Brian and I kick-started our ultra season this past weekend at the Leatherwood Ultras in North Carolina. We both opted for the 50 miler - which I was extremely apprehensive of this early in the season, but with Massanutten 100 miler looming in the near future I figured I had to just go for it just as Jerry Seinfeld suggested - 'one motion, right off!'. With the course actually being about 52 miles, and with 10,000+ feet of climbing (unknown how much, reports range from 10,000 - 15,000 feet!), we figured this was just the type of race to kick our butts and get us prepared. Of course, the call of dirt trails (as opposed to the ice/snow we're still running on in western Mass) certainly helped make this decision easier.
So, we ventured down to NC, drove to the horse ranch/race head quarters, and camped out. We woke up to find it misting outside, but otherwise comfortable weather. It was odd to be getting ready for the race, and realize that I didn't recognize many faces - but grateful to have a few familiar folks to chat with pre-race.
The RD called everyone to the 'starting line', which amounted to us standing in a semi-circle around him in a field next to the finish area. He gave a few pre-race announcements, the national anthem was sung, and then he yelled 'go'. The entire pack of folks stood still for a moment - no one knew which direction the race actually went from that field. Brian and I happened to be on the wrong end of the pack, so once everyone started actually running, we were both weaving past most of the field. It was still a bit dark, but I hoped it would be light enough by the time we hit the trails so I didn't bring a headlamp.
Anyway, after the momentary confusion, the race started. The course started with a mile of pavement, and a lead pack of about 10 (including Brian) took off and gapped the field, I was in the next 'pack' of 2. The early miles passed quickly, as I fell into stride with a local runner. It was quickly apparent that the course, mostly on horse trails, had mainly clay underfoot and would be quickly deteriorating with the rain. The first downhill of the course was a mess of slick slop - much like snowshoe running, I could plant my heel and skid for several feet before bounding to the next foot. This might be a long day, but with the mud it would also be a fun day. After 2 hours of running, the skies opened up and the rain started falling in earnest. I was certainly enjoying meeting new people as we shared miles and laughed about the muddy trails, but glad to have my raincoat on to keep my upper half relatively dry and clean.
(Enjoying the early miles)
The second lap climbed immediately, giving me an opportunity to refuel and do a quick 'system check' on my body. Everything felt ok, and I found I was enjoying the sloppy conditions. It was slow, but at least I was moving and having fun. Again, I fell into stride with a few local runners and we chatted to pass the miles. In and out of the 21 mile aid station, and I realized that with my watch reading 4:05, I was officially on my longest run in 4 months. Our little pack ran a mile up the road, and to the stream crossing.
Apparently, the stream was typically about ankle deep, not even enough of a race feature to include in the RD's race description. However, with the consistent rain, this crossing was knee deep at the shallow parts and mid-thigh deep in the deeper parts, and the current was strong. Even trickier, the turbidity of the water was such that you couldn't see where you were planting your feet. The three of us took our time to carefully pick across the river.
(Brian and Jonathan, ultimately 1st and 2nd finisher, crossing the river)
I'll admit, I was a bit confused as these trails merged together. The first two laps of the course were both marked with pink flagging, and they intersected and crossed multiple times, and even appeared to merged together and separate apart. I don't know how that was possible with both laps being marked with the same color flagging. If you want to recreate the course map, I suggest you take a handful of spaghetti and throw it on the floor - that's what the course map looked like. I am incredibly amazed that the RDs found a way to weave us all around, cross us over trails previously...and yet I never took a wrong turn or ever had reason to question that I was on the correct trail. Proper marking on a course like this could have easily been a disaster. It boggled my mind how it was done effectively, but I was impressed.
Anyway, as I cruised in to the start/finish area, my watch read 5:48. I was thrilled to be ahead of my predetermined 10-hour splits...I don't know how it happened, but maybe a 10 hour finish was still possible. I quickly refilled my bottle, I wanted to start my first 10 mile loop and keep this momentum going.
