Welcome! The intent of Anecdotes from the Trail is to share my experiences while trail running or racing (occasionally on the road too.) And to feature other trail runners and their accomplishments. You may see the occasional gear review or even contest. Please visit from time to time. Happy trails!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Country Music Marathon

Back in 1999, a friend was training for the Chicago Marathon as a first time marathoner. At the time, I thought two miles was a long run. Yet, there was something about my friends training and determination that sparked my interest in the marathon. October came and she ran the marathon and had an incredible time. I was more than impressed and I started to consider trying a similar adventure for myself. Coincidentally, I lived in Nashville at the time and they had just announced the inaugural Country Music Marathon to be held the following April. That was it. I had to do it.

I joined a local training program and soon enough, that two mile long run became four, then eight, then twelve…you get the idea. Next thing I know, I was in my start corral at the race. The gun went off and I have to say, that I haven’t stopped running since.

Fast forward to 2008, I heard about the 10th anniversary of the Country Music Marathon and I just had to sign up. Today, I am an experienced marathoner, ultrarunner and Ironman. Things have changed a lot for me in the last nine years and I figured that by running this year’s race, it would bring it all full circle for me.

My wife, Stacy, and I drove up to Nashville the day before the race. We checked in to the hotel, passed through the Expo and had dinner with friends at a great local eatery. Four-thirty in the morning came awful quick after a restless night of sleep. My things were laid out as usual. I had taken the time to pin my bib number the night before. The D-Tag timing device was securely fasten to my running shoe. I got dressed, grabbed my water bottle and kissed Stacy. Downstairs, the hotel was smart enough to provide an early breakfast for the marathoners. After a bite to eat, I headed out and made the mile or so walk to the stadium where shuttles were waiting to take runners to the start. My buddies Woody and Doug, who we met up with the night before for dinner, were planning on meeting me there to take the ride to the start together. With the crowds however, we totally missed each other. The shuttle ride wasn’t too bad, a bit crowded but we made it to the start rather quickly.

The race has grown considerably. The first year I think there were around 8,000 runners, all in the marathon. A couple of years later, the race added the half-marathon option and that’s how today there are over 31,000 runners. So, coming off the shuttle, all you could see was people everywhere. There’s something about these big production races that is becoming unattractive to me. I guess, I am getting used to trail races where there are only a few hundred runners or triathlons including the Ironman, where at the most there are 2,000 participants. So, I was feeling a bit claustrophobic.

I went to my corral hoping to still see Woody and Doug. The sun was making its way over the tops of the buildings and the temps were already starting to climb. It was going to be hot one! I managed to meet up with Woody and Doug and the race got started.

First couple of miles, I tried to keep up with those guys and I knew it was a bad idea when I saw the splits were about 7:30 pace. It wasn’t long before Woody and Doug dropped me. At mile 2, I spotted my wife in the crowd, gave her a quick wave and kept on. I slowed down to a more manageable 8:30 clip and kept repeating a mantra in my head, “Take it easy. Treat this as a long run. Don’t overheat.” The Country Music Marathon is known for its hills. The race organizers have revised the course several times over the years in an effort to lessen them, but there are still plenty of them on the route. Anyway, we ran through Music Row, the part of town where many of the record companies, recording studios and music publishers are based. You have to wonder just how many dreamers have come to this town with nothing but a guitar and never catch a break. Of course, every once in a while somebody makes it big.

Through mile 8, I was feeling fine, although I started to get concerned about the heat. This initial section is an out and back, so you can see the elites run by on the way out and then see the rest of us mortals on the way back into downtown. Somewhere in this section, I saw a guy in a full on bear mascot costume. I later learned that he finished the half marathon in about two hours. Unreal.

At mile 11, the half marathoners veer off the full marathon course. It was nice to have the crowd thin out some. At mile 13, my pace was maintaining, but I could tell it was not going to be my day. I have run this race four other times and this is the part of the course that I don’t enjoy. It’s all office park that is in a part of town difficult for friends and family to get in and cheer. No shade, no cheering crowds and plenty of black top. Even the greenway portion along the river was tough. The one positive was the trademark bands all along the route.

At mile 16 and after a quick pottie break, I knew I was decently hydrated and that was the good news. But things were starting to deteriorate and my pace was falling off. I walked up a lengthy hill around mile 18. Out of the office park area and down 8th Avenue, I got some pep back in my step. I had a laugh when I saw the back of some guy’s shirt that read, “My friends told me it was 2.62 miles.” Mile 19 sees the full and half marathon courses meet up again for about a mile, a long mile up a hill. From the top of the hill, you can see the stadium where the finish line is located.

I spotted Stacy again around mile 20 and stopped for a second. She had timed it just right and I appreciated the smile and kiss. Just a 10K to go. No problem, right?

Another out and back into Shelby Park awaited. I saw Woody on his way to the finish line when I was making my way into the park. I was surprised to see him, but I later learned that he didn’t have his best day either. After seeing Woody, my miles were getting longer and longer. I made it into the park and came across an aid stop giving out ice. I put some under my running cap and that definitely woke me up a little. Still, my pace was definitely not holding up.

