A bend in the road is not the end of the road unless you fail to make the turn....

It's gonna get harder before it gets easier. But it will get better, you just gotta make it through the hard stuff first.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sweet whooping Alabama!

Larry is clearing some fallen branches from the trail entrance we visited the day before the race.

It was quite a trip, in all forms and shapes of the word! Alabama shook our imagination as much as TN did in December, even though after that trip we should have expected things.
From here to the Top of Alabama, with a couple deviations, is 31 miles.
Don't let this nice soft trail fool you - it only lasted a couple of miles!
All ready to go the morning of the race. Well, I did have a top and sleeves.

My pace chart for 6:30 finish time.
And this is what it looks like on profile.
We were bussed out of a finish line for about 30 minutes to the start, as this course is point-to-point - a sweet feature to actually run somewhere! As I got off the bus, someone called my name. Funny, Larry and I just talked about how it's the second time we know not a single soul at a race! It was my blog-friend Thomas Bussiere. Small world, even in the middle of nowhere...

Start line.
We started at 7:30 am after a full day of rain, heavy overnight, but stopped completely by 7 am, with drenched trails and beautiful mid-40's, with a Harlem shake-out dance.



and next screaming from the woods song "Sweet home, Alabama". That was a "go". The nice soft trail single-track us for couple of miles and slowly became more technical with hidden rocks. The small run-off's of water started immediately, and I didn't bother to protect my feet at all - the combination of Drymax trail socks and Sprotiva Crosslights is the best possible for wet feet, draining super-fast and keeping all protected somehow. We single-filed and latched into a pace that felt just right.

The fog came down and for 3 hrs or so we ran in it, and I hoped for it to break down so I could see some views - they were promising to be wonderful with spooky forest around and some "feeling" of mountains surrounding.
Photos below courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson




The course marking was immaculate, with small red flagging always on the right side of the trail in the ground, since you should be keeping your eyes low. We rolled a bit and at the end of mile 3 popped on some dirt road a touch, came through first aid, rolled out for next 5-plus miles...and before even getting to the second AS I felt odd of sorts. First just off, then a twinge of cramp in my right calf. Weird...I don't cramp. I mean, seriously, unless I fall late in the race, then I can get a Charlie, but not just out of the blue at mile 10, you know. And I felt like slowing down in general was a good idea. I got down on myself, having bunches (literally) of people getting by me, and tried to figure out why I am so off, tired kind of. Even hiking up steep sections, my specialty, was more difficult than it should be. At mile 13.8 (Garmin is no joke) I tripped over a rock and planted - luckily on  a flat rock - a bit downside the slope, with a bite-valve of my bladder flying down the side into the woods, hitting the knee and my hand. First real Charlie came quick, and as I tried to simultaneously tend to it and grab a streaming water tube close and search for the valve, I thought: uh-oh. Got up, shook off, slowed down even more (it was really technical here, rocks, wet, covered with moss, random sticking out and moving too). Exactly 0.2M later I came onto a group of guys over a man on the ground - with shattered patella. Put my fall into perspective and made me even more careful. The testament of how bad the trail was is that the man's injury happened 0.6M out of an AS, paramedics came and weren't able to carry him out and had to call air-lift. Yeah, stay on your feet, girl...


As I kept thinking about poor guy and trying to figure out may be I am not drinking enough (never raced with bladder in 10 years), I started sucking water in, and at mile ~15 AS grabbed a cup of coke. Somehow I also managed to shame myself into positive thinking. I kept repeating Larry's words from before the race: "It's going to be a great day". That, and the fact that I got some ultra-running related news the day before that first of all turned my spring season to a new meaning and a goal and excitement and just simply incredibly sweet feel too. I had to reason to beat myself down, no way. I had to adjust my day.

Next section went awesome. I still felt mild cramping accumulating in my both calves, but not coming strong yet, just there. At the same time I was generally feeling better and stronger and smoother, and hoping may be I was right, it's all about not hydrating properly, and I am turning around, plenty of time, piece of cake, not my first time running, you know. Smile came to me, and just like that, the sun started peaking up and lifting the fog. The trail was great, running through some low streams, crossing over a wooden bridge, on some rock-steps, next to beautiful waterfalls. There is nowhere I rather be than there right then...

First serious creek crossing came right after mile 18 AS, and I waded in cold refreshing water trying to keep my balance...and while at it, seizing both of my calves in rock-hard cramps. I held on, even though I very stupidly crossed below the big rocks in higher water and stronger stream (instead of above 2 feet up, yeah, I know, brain damage).

