Tuesday, March 6, 2012

"Muddy Hell!!!!"

                          "Muddy Hell!!!!"
                                      - My tale of ultra-running and adversity in Laurel, MS.

The Date:  March 3, 2012

The Race:  Carl Touchstone Memorial Mississippi 50 Miler

The Place:  Desoto National Forest, Laurel, MS

The Report:  Here it comes....

I've been distance running since 2007, when I completed my first marathon at the Mardi Gras Marathon in New Orleans (Before it was the Rock n Roll Marathon).  I've been running ultras since 2009.  I like to think of myself as a pretty seasoned distance runner who is familiar with the trials and tribulations that come with putting your body through extended and difficult events and conditions.  I had not run an ultra since clocking a sub-24 hour finish at the 2011 Rocky Raccoon.  I ran that race strongly and felt great before, during and afterward.  After Rocky, I took a little time off to recover and then decided to step away from ultras for a little while and focus on marathoning again.  I never thought my current marathon PR of 3:40:59 was my best effort and I wanted to re-establish myself and a strong marathoner.  Following some hard training, I logged a new PR at the 2011 St. Jude Memphis Marathon of 3:28:30, followed by another PR of 3:23:52 just 6 weeks later at the Louisiana Marathon.  I had achieved my goal to PR, twice, and I was happy.  But after a year of beating myself up on the road, the trails began to call me back.  I intended to sign up for the 2012 Rocky Raccoon 100, even though I knew that the short 5 week turnaround would not be an adequate amount of time to re-integrate myself to ultra trail running.  As luck would have it, Rocky filled up way faster than expected, and before I knew it, the registration was closed.  I could have gotten in on the waiting list, but I just took that as a sign that it was too soon.  I still wanted to get back to ultras, so I decided on the Mississippi 50.  It gave me a little more time to train and it was still close to home.

So train I did, and before I knew it race day was upon me.  My wife/crew Erica and I left on Friday for the 4 hour trek east to Laurel, MS.  One of the reasons I picked this race was because of it's reputation of being a flat, fast course.  After two recent marathon PRs, I, of course, had a 50 mile PR on my mind.  I was shooting for 9 hours or less; a PR of 12 minutes or so, if I could achieve that. What could go wrong?  Right????

As race day got closer, the rain got heavier, and Mississippi was immersed in a deluge for most of the week prior to the race.  As I sat in my hotel the night before the race, watching the Weather Channel as if it were some type of interesting movie, I thought about how bad the race course might be.  The prediction that night was 80% chance of severe thunderstorms, hail, and possible tornadoes.  Not exactly the best way to begin a race.  To add insult to injury, they were also predicting between 30% and 60% chance of rain on race day.

I woke up Saturday morning to the rain.  It was cool, in the 50s, but it did not appear to have rained as much as predicted.  On the drive to the start, the rain stopped and I felt like maybe things would be ok.  I got myself set up and before I knew it, the 6 O'clock hour was there and we were running. 

Lap #1 (12.5 miles)-  The first mile was pretty good.  Everyone was establishing their pace and dancing around a few mud holes.  Nothing major.  Then came the first creek crossing. It was about 25 feet wide and knee-deep.  Only 49 miles left to go I my feet were not wet, they were drenched.  But, that's part of it and I had on Dri-Max socks which dry out quickly, so I felt I'd be ok.  But then the mud came into play.  See, this course is not designed strictly for running.  It is an active horse trail.  So on top of the creeks, we also had to deal with soft, stinky mud.  Not just regular mud....the kind of mud that makes that sucking noise as you step into it and wants to take your shoes from you.  And it was all over the course!!!!  It was difficult to establish a pace because as soon as you did, you'd hit a long stretch of unavoidable mud that you had to walk through or you'd fall.  But not to worry, because not far from that mud was a nice, cool creek that would totally wash off the mud, but then leave your shoes feeling extremely wet and heavy.  I figure there were at least 15 to 20 creek crossings, ranging from ankle-deep to thigh-deep, throughout this loop.  And when you weren't getting wet, you were getting muddy.  All that being said, I felt good on this loop and finished in a respectable 2:01:18.  I was happy with that.  When I got by my drop bag, I talked to Erica for a second and I was off for lap #2. 

Lap #1 Results-  12.5 miles     2:01:18     Pace- 9:42

                                          (Disregard the date.  Camera malfunction.)

