The SweetH20 50K is only three years old, but for one reason or another, this was the first time I had an opportunity to do it. And I jumped on it! I’ve run at Sweetwater Creek Park several times. I’ve run along the very technical sections. I’ve climbed the hills. I’ve covered the rollercoaster ride of the power line sections. And I’ve been to the “Top of the World” before. But this would be the first time to do all those things, and then some, in a race with about 200 fellow trail runners. Sweet, indeed!
After the Country Music Marathon last month, I was very happy to get off the asphalt and back on the trails. My running in May was a matter of recovering from the road race and gladly getting the feel of the trail under my feet again. My friends, Woody and Roxanne, and I came out to Sweetwater Creek Park a couple of weekends before the 50K to get 18 miles or so in and get a preview of the course. The weekend before the 50K, Woody and I went up to Amicalola Falls and ran the AT approach trail to Springer Mountain, ran a little extra credit on the Benton McKaye trail and covered about 20 miles. I felt pretty ready for the 50K and I knew I would enjoy it much more than the road marathon.
Race day morning would start with my alarm clock going off at 5:00 am. I got dressed, grabbed a quick breakfast and my things and headed out the door. While I was on my way to the race, I thought of a friend, Tony, who was supposed to have started running from his house at 2 am to the start for a 28 or so mile warm up. Turns out, he made it and not only that, he managed to complete the 50K in a little over 8 hours (he da man!) Anyways, I arrived at the park and picked up my bib number. The fun thing about a local race is all the friendly and familiar faces. I ran into fellow blogger, David Ray, which if you haven’t checked his blog out, go to http://seedadrunrundadrun.blogspot.com/. There was some excitement about ultra-legend, Dave Horton, participating in the race. I missed his talk the night before at the pasta dinner, but I did get to say “Hello” to him as everyone began to line up for the start.
After a few last minute announcements by Johnny, the race director, we were off! Thankfully, most of the first couple miles were on the road, this helped thin the crowd out a bit before we entered the first trail. Not long after being on the trail, we hit the first obstacle of the race, a concrete lake drain that was pretty slippery and more than one almost ended up on their butt. This was also the first time of many that our shoes would be soaked. Then came a significantly rocky section where everyone first slowed to a walk. It was going to be a long day.
We ended up back on pavement for a short while as we somehow ran back by the start of the race. After about 30-40 minutes of racing we would get back on the trails for good. Sweetwater Creek Park has sections of trail that are significantly technical. We came up the “blue” trail, down a set of wooden steps and past some waterfalls to run along the park’s “white trail”. The roots and rocks in this section make it for cautious progress, but I was feeling pretty good. I knew that one of the tougher sections of the course was coming up, the dreaded “Top of the World”.
Just beyond the boundary of the park exist trails that are on private property and that connect with a section of power lines that test a runner’s mettle every time. We hit these trails by following and crossing a small creek and going up the first of several serious climbs on the course, straight up to a ridge, over rocks and a fallen tree. Once on the ridge, you go back down and then back up several more climbs. The last climb in this series rewards the runners with an aid station, but not without passing a spray painted message on the climb that read, “Think what the 2nd time will be like.” Premonition words. Another climb from here and you come into an opening that provides you with a view that goes around for miles. We were on “Top of the World”. There someone has somehow placed a little swinging double chair to enjoy the view.
Then you hit the power line hills. Ugh! Out in the open, the beautiful sunny and blue skies were not pleasant. And the up and down of the power line hills shred the quads and do a number on the toes. But with a grin and a little determination, you get through it.
Soon, we were back inside the park trails and headed up the ‘white” trail towards the “yellow” trail loop. As you arrive, an aid station awaits to top off on fluids and get a PB&J and some Coke. Gotta love trail race aid stations! Across a metal bridge, the “yellow” trail loop has a doozy of a climb. As we came back down towards the metal bridge, we would run left and away from it on a forest service road that would take us to another smaller power line section, again outside the park. Once over this, we would hit a steep downhill that was on barely traveled trails. In fact, the closer we got to the bottom, the less of a trail that you could see. It might be why as I type this, I have poison ivy spots all over my shins. Once at the bottom, we arrived at the river crossing.
