Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Wild Azalea Trail Challenge 50 Mile

January 4, 2014

I have been running the Wild Azalea Trail for about 4 years now, since I discovered the joys of ultra-running.  I have run every inch of it many, many times, and I guess you could say I am the local WAT expert.  I doubt anyone has more time or miles on WAT or it's connecting trails.  A few years back I joined a few locals to do a point to point of WAT (24 miles).  It was just a fat-ass training type run, where we all met up at one end, ran a point to point, and had someone bring us back to our cars. 

Last year Brad Colwell and Spencer Martin got the idea to make it an offical, but still "bare bones", race, and the Wild Azalea Challenge was born.  Last year's race was 27 miles (2 miles on pavement, 24 on WAT, 1 on Valentine Lake Trail).  The cost, $10.  What a deal!!!!!  There was a solo category, a relay, and a mountain bike category.  It was just supposed to be a local thing with 15-20 participants.  Well, 15-20 quickly ballooned to over 50, and the race was nearly overwhelmed, as the pre-dropped aid boxes were quickly exhausted with so many unexpected runners.

For 2014, they added a 50 Mile race to the series, and upped the entry a little ($20 for the 27, $40 for the 50).  Still a pretty good deal for a race over marathon distance.  The addition of a 50 Mile race really peaked my interest, as I have been wanting to do a double crossing of WAT for a while, but never did, because of the difficulty of running 50 miles, point to point, unsupported.  There was only one problem........I was already signed up for the Cajun Coyote 100 Mile on December 7th.  A very short 27 days from the start of the WAT Challenge.  I wasn't sure if my body would be ready to take on 50 miles, so soon after running 100.  However, no one has ever accused me of being smart, so after a week and a half lay-off after Cajun Coyote, I was back on the trails, trying to get my legs back in shape.  With time in short supply, I managed to do two 20 mile runs, and a 13 miler, on trails, two weeks prior to the race.  The week before the race, I ran some "junk miles", just to keep my legs loose.  Also, while I was running those few trail runs, I was also clearing and marking portions of the race course.  This is something I enjoy doing, b/c I consider WAT to be "MY" trail, and I want people who run here to leave with a good impression, and more importantly, come back. 

The actual WAT, on paper, is 26 miles.  I say "on paper", because even though the actual trail is 24 miles, for some reason, the designated parking area for the trail that is located in Woodworth, is 2 miles from the actual trail.  I never understood why the official parking area is so far from the trail, but it is.  That is where the 27 milers would start their race (Woodworth to Valentine Lake).  For the 50 milers, we would start at Valentine Lake, run the first mile on the Valentine Lake Trail, and then run 24 miles of WAT, and back.  All trail, no road, which is what I like.  The one disadvantage of running races from two ends of the trail is that I knew at some point I would be hit with a barrage of trail runners and mountain bikers heading in the opposite direction.  WAT is mostly single track, so this would cause a small disruption to my rhythm. 

Race morning was cold.  27 degrees!!!!  We had 10 entrants in the 50 mile race.  6 from Louisiana, 2 from Texas, 1 from Alabama, and 1 from New Jersey.  Yes.......New Jersey!!!!  That is the power of the internet my friends.  There were around 90 participants in all races combined.  Being the only person in the race with any real familiarity of the trail, I volunteered to lead the pack during the first 4-5 miles of pre-dawn running, so no one would accidentally get off course.  Once daybreak came, the pack spread out, and the race was on. 

I felt surprisingly strong, especially on the first 20 or so miles.  I was running faster than I should have, as I always seem to do during a race.  I always say, I will hold back on the first half of the race, but then I get caught up in a pack of runners, and my competive spirit tells me to keep up.  So was the case here.  When I was less than a mile from turn-around point in Woodworth, I crossed up the first 3 runners, making there way back.  When I got to mile 25, in 4:26:32, my drop box was nowhere to be found.  Since the volunteer who had our drops, didn't anticipate us getting to the end so fast, he missed the first three runners, and drove to the next road crossing with our drops.  In the mean time, I was still able to fill my hydration pack, and suck down some hot chicken broth.  Also, the runner in 5th place, Elena the Jersey girl, caught up to me.  When I got to mile 27, I finally was able to get in my drop box, dump some clothes, suck down a Red Bull, and get on my way.  Elena left only a minute before me, and I was sure I'd catch her, but I never did.  She is a running machine!!!!

By about mile 30, I was really beginning to tire.  I normally refer to this feeling as a gorilla on my back.  However, this race, it was a coyote on my back; a Cajun Coyote.  My body quickly reminded me that I had run 100 miles only a few weeks ago, and it had decided that I was an idiot, and therefore needed to run much, much slower.  I did a lot of walking those last 20 miles.  I followed my usual strategy of running the flats and downhills, and walking the hills.  In many cases, walking the slightest hills.  My body was really exhausted, and I could feel a sizeable blister forming on the outside of my right, big toe.  My nutrition remained pretty good all race.  I ate a lot of V-Fuel gels, Ensure, and some fruit, snickers, etc... from the aid boxes. 

When I finally hit the connecting Valentine Lake Trail, I was pretty much running on fumes.  I knew I only had one mile to go, so I tried to run as much of it as I could.  I texted my wife, and let her know I was a mile out. 

As I approached the finish, I could hear a lot of yelling and cheering.  I could hear people chanting "Grem", "Grem", Grem"!!!!  Who could be cheering for me?  There should have been very few people even left at the finish.  When I finally got closer, I could see my wife, daughter, and a large chunk of the Mud-n-Guts (Lafayette, LA) trail running group, chanting my name.  It's funny, because this was the smallest ultra I'd ever run, but I had the most crowd support at the finish.  Normally, my finishes consist of my wife, the race director, and a few finish line hang-arounds, so it was nice to have a cheering section. 

I crossed in 10:17:03.  A little slower than I intended, but good enough.  A kid working the finish line asked if I needed anything, to which I gave my usual post-race reply.......Beer!  I got my finisher's shirt, cap, and bandana, drank my beer, ate pizza, and closed out the day.  It was a nice race, with perfect weather, and a check off my bucket list.

When it was over, all 10 of us finished the race.  First place finishing in 8:27:49, which is pretty respectable on this trail, because there are quite a lot of hills.  I finished in 5th place.  Elena Makovskaya, our "Jersey girl", finished in 3rd place, as the only female 50 miler, and logged a negative split.  This was a training run for her upcoming 100 mile race.  Ultra-running knows no gender bias, and Elena proved that by kicking the butts of most of the men, including me.  I think she impressed everyone with her performance.

Now, I know I say this every time I run an ultra, but I really intend on taking a little recovery time for myself, and I will try to keep my runs to reasonable lengths.  However, I know that it won't be long before the trails will be calling my name, and I'll be out there again.  I can't help it.  I don't know how to not run.

Crossing the finish line at the WAT Challenge.