“This race will hook ya” – Bryan Campbell
The t-shirt proclaims that Mt. Mist is the South’s premier trail race, and I believe it. I had my best race so far (in my limited experience), and I will be back next year. I had a great day and I think I am starting to get this ultra thing.
Friday Jan 21st
“It’s going to be cold” – Nathan Jackson
I called my friend Nathan to see if he wanted to ride together but he was already at his campsite at Monte Santo and said there was about an inch of snow on the ground. So I threw my cold weather gear in my gym bag after work, tried to leave the house twice, and after finally going though my mental checklist one last time, left for the three-hour drive to Huntsville. The first part of the journey I occupied myself with my timing dilemma. I recently sent my GPS watch back to Garmin because it was not charging correctly and my old Timex had a broken watchband, so I was trying to decide if I should stop at a Major Mart store somewhere and purchase either a watchband or a new watch. Neither seemed like a favorable option so I eventually tabled the discussion. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.
I arrived at the hotel and found the entire Rouge Runner crew in the hotel lobby, and as we stood around exchanging pleasantries I began to notice that everybody else coming and going through the lobby looked kinda like me; lots of poly-whatever-shell outerwear, hats with Montrail, Marmot, Patagonia…etc. embroidered on them, and shoes, shoes, and more shoes. This was a new experience for me, because I have never stayed at a hotel near a major race. It was like a sort of brother/sisterhood thing. We all nodded at each other acknowledging the 50 to 60 mile weeks that it takes to run one of these things and I was comforted to find so many people with the same mental disability that I have.
Saturday Jan 22nd
I roomed with Orlando Baez, ultra racing superhero and my coach, and went through the race morning ritual oatmeal, coffee, etc. and drove up to the Monte Sano lodge. When I turned off of Hwy. 431 onto Monte Sano, I was fiddling around with something in the passenger seat of my truck when I suddenly realized that I was moving in a direction that was perpendicular to the direction of my truck. I hit a patch of ice and had to do some Dukes of Hazzard driving to recover. As it turns out, Orlando hit the patch too and I heard talk at the lodge of someone else taking out a sign. I wondered if this was a precursor of things to come.
My last ultra was the Dizzy Fifties at this same park, and it was such a disappointment on so many levels that I devoted myself to training like I never have before. I was going to get back at Monte Sano and have a great race. I wanted to run hard, stay mentally focused, and be able to feel proud of myself at the end. At the lodge, I chatted with the Rogue crew and tried to decide on a strategy for the race. Orlando and Johnny Buice (ultra running great) have run this race multiple times and the consensus was to take advantage of the first half because it is very runable and then deal with the second half the best you can. Nathan blasted a 3:29 marathon last week in Warner Robins, so his strategy was to take it easy and get ready to PR Cheaha next month. I knew Johnny and Orlando would go out hard, and I was leery of a fast start after the Dizzy race, so I decided to start off easy and run with Nathan.
With the report of some sort of old-timey gun, off we went. Since we are Southerners and don’t particularly care for cold, Nathan and I waited until the last minute to come out the warmth of the lodge and into the low 20’s air. We ended up pretty far back in the pack at the start. No problem, Nathan had his Garmin and was keeping us at around 11:00 min/mile for the first stretch. We went off into the woods and Nathan and I were talking a lot because we hadn’t run together in a while. We covered music, astrophysics (thanks for spell check-I could never spell that by myself), and other esoteric subjects. We were just talking and having a nice time. The course was amazing; it looked like a Christmas card. There was a soft powder of snow on the ground and the runners looked like a string of lights with the bright colors of the running gear trailing down the single track.
Things progressed smoothly and pleasantly through aid station one, and aside from a few inclines and logjams, we ran the course like a nice Saturday long run. There was a memorable section where the trail spilled out onto a powerline trail that opened up and allowed a nice view of the surrounding hills and dales. We continued to the next aid station, which was about mile 12 or so, and I was feeling pretty good. I grabbed some chips and a banana and moved out for the next leg. As I started out, I felt the urge to pick up the pace, and so I did. Nathan already told me to go ahead when I felt like it, so I quickened my steps and ran free. There were several downhills that I ran with abandon. I kept thinking that I was running like a mountain goat (it’s weird—I know), but I flew down the rocky sections quick stepping and juking and jiving. I was having a great time. I was surprised to run into Johnny, because I did not expect to see him until I got to the lodge, but he had suffered a turned ankle that never turned back the right way. I started passing folks and I know they thought I was crazy, but I was having fun. A quick side note, I passed folks continuously from aid station two till the end, but I always made some sort of effort to be considerate to the other runners. I believe in that.
