I have always thought of my love of running as a great genetic blessing.
Two years ago, I had a conversation with my Uncle Tom as he was in the final stages of training for an ultramarathon. He mentioned that 2009 would be his 20th consecutive running of a 50K (31.07 miles) race in Huntsville State Park. Without being certain of what motivated me to do so, I told him that I would run that race with him. Perhaps I thought it would never come to pass, but that was foolish. When Shopoffs decided to do something, they do it. End of story.
My dad, Steve, had also run this race (or its 50 mile counterpart) many times in its nearly two-decade existence. He certainly would join Tom for the big anniversary run, so it seemed like a great opportunity to run a big event all together.
Then, last March, it was announced that the presenting sponsor of the race had financial issues, and the 2009 race– the 20th anniversary edition– would not be run. We spent several months talking about what we might do instead if no other sponsor picked up the race. By the end of the summer, we decided that we would put on our own race, using a certified course of out-and-backs and several relatively concentric trail loops, and forge ahead as planned.
(Shortly after we decided on our race date, another sponsor did come out with plans to hold an offical event. But the date for that event was bumped up a week from the traditional Second Saturday in December, and Tom and Dad had an already-booked ski trip for the new date.)
By the time December 12 arrived, we were ready to go. With various training strategies, all three of us were confident we could cover the distance; it was only a matter of pace and time that the day and course would determine. The weather was seemingly depressing– high 40s and heavy mist/light rain at the start. Running through the park meant that we’d be in shade for the whole day, so we opted for layers on top and tights on bottom. In the end, this was a good decision; the weather conditions varied little throughout the day.
We started off from the Nature Center slowly, which is the best way to begin most races, particularly an ultramarathon. By keeping the adrenaline in check and allowing the body to warm up well proved beneficial later in the day. After two short out-and-backs (and one wrong turn thanks to early run chattiness), we returned to our cars at the Nature Center and swapped out our bottles and packs. Our in-trunk aid station was well stocked and impressively efficient.
Because we had to carry all of our aid with us, we needed to be able to refill bottles at a place other than our start/finish line at the Nature Center. The most workable solution was to carry a gallon of water to a drop point that we would pass six times in the course of the run. Thanks to Dad for running the mile-and-a-half with the extra awkward weight. (The mountain biker who helped himself to the water before we even opened the jug thanks you, too, no doubt.)
By this point, roughly 1:15 into the run, we were well into a groove of running the flat and downhill sections and walking (purposefully and at a respectable clip) the uphills. The trail undulates and has a lot of exposed tree roots, stumps, and rocks. Footing is important with each and every step. And, yes, your neck gets sore from looking at the ground for hours on end.
The section along a fire road was a welcome break from the mental energy expenditure required on the real trail. Fortunately, the trail conditions were surprisingly good for the most part. The rain meant that the trail was well-packed and not dusty. But there wasn’t so much rain that there was caking mud. Several sections were plenty sloppy, but there was only one swampy area through which we had to wade gingerly.
We completed the first of the two long loops right on the pace that Tom projected. Back at the Nature Center everyone was feeling good, taking on Gu at regular intervals, and ducking behind trees for a pee break each hour. Even with the favorable temperature, staying hydrated is essential when running for so long. Although we weren’t sweating as much as we would have if the temperature were even five degrees warmer and there was no mist in the air, we had to make sure our muscles were getting plenty of fluids to prevent cramping. And the easily-digestable 100 calories of glucose from the hourly Gu ingestion was burned quickly given our effort. We restocked our packs and refilled our bottles quickly, then set off to repeat the long loop.
The goal of the second long loop was to finish it with enough energy to feel good for the final 10K. As such, we continued our walking and running as the terrain allowed. About halfway through the loop, both Tom and I noted hot spots on our heels. (And post-race evaluation confirmed gnarly blisters just above the heavily calloused heel ridge on all four feet.) Rather than focus on the short list of minor aches I had, I tried to spend more time looking up and enjoying some of the scenery when we popped out of heavily wooded areas.
We pressed on and finished the second long loop slightly ahead of projected pace. Our final stop by the Nature Center was incredibly efficient, as we all had a bit of horse-and-stable syndrome setting in. We grabbed a few Gu packets, dropped off empty bottles, and headed out. Only a 10K to go? Easy! Let’s go!
The first quarter-mile or so we stuck with our fast walking as we adjusted our gear. Then the next mile-and-a-quarter gave a good downhill stretch that we ran. It was the longest stretch of all-out running we’d done all day, and rather than being tiring it felt great. After a steep uphill climb we were able to run a bit more before stopping to top off our water bottles one more time. We took a new (to us) trail off of the fire road and into the woods. Although far less runnable than the fire road, it provided a lot of long hills that allowed different muscle groups to take turns. When we could, we ran hard. When we walked, we walked quickly. When we had huge mud puddles, we complained and trudged through them anyway.
At the turnaround and with 5K to go, we were well under projected pace. But we had gotten to the turnaround so quickly that we now had a chance to finish under 6:45. I still felt quite fresh physically, and the running so far had very little real cardiovascular challenge thanks to all the terrain-induced walking. So for the last 5K, we ran a higher percentage of the trail. For the first time all day, I was reminding myself to breathe rhythmically. I was also conscious that none of us had fallen all day, so I was putting extra mental effort into my foot placement. I certainly didn’t want to fall now! Tom was starting to have some cramping, but he dipped into his well of experience and hung in there. At the sight of the final boardwalk/bridge before the Nature Center finish line, we knew we’d done it. Not only had we finished in time to break 6:45, but we could get in under 6:40 as well.
More importantly, it was time well spent with my dad and my uncle, running through a beautiful park, being grateful for our good health and great family.