(Jason, 10 miler champ, showing how muddy the course was)
I think it was at that aid station that someone told me I was the 1st female. While I guess I didn't see any females in the lead pack at the start, it was nice to have confirmation - you never know who might sneak away in the cover of dark. However, without knowing where the 2nd female was, or who she was, and knowing that I was likely going to tire as my training in no way prepared me for the later miles...it was of little comfort.
So, off to the same one-mile road run to access the trail for the 10-mile loop. As I turned onto the trail, I was greeted with the worst mud of the day. There was a large 10-mile race on this loop earlier, so about a hundred runners had already chewed this climb up. The mud was so bad that I had to walk portions that I would have otherwise ran - but running just put too much pressure on my footfalls, and I would end up sliding back down again. I had to hike, being mindful of my foot placement to make forward progress. It was a long slow hike to get back up to the Rawhide Aid Station.
From there, the course did a 5-mile 'lollipop', which could potential give me some info on where the 2nd place female was, and who she was. I enjoyed that this was some of the first runnable, gently rolling sections of the course. But, my lack of training was starting to catch up with me as I noticed myself getting discouraged at my slow pace and finding excuses to justify walking up a gentle uphill. Mentally, I was falling apart. I took a gu in hopes that a bit of sugar influx would somehow fix the problem. I didn't see another female, but heard she had passed through that aid station; it meant that she wasn't farther back than 30 minutes (my split for the circle in the lollipop), but could have right on my tail for all I knew! I kept checking over my shoulder, also worrying that Brian could potentially lap me, which would have been a devastating blow to my confidence.
(My muddy legs, post-race. You can barely recognize the Inov8 Roclites!)
Upon returning to the Rawhide Aid Station, I worried that I had taken too long and that this 10-mile loop would take me longer than the 2-hour anticipated. Luckily, the downhill was steep and quick; I felt like I literally slid back down to the paved road, and then had the one-mile stretch to return to the start/finish area. 7:54 on my watch - wow, I would be cutting it close, but it looked like I could potentially finish right around 10-hours. I just needed to hold it together for another lap.
I ran strong out to the start/finish area, knowing that I was about to double back on the one-mile paved road section. If was I going to see the 2nd place female, I would need to appear to be running strong. 'Hold it together for this one mile' I told myself. As I ran this section, I saw a few guys that were behind me, but not the 2nd place female. I saw Brian running fast down the road - about to finish. We exchanged a few quick words, but he was quickly gone as he cruised to victory in about 8 hours. As I reached the trail, I breathed a sigh of relief - having not seen the next female, I knew I had at least a comfortable 20-minute lead.
The last time up the steep muddy climb was the most challenging. I was tired, and I found myself stumbling around sideways, at times forgetting that I should be trying to make forward progress. The mud was so challenging and making this climb much more difficult than it should have been. I reached the Rawhide Aid Station about 5 minutes slower than my previous lap, and I was devastated and spent. I wasn't quite sure how I would find the energy to finish this thing.
(2nd place 50 mile female, Lee, showing how muddy the course was)
Back to the Rawhide Aid Station, and I knew it was a muddy 15 minutes to the bottom of the hill, then a one mile road cruise to the end. I checked my watch, and while I had run the lollipop as fast this time as last, I knew I was going to just miss the 10-hour mark. I did what I could to come as close as I could - enjoying the last few slides down the steep muddy slopes, marveling at how epic this mud was, thinking that this race would be one that I would talk about for a while, and enjoying that even after 10 hours, physically, I was still feeling fairly solid.
(Showing off my unique trophy, happy to have survived)
I would highly recommend this race to anyone who wants a fun, low-key but challenging race with a great atmosphere. Post race, even with the rain and the mud, runners continued to hang out, have a drink, eat some great food, and enjoy the scene as they cheered runners through the finish. The course was tough, but do-able - not the hardest race I've ever run, but certainly up there. There weren't any views today, but we passed several vistas where I imagine there are great views on a sunny day. This is a 50-mile race where you know you ran far and feel incredibly accomplished to complete it!
(2nd place 50 mile female, Lee, shows her shoes post-race - yup, mud penetrated everything)