I knew that the course was going to get tough eventually, so I decided to run everything I could until I got to something I couldn’t run.
The Three Hill Race
When I got to the 3rd aid station, I was feeling good and I asked a volunteer what the mile marker was. He said 17.1 and “this is where the hard part starts”. At this point I started to realize the beauty of not having my GPS watch. I had taken my Timex off the band and it was tucked in my belt, but with my gloved fingers it was nearly impossible to get at. I stopped and checked my watch and it had recorded 3:11 since the start of the race, so I figured I had a shot at 6 hours if I pushed it. That’s all the thinking I did about time, and it freed me to think about terrain and energy and running. I resolved to keep running hard and let the terrain dictate my pace; time became irrelevant.
I ran until I got to a giant hill (Waterline). I have always thought that power walk was oxymoronic or maybe just moronic, but I now know what that means. It means that your strides are purposeful and commanding. I took charge of the situation and told myself that this was a good break from running because I was using different muscle groups. I am not sure about the science behind this but I mentally I made it work. I was alone at the top of this massive hill and I stood in front of a rock face at a waterfall trying to find the course markers. I looked to both sides several times and finally looked straight up, and there were the markers. Then, in my mind-mush and jelly-legged state, tried to figure out how I was going to get up the icy face of this rock. I climbed up the rock like a chimpanzee (swinging from trees--literally) and then collected myself.
I knew there were two more hills, so I hit the trail hard as long as it was runable, taking advantage of every fairly level spot. I ran behind two girls for a while that were hitting a good pace. One asked me if I wanted to pass and I replied, “no, I am just trying to keep up”. Ultra running is great like that, when you are feeling down, you just might meet up with someone who can help you pick it up.
Somewhere along the line I ran up on Bryan Campbell, who I met at the Dizzy race and we talked for a while. He is a fellow schoolteacher and a local who provided me with a lot of useful local knowledge (which came in handy at the end). I really wanted to talk more about teaching and such, but my mush-mind prohibited intelligent conversation.
To the Finish
The rest of the race is simple. There are two more big hills, and I ran as much of them as I could. The parts that I could not run I walked with purpose (I still can’t say powerwalk). I felt great. I had a couple of mantras that I kept repeating to myself to fend off the negativity that plagued me on the last ultra: I have trained for this, and move forward relentlessly. OK, I will admit that I could not for the life of me recall the word relentlessly, but I kept trying to think of it and it occupied a lot of time. I came up with determinitably (yeah, I know it is not a word), doggedly, and some other nonsense, but I knew what I meant.
At the last aid station, Bryan was talking to some of his students, and I joked with the volunteers about the lack of Krystal burgers and doughnuts at the aid station. Then it was back at it for the last leg. We ran for a while and then started up a hill. I asked Bryan if there were any more and he said no. I asked him about time, and he did not have a watch (another reason why I like this guy). I dug my watch out and realized that I had stopped it at 3:11 somehow, but I switched it to actual time and it was 1:39. He said that if we got up the hill in 5 minutes that we would have a shot at a sub-six hour race.
Ok then, it’s on.
I did my best up the hill and when we got to the top I started running. Bryan was struggling a bit, but picked it up and we both ran-I mean ran-the last mile and a half. My stomach was growling, my lungs were howling, my legs were shot, but my mind was right. I was going to give it my best.
We finally came up to the lodge and I saw the clock at 5:58, and there was Orlando cheering me on. I made it in under six and so did Bryan.
This truly is a selfish habit, eccentricity, or whatever you want to call it, because the thing that I feel best about is my own effort in this race, but I know that I could not have done this by myself. Mt. Mist is a great race that is well organized, has great volunteers, and great competition. Above all, I train with people who are not just great runners, but great people. That is what keeps me motivated, and I think that is why I am starting to get this ultra thing.