The last two miles of the course is through an industrial part of town. I could see the stadium over the tops of the warehouses. As I got closer, I could hear the announcer. I was ready to get this one over. Came around a bend and I could see the crowds. Country Music Marathon has a final turn about 300 yards from the finish, so you can’t see the banner until after the turn. As I made the turn, I picked it up a bit. I heard my name from the crowd and once again spotted Stacy. Gave her a wave and stepped it up. I crossed the finish line at 4:14:41 by the clock, but 4:10:54 by my watch, a good 40 or so minutes slower than my normal marathon time but mission accomplished.

Another marathon under my belt and this one was well earned. I took full advantage of all the finish line goodies, especially the ice soaked sponges. Took the mandatory “medal picture” and I made my way thru the maze and came out to where Stacy was waiting for me. I was glad to be done.

Nine years after my first marathon, I have participated in dozens of races. As tough as this race was for me, I will always appreciate the fact that I started running. It has changed my life and running this race did indeed bring it full circle for me. However, I think I am going to take a break from road races for now. I have a trail 50K coming up at the end of May and I can’t wait.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Mount Cheaha 50K

I realize the event in this blog entry is out of order chronologically. However, since I have been slacking in contributing to my new blog and the event was just a little over a month ago, I decided to go ahead and write a race report…

Saturday, February 28th started at 5:30 am when Woody and I hit the road on our way to the Mt. Cheaha 50K race in Alabama. The race was scheduled to start at 7:30 am CST. The hour gained by the time zone changed allowed us to sleep in our beds in Atlanta, get up early and make the drive. The drive wasn’t too bad until we crossed the stateline and the rain started. It was raining buckets! Once off the interstate, it took us a bit longer than expected to arrive at Mount Cheaha State Park. The plan was to catch the bus to the start and the bus was scheduled for 6:05 am. It was about 6:00 am when we arrived and parked the car.

Woody and I walked into Bald Rock Lodge thinking that we were late and about to be rushed onto the waiting buses, but we found all the runners just patiently hanging out and chatting amongst each other. Turns out the buses were down the hill stuck in some mud and it would be a while before they would make their way up to the lodge. Meanwhile, the rain continued outside. All the rain was going to swell the various creeks and rivers along the race route, but more on that later.

Todd, the race director, was doing his best to appear calm and was handling the delay well. The runners in the lodge were patiently waiting as the clock was ticking on by and the buses were still not arriving. Woody and I were able to kill some time by meeting and talking to some of the other runners. One of them being an experienced ultra-runner named Rich. Turns out, Rich was the originator of a legendary race back home called the Battle of Atlanta. This urban ultra consisted of meeting at the top of Stone Mountain at sunrise, touching the geological marker and making your way across Atlanta and northwest to Kennesaw to the top of Kennesaw Mountain. It was a low-key race of 30+ miles that demanded runners to be self-sufficient. Rich had organized the race during the 90’s with the last one back in 2003. As he put it, it just became too much work. Anyway, Rich made a comment that would end up being prophetic later in the day. He said that his experience in ultra-racing allowed him to catch less experienced runners every time and he would prove this to be so.

It was finally announced that the buses were making their way up the hill to the lodge. Everybody topped off their water bottles, made one last trip to the bathroom and headed out side. The two school buses pulled around and we all piled in. The ride to the start was rather uneventful with everyone just checking their things and encouraging each other. The rain had stopped and the sun even peaked out through the clouds. A bit later, we arrived at the start, a spot off of highway 77 where the Pinhoti trail intersected. Sweet, we were finally going to get the show on the road (or I should say, trail.)

From here, the course takes us on the Pinhoti Trail, the Skyway Trail, Chinobee Trail and a couple of forest roads. The race ends at the top of Mt. Cheaha back at the lodge. Along the way, we could expect several ridge climbs, creeks, one rope assisted river crossing, waterfalls, rocky trails and around mile 28, a hellacious climb called Blue Hill, or as some call it, Blue Hell.

Music was blaring from someone’s SUV as we all lined-up under the start banner. Todd got on the mic with a few last minute instructions. The race started and we were on our way. Immediately, we were squeezed into single track trail and at first it was difficult to gain positions. Eventually, things would begin to spread out and everyone would find their spot along the course. The first few miles to the first aid station took us through leaf and pine needle covered trails soaked with several puddles from the night’s rain. At first, we would all try to avoid the water but it was soon evident that this was a futile effort. There is a significant climb in this first section and this helped to spread the crowd out even more. Soon enough, we were at the first aid station.

Woody and I were sticking together and we were both feeling pretty good at this point. The aid station was set up on a forest service road right before a train crossing. We made it through the aid station without much of a delay and quickly made our way up the road and back on the trail. Apparently, a train came through after we had passed and delayed some of the other runners.

Once back on the trail, we made our way up a series of climbs. Turns out Rich had been in front of us and we made our way passed him with a wave and a pat on the back. He just smiled and gave us a nod as we went by.