The river was up dramatically due to all the recent rain, and the current was moving too. The crossing is rope assisted, but for safety, race organizers asked all runners to cross the river one at a time. So we all got bottle necked here. Luckily, every one had a sense of humor about it and patiently waited their turn. After about ten minutes, it was mine. I grabbed the rope with both hands and made my way across. Halfway across, it wasn’t too bad. It was the second half that would prove a bit tricky as the water got deeper and the current a bit stronger. Once out of the water, the difficulty was the steep climb back up to the trail.
Once on the trail, my friend Kelli was there to cheer some friends and she got a few pics of me coming up the trail. It was good to see her and get some encouraging words as I went by.
It wasn’t long before we were running down the “blue” trail again and came out into an area where some of the runner’s cars were parked including mine. I unloaded my running pack and hydration bladder at my car and got back on the trail with just my water bottle. At this point, there was only 10 miles or so left. Next up, round two of the power line hills.
We came down a long descent to arrive at an aid station. The guys at this aid station get major kudos because they had everything: sports drink, water, plenty of food and ice. The only way to get all the stuff there was down about a half mile length of trail and up/down 200 ft. or so elevation. All of the materials had to be carried on foot. And they did it all with a smile. I made sure I thanked these guys for their efforts.
From here, you cross a short wooden bridge and then down the same trail as before to the power line sections. We hit much of the same hills as in the earlier portion of the race. Except this time, the heat had turned it up a notch and the sun beat down on you hard. Needless to say, the climbs were that much more difficult this time. Remember the spray painted words earlier? They were still there. Funny guy, whoever left that message.
Another friend of mine, Kelly, was running her first 50K. I would see her at points along this section as she wasn’t too far behind me. She later explained to me that there was a point where she thought she was a bit lost since she didn’t have anyone in front of her as a reference and she was shouting for some help. I had heard the shouts, but couldn’t make them out and didn’t know their intention. Luckily, she found her way.
So after some grueling climbing and descending, we were finally on the home stretch. I refueled at the aid station at mile 27; I figured I was home free from any more climbs. I was soon to learn how wrong I was. Cruising along the creek trail and heading back towards the waterfalls we saw earlier in the race, I saw that the race markers seem to go sharply to the left. This was to be the big surprise of the race and the cruelest climb of them all. There was no trail, but the markers clearly went sharply up and up the hill. Remember, there’s 28 miles already on the legs. The only way up was by walking and grabbing onto small trees along the way. Once at the top, the course went right and flattened out. It took a moment to get the heart rate back down and catch my breath. My legs felt like jelly.
After a bit more bush-whacking, somehow you got dumped back out on the “blue” trail. It was a matter of placing one foot in front of the other for the last few miles. I passed the final aid station, calmly ate another PB&J and had some fluids. Just another mile and a half to go. I heard what I thought were fire crackers and I figured they were being fired by the race organizers as the runners arrived at the finish. I later learned that it was actually a local sheriff firing range. I’m glad I ran with a bright orange shirt on.
Finally, I could hear the murmur of the crowd hanging out at the finish, even though I couldn’t see it. The last couple hundred yards or so of the race follows a road and then you take some wooden steps off to the left and up a short hill climb. There’s the finish. Wow, another 50K in the bag. I did it in 6:13 and change. Not a bad day’s work, considering all the challenges. I was surprised by my wife, Stacy, who had decided to come out to the park and see me finish. It was a very appreciated surprise. I got a kiss from my wife, a finisher’s hat from the race and then a plate of BBQ pulled pork with some sides. Nice.
You gotta love trail races because everyone hangs out after they finish and cheer on remaining finishers. I love the camaraderie! I was there to greet Kelly as she finished. She had dealt with some cramps on the mean climb at mile 28 and she was happy to finish. I was proud of her and all of my friends that finished that day.
The first few months of 2009 has simply been one race or run adventure after another. The SweetH20 50K is my third 50K of the year. Funny enough and looking ahead, it may be my last one for a little while, as Stacy and I are expecting parents and it is yet to be seen how that will affect my race schedule. I have another adventure in June, traveling to Colorado to hike two 14’ers with another friend, Mike. I can’t wait. Until then, I’m going to run some trails this summer and try to get back on my bike too.
After two 50K's, a couple of ultra runs on the AT and tons of daily trail miles, it's time to retire my Cascadia 3's. Already have a new pair of Cascadia 4's to break in. Sweet!