The week before a race, I always get pre-race jitters. It doesn’t matter what I do; they’re gonna happen. The longer the race and the more training put in, the longer the jitters. I think part of this happens because it’s also when I taper or run less miles as the race draws closer. This was no exception for the Yamacraw 50K. I trained longer and more efficiently for this race than ever before. I went as far as taking one less week for taper so I wouldn’t have to think about the race as much. I believe most of this had to do with my lackluster performance at the Louisiana Marathon.
When I look at the last time I wrote, a great deal has happened. I’ve ran a half marathon, marathon, and a 5K PR’ing all 3 no less. We started a podcast called the “Southeastern Trail Runner Podcast”. At work, we launched tire and wheel for a new customer as well as a new sequence commodity. To say I’ve been busy lately is an understatement. Heather has been very patient but she has had to put her foot down a couple times when I spent too much time working, running, or “talking” about running.
The Bowling Green Half Marathon was a wonderful redemption from last year’s race. In 2015, it was my first half marathon. I almost fell apart in the final three miles falling off pace by over 30 seconds. It was everything I had to reel it back in and finish a few minutes under 2 hours. The 2016 race was my 6th half marathon. I was now very comfortable with the distance and knew how to properly pace. Since the course winds around downtown Bowling Green for the first six miles, there are plenty of opportunities for spectators to cheer on the runners. That’s one of the reasons I love this race.
A lot has changed from November 2015 to November 2016. I joined the Bowling Green Road Runners and ran a lot of races which allowed me to get to know several members of the club. One of those members is Alex Fitzpatrick. He’s a wonderful person and just fun to be around. He was out cheering us on for the half marathon. I wish I would have counted how many times I saw him because it was…well…a bunch. Each time I passed by, I would give him a big bear hug. There were several others on the course cheering us on but he was by far yelling for us the loudest. I ended up cruising to a new PR by over four and a half minutes as well as placing in my age division. I ran 3 more miles after the race because I was also in marathon training. After that race, I quit running fast and focused on running long. I was zoning in on the Louisiana Marathon. I thought I put in plenty of miles to have a good race. I ran three 20 milers – most plans only call for one. The last 20 miler was in 68 degree weather which was perfect training for the heat.
Since I recapped that race on our podcast, I didn’t do a written one. I also chose not to write about it because much time has passed and I have forgotten a lot of the details other than getting hot and not coming anywhere close to what I wanted. Running a 4:18 marathon when your stretch goal is 3:45 kinda does that. I was given some good advice from the owner of Bike Rack Bistro, our main sponsor for our podcast: Never run a spring marathon for a PR. I would later find out he knew this from experience. It’s very hard to train in cold weather only to run a warm race. We did have a good time in New Orleans that night walking up and down Bourbon Street listening to several bands and watching street performances. The experience did help me grow as a runner and I would use it as motivation for the next big step – my first ultra marathon.
The five of us that started the podcast have been in a group text for about a year now. We come from varying backgrounds but we all share a common passion – running…and talking about running. There are 100+ texts a day that flow through the group chat ranging from planning early morning runs to planning for future races to topics for the next podcast. One of the guys, Clinton Lewis, chose Yamacraw as his first ultra marathon. His plan was to use this as his catapult to training for our October trip to Zion National Park to run the Zion Traverse. I initially decided to sign up but backed out because there was a Ragnar race the same day near Fort Knox, KY.
Ragnar relay races are quite popular among runners and trail runners. There are road and trail versions. Groups of 8 runners team up and run 15 miles or so in three different segments. This starts around Friday afternoon and finishes up on Saturday. In between their sections, runners socialize, do random contests, and rest up for their next segment. I’ve wanted to do one but the right opportunity hasn’t presented itself. No one really decided to do a team this year so I ended up going back to looking at Yamacraw.
