And now for the long version.
Preface: My training buddies and I did this together so a lot of my report will be using the word we. Please don’t think I’ve had a schizophrenic breakdown.
We had one main strategy going into this weekend: Take it easy and have fun. Pacing yourself for three days of racing is not something any of us knew how to do, so we decided erring on the side of caution would be our best bet. We wanted to make sure we finished day one feeling FANTASTIC so that day two and three would not be so daunting. We wanted to stay together the whole weekend because running for three days and 43 miles alone sounded DREADFUL. We wanted to end the weekend with a desire to come back next year.
(SPOILER ALERT: We can’t wait until next year.)
As always – all photos were taken by Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville. If you want to check out the three days of BEAUTIFUL scenery you should check out his whole album of photos here.
Day One: It’s All About The Waterline
I’ll be honest. The first day was the one I was looking forward to the most. It was the set of trails that were the newest to me, and therefore the most exciting. But also, there’s a lot of history on those trails, as a lot of them are where the old railroad used to be that went up the mountain to a huge hotel that no longer exists. Since our race logo revolves around the train and that railroad, I thought Day One would hold the most significance. We had the blessing of perfect weather as the temps were moderate and the skies were clear.
I had Donnie drop me off at the parking lot where the race was to start at 6:30am. The excitement was already palpable as most of my running peeps had never embarked on a three day stage race before. My two friends that I trained with and I decided we’d demonstrate how serious we were taking this by wearing matching shirts every day. I think people thought we were joking when we told them we did actually plan it. (After the third day? They realized we were NOT joking.) We all got our bib numbers (we were to get new bibs every day), gathered around for the pre-race instructions, and started off on our journey.
My allergies were my biggest problem and my first three miles were very difficult. I haven’t been sleeping well so I felt like I just couldn’t get going. I was the caboose on our train and it was a struggle to keep up. About 30 minutes into the run one, of my peeps suggested some nutrition. Even though I had my normal pre-race breakfast, and some great pre-race mashed fruit, I thought she might be right. I popped open a salted caramel gu (my new favorite fuel) which also has caffeine, and sucked that baby down. She was right. It was EXACTLY what I needed. I felt better the entire rest of the day.
We weren’t worried about the cutoff time on Day One. It was 13 miles in 5 hours. It was being touted as the Hardest Day even though it was the shortest distance. We knew it would be hard because it had the steepest climb of the weekend: Waterline. That climb was somewhere in the middle and by the time we got to that, we were still feeling really good. It hadn’t gotten too hot, we were all hanging in there energy-wise, and we were pleasantly surprised to find they had put ropes there for the race day. We had never climbed Waterline with the benefit of ropes before. SCORE!
Of course, we were the tail-end of the 50-racer group, so the ropes were quite slack and therefore useless. No big deal, however, as we had trained on that climb enough to each have our own strategy for conquering it.
The rest of the run was relatively uneventful. There was a lot of proclaiming about the beauty of it all, none of us are used to running when there’s actual vegetation covering the forest floor. It never go too hot. I didn’t take any during-race salt, only took the one pre-race tablet and that was it. I stuck with water in my pack but got powerade at the aid stations for the added electrolytes. The aid stations were perfectly located and well-stocked. Donnie was working the one at mile 8 and that was a WONDERFUL pick-me-up.
When we started rolling in towards the finish-line we were all actually shocked because we felt GREAT. We had taken it easy enough that we all felt like we could have run more miles, no problem. My one friend and I are in the same age-group so we intentionally crossed together, even though we knew there were plenty ahead of us to take the prize. Overall? Great day. Great run. Only mild issues early on and felt great at the finish line.
(One way to gauge trail difficulty is to look at the elite racers and compare their road pace with their trail pace. Day One’s winner did it in a hair under 2 hours, but his 13.1 road time is about 1:20. That means the course made an elite runner slow down about 3-minutes per mile, which is a big drop in speed which is a good demonstration of the difficulty.)
Day Two: Most Miles, Shortest Cuttoff.
Going in to Day Two our biggest concern was the cuttoff time. We knew the trails would be “easier” but the distance was longer (16 miles) and we only had 4:30 to complete it. It took us about 3:40 to do the 13 miles the day before, so we weren’t panicked about finishing on time, but we were more concerned than we were about Day One.
