While running my first 24 hour race last year, the Midsummer Nights Dream Ultra, I pushed my distance limitations from 37 miles to 55 miles. After 21 hours of running 1 mile loops I had to quit with a total of 55 miles, for which I pushed myself and my limits. At the end of the race I went to put a heavy table into my car, as I picked up the table I felt a terrible, weird pain in my lower back. This pain would nag me for months as I continued to race and push my distance, getting slower with each race. As the year ended my snail running pace did not improve, instead I found myself getting slower as I fought the pain from the injury.
After my last 50k in November, which I was an hour slower in the same race the previous year I knew something was wrong. As December rolled in I decided I needed to rest the injury and maybe it would go away, so I quit running… actually I basically quit all workout activities and let my weight balloon up from 290 to 310 pounds.
In January I modified my diet and began lifting weights along with swimming. I was determined to do something to keep myself from atrophying as I knew I wanted to eventually return to running. I finally went to the doctor and with physical therapy had a plan to get myself back to running by the end of the year (most of this recap is in my previous post here and here). In the early months of the year I felt very optimistic about a quick rehab and return to running so I signed up for the Georgia Jewel 50 mile race, the same one that was my first 50 mile the year before (recap here)… then I forgot about it.
Fast forward to the beginning of August. After months of physical therapy I had finally been cleared to start running again. The rehab process took much longer than I was anticipating, but I had refined my diet and I had dropped my weight from 310 pounds 36% body fat down to 250 pounds 26% body fat.I had swam several distance races including a 5k and had built a bit of muscle in the gym. Running wise though, I had to readjust myself and begin to build back up my mileage. I found myself in the best shape of my life, but nowhere near the running fitness I had the year before when I was running 80 miles a week.
That first week of August I got a shock as the first email regarding the Ga Jewel showed up in my inbox. I then remembered I had signed up for it and I realized I had about 7 weeks to go from 5 miles a week to 50 mile race shape. The other kicker involved the new time cutoffs which meant instead of 30 hours to finish I had 17 hours to finish. This race took me 22 hours to finish last year.
I kept my plan simple and slowly and smartly increased my mileage. I figured I would drop to the 35 mile “Fun Run” instead of running the 50 mile race, a simpler goal with the limited training time, but in the back of my mind I kept fighting the urge to try the 50 mile race again, even with limited training. The cutoff times stuck as a major detractor and I mentally bounced back and forth on which race I would run. By the end of September it was time to race, with seven weeks of training and months of no running I knew the time had come to just run, training time was over.
The day before the race I packed up my stuff, a mix of gear needed for 35 mile or 50 mile running. I still had not committed to a single distance, I was still signed up for the 50 mile race. At packet pickup I still had not committed to a distance and figured if I could get a bit of extra time past cutoffs I would go ahead with the 50 mile race. Not sure why but I really felt like the 50 mile race was truly what I was there for, finish or not and that was the challenge I wanted. I left packet pickup still signed up for the 50 mile race, I now had to be up earlier than I expected as the 50 mile race started at 7 AM unlike the 35 mile race that started at 9 AM.
At 7 AM the next morning, after a long night with little sleep, the race director started the race and the long slog up the power line started. I took the climb slow and worked to warm up my legs. I knew from the previous year the trick here was just to get up the climb and then for several miles the running would get easier. That would be the place to pick up the pace and push. I had little faith I would make any of the cutoffs but my major goal involved finishing under 20 hours this year, a major feat considering I was two hours over last year. But I weighed less and with a month of training had been working on increasing my pace and climbing speed.
The first eleven miles rolled by and I found myself way behind the other runners, but as I entered the Narrows aide station, the first one, I was ahead of my pace from last year and felt great. I refilled my water, ate some food and pushed on. I realized the heat was picking up and that I needed to drink more water than 1.5 liters every ten miles. So I figured I would use the unmanned water stops and chug down more water, tossing in some electrolytes I carried with me. Additionally I was frequently taking in electrolyte salts and figured my hydration was spot on.
