Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Bartlett Park Ultras 50K, 8 Aug 09

In my preparation for the Arkansas Traveller 100 (AT100) this year, I opted to head over the Bartlett Park Ultras just outside Memphis, TN this year a good training run for two reasons. First, my experience from the run-up to my eventual DNF at the 2007 AT100, I passed on this prep event in order to spend more time at home. Alas, I only managed long runs upwards of 5-6 hours that year, and that was one of several contributing factors to my DNF then. The weather and family demands kept me from really pushing long training days then. Second, I wanted to start my 2009 AT100 run-up with a 50k run and build from that foundation. This is primarily from my success last year at the Pinhoti 100, where I had five long runs all further than my longest events from the year before (including a 50mi race and a 12hr training run on back-to-back weekends). Thus, the intent this year is to start around 50k and build up to a 12+ hr training run in late September.

Fortunately for me, I got to link up with Eric Charette and Eric Schotz and the packet pickup, fresh off their epic Run Across Alabama for Elliott a month prior. I also got to meet Christy Scott from Huntsville, and it turns out we both have 4th grade boy in the same elementary school. We all headed to a local Italian place for the traditional pre-race pasta dinner.

Race morning I was up at 0500, grabbed my gear and headed out. Crossing the hotel parking lot at a humid 80deg pre-dawn signaled the challenges of the morning to come! The race started at 0630. The course make a 1.6mi loop on the blue trail before coming back to the parking lot in 14min. There I grabbed my water bottle (didn’t need it until then) and was surprised to find myself in about 8th place, far from the norm for me. The rest of the race consists of 4 loops on a 7.45mi course winding about the park.

The trails had their good and bad points. On the good column was the complete lack of rocks, tons of shade, and no major climbs. The only real obstacles to contend with were a lot of tree roots and about a dozen ditches to jump into and then climb back out of; some were a foot deep, others were 10-12’ deep with 50-60deg slopes to climb out. On bad column was the near-total lack of any straight piece of course to get a running rhythm. I’d bet there wasn’t but 100m of straight-line trail the entire morning. Constant turning, weaving in and around the trails and between trees. Which is a ton of fun, but I ain’t gonna be chasing my 50k PR out here!

Moved steadily on the first loop to complete in 1:15 (now 1:29 elapsed), and then the second loop in 1:16 (including 5+min break at my XTerra). At the midpoint I had to sit down to change shoes and socks, strip off shirt, etc. All were soaked in sweat from the heat and humidity, and the turns created a blister-under-callous on my right foot. I swapped into a pair of Montrails I had as backups, but I may have been better off sticking with the road shoes I was wearing.
I felt fine through the third loop, pushing fluids (40+ oz) and fuel hard (nearly 500 cal) in the 1:15 it took the make it. I was pretty happy with the even splits to this point, still jawboning with other folks on the course as I was beginning to lap some folks. Posture and form were still good, but starting to get a little sloppy in some spots so had to concentrate on keeping it clean and light-on-feet. I rolled out of the parking lot at 4hrs even for the last loop, knowing I would slow down on the last loop as the heat-humidity controlled to work their magic. Sure enough, I tripped and fell not once, not twice, but three times before I got halfway through the final loop! But I hit the final aid station, tightened up my concentration and got a higher tempo rhythm going again to get after the final 3 miles. Luckily, I felt pretty well from there on out, and completed the final piece of the course without any falls in 1:20 for a total time of 5hr 20min and 7th place (out of 38 finishers in the 50k, don’t know about DNFs). It was just shy of high noon and estimates were now about 100+ on the heat index. Alas, I had a very nice blood blister under a callous on my right foot that would require minor surgery at home later that night to remove, as well as a nasty blister on my heel caused by the Montrail shoes (those things need to go). I had toyed with the idea of pressing on to 40mi (maybe even 50mi) if I felt good through 50K, but decided to go out on a high note and call it a day.

Eric Charette and Eric Schotz put in a darn fine race, finishing 1-2 in 4:07 and 4:11 respectively. Kudos to them for hammering it out in the heat and humidity, though they suffered some bruised and bloody toes for their efforts!

So my thanks to the Hampton Inn for their ice machines, because I took a cooler full of it that morning and now was rubbing handfuls of it over my neck, chest, and legs to start cooling down! I thought about imitating Kathy Youngren and sitting in the cooler with a bag of ice over my chest, but not sure if I would have been able to get out. And my thanks again to the Hampton Inn, for after a quick shower they allowed me a late check-out and I headed for home.