Before the race started, I was hit with a HUGE allergy attack. I could not stop sneezing and could NOT clear my sinuses no matter how often I blew my nose. I started panicking a bit because, not being able to breath through my nose seemed like an awful way to start the race. I packed some napkins from the Post-Race Food Table and headed out. Again, the first few miles were ROUGH. My voice was off too, as the cough and sneezing had taken a toll on my throat. I sounded sick. I took my Gu as the race started on Day Two, hoping that the push of caffeine would help.
One funny note: We started out the race that day in the camp site portion of the park. THere were tons of people getting up for the morning after camping and I don’t think they knew what to make of our group. Trail runners are usually decked out in neon as they were running gear and running gear is often bright. We make for a weird vision if you’ve never seen a group of trail runners. Especially at 7:30am outside your tent. It was very entertaining.
After about 2-3 miles, my sinuses cleared up (thank GOD) and all started going well again. The trails from Day Two were not too new for me. There were two stretches of trails that were unfamiliar to me, but nothing major. And they connected trails I knew well, so it wasn’t too foreign. The one main difference from Day Two is the temperature was higher and we were getting more direct sun. Trail running is often shadier, and it was definitely not as direct as sun on the road, but the skies were clear and that side of the mountain was at a more direct sun angle than the day before. I took my pre-race salt but also took salt pills two other times during the race.
We started Saturday much faster than we started Friday. This was mostly due to the trails being easier. One of our early miles was actually under 11 minutes which was good since this was the day we were worried the most about the cuttoff time. We banked some good time on the easy trails which helped us when we were walking the harder trails later in the day.
I was doing something different with my salt this time, I was biting into the capsules a bit before swallowing. I’ve had problems in the past with my stomach getting upset after taking a salt tablet, so Donnie suggested I do that to make sure to aid in the breaking of the capsule. I think that might have been the key to why the didn’t bother me this time.
Another difference in Day Two, I didn’t eat any of the “real” food in my pack. I usually pack peanut butter flatbread because I like real food on long runs, but Saturday I just wanted Gus. It was weird, I had never wanted that kind of fuel before, but those things just hit the spot. I think it was the caffeine I was loving from them.
Saturday was also when we noticed that 3 of the 4 of our group were doing a good job of taking turns having alternating downswings. This worked out well because we would rotate our running order in the pack and it the members feeling good could help encourage or make sure the one feeling crappy was getting what they needed: Salt, Fuel, Fluids etc. You can’t really plan your downswing on a race, but if you can not ALL have them at the same time, it works out better.
Donnie and the kids were working an Aid Station about the halfway point of the day again. It was AWESOME to see them and they were taking it VERY seriously. They each were manning one cooler and filled our bottles and packs for us. It was great. I highly recommend having our family volunteer at your race, seeing their faces gives you a great boost.
Saturday was also the day some in our group learned the joy of a properly time cup of Coke. I’m not a Coke drinker but it really hit the spot for some in our group (although it wasn’t quite flat enough and caused some burping) and gave them the pep they needed to finish off the race.
The one bad thing about Saturday was someone stole some of our course markings. We actually got a little stressed and slowed down to discuss the course a bit once we noticed we hadn’t seen flags in awhile. Luckily, we knew those trails, and we kinda remembered the course map, so we never fully went into panic mode. Evidently others that day weren’t so lucky and did panic a bit more.
We did a bit more doubling up on trails on Day Two than any other day. I didn’t mind it too much, but it’s never exciting to revisit a trail. That’s the only downside to running local races, because if you were not local? You probably didn’t even notice that the trail we climbed up at the end was the one we ran down earlier.
There was a small bit of road running we had to do towards the end of Day Two and none of our legs liked that. Luckily, and before we really started to hurt from it, we headed back on the trails for one last bit of unfamiliar scenery for me. I’ve never been on the chunk of trail that took us to the finish line which was interesting because I didn’t exactly know when to expect to see the finish line. We crossed just a hair under four hours and definitely were feeling tired. Not too tired so that Day Three seemed impossible, but we definitely were starting to feel the effects of the 29 miles we had already logged.
Day Three: Powerline, K2, Warpath…OH MY!