The trail made its way up a climb and dumped out onto a forest road. We ran along the forest road for several miles. The rain had created ruts of mud and we made our way around them. We passed some other runners and it seemed that all was going well. Personally, I wasn’t feeling the climbs and I was looking forward to the creek crossings. However, we would soon learn that the previous night’s rain had swelled the creeks considerably.

We made it into aid station #2, loaded up on some PB&J’s, refilled water bottles and headed up the hill. We were now back on the Pinhoti trail and making our way up onto a ridge. At the top, we were rewarded with a fantastic view even though visibility wasn’t at its best. The trail was pretty rocky on the ridge and we had to watch our footing. Still, we made good progress and for a little while at least, it seemed that Woody and I were the only two runners on the trail. The trail crossed a forest service road several times and as we made our way off the ridge. We would soon arrive at aid station #3 at Adams Gap.

To get to the aid station, we had to run a short segment off the trail where the runners ahead of us were coming at us. We saw the first female and she was looking strong. Needless to say, we would not see her again. I shoved some roasted, salted potatoes in my mouth, took a few swigs of Accelerade and headed back out. We would soon split off the Pinhoti and get on the Skyway trail.

I took the lead for the next few miles and this is where I started to feel less than 100%. We had picked up another runner and we made our way along the trail like a little convoy. I could tell that I was holding up Woody, but he was letting me stay in the lead as we wound our way along another ridge and more rocky trail. We pulled into aid station #4 around mile 18 and I couldn’t be happier. As I was refueling and trying to get my strength back, Woody was itching to get moving. The guys at the station warned us of the coming creek crossings.

Back on the trail, this time Woody was in front. The gap between us started to grow and it wasn’t long before he was well ahead of me and out of sight. The other guy we had picked up in the last section would end up leaving me too. I was on my own for the rest of the race.

I came upon a couple of creeks and sure enough, because of all the rain, the water was more than knee deep. My shoes got soaked but my Smartwool socks were holding up just fine. The cold water actually felt good too. After a couple more climbs, I made it down a hill and I could here rushing water. Soon enough I was at the bank of a river. Normally, the river is rather tame and barely deep enough to get your knee caps wet. But today, it was to prove a tricky crossing even with the assistance of a rope. I clipped my water bottle and grabbed the rope. I was halfway across when I slipped and went in chest deep. The water gave me a rush of adrenaline and I quickly came back to my feet and finished getting across. A photographer was on the other bank and would capture the moment. Once across, it was a short jog along the bank to the next aid station.

After 22 miles, you appreciate a smiling face and encouraging words and that’s what the folks waiting at the aid station offered. Appreciative of this, I refueled once again and wondered how far ahead was Woody, even though I wouldn’t see him again until the finish. At this point, several of us were hurting. Some of the runners I had passed earlier were now catching and passing me, while I was passing others. I would soon catch up to a friend, John, who was having some issues with cramps. I was surprised to see him as John is an experienced ultra-runner but the cramps were really giving him a hard time. While we rubber band each other several times, we passed some spectacular water falls. Another fellow Georgia runner, Reagan, passed us both and she would end up being the second place female.

The trail ends up on another forest road and this was a less scenic part of the course with a long straight away and a slight ascent. I could see Reagan in front of me by a couple hundred yards, but I would never catch her. John ended up catching up to me once again and we ran together for a few miles while the course went from packed dirt road to an asphalt road. We were on the asphalt for a short while and we came into a park where the next aid station was waiting for us at mile 28. I knew that Blue Hill was next and I was anticipating a tough climb. I would underestimate the difficulty. More roasted salted potatoes, a Coke and I thought I was a new man. John tried to stay with me as we left the aid station but as soon as the climb began, he would get ahead. I guess his cramps weren’t that bad after all.

Whatever description I make of the climb up Blue Hill, it will not do it justice. There was no running at this point. Just grab tree limbs, place your hands on your knees and climb up a wall of rocks. That’s the best I can describe it. After almost 29 miles, putting this climb at this point of the course is just plain evil. And I wouldn’t have it any other way. I finally made up to the top in what felt like an eternity. The final miles were no where as difficult but the climb took it out of me for sure.

At the top there is about a half mile of asphalt and then we get back on trail and a short climb. Some where along this point I heard a runner coming up behind me while I could hear the music of the finish line ahead of me, it was Rich. Damn it, if he didn’t catch me right at the end. I moved aside as he went by with a smile on his face. I gritted my teeth and made my way up the trail then road to the finish line. Todd, the race director, was waiting under the finish banner and congratulating all the finishers. Some one handed me a cool technical shirt with the race logo and the word “Finisher” on it. How cool is that!?

I went inside the lodge, grabbed some pizza and found Woody. He ended up putting over a half hour between us. I guess I paced him pretty well for the first half of the race. We hung out for a while, refreshed and changed into drier clothes. Everyone was tired but content with the accomplishment. Mount Cheaha was conquered!

So there it is…my second 50K of 2009. Next up, the Country Music Marathon in Nashville in late April and then the SweetH20 50K at the end of May.