Next biggest one, thigh-deep, with a rope tied-up across and a female photographer on the other side, was fun...and more debilitating. Both legs went into Charlie Horse so hard, calves and quads same time, as I held onto rope with two hands, trying not to fall into the water all the way and protect my i-Pod. I screamed and apologized to a woman, and she smiled as she'd seen plenty of that. I half-set in the water a step away from the ground, collecting my bearings and waiting for the rock-hard ready-to hammer professional nails legs to be able to lift up.
Photos below courtesy of Brooke Nicholls Nelson




 I stumbled, finally, on the other side, and hobbled to a short out-n-back to the AS. I still didn't need anything, had a potato chip just because and half-ran out.

The next section was very beautiful, rolling gently up and down, and I Frankenstein-ran it practically all. Yes, I felt strong, finally, somehow, but my legs felt that "verge of cramping bad" and actually cramping from time to time in shots on every uneven step and stiff. I needed the to last, but my attitude was great, the views around awesome, and I began passing a guy or few here and there. OK, we got it, honey.

There was one more "serious" creek crossing around mile 24, albeit no rope, and I took sweet time walking across trying not to freeze into "holes" while cramp waves hit and let go. Two guys on the other side (waiting for their friend) mentioned at least I didn't submerge. Come to find out later, Larry was the one that did:)

The ugly section of dirt road and then even black-top asphalt road that was flat to slight incline wasn't as welcome as I hoped to make time on - but I ran (eh, shuffled with straight legs, not pushing off my toes in fear) a good 80% of it, and yes, caught on a couple more groups of struggles. Never mind, girl, keep on shuffling.

We heard of last section, we read reports, and I used to live on East Coast where I hiked and backpacked aplenty. I knew, after AS at mile 28 we have a seriously crazy climbs which would use arms over rocks and roots, and the whole thing is up, and 1200 feet of it is squeezed in 0.5 miles. Yep, I just couldn't quite picture it, I am bad with numbers. At first, I even ran into an incline, then power-hiked first 3-4 minutes - and then all seized. Right as the climb begun. I screamed, grabbing one calf, as another went off. Damn it! Every time I tried to lift a leg - which I had to, no way around - the rock-Charlie would get worse - it kind of never let off, if you can imagine it, it was accelerating in pain and hardness and my swearing was non-stop. Twice I slammed my fist on the rock out of frustration and anger, because overall my body felt fine, but I could NOT, physically, lift a leg, I had to couple times resort to almost pulling up by arms, and when my quads were shooting cramps and pain, then my hamstrings, my feet, my butt muscles (!!), shins, top of my feet, then the inner thigh went so hard it was like a bunch of nerves we pulled out from the groin down (imagine me standing holding my thigh inside and having a distorted face)...3 guys came up on me. First tried to offer advice ("Salt?" - "Honey, this is my 86th ultra, if you think I haven't done something I should have" - I snapped). Second was a kid Eddie whom I ran with on and off since mile 13 (he was a bit scared seeing me screaming bloody mercy - and yes, I even yelled a prayer twice for the trail section to be over), and 3rd, Drew, had his own cramps he was dealing with. Somehow scaring Eddie and seeing Drew in pain made me feel better - at least the mind wondered off the fear "What the heck comes next when there is no way further to escalate the pain? Is my heart muscle going to cramp too? Is the leg muscle going to explode?" I know, it sounds funny now, but I really had no idea how much more painful it could get.