Even though the race directors were saying Day One was the hardest, we were more worried about Day Three. We knew there’d be TONS of elevation gain and we’d be on REALLY tired legs. It was 14 miles but we had one LONG (1-mile) climb I was worried about, as we typically hit that 1-mile stretch of trails going down since that’s how it’s run in the 25K we train for in the late winter. We had never gone up it before. We were also a bit worried about the mud as we knew the trails on Sunday to be some of the sloppiest on the mountain.
I started day three with a little more pep than the previous days, actually hit my downswing later on Day Three. Overall, the day was the hottest of the three. I was taking salt regularly and still feeling really zapped. There were several challenging chunks of trails we were worried about, some going down, some going up, and they all hit us pretty hard. We were just feeling tired as a group and were definitely feeling the downswings more often than the previous two days.
I think the course was mapped out well, though, because I was most worried about K2 (down) and Powerline (up) and Warpath (up) but all of those were in the first half of the day. This was probably key as, once we went down Rest Shelter and headed out for the last 6ish miles of the weekend? My mood dropped substantially. I was just tired and ready to be done. If the course had been switched and the front half been in the back? It would have been a lot uglier of a finish.
I think the hardest part was the 1-mile climb UP Arrowhead. The climb is not steep at all, but it’s just so LONG and we knew the aid station was at the top which made us count the steps uphill even more. Also? This was the first time all weekend I felt one of the negatives of running in trails warmer weather: BUGS. The horseflies would not leave me alone. I joked that it was because I smelled so bad they thought I was dead. I have never been SO HAPPY to be at the top of a trail in my ENTIRE LIFE.
Once we got to that aid stating we knew we had 2-3 miles left. One tough climb down and one HELLA climb up. We knew we’d be ending the day on Death Trail, a climb we know very well.
Going down the techinical part of Natural Well was tricky as we all had very tired legs and there was a lot of sitting on big rocks and sliding down because we weren’t sure our legs could handle the jumps or stretches to climb down a more athletic way. We had hit the 40-mile over the weekend mark at this point, we were zapped. But we made it down Natural Well and enjoyed the last bit of runnable trails before hitting Death Trail. Once we got to the base of Death Trail we knew we were almost home. All of our GPSes hit the 14-mile mark early on Death Trail so we figured the finish line would be right at the top. We celebrated passing each of the named points on Death Trail: Superhero Rock, The Columns, Beyonce’s Butt and then got a burst of energy when we heard the cheering at the top.
TWO semi-unfortunate things happened right at the finish.
1) We realized all of the cheering was not for us when we heard them yelling, “GO DADDY!” We laughed and told the guy finishing with us, “Man! We though all of those voices were cheering for US for a minute there! They’re all for you!”
2) The finish line was NOT at the top of Death Trail.
They diverted us around the top of the trail a bit for some final running before leading us in to the finish. We all might have cursed a little bit during that last bit, “WHY ARE THEY MAKING US RUN MORE?” It was actually kind of funny because there was an Earth Day festival going on up there and we’re running around these people looking desperately for the finish line and when we finally saw it there was an audible sigh of relief from our group. THANK GOD, WE ARE FINALLY DONE.
The Wrap Up
All in all? It was definitely one of the most fun weekends of my life. I owe this to several things:
- An awesome running team that stayed together every mile. Seriously. I could not have done this alone. Or, I could have done it, but it would have SUCKED.
- An excellent running community of fun friends. Not only was my foursome that I ran with the whole weekend simply AWESOME, but we had tons of other friends running there every day. We saw them before and after and we laughed and just had a great time. I could not have asked to go to battle with a better group of 50′ish people. There were also several friend who popped in for 1 or 2 days of the weekend and that was great too. I was just happy to be surrounded by so much awesome this weekend.
- Perfect weather. We could NOT have asked for better weather for a 3-day race weekend. Not too hot, clear skies, dry trails.
- A well-planned race with well-planned and challenging courses. The trails were not boring and there was PLENTY of support. They had to deal with the challenge of idiots stealing our trail markers on Saturday, but they handled it well and only a few people were inconvenienced because of it.
I’m proud to be a Charter Member of the Grand Viduta Stage Race. I hope I can do it every year.