses the Cherokee Foothills of the Southern Appalachians in North and South Carolina over some of the most rugged terrain in the SE. It reaches the highest point in South Carolina, crosses numerous rivers and streams alongside dozens of waterfalls, has suspension bridges up to 50 yards long, and can claim such notable landmarks as the Chattooga River (filming location of Deliverance) and Whitewater Falls, the highest waterfall in the East. The trail is 76 miles long, more or less, with approximately 16,500 ft climbing and 15,900 ft descending, though the exact amounts have been the subject of much discussion on the FHT listserv. One unique challenge is the thousands and thousands of wooden stairs, which tend to change fast downhills into slow, careful descents. The crux of the trail is the remote 33 mile Laurel Valley portion that does not have any road crossings or opportunities for aid and is the cause of most DNF’s for the trail. There entire trail has only been run 16 times in under 30 hours, with twice as many DNF’s. It is a worthy challenge for any ultra runner.
I first learned of the FHT when I ran the Dan Hartley-organized, unofficial Bad Creek 50k on the course last spring. Over the course of the year, I ran the entire trail in portions. Thanksgiving week worked well for my first attempt as we were off work and my father would be in town. My primary goal was to finish, with a secondary goal of breaking Matt Kirk’s Fastest Known Time of 16:52 (I made pace charts for 15:15, 16:30, and 18:15). My Dad and I left home just after 5 am on Nov 21, reaching the entrance to Table Rock state park at 6 am. I had to run in about a mile to the trailhead, where I started at 6:22 am. It had been raining the night before (more on this later) but the weather was warm and humid, near record highs- low of 55, high of 76- T-shirt weather the whole time with lots of sweating. The steep climb to Sassafras went well as I ran easy, stopping to enjoy the gorgeous sunrise from Bald Knob overlook, with low-lying fog enveloping the blue mountains. The trail was leaf-covered the entire 76 miles, which made seeing the rocks, roots, and stairs challenging, and water on the leaves soon had my shoes soaking wet. I reached the Sassafras aid ahead of schedule (2 hr 7 min, including aid stop), swapped bottles, and ran the next leg to Rocky Bottom at mile 14.5 (52 min) where Barry was waiting to pace me.
FHT sunrise (top) and Rocky Bottom aid (bottom)
The 33 mile Laurel Valley section with Barry was enjoyable. It is a long, long section with a wide variety of terrain and numerous climbs and descents. I tried to maintain a steady pace, but we found that the wet wooden stairs and bridges were extremely slippery and reduced us to slow, slow, cautious sidestepping down the (literally) thousands of steps. I would estimate that the slick stairs and bridges slowed us 30+ min over this section alone. We saw very few people, enjoying the hours of solitude. Long stretches would pass with neither of us wanting to break the silence. We filtered water once, but carried the rest of the supplies for the entire leg. We both went through some ups and downs, but steadily moved onwards while trying not to think about how far we still had to go. Highlights included a refreshing thundershower, amazing views, not too many spiderwebs, and seeing a pack of 10 wild boars. Good times. The last mile to the WWF aid is perhaps the hardest of the run, with some boulder scrambling, a steep climb, and a very technical traverse. We reached an anxiously-waiting Dad and Justin, where I changed shoes and clothes and swapped gear. Counting the stop, the leg was 7 hrs 53 min, an hour slower than Matt’s FKT split. I knew the record was out of reach so stopped worrying about the time. I knew I would finish, so just kept moving forward, knowing we would reach the finish which we reached it. Quitting was never an option.
