I was finally able to get my first (hopefully of many) trail ultra marathon finishes in Pikeville, Tennessee at the Fall Creek Falls 50k. I’m very happy to say that it went amazingly well.
My training leading up to the event went as well as could be expected. I was able to get in progressive long runs over 16 weeks leading up to the event, topping out at 24 miles. Early on in this training cycle, I switched my nutrition plan from gels to real food. It took a little extra prep work before my long runs, but I think it was well worth it. I was really able to dial in my needs to find what worked best to get me through my runs.
The evening before my race, as I was packing my bag, I grabbed my shoes and my StuffIts Shoe Savers like I always do and put them into my trail shoes. Then the worst possible reality hit me. There was a large tear along the upper mesh of my shoe.
Trying to remain as calm as possible I mentally went through my available options. I was planning on retiring my trail shoes after this race anyway, so I did have another pair, however it was a brand I had never worn before. I didn’t really think a 31 mile race was the appropriate time to break in a new pair of shoes, let alone try out a new brand to see if I like them. I could wear a pair of road trainers, but I’d much prefer trail specific shoes. I could try a bunch of duct tape and hope it held up. I spoke with a few friends and they suggested giving the tape a try. So try I did. I wrapped several loops of duct tape around my shoes and took them out for a short 1 mile test run. They seemed to hold up ok so I decided to give them a try. I packed a pair of road trainers as well with the idea being I could always swap out shoes at an aid station when I met my crew if the duct tape didn’t hold up.
Sunday morning came and I couldn’t have asked for a better day. The weather was slightly cooler in the morning but projected to get warmer through the day. It was the perfect running weather. Abigail had signed up for the half marathon option which followed the first 12 miles of the 50k course. This was great to not only get some quality miles in with my wife, but to also ensure that I didn’t go out too fast and end my race before it even really began. The course was pretty well marked and easy to follow. It followed a mile and a hal path out to the main loop. The half marathon course completed one lap of the loop and returned back down the same “out” path to the start/finish. The 50k course completed a second lap of the main loop then doubled back 3 miles to an aid station before turning back around and heading the final 4 miles to the finish.
After the first lap, Abigail and I parted ways and I set off on the second full lap of the course. I didn’t see too many people for a few miles but eventually came upon someone on the trail. I would later learn that his name was Brad. He started to move aside but I quickly told him I wasn’t looking to pass, and that I was just happy to see someone else out on the trail at this point. We chatted for the next 8 miles or so before we reached the next aid station at mile 20 where I met up with Abigail and my friend TJ who made the trip to support and crew as well.
I loaded my pack with new fluids, food, and salt pills. Took off and was feeling great. I told Abigail and TJ that I would see them back here in 6 miles. Along this part of the run I began to see the front runners already doubling back. I cheered them on and encouraged them and began counting them to get an idea of where I was in the rankings. I wasn’t running to win or even place highly, but I was just curious. I counted, one…two…three…I met back up with Brad somewhere along the way and we began chatting again. Four…five…six…We were approaching the turn around aid station. Seven…eight…nine. Then we turned around. Holy cow! Was I really in 9th place overall? Maybe I miscounted? Maybe I missed the real front runners and the person I thought was in first was really further down the line? Not entirely sure, the unknown lit a bit of fire under me. At the mile 23 aid station I grabbed a few bananas as I had started to feel some cramps coming on and took off. For the next three miles I tried to keep up a good pace but my body started to revolt. I asked myself why would I be cramping now. I hadn’t cramped like this in my training and there were much tougher hills on my training runs. Then it hit me. On my training runs I would walk the uphills. The terrain on this course was not too technical and didn’t really contain any big climbs. I simply had not had a point where I was forced to walk on most of the course. I honestly think that is why my lower leg cramps began. While I put in adequate training, it had always included built in “rest” breaks where I would engage different muscle groups for a short period.
I rolled into the mile 26 aid station and was met with Abigail running towards me asking what I needed. I responded with something along the lines of, “About 10 bananas”. The cramps were really hitting me hard and I was riding that thin line between forward progress and a full body cramp/spasm. I approached the aid station buffet to be met with sore disappointment. There was only about one banana left cut into thirds. I asked the volunteers if there were any more bananas and they shook their heads saying this is all we have. Knowing that there were a lot of other people out on the course and not wanting to be “that guy”, I took one of the small banana pieces and left the other two behind. I grabbed a HotShot from my crew and packed a few extra for the last few miles. TJ and Abigail were encouraging me to keep it up and that I was doing great. It was genuine excitement in their voices that I heard. It wasn’t just words to keep me mentally up. They could tell that the race was going really well for me too. With that in mind I took off for the last 4 miles.
The banana and HotShot gave me a temporary reprieve but I was still fighting the cramps in my quads, calves, and hamstrings. I was reduced to more walking than I would have liked to stave off the cramps but I was making forward progress. I kept expecting to see someone pass by me but nobody did. I approached the last aid station (where I found an entire pan full of bananas!) and set off for the last mile to the finish. I heard some music as I approached and cruised into the finish, excited beyond belief to actually finish my first trail ultra.
I finished and met my crew. I grabbed my celebratory beer and checked the results. My time was 5:16 and I couldn’t believe that I finished 9th overall and 1st in my age group. I wanted to just finish the run but this performance blew out all my expectations. I ate some food, talked the race over with TJ and Abigail and we hit the road. All in all it was a great day for me and I couldn’t be more thankful for my wife and friend for sacrificing a day to come support me. I couldn’t have done it without them.
Pros of the race:
· Well marked – the trail marking blazes were vibrant and bright on the trees
· Great beginner trail course – not too technical or hilly
· Practical prize – mugs are great!
· Unique woodallion for finishing
· Unique swag – not just a t-shirt, but a thinner hooded long sleeve shirt and gloves
· Post race food – burgers, hot dogs, chips, and beer
· On site heated bathrooms – great for a cooler start!
· Ample parking
· Easy for crew to get to most aid stations
· Race day registration available
· Instant results – the minute I crossed the finish line I was able to see my overall time and finish place
Cons of the race:
· Course may have been short – Abigail had her half around 12 miles, Strava had my race around 29. It is a trail race though and I’ve come to learn and expect that actual distances usually end up “around” the advertised distance. I also try not to put 100% faith in the accuracy of a GPS. They can easily over or under report actual distance depending on signal strength.
· Aid station fare running out – running out of bananas at one station while the other one a few miles away had a full batch was a little frustrating.
· No traffic control for road section – the first and last 1.5 miles was on the road. Coming into the finish I felt like cars were flying by me. I didn’t see anyone attempting to control or even slow down traffic.
· Unsure of emergency response presence – while the course wasn’t too technical, it was still a trail race. Anything can happen. While I’m sure emergency response would have been available, I don’t remember actively seeing them anywhere
· Instant results didn’t display age groups – while I was able to see my overall finish, I wasn’t able to view my age group results. Not a huge deal as the timers were able to figure it out pretty easily
· There didn’t seem to be too many hotels close by the park. This wasn’t a problem for us as it was close enough to drive up the morning of, but for those coming from farther out, it might be a problem. The park did offer camping within their grounds though.