After farting around south Memphis trying to find a Quiznos (that’s what I was hungry for, but my by Google-BB application gave me two bad locations before I finally found one on third try), I headed into Mississippi. But the adventure is not over yet. I don’t get over to Memphis that often, to decided to take a detour from Corinth, MS and head up to the Shiloh National Military Park just over the MS-TN state line. Because I’m a National Parks nut (105+ stamps and still going), I deemed it a worthy side-excursion. There I pulled out my mountain bike and cruised the 12mi battlefield tour on two wheels (instead of by car), learning about one of the bloodiest events of the Civil War and where Gen. US Grant and a host of other Union Army leader began to experience real success against the Confederates in the western front of the war. The mtn bike ride was good, as it warmed up my now-stiffening knees and made the remaining drive home a little more comfortable.

The drive home from there was long and frustrating through back roads of lower TN over to I-65; in hindsight, I should have gone south back to US-72 at Corinth, but my wandering genes kicked in to see something different. Trust me, not much to see on US-64 through Southern Tennessee! Arriving home around 8:30pm after an adventurous day, Matthew (my 9yr old) asks incredulously, “Daddy, did you really run 31 miles in that heat today? You’re crazy.” Got to hand it to the kid, calls ‘em likes he sees ‘em.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

2009 Strolling Jim “40”

The grand-daddy of Southern Ultrarunning is the Strolling Jim held in the little town of Wartrace, TN nestled in the hills of Bedford County. Going on its 31st running this year, I made the trek again to brave Gary Cantrell's "FOUR SMALL HILLS"

Hauled my butt out of bed about 0345, flipped on the kitchen lights, then began a minor visit from Murphy as the power went out! So I spent a few minutes fumbling around to get the flashlight out of its designated spot and start getting my gear in the truck and something to eat (everything goes slower when working by flashlight). Left the house about 0415, but while heading up US-431, the highway was closed because of a wreck! I had to divert to some side roads before climbing up to Monte Sano and the Youngren's place. There I linked up with them, Blake, and the Charette's for the caravan to Wartrace. Oh BTW – it was raining the entire time.

I was heartened to see a bunch of familiar faces at the starting line, most of us huddled under the gazebo in the town square to avoid the rain for a few extra minutes. Then Dink Taylor blasts out of there and we realize that Aimee Cantrell has blown the conch shell and we almost missed it. As the rain continued to roll down, all clothes and shoes were soaked through in the first few miles, so no worries, at least it won't get hot today.

I was plenty hydrated (even though I tried not to drink too much beforehand), so had to pull over several times in the first two hours, include a long pit stop just out of Normandy. By then I was well on my own on the course, so pulled out my mp3 player and was listening to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows most of the day. I cruised fairly comfortably at a 9-10min/mile pace (including pit stops, climbs, and aid stations). Caught up to and passed Mike O'Melia around Mile 18; he had a pretty good day himself on the course, looking much more relaxed than last year.

Not much to tell through the middle miles as I ground out the climb over Hilltop Rd again and headed for Cathey Rd and The Walls. I hit the 30mi mark right at 5 hr keeping me at a 10:00/mile pace and possible 7hr finish. But the Walls always slow you down some as you muscle out the short climbs and then grunt through the quad-busting descents right after. Luckily the rain had stopped by now and it was just overcast with some light drizzle.

After lolly-gagging a bit too much in the Walls, Mike pulled me within shouting distance, so I got a better rhythm going again as we headed for the US-41A crossing and the 35mi marker, arriving there just after 1pm. Now it's 10k to go and I flirted briefly with the possibility of making a sub-7hr finish, even going so far as to keep running the shallow grades where the RD famously spray paints "Only Wimps Walk this Hill". Dave Riddle is out on the course logging some miles, and even without my glasses I could see him coming from a ½ mile away with that perfect, wide-open stride of his. Now I was getting motivated to push through.

But then the effects of the heavy rains the past few days become seriously evident as fields are completely flooded and creeks are just rolling with muddy water. Then just before I got back to Hwy 64 and the final turn for Wartrace, we had to take a "DETUR" for the road was covered in about 5 feet of rolling water ahead. Well that detour was about an extra mile (plus some more climbing), so that was the end of my flirtation with a sub-7 hr day. So I said "Screw it!" and took some long walk breaks with the hopes of actually being functional at home tonight and playing with the boys some. I finally rolled in around 7:24 and change, not far behind the Youngren's (my ride home) it turns out.