Stairs hidden under the leaves
Justin paced me from Whitewater Falls to Sloan Bridge as the sun set. The darkness combined with the leaf-strewn trail and my fatigue to slow the pace more than anticipated, but we reached the aid in 69 min. Then followed the Fish Hatchery and Burrell’s Ford sections, taking 48 and 61 min, respectively. I can’t recall many specifics other than being wrapped in the small cone of light on a never ending trail with Justin, and slowing to a walk for almost every obstacle or semi-technical trail portion. Justin asked once if I thought I would get a second wind and run faster, which I found humorous since I was actually feeling good and felt like I was running fast at that time. Justin learned just how far every mile can be running at night over technical terrain while tired. My dad met us at Burrell’s Ford (mile 60.1) for a refill before the long Chattooga River section. The first half was slow, as the technical trail generally follows (and briefly enters) the river, but we began to have faster stretches when the trail would smooth out. We were cruising up a long uphill when a headlamp was coming the other way- it was Ken, running to find us after hours of waiting. The 3 of us ran the last miles to Cheohee and the final aid after a (slightly) faster than expected sub-2:45, 10.4 mile stretch. Justin bowed out at this point while my Dad joined in for his first-ever night trail run. The last 6 miles went fast, even if we weren’t on the long uphills. There were some nice views of the lights in the distance (one benefit of running after the leaves have fallen) with lots of jovial chatting. The finishing trailhead in Oconee State Park soon arrived after 1:16 for the last stretch. It was 12:16 am, for a final time of 17 hrs 54 min, the second fastest FHT time ever. We were finished. After jogging the 1 mile road out of the park, we met Justin at the car. With congrats and photos all around, my Dad drove everyone back to their cars while we enjoyed the donuts and chocolate milk my Dad had wisely bought, finally arriving home at 3 am.
Barry, Justin, and Jon (top); Jon, Justin, and Ken with no flash (bottom)
I really enjoyed running the entire FHT. It is an awesome trail and I had great company along the way. Thanks again to my great crew and family- I couldn’t have done it without you guys. Justin asked if I thought it was as hard as a 100 mile race, as some have said. Personally, I don’t think it is. For me, nothing compares to the last 20-30 of a 100, and I would say this stopped just as I was physically reaching that point. It was no tougher for me than the first 75 miles of the Bear 100, for example, and not as hard as the entire Rocky Raccoon 100. But it’s still a tough trail and all finishers should be proud of their accomplishment.
One final thought- running the FHT is a big undertaking requiring lots of planning and support. If I ever run the trail again, I would again go for the record, which I think is doable. Here are a few items I think would help, some pertinent to me and some to everyone:
- Best time of year would likely be March or April. Temps are still cool, but the leaves would not be as significant on the trail. And the extra 2-3 hours of light would make a huge difference in maintaining the fast pace before the darkness comes. I would rather have more daylight, even if temps were warmer.
- I started 45 min before sunrise. Next time, I would probably start 90-180 min before sunrise, so I would reach Sassafras just as I turned off my headlamp. Darkness slows me more at the end when fatigued.
- Fueling and water was great for me. 40 gu’s (~250 cal/hr) and 20-25 oz water/hr, plus S-caps.
- I need to be in better shape and well-rested. I am probably in 80% racing shape right now, having peaked for UROC two months ago. My training since then has been sub-par for a true FKT attempt, plus I wasn’t fully recovered from Mountain Masochist. A record on this trail requires a full-up race effort.
- Most important, I would not go for the record unless the trail was dry with no rain forecast. Slick footing on stairs/bridges slows the final time 30-60 min, I would say.
- I would not change a thing about pacers and crew- they were great. I lingered a bit at the aid stops once the record was gone, and probably spent ~35-40 min stopped the whole time. That could be cut in half.
Given this admittedly-ideal scenario, I think a sub-15 hr time is possible by me or someone else. Since I am running Umstead 100 next March, my next attempt is likely at least 16 months away. In the meantime, good luck to all other FHT runners and have fun! Go add your name to the finisher’s list!
Monday, November 7, 2011
A Tale of Three Races- a short story
Working title: 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk
When a race is in its 29th year and has a shoe named after it, you know it is a classic. With that in mind, I eagerly registered for the Mountain Masochist Trail Race 50+. It’s a classic Horton race, with 9200 ft climbing, 7200 drop, and a few extra “Horton miles” included. I had heard nothing but good things about it.
