Everything. The town, the course, the climbs, the views, all of it. This post will take a bit more time to complete.
The course was nearly perfect. Three big climbs, two above 13k feet, stream crossings, stunning views, single track, and even some snow. I’ll break down a few of these things.
The stream crossings are brutal. This is thigh deep snow melt pummeling down the mountain. The water is moving faster than you realize. The first dip was fun even if shocking. The cold hits your feet and legs that causes your entire body to tighten up. The rush of excitement pulls you across and prepares you for the second stream crossing but that energy wanes rather quickly. By the third crossing, your feet are bricks, your thighs are tingling, and you’re wondering if that last crossing counted as one or two. There are roughly eight crossings within the first five miles, some back to back within a few minutes. They will crush your soul a bit but also make you stronger. Whatever you do, don’t fall back or forwards as that would make a hard day even harder.
The first climb is fun. Your legs finally start to warm up after all that snow melt plunging, the sun is rising over the mountains, and the air is crisp. This is when most or all will have that moment when all of their training and suffering proves worthwhile. I remember finding myself near the bottom of the first climb, surrounded by mountains in every direction, and so happy to be there in that moment.
The second climb will take a piece of your soul. After a two mile jeep road, there’s a hard left up the mountain. It’s harder than you think, 10 miles straight up to 13k feet. There’s an aid station along the way which is momentary relief until you’re told another 5 miles of straight up. I burned a lot of matches on this section and found myself struggling mightily once I got near the divide.
The third and final climb comes after a very runnable section of jeep road. It’s exposed road that gradually works back towards town before the final climb. The climb is described as the hardest, likely because it’s mile 42 and most people are destroyed by this point. I loved this climb because it was very different than the prior two. All private land, heavily wooded, and generally felt like uncharted trails. The deep woods and colors felt more like home to me, a much needed boost given how the race unfolded up to this point. More on that below.
The views, the snow, and everything else brings the course together for a perfect day.
The aid stations and support. This race has just the right amount of aid stations. I’ve done races with stations every few miles that I find excessive. These stations were well lead and well stocked. Multiple volunteers greet you to help you with anything. Before you can respond, they’ve untied your shoes, brought you food, and made you smile. For anyone that has ever worked an aid station, talk to these folks because this is the bar.
Low frills. The more I run small races the more I fall in love with the people, the community, and the staff. Lake City is a perfect town to host a race and allows runners to feel at home before the race even starts. It’s not the easiest place to get to from Virginia but I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The training. After an ankle injury I finally settled back into a weekly cadence of consistent running during the week with two long runs to end the week (typically Friday/Sunday). At my highest weekly mileage I ran back to back marathons on consecutive days. This was a huge step forward as running 26 miles used to leave me in some pain for a few days. But I trusted the process, built up my mileage over the first five months of the year and my body started to respond. Suddenly the impossible didn’t feel impossible.
What I learned
Altitude is a real asshole. I’ve spent the past five years visiting nearby Durango where my in-laws have retired. My wife and I take the kids there a few times each year where each visit has been a steady progression of improved breathing. I’m a weenie with Asthma so my first trip was hard but I’m getting stronger! I flew out on Wednesday for a Saturday race with a few shake out runs at 8k feet to end the week. I do these to get my lungs and legs ready which is probably more mental than anything. At that point, a shakeout run won’t change my outcome but how dare anyone tell me otherwise. The first climb on Saturday was not hard. Heavy breathing at times but that’s normal when navigating a 3k foot climb to 13k feet. The second climb destroyedme. I’m convinced it was a mix of sun exposure, altitude, and less than perfect hydration. I finally reached 13k feet around mile 25 and started to fall apart. By mile 30 I was walking more than running and my head was pounding. A headache might have been fine but this was a migraine that I’ve experienced many times to know the difference. The next 10 miles were very runnable and downhill which I lost all sorts of time with my slow death march. I even stopped at mile 38 with my head in my hands. I quit right there. I finally built up the courage to continue walking to the next aid station at mile 40 where I would surely hand over my bib and hitch a short ride back to town.
There is no quit. This is tough to write as my previous 50 mile attempt ended early. I quit at mile 35 yet I’m now writing about not quitting . More on my previous race here: Bull Run Run 50 2017. This was different though. The migraine that started earlier in the race continued to worsen, to a point where I could barely walk let alone run. I death marched into mile 40 and turned off my watch. I had quit two miles back when curled up in a ball on the side of the trail and certainly quit when I turned off my watch. The aid station volunteers took one look at me and were concerned. Apparently I looked less than awesome. Fortunately my brother-in-law and sister-in-law were there to greet me. All runners know how uplifting a familiar face can be in a race, especially where I was mentally and physically. I told my family I was done and started to think through the realities of the situation. They were incredibly supportive. I was well ahead of any cutoff so they kept telling me to hang tight, drink, eat, etc. It felt like an hour passed but I’m told it was really 10 minutes. Either way, out of the blue, a wave of anger came over me. I stood up and said, fuck-it, let’s go. In all my highs and lows through life, this one will stay with me for a long time. I changed my socks, prepped my supplies, and prepared to head back out for the final 10 miles. The lead aid station volunteer approached me and tried to stop me. She had been watching me and was visibly concerned for my well being. I looked her in the eye and said, see you at the finish. This was my Gordon Bombay moment. About 3 minutes back onto the trail I immediately regretted this decision. I was terrified but didn’t have the heart to tuck my tail and walk back. Not after my kick ass aid station departure. I kept digging and grinding and by mile 42 I started to feel human. This relief was indescribable. I finally started the last big climb where I passed a lot of folks that were in very bad shape. I passed a lot more folks on the final miles back into town and felt like a runner again. My overall time was far from impressive but I finished my first 50 mile race and refused to quit.\
I’m really bad at applying sunscreen. In my defense, most of my trail running is in the early morning and in the dense woods. I’m also a proud idiot. I did prepare for the mountains and sun with multiple applications throughout the race but did not apply lotion with any sense of my brain. I hit the normal spots but missed some very obvious and painful spots, like my legs! My legs were scorched by mile 40 as were a few spots near my neck and shoulders. I’m still convinced this sun beating played a factor in my migraine. I certainly won’t make this mistake again and might even explore gear that is better suited for altitude running.