After a short time on the wait list, I was signed up! It was a very weird time. We were in the middle of a launch. Not only was it a new product, it was for a new customer. I was spending several hours at work which cut into training as well as time at home. There were several nights where I wouldn’t start a long run until 9:00 PM. I came close to pulling the plug on this race but decided to see how it played out. Working 12-14 hours and weekends followed by running for 1-2 hours is not always easy. We finally got to a pretty decent state so I was back to my normal 10-11 hour schedule which gave me time to run some miles.
I was able to average 40+ miles for 5 or 6 weeks before a two week taper. I remember that odd feeling of only running 12-14 miles a week instead of 40. Why, just over a year ago, I was only averaging 9-12 miles a week on a good week! Long runs for this race would end up being three 20 milers, a 22 miler, and a 26 miler. The 26 miler was my best effort. I ran it in 5:12 with 4:46 actually running on trails. I felt very strong during this run and pretty good after it. Something I added to this training cycle I didn’t do in the marathon was to run back to back long runs on Saturday / Sunday. In the past, I would take a couple days off after a long run. I ran 20/5, 22/5, 15/9, 26/8 and 20/10. That final 20/10 weekend was 20 miles on the road followed by 10 miles on gravel at the bike and hike trail in Mammoth Cave. Road miles are always tougher on my body than trails. Those back to back runs gave me a huge mental boost that let me know I was ready for my first ultra marathon.
Along with Clinton and myself, Sharon was also running her first ultra marathon. She was very excited to run coming off her Boston Qualifying performance at Louisiana. Sharon and I had a running joke going during our training for Yamacraw. Since I had met her, I had beat her in every race we ran together – until Louisiana. She not only beat me, but smoked me by nearly 30 minutes! She is a very soft spoken and humble gal but she will absolutely destroy your soul out on the trails.
Clinton, his wife Kelly, Sharon and myself drove to Stearns, KY on a Friday afternoon. (OK, well, Clinton drove and the rest of us provided entertainment on the way.) We got our packets at Stearns Heritage Hall which is at the Big South Fork Scenic Railway and headed to our cabin at Lake Cumberland Resort. It was very nice. There were two stories and two decks that overlooked Lake Cumberland. Sharon stayed at the cabin while Clinton, Kelly, and I headed back to Somerset to have dinner and pick up a handful of groceries. We ended up at Mellow Mushroom as it seemed like the perfect place to fuel for our race the next day. Clinton and Kelly split a pizza while I had a Caribbean Jerk chicken hoagie. After we finished dinner, we found a Kroger and bought a few groceries.
When we got back, I laid out all of my race stuff and didn’t end up getting in bed until after 11:00 PM. I sat an alarm for 4:30 AM and closed my eyes. It seemed like minutes later it was was 5:00 AM and I was sitting in the kitchen eating a bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios and almond milk – my staple meal before a race. It was cold that morning. At race time, it would be 35 degrees but by the time we finished it would be closer to 65 degrees. I went back and forth on what to wear but decided to wear my thin wool undershirt as well as briefs under my running shorts.
To get to the start line, we had to park at the Big South Fork Scenic Railway and board buses that would shuttle us a mile and a half up the road to the start. While we were waiting, I decided I didn’t need to wear the briefs so I joined the bathroom line to take them off. This ended up almost being a mistake. By the time I waited in line for the bathroom, the time to board the buses had past. When I came out, the once full community room was now a ghost town. A man came to the door and said “Any more 50K’ers in here?” I slowly raised my hand. “You better get out there! The buses are fixing to leave!” I walked out of the building and boarded a bus.
I got lucky and ended up on the bus that arrived at the start line first. I was able to place my drop bag in a white van – I was actually the first person to drop my bag in the van which I would later see at mile 21. After a few minutes of walking around, I was reunited with Clinton and Sharon. A girl that Sharon had rode the bus with took our picture. I didn’t know it at the time but this would be the last time I would see Sharon until after the race. Clinton and I started the race next to each other. Once the signal to go sounded, people were shoulder to shoulder. We started on pavement for a tenth of a mile and then it was a hard right onto the trail. This would be the second time I would start a race not wearing earbuds. I had packed them but only intended on wearing them for the second half of the race.