After cleaning up in the bathroom of the local Laundromat, I sat down to enjoy some barbecued chicken and jawboned with Dave Riddle and Chrissy Ferguson a while. Party Animal Blake Thompson broke out a 40oz Miller High Life to celebrate (you know it's coming), a 40-mile run! (actually about 42+ with the detour). Had a nice time talking with David Jones and Janice Anderson, as Rob and Kathy picked their brain about Badwater logistics. The drive home was a bit uncomfortable as I was sitting on a nasty welt in my nether-regions. The conversation was entertaining and mostly kept my mind off of it. Log one more ultra in the books, glad to be able to come to Wartrace again.

MOUNT CHEAHA 50K, 28 Feb 09

Ah yes, the quickly-becoming-infamous Mount Cheaha, now fully able to claim the title of "Alabama's Toughest Trail Race" (whereas the Mountain Mist is Alabama's Premiere Trail Race). The winning time and distribution of finishing times makes a clear case, and having spent plenty of time on this section in both directions, it is truly some darn tough trail running.

I drove down to Mount Cheaha the day afternoon before, heading through a serious rainstorm that would swell the creek crossings the following day. I pulled off I-20 onto US-431 and then US-281 right behind Dink Taylor and Rob Youngren and followed them up to Bald Rock Lodge at Mount Cheaha State Park. There RD Todd Henderson had laid on a good pre-race dinner spread and regaled us with race brief. It was great to spend the evening jawboning with Rob, Dink, Dana Overton, John Nevels, and meet several other folks.

On race day, I woke 0600, grabbed a little breakfast and some coffee, and then got a ride from the Nevels crew to the start line (instead of going up to Cheaha only to catch a bus to the start line).

Alas, the buses got stuck in the mud, so race start was not until 0900 (instead of 0730). No worries though: had the opportunity to meet William and Emily Ansick, do some jawboning with John Nevels, younger brother, and newcomer Marcus Farris (Grissom HS grad and current freshman at Auburn). Luckily the rain which had been going steadily all Friday and through the night stopped about 0600.

Figure 1. Brothers Nevels at the starting area.

Figure 2. Rob Youngren at the starting area. My man unicycled a good chunk of the course!

Race got started 0900 under sunny skies, hoops and hollers, and high hopes! I got out towards the front-packers and pushed my pace beyond norm for a while because I knew the trail was narrow and I wanted to do some clean running before we got to the tougher, rockier sections.

I got some extra water at Chandler Springs and couple cups of HEED, walked across the tracks and bridge and up to the trail entrance back onto Talladega Mountain. This is where the Pinhoti trail gets tougher, eschewing the ridgeline and moving up higher hills and small peaks and then down into narrow gulleys and stream crossings and then doing it over and over again. One time Todd Henderson (RD) told me there were but 3 miles of flat running on the course, but that is crap; there ain't but one mile of flat running on that course. Even where we came to forest roads for a bit there was an insidious shallow climb or descent to work the legs.
At Clairmont Gap I took some more water, HEED, and pretzels before moving into one of the toughest legs of the Pinhoti Trail, 6 miles to Adam's Gap of nasty, rock-laden, on-a-cant, narrow, muddy trail. Out of the aid station we climbed right back up to the ridgeline, over it, and a descent to mid-slope before going further down and out of several seasonal streams. The scenery along the ridgeline was nice as we had great views south into some farming valleys and further on into the Ashland/Lineville area. Took me about 80min to cover it, and I wasn't screwing around. Had my mp3 player and a solid running rhythm going, just not covering ground that fast! Great trail running, but not meant for speed records. An added bonus was running into Rob Youngren as we crossed over the Talladega Motorway. He opted for the mountain unicycling option that day and was riding portions of the course and Motorway up to the finish line. We shot some photos and talked smack for a few minutes before bidding adieu and getting back on the course. I was glad to have the excuse to stop running for a few minutes.

Figure 3. Senor Youngren grimacing that his unicycle ain't gonna take him down this stretch of the trail. Had to settle for a nice ride down the Talladega Motorway instead (lower left corner)

Figure 4. Rob and his uni, going to head up the Talladega Motorway to the finish.

Once I got into Adam's Gap (about halfway), I had clearly experienced my fun for the day and knew it was time to back off the pace lest I pop later in the day. Hard to say, but I figure the effects of the Reverse Double at Mtn Mist and a tough few weeks at work were taking their toll. So jawboned with Todd and Jamie Henderson for a bit, ate some food, and took my time in the aid station. It was actually fun to watch folks trying to 'race ' this thing, while I was definitely taking on a much more run-as-you-please attitude as the day went on.