While UROC was my focus race of the fall, I still wanted to do well at MMTR, though a few niggles and a slow recovery from UROC somewhat tempered my expectations. Nonetheless, I felt a 7:15-ish time was doable. Unfortunately, that changed when my daughters kindly shared some kind of flu bug with me a few days pre-race. I felt moderately achy and fatigued, mainly in my legs (a first), though I hoped it was either just a taper phantom pain or would pass quickly. However, I felt sick enough during the drive up Friday that I seriously considered turning around, but chose to see how I felt Sat morning. The already-long pre-race briefing and dinner felt even longer with my throbbing head, though I enjoyed some good conversations with a group of Raleigh runners. After, we headed to JB’s (Jonathan Basham) in-law’s house, where they were kind enough to give me a bed. There were 5 of us, and I was the only one of the group who hadn’t done or seen the race at least 5 times. One was Alyssa Wildeboer, the second-seeded woman with bib 102. Seeing as I was bib 2, we joked that hopefully the “2’s” would kick some butt (more on that later).
Race morning came early and cold, but I felt just good enough to give the race a serious go. There was some stiff competition, including a few guys I met earlier this year (Eric Grossman, Jeremy Ramsey, JB, amongst others). I was eager to start.
Part 1: The Race
The first 3 road miles were enjoyable, with a bit of chatting. I found myself in 7th, at the back of the lead pack, though I decided to let them go after 4 miles due to concerns about my health. They were a minute or two ahead at aid 1 (7 miles, 49 minutes), though a long stop due to bottle issues backed me to 10th. I had heard MMTR had lots of dirt road, but was pleasantly surprised to find that much of it was actually more like doubletrack or closed ATV trails that were at least somewhat technical and very fun, rather than passenger-car gravel roads. The next few miles passed quickly and I felt reasonably good as we ran up and down trails. I really enjoyed the trail, the cool temps, and being outdoors. After a few creek crossings and Aid 4, a long, gradual uphill found me in 6th place with three guys just behind. I was pleased to find myself slowly pulling away and was climbing strong. I reached Aid 5, mile 19, in 2:35. Unfortunately, my day was about to change.
Part 2: 33 Miles is an Awfully Long Way to Walk
Reaching the top of the hill at mile 19, we started a 3 mile decent to Irish Creek aid. However, it quickly became apparent that my body had just taken a turn for the worse. Interestingly, the first thing to fail when things turn south is my downhill legs (a la Logan Peak 2010 at mile 24), not my uphill legs. JB and the two other runners behind me passed and steadily pulled away as my pace uncontrollably slowed from 6:30 to 8:30 per mile over the course of a few miles. I knew I was toast, and my first thought was, “Egads, 33 miles is an awfully long way to walk.” My body told me my race was over and shifted into slow, long run pace, with a lot of walking interspersed. Two more runners passed me. A bit of humor did arrive in the form of David Horton, who came sliding up in his truck, waving me over. He pointed at me and loudly exclaimed, “Hey! Hey! You’re 11th place. Do you know what that means?!? You’re the First Loser! Now go catch someone to get top 10!” I just shook my head, muttered a low, “Okay,” and plodded onwards as he screeched away. I was shocked how long it took for anyone to appear behind me, despite my laborious pace. When I was finally passed, I mentioned to the runner that he was now in 11th spot and only needed one pass to be top 10. I was surprised when he gave me a couldn’t-care-less” look and just said, “It’s a long race.” Truly, there was a steep dropoff- outside the top 10 runners that day, none of the remaining guys seemed to particularly care about specific times or places, just wanting to finish. It was a different mindset than the competitive, push hard and beat the other guy mentality at the front.
I had a few conversations with myself regarding if I would drop at Long Mtn, the halfway mark. I am glad to say that, partly shamed by my OD DNF, partly cause I needed a qualifier for Western, and partly cause I just wanted to keep going, I resolved to finish as long as I could walk. And walk I could. If I was stubborn enough to start the race regardless of how my body felt, then I was going to be stubborn enough to finish the race regardless of how my body felt. It served me right and seemed fitting. My mantra the rest of the day was simply, “Onwards.” I repeated this to myself time and again.