Lap #2 (12.5 miles)-  Lap #2 was more of the same.  More water and more mud, but with a twist.  Now the trail had been trampled by 200 or so 50 Mile and 50K runners as well as the 20K runners who had just started their first lap at 8:00.  The trail had quickly deteriorated to a wet, muddy mess.  It was more difficult to navigate and more difficult to establish a steady pace.  I began to look forward to the few gravel sections of the course that were flat, hard and dry.  They felt like heaven once you got to them.  By the time I got to mile 20, I had slowed some and my over-saturated, muddy shoes felt more like concrete blocks.  When I reached the start/finish area at mile 25, I decided that as pointless as it was, I would change my socks and shoes.  I just wanted to run for that one mile in dry shoes.  So for the first time, I sat and changed socks and shoes, sucked down a Red Bull and ate a little.  I sat a little longer than intended because of the difficulty of getting on and off socks on my cold wet feet.  I figure by the time I left, I had sat for around 7 to 10 minutes.  Too damn long!!!!  I complained about the mud to Erica and then left for Lap #3.

Lap #2 Results-  12.5 miles     2:31:23     Pace- 12:06     

Total Miles- 25     Elapsed Time- 4:32:41     Avg. Pace- 10:54  

Lap #3 (12.5 miles)-  Lap #3 was a turning point for me.  The trail had really deteriorated to the worst of extremes.  It just seemed like one long, 12.5 mile, muddy puddle.  My dry socks and shoes lasted for the intended 1 mile and then they were wet again.  The mud now was not even mud anymore.  It was a brown, soupy slush that tried to take your shoes off with every step.  There was no more trying to circumvent the bad spots, because the bad spot was 12.5 miles long.  It was just mud, water, mud, water, mud, water.....over and over and over.  I got to the point that when I saw a creek or a really bad spot in the trail, it literally turned my stomach.  I'd been running for over 5 hours in extremely poor trail conditions and now to top it all off, the rain began to fall.  My pace had really slowed and I began to feel weak.  Then I realized I'd made a huge mistake.  I normally always bring some type of solid food like a sandwich or something to eat throughout the race.  I did not.  I decided to rely on what was provided at the aid stations, which was the usual sweets, salts, and PB&J.  It was not enough to sustain me and I began to crash.  I had pretty much been running on GU, water and a few things from the aid stations.  I also did not bring any type of electrolyte drink.  They had Heed at the aid stations.  I hate Heed!!!!  I knew I hated Heed, but for whatever reason, I did nothing about it.  I still took salt tabs, but at that point it did little to help me.  I was slipping into a low spot quickly, with little hope of recovery.  I guess I totally underestimated the course and the weather conditions.  "I am an experienced ultra runner.  I can handle this.", I thought.  But the trail doesn't care who you are or how many ultras you've run.  It doesn't care that you are a sub-24 100 miler.  It treats everyone exactly the same, from the rookie 20K runner to the veteran 100 miler.  Now my goal had changed from a 50 mile PR to self preservation.  I had just hit the wall. 

As I stopped at my drop bag after completing my third lap, I was totally exhausted both mentally and physically. I was tired of running with wet feet and the trail was beating me. I found myself in a low spot that I'd never been in before. I then said words that have never come across my lips, "I feel like I could drop.", I told Erica.   Never before in a race had I ever even considered it, but I was really in a bad spot right now and it seemed plausible to do so. I could stop now and get credit for the 50K, lick my wounds and go home. Thankfully, there was still a little glimmer of hope in me and deep down I knew that I was too close to the end to quit now. I had 12.5 miles to go. I had to keep moving forward. One bright spot was I had finally bid farewell to the hellacious 12.5 mile yellow loop and I was moving on to the shorter and hopefully better 6.25 mile blue loop. I collected myself and pressed on for Lap#4. 

Lap #3 Results-  12.5 miles     3:05:55     Pace- 14:52

Total Miles- 37.5     Elapsed Time- 7:38:36     Avg Pace- 12:13

                                                                     (The Wall!!!)

