Sunday, November 19, 2017

Adventuring to Tennessee: My First 50k

Four days have passed since running my first 50k trail race, and my legs still feel like someone took a baseball bat to my quads. On the other hand, I am energized. I am glad Rachael and I decided to drive almost 20 hrs for what may be our most spontaneous weekend to date.

Nothing like a weekend spent running! And driving 1600 miles...
Well, I guess it wasn’t completely spontaneous. A few months ago, Rachael threw out the idea of us doing a 50k trail race in southern Missouri. As surprised as I was to hear the suggestion, I also love running trails so I said “let’s do it”. Less than 48 hours before we planned to race, we realized we could no longer sign up - bad planning on our part. We frantically searched for another option. There were a few 50ks in Tennessee that looked like they might work. I quickly sent off an email to my department manager asking if I could switch my PTO from Monday to Friday as this 50k was on Saturday, not Sunday as we had initially planned. We halfheartedly packed a few clothes and nutrition and went to bed unsure if the PTO would get approved. I woke up at 1am to use the bathroom and noticed an email saying “sounds good, enjoy!” (Another reason why my job is awesome) I was too excited to sleep so I asked Rachael if she wanted to leave right then. She said “Let’s do it” so we hit the road.

5 minutes into the drive
We were on our way in our new ride by 2am. We took plenty of stops on the way to Knoxville, breaking up the trip for coffee stops and a shake out run in Nashville. Rachael’s Instagram connections, yet again, proved extremely useful for recommendations. We checked into the hotel around 7:30pm, laid out race clothes and nutrition for the next morning, and went to sleep. 

One of the coffee stops

A stop in Nashville on the way...
Race day
We woke up race morning feeling surprisingly rested. After the classic hotel room oatmeal with hot water from the coffee machine (very happy we brought our own coffee and french press) we grabbed our gear for a long day on the trails. It was a relief to only need the equipment for one sport instead of three!

Everything we needed for the day! Love the Hoka speed goat 2s

The race took place at Norris Dam State Park, about 30 minutes north of Knoxville- not too far from where the Barkley Marathons take place. A winding, dark road took us uphill to a pavilion to the state park. Only a few other cars were in the gravel parking lot when we first arrived. After a few minutes we were registered and given a paper course map. Gradually, more cars trickled in and runners calmly moved to the pavilion where the race director gave us a quick course overview. The atmosphere was very laid back and we rotated spots standing next to a fire to stay warm.

As the sun rose, we all lined up to start. The race director casually asked if we were ready, and off we went. 

Race briefing gathering

The first minute we all ran together on the state park road before heading down a set of stairs and transitioning to a single track trail. The pace slowed while we were funneled into a long, snaking line. The first 4-5 miles went by quickly. I started a little further back than I probably should have and it took me a while to (nicely) work my way around people towards the front. I was a little nervous about my trail senses as it's been a hot minute since I’ve run trails, but they came back quickly. 

There were a goo 6 inches of leaves on the trails which made it difficult to see my exact footing, but the constant tree cover made for an amazing setting.
The first 9-ish miles the terrain was rolling. There were a few small climbs and descents. I felt fresh and strong running up and down the hills. I made up ground on the hills and learned to use them as an opportunity to go around people. I was wearing a Solomon running pack/vest (thank you Heather!) holding all my food and a water bottle. During the first hour I made sure to eat a few shot bloks and sip from my bottle. 

At around 4 miles, I filed in behind the lead group of 5 or 6 guys. The guys in this group were moving at a better pace for me and I felt comfortable running behind them. While I still felt fresh, I knew 30 miles was a long way to go so I focused on re-familiarizing myself with trail running. It took a good 10 minutes before I felt comfortable bombing downhill at their speed. I took a turn at the front and gradually pulled away from the group around mile 6. 

I kept running my own speed but was quickly stopped in my tracks after a long uphill approaching the first aid station. I'd lost the trail. At important intersections throughout the course, turns were supposed to be marked with utility flags. The trail I was on had disappeared and all I could see was a bunch of trees and brush. I smiled. We'd be getting the true ultra experience today! I paused and somehow found a utility flag in the distance. Batting branches out of my way, I trudged my way over to the flag. A few feet before getting there I saw the next one! I was able to repeat the process a few more times before I was again stopped in my tracks. I pulled out the paper map we'd been given at the start to try and figure out where I'd gone wrong. After a minute or so, the guys who I'd been running with arrived behind me and we spread out to find the flags. Note to self: wear socks that go above your ankle for trail running. My legs were pretty cut up from this section. At the top of a very steep hill, we heard some shouting from down below. The volunteers had seen us and were giving us a point of reference for the first aid station. We half ran half fell down "butt-slide hill" to the aid station where we were greeted by ringing cowbells.
"Butt slide" hill
Another guy, decked out in a matching top and bottom led us back onto the trail. On one of the longer climbs I started a conversation with him and learned his name was Dominick. Dominick had some familiarity with the course and was using the race as stepping stone for another. The trails widened a few times as we ran on some jeep roads and we blew straight through the second aid station somewhere between mile 9 and 10. I briefly stopped for a minute to remove my jacket and stow it in my pack. I appreciated running with Dominick because I could tell he had some experience with Ultras and was pacing smartly. While I was still feeling good, I wasn't confident I wouldn't get hung up on another unclear turn so I decided to stick with Dominick. The next few miles had some longer, sustained climbs. The slopes got very steep, 10-15%, but I was still able to granny jog my way up them. While the uphills seemed to suit me well, Dominick was able to put some distance into me on the steeper downhills. 