I leisurely changed shoes and swapped gear at Long Mtn (mile 28.3, 4:05), then teamed up with law student David Kirby to finish the climb up Buck Mtn. Although I felt I could essentially run the whole mountain on a good day, I was content to relax and see if my body could recover at all. David and I chatted, which certainly made the climb pass quickly. Before I knew it, we reached the top with the Rocky soundtrack blaring from some jeep speakers (I can’t imagine how the aid station workers can endure the same song for 4+ hrs). The next 12 miles were a physical roller coaster of small ups and big downs, though it appeared my struggles were common to all the racers in my vicinity. I reached the loop, downed some delicious ramen noodles, and joined a twosome of runners to venture around and over the mountain. The leaf-strewn trail, surrounded by bare trees and with no wildlife in sight, gave a bit of a surreal, desolate, and forlorn feel to this portion of the course. I was surprised at how technical some of the trail was, and unsurprisingly struggled with some of the very technical descents, walking sections. The loop eventually ended (mile 40, 6:34), though, and I paused briefly for my only star of the day.
Part 3: Pseudo-pacer
Returning to the road, I found Alyssa bounding past me, looking strong but a bit tired as the second place woman. Feeling marginally better and moving at similar paces, I decided to try to stick with her and maybe even assist if possible, acting as a pacer of sorts. We settled into a routine, amiably talking as we ran. I was again reminded how much easier things seem when you have someone to talk to and distract you from your misery. There were a few times I struggled to keep up with Alyssa, and a few times I easily could have pulled away, but we were generally even. Across the gravel roads, up and over more technical, very leaf-covered singletrack, we pushed as we tried to reel-in her unseen foe, somewhere ahead of us. She listened to all my ramblings and both of my corny jokes and I picked her brain for knowledge of the course. We even decided that the race should be a team competition, seeing as we were numbers 2 and 102. If Eric (bib 1) didn’t finish with Sandi (bib 101), then we would win! Up and over one last 4000 ft mtn, then to the last aid station, where we learned first woman was 28 min ahead. With little chance of winning, Alyssa still wanted to beat her husband’s fastest time ever of 8:41. Running strong on the long downhill, the finish line finally appeared after a long 51.5 miles. She finished in 8:33:58, with me right behind. I finished 16th overall, 14th male- it was my first chicking since the Rocky Raccoon, and a double chicking at that. Horton shook my hand and immediately told me to come back to see what I could do when I wasn’t sick.
Eric won the race, clocking a sub-7 hr time. JB and Jeremy were 5th and 6th. I had a good time at the finish line, eating and talking with Clark, Horton, and all the racers. The post-race dinner/awards was likewise enjoyable, and I was intrigued by the fact that 30% of The Barkley Marathons finishers were present, with JB, Andrew Thompson, and David Horton all within 10 feet of me. Now that’s a crazy race- if you don’t know about it, google it. A few hours sleep courtesy of JB and Hillary’s parent, and I drove home early Sunday morning.
Physically, it probably would have been wise to not run. But, I wanted to experience the race and knew beforehand that it would likely be a slogfest. I gave it my best, but just didn’t physically have it to compete that day the way I am used to. I attribute my sub-par performance to 30% lack of UROC recovery/undertraining, and 70% sickness. I still believe I could run a 7:15-ish or faster. The race has lots of history, though it may change routes next year due to Forest Service issues. That would be a real shame. It’s a great course and well-run race with lots of great runners and volunteers.
Personally, I had fun and I’m very glad I did MMTR. Now, I also had many hours of suffering, but there is something enjoyable and rewarding about pushing yourself and completing a daunting task when it is definitely an off-day. It’s hard to beat a day running and walking trails in the beautiful mountains. And I also enjoyed trying to help Alyssa meet her goals- nothing forces you to get over your own bad day like trying to help someone. It was a hard, fun day, and I finished what I started, even if it took me a little extra time.
I have to thank my wife, Marci, and 3 kids for providing the best support a guy could ask for from a family. And for my parents and friends for caring. There are a lot of races on the East Coast I want to run, and likely won’t be repeating any races for a while, but this would definitely be one of the first that would draw me in again. Good times.