Sunday, March 30, 2014

Race Recap: The Leatherwood Mountains

As I was struggling down yet another muddy, 30% grade, getting passed by yet another runner in the Leatherwood Mountains 50-mile, I mumbled something about wishing my shoes had a more aggressive tread.

"I don't think it makes much difference," he/she would inevitably say.

"Yeah, but you're passing me," I'd think to myself.

That said, in some ways I have to agree with them. I don't think the shoes were the reason I couldn't finish the race. I didn't finish the race because it was a damned tough race, and I wasn't quite ready for something that hard.

How hard was it?

I guess the only way to really tell you is to start at the beginning, on a drizzly 50-degree morning in Ferguson, NC. It was wet enough that I didn't want to get my phone out to take a picture. I did remember to set the runkeeper app to record the race. This was my first ultramarathon, and I wanted to share it with the world as I ran.

Most of the other runners were wearing raincoats -- I was not. I had gaiters on and none of the other runners that I could see had them. I wondered if I had made a bad decision. No time to think; the Star-Spangled Banner was played, and, at 7 a.m. as the first dim morning light reached the valley, we were off.

The first few miles were pleasant, on a paved road and then up a gravel road. Brandon (who had taken me on one of my toughest training runs) passed me, jogging steadily up the hill as I began to walk. The first few miles of trails seemed pretty easy as well, despite some significant climbs.

I had told Greta that I'd be passing our cabin around 8 am, so I was surprised to see it come into view at about 7:45. I waved, and heard a cheer from the deck. Greta caught this photo of me running up the hill past the cabin:

Looking good so far...

Soon after, I hit the first major downhill, and some runners quickly caught up to me. I let them pass, but they assured me that I wasn't running too slowly. I stayed close behind them until we reached the first aid station, about 6 miles in.

At this point, I had been averaging about 12-13 minutes per mile. I was hoping to finish in under 12 hours, which would require a 14:24 pace. So my pace seemed about right early on.

The next 4 miles continued on in similar fashion. There was no letup in the rain, but it wasn't bothering me, and the run felt comfortable. But somewhere around Mile 11, conditions began to deteriorate. Instead of an occasional muddy patch, there were whole long stretches of deep, slippery, yellow mud. It would have been one thing if the mud was just in the flat spots, but there was mud everywhere. It slowed my progress on the uphills, and made the downhills treacherous.

Each step involved calculating the best spot to place your foot, adjusting for the potential slide of the foot, then reacting to the actual slide, often in a completely different direction than anticipated. On downhills the decision was often between "letting it ride" and speeding down the hill before your feet had a chance to slide -- but risking a serious fall -- and trying to control the descent by slowing down. In the end, I fell down several times, nearly always in slow-motion as I took the "safer" slow option.

My mile paces slowed to 16-, 17-, even 18-minutes-per-mile, barely faster than walking. In truth, I was walking for large chunks of the race, even on downhill segments. Around Mile 15, about three and a half hours in, I got passed by the lead 50K runner, who had started an hour later than me. I couldn't believe how seemingly reckless he was, but somehow he managed to remain vertical and continue running.

Finally I made it back to the main aid station at Mile 16, next to the finish line. Here's a photo Stephanie Moore snapped of me as I was running in:

I don't look half bad at this point

I had completed the first loop (in orange below). Perhaps Loop 2 (in pink) would be easier. Loop 1 and 2 total 50K -- the 50K runners would stop then, while the 50-milers had to complete an additional 10-mile loop (in green) twice:

Note the 14,000 feet of vertical gain — and descent

At the aid station, Sam — my training partner who had talked me into this race before dropping out with an injury — filled my water pack while his wife Stephanie helped me find the food that felt like it would stay down. I grabbed a couple peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the road and started on Loop 2.

Nearly immediately it was clear that this loop was going to be much tougher than the first loop. It wasn't that the hills were bigger or steeper, it was that they were much muddier. Often when climbing up a hill, I wasn't sure that my foot would stick. A typical step slid back ten inches. The downhills were the worst. On Loop 1, I could usually find some part of the path where there was a little less mud and my feet would have some prayer of not slipping. On Loop 2, often there was no "safe" part of the path, and it was a matter of trying to ride out the slip as best as possible.

My pace slowed, and slowed some more. Finally I reached the next aid station, at mile 20. Several runners were there, and we all agreed these were the worst conditions we had ever seen. One runner asked for a beer from the aid workers, who were happy to oblige.