Not doing the justice.
But we made it, and it mellowed out a bit, then turned into a road section for about half a mile (unexpectedly), which I ran (!!), then a single track still climbing but much more gently - and I shuffled it too! Caught up on Eddie, left Drew behind, and wasn't going to let go. I knew my 6:30 was not happening - I knew it at the last AS, but I was not going to not try.
Larry coming into last AS at mile 28, before Blue Hell climb.
Photo courtesy of Apryl Swafford - AS volunteer
Larry rounding the corner. All finish photos courtesy of Hayley H. Long
My honey finishing strong!
The finishing kick is on a slightly climbing road section for about tenth of a mile - and I tried to pick it up and smile, hoping the legs would be kept in that cramp-stage without Charling. They did.
I see the finish line!
Sweet baby Jesus!
There it was, 14 minutes later than anticipated. But with smiles. And sharing with so many others! Come to think about it, I was 10 full minutes behind at that last AS, so somehow, despite standing still at EACH and EVERY step on the 0.5M climb on Blue Hell trail, I only lost 5 minutes there. I couldn't be more proud. Of myself - and of Larry, who, apparently, had an amazingly same experience as I did, with violent cramps from mile 10!
Sharing experiences.
We don't know what happened. If I made a mistake by going out a tad faster, drinking a tad less, taking a bit not enough salt at first - I surely fixed it all and had plenty of time to recoup. Yet I didn't. Were we not prepared for the climbs? The race did feature 7,000 feet of climbing which we simply don't have here, nor did we have enough time to train (taking easy couple of weeks to have our bodies to adjust to a new eating plan). But we had an amazing 27M training run just 2 weeks prior, so our bodies should be all tuned in for the diet. Hills? Yes, but not like we ran them, besides, hiking has always been my natural state. Other folks seemed to have had cramps too. It was rather humid, 89 reported - anything? My point is, I had never, ever cramped that long and that bad in my 12 years and 100+ long races. And we better figure it out - we have Syllamo races coming in 3 weeks, which have even more climbing and a 50-miler for me! I tend to think my hydration did have some effect on it, as my 60 oz (2L) bladder, despite spilling during a fall, was still having a lot at mile 19 AS when I added some more - and right after that I felt incredibly thirsty and sucked it all up before the Blue Hell was over, and then on a post-race hang-out and during 2 hr drive to Atalanta drunk like a camel non-stop.

A side note - another awesome race in the middle of the country, kind of unknown to main stream yet fully filled fast, and having absolutely incredible local runners who are super-fast! Just amazing people and athletes!Such talent hiding there and not caring what the "country's ultra community" thinks. They ARE community. The food at the finish line was great too.
Wow, that was quite a race!
The craziest thing? We were both smiling ear to ear (took 3 hrs for cramps to go away and be able to sit down without pain and fear). We loved it. I was a bit afraid Larry would be hard on himself, but he was happy - I think we are in a new stage of our running life. It was awesome. All of it. The single track, the crazy technical parts, the high creek crossings and wet trails, the fallen leaves on the trails, spooky foggy mountains, naked trees, Blue Hell, cramps, perseverance, "It's going to be a great day"'s, plans, being scared, being grateful, being happy...

My good friend and a co-worker Marta came to me today and said: "I read on FB short description how it went. I didn't understand a word - was it good or not - but regardless, what I did understand is that you enjoyed it, and I am somewhat jealous of you having this thing, this insanity, you can reach to, submerge into, find you happy place regardless...".

It's my happy place, indeed.

7 comments:

  1. Love it! While it wasn't "fun" during a good portion of the run, there were times when I just wanted to stop on the side of the trail and just enjoy the experience. Especially after Lake Chinnabee going up the Silent Trail. That drainage with all the cascades and waterfalls was was world class!

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  2. Welcome to Alabama! Where are y'all from? I remember seeing you out on the course on Saturday. Wish we'd gotten a chance to talk at the finish!

    Sorry about the cramping. Hope you get it figured out before your next event. I started really focusing on carb loading three days prior to racing and that is what I credit for eliminating my cramps in my last few races.

    And I agree with Larry. That course was taking my breath away in more than one way! Great report!

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  3. What a great race report! You hit all the highlights (and low-lights)! I'm sorry I didn't meet you - I loved your pig-tails though! Congrats on a great race!
    Holly Adams

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  4. It was so awesome, and an honor, to have finally met you and Larry in person, in the middle of AL, for a 50K race being used as a training run. What a training run it was! I underestimated the difficulty of this race, and my short training window did not prepare me for the 7,000’ plus climbing on technical trails, but so glad I did it. A little sore, but it felt so good to be out on the mud and rocks hitting the trails again. Had a little cramping myself, but only my right calve muscle after taken a nasty fall on the same section that guy shattered his knee cap on.

    Love that Blue Hell. Great race report and well said. Love the part when some guy tried to give you advice going up the big climb – Still LOL.

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  5. You are always amazing.

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  6. I have tried to leave a comment 4 times but clearly I am not smart enough to get this word/number thing right!

    Love the report and congrats to you and Larry. Nothing like a great shot in the arm of good old fashioned trail beatings. Brings out the best in us. So glad you had fun and enjoyed the whole experience and....very happy you are in piece! A few scraped and bruises will heal quick. I feel for the guy that shattered his knee cap...uhggg.

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  7. Nice comeback! Love that you're getting out and seeing other parts of the country. I bet the travel/different climate might have thrown you off and messed up your fueling/hydration a bit. Way to tough it out!

    And I love your co-worker's comment! Yep, it's all about finding the happy place even if is sucks sometime too. :) Or maybe because it sucks sometimes.

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