Lap#4 (6.25 miles)-  Lap #4 started like all the others.  The first mile was clean and dry, but the water and mud quickly came and I was in the same situation all over again.  By now, aside from being beaten down mentally and physically, I was hungry and weak.  I needed some solid food, which I did not have and simply had to continue on without it.  Rain continued to fall at regular intervals and the temps were cooling.  I ran sporadically, if you call it that.  A few steps, navigate a creek.  A few steps, walk through the mud.  I was doing way more walking than running.  I beginning to get passed by a lot of other 50 Milers as well.  Unlike me, most seemed to be running with vigor, totally unphased by the poor conditions of the day.  As I got passed, I began to ask some of them, "First or second short loop?".  To my dismay, many of them were on their second.  This certainly didn't help my mental state.  I ran alone for a long time and felt like I was the only one left on the course.  On occasion, I'd pass someone, only to be passed by them a little further down the trail.  It was disheartening.  Although this loop had more and longer dry spots than the previous loops, it did little to boost my performance.  At the end of Lap #4 I walked through the start/finish area.  The race director, Dennis, asked what I had left.  I woefully said, "One more lap."  I got a PB&J, which I really didn't want, and went to my drop bag.

Lap #4 Results- 6.25 miles     1:40:23     Pace- 16:03

Total Miles- 43.75     Elapsed Time- 9:18:59     Avg. Pace- 12:46

Lap #5 (6.25 miles)-  I didn't sit very long at my drop bag this time.  I wanted to get done.  By now it was 3:30 pm.  I'd been running for over 9 hours, and the day before I would have told you I'd be done by now.  With only a little over 6 miles to go, I was off.  I told Erica I'd probably take between 1 hour and 40 minutes to 2 hours to complete this lap.  Although it was still early in the day, the wet, overcast conditions made it seem like dusk already.  Add the canopy of the trees to that and it looked like it was getting dark sooner than later.  That's when it hit me........I wanted to pick up my head lamp for this lap.  I didn't think I would need it, but it was a safety net.  The problem was that I was already a mile into the last lap.  Then desperation hit.  You always hear the phrase "Mind Over Matter".  Well I'm here to tell you, that phrase is no myth.  When I realized I had left my light at the drop and I could possibly get caught in the dark on an unfamiliar trail, my survival instincts kicked in.  I quickly forgot how bad my day went, how bad I felt, and how tired and hungry I was and I began to run.  Not shuffle, as I had been doing for the last 5 hours.........Running!!!!!!!  My mind took over and blocked out all of the mental and physical pain.  I watched my pace increase to 10:30 - 11:00 minute pace.  I was moving again.  I established a plan to run 9/10s of a mile and walk the last 10th.  This worked out well.  If I hit mud and water, I walked through it, but immediately began to run again afterward.  Now I was the one passing people; people who were walking and looked like I had only an hour before.  I had to get to the finish and fast.  As I hit mile 49, it became evident that I would finish in the daylight and my adrenaline rush began to decrease.  My pace slowed and I started walking a little more.  But what a surge I had in those last 5 miles.  Finally the finish line was in sight and I ran it in with authority.  I was done in 10:43:10.  It wasn't pretty and it wasn't easy, but it was a finish and I'll take it.  The race director, Dennis, handed me my 50 Mile buckle and an Amphipod.  I told Erica the day before that I didn't think a 50 Miler was worthy of a buckle, but after what I went through, I was happy to accept it.  My stance has softened a little on that issue.  I made it to the car, posed for some pictures and exchanged congratulation with a few other runners.  The day was done and thankfully I had stuck it out.

Lap #5 Results- 6.25 miles     1:24:11     Pace- 13:28

Total Miles- 50     Elapsed Time-  10:43:10     Avg. Pace- 12:51

In the end, I finished middle of the pack. Of the 116 50 Milers who started that morning, only 80 would finish. Many more dropped to the 50K or 20K. Of the 80 who finished, I was 43rd. Considering how I felt, that was not too bad.

In closing, I guess the thing I learned from this race is to never underestimate your opponent; and by opponent I mean the course.  I went into this race with high hopes b/c it was supposed to be a fairly easy course, as far as ultras go., but I was proved wrong by the weather and the resulting trail conditions and I made a few dumb mistakes of my own.  This one was a learning experience and I learned some valuable lessons that I will carry with me to my next ultra.  In the end, it was a good experience.  When you hit your lowest of lows, it strengthens your mind, body and soul for the next difficult situation.  I always tell Erica, "If ultra running was easy, everyone would do it.".  And you know what???  I'm right.

Run on friends.