Mercifully, the next couple miles were on pavement and I could pick my pace back up to 11:00 per mile. If only I had solid footing the whole way, this race would be no problem! Unfortunately, it didn't last. Next I had to wade across a creek two feet deep, and then it was back to steep, muddy slopes. My pace dropped back to barely-better-than-walking.

"I'm definitely going to change my shoes when I get back to the main aid station" soon morphed in to "maybe I'll drop out when I get back to the main aid station."

A runner caught up from behind. "Are you Dave Munger?" he asked.

"Yes," I said with surprise.

"I thought so," he said. "I recognize you from your blog." We chatted, and this lifted my spirits for a while -- until he too disappeared ahead of me in the mist.

As I approached the next aid station, our path merged with the path the 10-milers were taking — the path we'd be taking for the final two loops of the race. The mud was thicker and deeper than it had been anywhere along the course.

Finally I made it to the aid station at Mile 24.7. Here the race leader strode by almost effortlessly. I wasn't sure if he was on his final lap or his second-to-last lap, but he looked very strong. One of the aid workers said that from here to the main aid station the course wasn't too bad. "There are a few slippery spots, but most of it is quite runnable," she said.

Immediately after leaving the aid station I hit one of the slickest sections of trail I'd been on all day. It didn't get better, and my pace slowed to 25 minutes per mile. At this rate, with half the race remaining, it would take me 10 hours to finish. I wouldn't be done until midnight or later. I felt like I could keep running if I only had decent traction, but this slipping and sliding was just impossible. Everything just kept getting muddier and muddier. My shoes, my gaiters, and even my calf sleeves were coated with mud. Every time it seemed like the trail was improving, I'd find a section that was even worse.

I could also tell that just being tired was slowing me down a lot. Even on flat sections it took more and more mental effort to lift my legs up and start running. The temptation was to walk slower and slower. When I reached the top of a steep pitch, I'd often stop completely, just to steel myself mentally for the precarious descent.

Finally I decided that this was going to be it. I would drop out of the race after 50K, when I reached the main aid station. With conditions worsening and my own physical condition deteriorating as well, it simply didn't make sense to continue.

Shortly after that, the runner who had recognized me before passed me again. "It's me again," he said. "I took a little detour." Someone had misdirected him and he had taken a wrong turn.

"That's too bad," I said. "I'm thinking I'm going to drop out at 50K."

"No!" he said. "You won't be able to live with yourself if you do."

"I just don't think I can make it."

"I'll run with you," he said.

"I couldn't keep up with you."

"I've only dropped one race, and I've always regretted it," he said.

We went back and forth a couple more times, and I convinced him I just couldn't handle the trail conditions. Soon he once again disappeared ahead of me.

Somehow I made my way back to the finish, and 7 hours and 45 minutes into the race, after running 50K (or around 28.6 miles according to my Garmin) I told Sam I was dropping out. He tried to talk me out of it for a minute or so, but it was pretty clear to him that I had had enough. "If it's any consolation," he said, "tons of people are dropping out. I've never seen so many DNFs."

Apparently there were 49 DNFs in the 50K and 50-mile races. There were only 44 finishers in the 50-miler compared to 63 last year — and I believe the number of registrants was about the same both years.

My friend Jeff McGonnell limped into to the finish area about 20 minutes after me, and said he was dropping out as well. Jeff has run over 40 50-milers and this was the first time he had ever dropped out. He said it was among the worst conditions he has seen at any race.

All that said, I really do wish I could somehow have summoned the will to continue. I was simply terrified by the muddy downhills, which were getting more perilous as my own body was weakening. I would have almost certainly been finishing in the darkness, when it would have been even more difficult.

It was a tremendous relief to just be finished. My results don't count as an "official" 50K, but my time would have placed me 10th in the 50K race, so despite being very hard on myself, I apparently am not a horrible ultrarunner. That said, I think I'm going to retire from ultrarunning at least temporarily and go back to the 5K and 10K distances, which are much more satisfying to me (perhaps mainly because I seem to do better at them).

My Garmin data for the race ended up being corrupted, but if you're interested in seeing some details of the race, you can look at my Runkeeper results. These go through mile 25.8, when the battery in my phone died. That's too bad, because around Mile 27, I tried to stop and take a picture of the muddy trails to show you what I was dealing with — only to see that wasn't going to work.

I'll leave you with a couple more photos my wife took:

Me after the race—stopping feels so good!

My muddy gear

1 comment:

  1. That was definitely a tough race. Congrats on pushing through 31 tough miles.