Let’s address any doubts you may have about how difficult this race is right at the beginning. Yes, this race is as hard as advertised. If anything, it might even be more challenging. First, start with the extra 2 miles (course measures 33+ miles). Then toss in temperatures that are always hot and humid (over 90 degrees last weekend). And finally add 5500 feet of elevation gain with 3250 of this coming after the turnaround on tired legs. This resulted in a 57% finish rate (82 of 145 starters) in 2019. And it’s not like this was a bunch of ultra rookies toeing the line this year. RD Kevin Sayers asked at the start who was running their first ultra and one lone guy raised his hand. So be forewarned – this race is legit.
I got to Gambrill State Park a couple minutes before the gates were opened at 5:45am. I was unsure how quickly the lot would fill up so didn’t want to risk having to park in an overflow section. After nabbing one of the first parking spots, I had plenty of time before the 7:30am start to prep myself for a long day in the woods. The weather on High Knob was absolutely perfect with low-70s temps and a light breeze. The weather gods may have been teasing us, but I was willing to enjoy it while it lasted and not worry about what the day would bring.
The pre-race briefing started at 7:15am and went over a couple last minute details. The course is on an established trail with blue blazes so there were no additional markings outside the first/last half mile, which had blue ribbons. It was also announced that this was the last year for race to be run in this direction due to the difficulty of reserving the Tea Room. The RD highlighted a couple runners who had 15 and 10 finishes before shouting 123go. After a couple seconds, he had to elaborate that the race had just begun and we should probably start running.
My plan was to run a quick pace around the parking lot to position myself towards the front before hitting the single track trail. Unfortunately, I wasn’t “feeling it” so had to slow to a walk on a very slight incline as other runners streamed past me. I also noticed that the temperatures went from perfect to fairly hot within about 5 minutes time. Not an auspicious start to my race.
I ended up running with Dave on the first descent, who I met earlier this year at Phunt. It was fun to chat with him over the first couple miles about race strategies and how we got started in this ridiculous sport. Eventually I had to peel off about mile 4 to use the little boy’s tree (well hydrated to start the race – check).
Throughout this section, my left hamstring was tight and bothering me. This has been a recurring issue for my last couple races. It typically loosens up so I wasn’t too worried. I’m not sure, but maybe it’s just my body’s way of forcing me to slow down to start these endeavors. Goodness knows I can’t seem to do this consciously most of the time.
I finally started feeling good about mile 5 and started pushing a bit to bank some time on the cutoffs. I knew I had 9 hours and 15 minutes, but never got around to calculating the average pace needed since I’ve never taken anywhere near that long to run a 50K. Apparently, the math works out to a 16:45 pace.
The RD claims that 60% of runners get off course at least once during the race. Well, this happened to me right after the first aid station. I turned this corner and started wondering if I was still on course or not. I knew there were 2 runners right behind me and when I didn’t see them after a couple seconds, I realized I must have missed a turn. After retracing my steps for 2 minutes, I turned a corner and saw runners making a left turn that I had missed. No harm, no foul.
After 10 miles, I glanced at my Garmin and saw that I was averaging a 13.5 minute pace. I’m now trying to figure out how much buffer I have and guesstimate I’ve got about 35 minutes at this point (ultra-brain, close enough). This was enough for me to back off the effort. It was 10am and things were starting to get a little hot. There was no point in pushing myself into the red. A side benefit is this would allow me to better enjoy the gorgeous trails.
I didn’t taper for this race so my legs were a little on the tired side. This resulted in my inability to lift my feet more than about 2 inches off the ground most of the day so I kept tripping over every fourth rock (and there were a lot). I ended up falling twice and thankfully they were both rather gentle. A little dirt here and there, but no cuts or gashes.
After the third aid station, there is a long, long downhill to the turnaround. Like 900+ feet down. This is a wonderful stretch of trail until you realize that you have to go back up this in the not too distant future. I’ve never wished for a downhill to end prematurely, but I was close during this race.
The biggest stream crossing was right before the turnaround though there were plenty of large, strategically placed rocks that could be used to cross it. Once into the aid station, I got ice in my hat, grabbed a couple s-caps, and was on my way within a minute or so. It took me 3 hours 50 minutes to get to the halfway point, which left me almost 5.5 hours to get back to the finish. Someone had mentioned before the start that the return trek takes about an extra hour so I had a little time to play with. Though definitely not as much as I’m used to having. As I was leaving the aid station, a volunteer asked my name. It was an odd request since they normally just ask for your number when entering so it took me a second to blurt it out. Then a couple seconds later I remembered this is a good way to check the status of runners to make sure they’re not in distress. The volunteers did a great job throughout the day making sure the runners were not overdoing things without being overly intrusive.
The climb back out was just as bad as I feared it would be. I was a little surprised my splits weren’t worse than they ended up as I felt like I was crawling along at 25+ minute miles vs. 17-20 minute. My goal was not to be passed at all on the inbound return, but that didn’t last more than a mile or so as 4 runners including Dave blew by me like I was standing still. It wasn’t quite that bad, but it was close. I must have rallied (relatively speaking) as I pretty much maintained my placing over the rest of the race. Not that this was really a thing for me. I mean, really, what’s the difference between 39th and 46th places?
I know many of those out there will say this is blasphemy, but I didn’t think the temperatures were too bad. There was a nice breeze along most of the course up on the ridges. Don’t get me wrong, it was hot. Just not unbearably so from my perspective. I was still feeling really good except for my legs. It was quite the dichotomy between how my legs felt (fried) and the rest of me (solid).
The heat only really got noticeable in the last 5 miles. Thankfully there’s a bunch of streams in the last couple miles which afforded me the opportunity to dunk my hat in the water and keep my head cooled down. This was obviously a favorite tactic of the runners ahead of me as the trails were well watered the first 15-20 feet after each stream crossing.
In the last mile, I came across a man with a tree branch slowly making his way up the trail. I thought I recognized him as Tom Green and he confirmed this to be the case. While he’s a legend in the ultra running scene for being the first person to finish the Grand Slam, I view him more as an inspiration for what he’s doing more recently. Despite some health issues over the past couple years, he’s still out here battling the trails. I hope to eventually have half his grit and determination at some point in my life.
After 8 hours and 33 minutes, I finally rolled across the finish line. This was my worst time for a 50k in nine attempts at the distance by an hour 45 minutes. This was far from my worst time at a 50k race though. The course and volunteers make this a truly special race and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. So much so, that I’ll definitely be back next year!