As we got onto the 10mile stretch of the Chinnabee/Silent Trail, it got a little more overcast and I knew the creek crossings and wet feet episodes would start. As it turns out, I was not disappointed! For this is one darn and adventurous 50k course with little in the way of easy sections. The first major crossings were around Hubbard Creek, about knee deep and moving pretty good from all the rain, but nothing dangerous. I had slowed down my pace and was
working more calories into my system to make sure I could function tonight and tomorrow at home, but still very much enjoying the trails and the scenery.

Now the crossing at Lake Chinnabee was something to be remembered. During the pre-race briefing, Todd had said the creek would be up and a rope would be strung out. I was thinking, "I don't need no stinking rope! That shit is for sissies." But no lie, when I got down to the small lake and the falls that feed it, I wasn't about to pass up the offered rope! The water was moving pretty good and I went in up to my navel when I first stepped into the water, getting easier about halfway across. The rope was certainly handy, and I used it well to get across. Of course, about halfway there, I slipped on a rock under the water, cut up my lower left shin to the bone, and dunked myself up to the neck before using that rope to get upright. My mp3 player (attached to the chest strap of my Nathan vest) went under along with my disposable camera. I'm glad to report both still worked later on! So I enjoyed the mini-adventure of the rushing creek and got to the aid station on the far side with a bleeding shin; fortunately the cold water kept the swelling and bleeding under control, but I'll have a nice scar for my troubles. My feet were perpetually wet for the rest of the course after that. The trails out of Chinnabee Lake doubled as impromptu streams and the route crossed over the same creek about 2 miles later for another good dunking up to mid-thigh.

Figure 5. Crossing Chinnabee Creek, they even put out a rope to aid matters.

Figure 6. Me losing footing and taking a dunk.

The section on the FS 600-3 and Cheaha Road was a nice respite, and coming into the aid station at Cheaha Lake. The folks there were rather effervescent and promised "only one small climb" up to the finish line. Of course, now the course goes into the infamous BLUE HELL trail, an approx 1000' climb over 0.8 miles right up the side of Mt Cheaha to the top. The a last half-mile of it isn't a trail so much as a bunch of blue paint marks guiding runners ever-upward through massive rock formations on the way to the top. It is a hellacious little piece of trail that helps give the Cheaha 50K its uniqueness.

So finally I emerged out of Blue Hell and began the final section of the course on top of the mountain. Now, if you think that once you're up Blue Hell that the single-track trail is all done and it's just a jaunt to the finish line, you have it all wrong. Todd has special surprises in store for us intrepid runners by throwing in some more nasty little pieces of trail as he climbs you right to the observation tower at the Top of Alabama, 2407' above sea level. On this day, you can't see a thing as a cloud bank has taken up residence on the mountain in the afternoon. I can barely see the course markers 25m apart much less the normally-gorgeous views into the valleys to the north and south. From there, we take some more trail for good measure before finally dumping out near the Bald Rock Lodge and the finish line, about 7hr 3min after I started this little venture.

Turns out other Huntsville natives Dink Taylor and DeWayne Satterfield finished 1st and 2d, while Dana Overton took the ladies' prize. John Nevels turned in a fine performance of 5:48. But the surprise of the day was young Marcus Farris out of Huntsville and Auburn Univ, the 18-year old freshman clocking 5:28 on a damn tough course. I think that young man is ready to tackle the Pinhoti 100 should he take up the challenge.

I get across the finish line, get my shirt, and start to head for the lodge entrance when out pops Dink and Rob, my ride back down Oxford and my XTerra. They ask, "You ready to go?" I mean, shit dudes, I literally just finished. You mind terribly if I get a piece of freakin' pizza or something first?! They relent, offer to get the food for me as I grab my drop bag from the trailer. Thanks fellas, I know you have my best interests in mind. I managed to finagle another 5min delay so I can go in the bathroom and clean myself up a bit. Of course, once I get in there and manage to strip off all my wet, stinking gear, in walks Rob and gets a peek at me buck nekkid. Of course, he's seen it all from years of ultras and an earlier life at VMI, so we have a good chuckle. Later at dinner back in Huntsville, the usually-charming Dink announces to the table of 16+ people that Josh stripped down nude in the bathroom just for Rob! How the heck does he make that leap? ;-)

So 2 hours and a few coordination phone calls later, I met Kirsten and many of the other local running crew at El Olmeca for some good food and fellowship. An excellent way to wind up a good day on the Alabama trails! Congrats to Todd and Jamie Henderson for another superb race.

So the real question is, "When are we going to do a Reverse Double Mount Cheaha 100K?"