As I neared the seventeen mile marker, the Manning Aide Station the heat became scorching. I continued to work my pace and pulled in ten minutes before the cutoff, which amazed me because I figured I had no chance of catching the set cutoffs. I changed my shirt and socks and resupplied my electrolyte mix, ate some food and drank a soda or two and quickly left. From this aide station to the top of Johns Mountain aide station I would have about two hours and forty-five minutes to make cutoff and would have to climb over 1,000 feet in 8.9 miles, pushing a bit over a 3 mph pace. For 17 miles, over easier terrain I had been pushing about a 3.1-3.2 mph pace, which for me was faster than usual. Often long climbs slowed me down to around 2.5-2.8, being a larger Clydesdale body type does not help with climbing.
At this point I realized I could not make the next cutoff. The Johns Mountain climb is a long brutal slog of a climb that just feels like it never ends. I also knew that I would lose a bit of time refilling water at the unmanned aide station I would lose some of the time I needed to meet cutoff. I pushed on and tried to push for the distant cutoff. After a few miles I came to the unmanned water table and I refilled my water bladder and poured in some extra electrolyte powder. At this point I was feeling the heat and my urine began to get a bit darker. I poured water on my rag I carry with me and tried to cool down, it had gotten really hot. After a bit of a cool down I pushed on. I wasted too much time at that stop, but it was needed to fight the heat. The climb up the mountain took forever but I pushed and fought my way up the never-ending path up. About forty-five minutes past the cutoff I made it to the oasis on top of the mountain. I had smooth sailing from here, there were climbs but none of them were as long.
I refilled and refueled and eventually pushed off from the aide station. After a couple of miles I knew I was in trouble as my urine had gotten a bit darker and my legs started to cramp up as I ran. My pace slowed a bit but I kept pushing. I passed Pilchers pond and pushed on toward Horn Mountain and the next unmanned water stop. Extreme fatigue suddenly hit and then the worst happened, every muscle in both legs began cramping all at once, every inch of my quads, hamstrings and calves. I suddenly could not run or walk, but flailed about uncontrollably as I tried to sooth the out of control muscles. I knew at that point my day was finished, I was getting further behind the cutoffs and my muscles were in a terrible place.
I slowly walked back to the road, about a mile took me an hour and then I lied next to the Keown Falls sign and found a position that did not make my legs cramp. I was out of water so I licked some electrolyte salt and hoped I could eventually find someone to either take me to the next aide station, I was stuck in a huge pocket without cell service. After an hour of seeing few people, two bikers stopped to smoke a cigarette. They were locals and after a bit of discussion they agreed to go to the next aide station and let them know I needed to be picked up. As they got ready to do me this favor I asked for one more, something to drink. One of them had an unopened Mountain Dew in their bag and offered it to me. It was pure heaven. Eventually I got picked up, several hours after my muscles had gone crazy.
I had gotten a bit over 32 miles and if it was not for the heat, I believe I could have finished within 19 hours. Looking at the number in comparison to last year, I was holding a 3.0 to 3.2 mile per hour pace for 10 hours and had been moving faster than last years race. Overall a drastic improvement from the previous year, even though I did not get the completion I wanted. Should I have dropped down to the 35? I am glad I didn’t. I felt stronger than the previous year and I got the challenge I craved. I would have loved to have finished my second 50 mile ultra distance race, but sometimes its just not meant to happen. Sometimes you just have to let it go and move on, prepare for the next set of challenges and learn from the recent setback.
Looking back at the 32 miles I did cover, I feel my nutrition plan proved spot on. The increased heat and pace I believe led to my eventual melt down. Additionally, I only had seven weeks of true training leading up to this race, but I felt confident and strong. I know for next years Jewel I need to work on increasing the pace at least up to 3.5 miles per hour and I need more time working on long climbs. I have a year or more to prepare and look ahead, eager to see what improvements and challenges come next. I love this race and cannot wait to try again next year.
Til next time.