Course route. Strava here 
We were nearing 90 minutes of running and I was starting to notice soreness in my quads from all the downhill. Nothing crazy, but I could tell that they were going to be wrecked by the end of the race. Around 11 miles in, the trail put us back onto pavement where we returned to the starting area. Unfortunately, the volunteers at the second aid station had forgotten to direct us to the small distance-grab loop. We all took a minute to eat some food and decided to return to do the same route backwards, as planned. We were told to simply run the small distance-grab loop twice so we'd get to the correct distance. On the way back out, I saw Rachael. She looked to be running well. I tried to explain to her the new route plan but explaining directions to Rachael is...difficult. Let alone in a place neither of us have ever been.

When you try to explain directions to Rachael...
Because we'd taken several extra minutes at the pavilion, a few more guys had caught up with us. Once we got back on the trail, I started running my own pace. I crushed the rest of my Clif Bar and upped my effortwhile still trying to be mindful that we had over 18 miles to go. I arrived back at the aid station to begin my first of 2 small distance grab loops. I was excited to see a new part of the course! The small loops had a lot of climbing. I made sure to step carefully along one section that traversed a steep slope with a river beneath. After one long climb, the trail reached an overlook point with a great view before bombing back down to the aid station. 

Overlook view. Not bad!
There were a handful of runners out on the loop and we all greeted each other and provided encouragement. The encouragement seemed genuine compared to triathlon where it seems like there is always some resentment when getting passed. At least in my experience. The trail race seemed less about competing and more like a self-focused effort because it can be such a long day. 

I caught up to Rachael as I was finishing my second loop. We exchanged quick words at the aid station. I refilled my bottle, ate a bite of PB&J and headed back out. I was a little over 21 miles in. My legs were feeling heavier, but I still had good energy. I felt like I was moving a little slower on the climbs. Going down one of the hills, I was adjusting the water bottle inside my pack and took a spill. I shook it off and after a few minutes felt like I was running normally again. My elbows and hip were a little banged up and from then on, I made sure to be very careful on the down hills.

I arrived at the last aid station around mile 25. I grabbed a few mini protein balls and started heading back up "butt-slide hill". All of the runners had torn up the slope a bit - making it easy to see where to go, but difficult to get traction. I had been holding one of the protein balls, planning to eat it while I climbed back up the hill only to drop it while my hand reached out to keep me from face-planting. Still debating if not face-planting was worth losing that protein ball. Three times I made it 10 feet up the steep slope only to slide back down. A little embarrassed in front of the aid station volunteers, I eventually found traction, crested the hill, and worked my way cautiously back along the not-actually-a-trail, trail. It was easier to find the path the second time after people had worn a faint path. 

I reached 26 miles. A few times, I tried to push harder up hills and I could feel how much energy that used. Instead, I tried to stay relaxed with all of my movements and imagined that I had 15-20 miles to go instead of just 6. As I relaxed, the running felt better. It felt good to still be able to run up the hills and while my quads screamed downhill, I felt (relatively) in control. The miles slowly ticked by and I tried to enjoy the stillness of the woods. A few times some rustling in the leaves on the slope had me scared a bear was near but it always ended up just being a squirrel. Lame. 

After 30 miles and close to 6000 feet of elevation gain, I recognized the stairs we'd taken almost 5 hours earlier in the day. I ran slowly back up the stairs, back onto the road, and to the finish at the pavilion. Only a few people were hanging around the finish area which consisted of two people in chairs and a pace clock. 

Stryd power analysis here 
I hung around for an hour, talked with a few people, and snacked on some food. Eventually I went to pick Rachael up, more on that story in her blog, and we headed back to the hotel. We both had an awesome time on the trails and spent the rest of the day hobbling around to various food establishments.

The next morning we dragged ourselves out of bed and began the long drive back to Kansas City. This time we drove through Louisville (instead of Nashville) where we spent 30 minutes trying to get Rachael an Instagram worthy picture. We also ate breakfast there at a buffet. I had two omelets. They were great.

If anyone reading this is considering doing an ultra/mountain/trail run, I would highly encourage you to go for it. The gear is minimal and the atmosphere is worth it. Next up, I may do another distance running race in December. I think the longer distance races with challenging courses suit me well and I want to continue adding them to my schedule when the timing works. I have a few goals in mind for the next few years but for now I'm just doing my best to challenge myself while still doing events that excite and motivate me. Stay tuned for a 2017 recap and plans for the future!

Stopped in Louisville on the way home 
If you've read this far, and want to hear a podcast I recently talked in about my experiences racing the past 2 years, check it out!  (hope you smile at some point :) )

If you somehow have made it this far in the blog and have not fallen asleep, comment on the social media post (facebook or Instagram) your favorite Clif Bar product. I will choose one person randomly and send them some goodies!

Thanks for reading and have a great day. 

1 comment:

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