Being grouped this close together to a bunch of men and minimal women, there was a certain efflux of men’s body wash and spray that was in the air. I remember thinking that if this is how it would be for the whole race, I would go back to training on trail and running road races. Luckily, once the pack thinned out a bit, I no longer experienced this wonderful aroma. I must have got shuffled in behind someone that got this trail race confused with the bar.
A little over a mile into the race, we hit our first creek crossing. There was a bottleneck because people were desperately trying to keep from getting their feet wet since it was 35 degrees. I had no problem getting my feet wet. I already knew there were several creek crossings and it was part of my mental plan. After about the third creek crossing, I saw a girl that was passing some of the slower people that were taking their time trying not to get wet. My feet were landing in the same indentations on the ground as hers so I decided to follow, watching closely as her feet landed. We finally started managing something faster than a 15 minute pace. There were still bottlenecks along the way since we were on single track. There isn’t always a great place to pass so what usually happens is someone comes upon someone else going slow and they become content following instead of passing. Next thing you know, five people are going slower than they want but none want to pass so you have to wait quite some time to get around. I would compare it to falling in behind a Sunday driver on a country road.
The girl I following was from Atlanta and had ran a 4:12 marathon training run prior to this race. I knew instantly I wouldn’t be running with her for long. I told her I was from Bowling Green and she cut me off. “I rode the bus with your friends. They were waiting for you in the bathroom, weren’t they?” Damn. I’m already a legend in the ultra marathoner world. This was the girl that took our picture before the start of the race! Funny how that works out. We ran together for a few miles but she was gone fairly quickly. I would end up passing several people as we made a small climb to the first aid station.
Aid stations are the absolute best thing about ultra marathons. Yamacraw had five aid stations with a smorgasbord of food and drink items totally left up to the aid station volunteers to manage. I had read and been told what to expect here. The normal items were there like water, endurance drink, and gels but they also had boiled potatoes, pickles, M&M’s, cookies, granola bars, and whatever the aid station volunteers wanted to make / have for the runners.
At the first aid station, I pulled off my hydration pack and filled it up with water. Since I brought my Camelbak Hydrobak, I knew I would rely on the aid stations to refuel since this pack is small and doesn’t hold many items. Typically, there is a cardinal rule not to try anything new on race day. I had mentally prepared myself that I would break this rule. My breakfast that morning was Honey Nut Cheerios followed by a Nutrigrain bar a little while later. 7 miles into this race I had worked up an appetite. I spotted some pita bread and Nutella. It sounded delicious and I was hungry so I grabbed a roll. I also spotted some fruit snacks and threw them in my pack. I took off and it was back to running.
I was by myself for most of the next few miles. I would end up catching up with a couple guys from Cincinnati. I followed behind them because they seemed pretty experienced at racing ultra’s. We approached the second aid station at mile 11. I handed my hydration pack to a volunteer and they filled my water for me. I grabbed another pita bread with Nutella. I caught up with one of the guys I had been running with but the other was MIA. We would end up catching up with another pack and ran with them. There wasn’t much conversation at this point. The ball of my right foot had been hurting for some time at this point. I had blamed the slow start as the reason but one of the guys in the pack thought it had to do with choosing shoes without being fitted although I did find it a bit odd since I ran 26 miles in the same shoes a couple weeks before with no issues. I decided I just needed to make it 10 more miles and I could change into my other pair of shoes waiting in my drop bag.
When we got to Aid Station 3 at mile 16, I was back to being on my own. I had left the crew I was with because they weren’t talking like I had hoped. Aid Station 3 was basically the halfway point. I was still feeling good. Another volunteer filled up my water and I stocked up on more food. This is where I had lunch. I drank their energy drink, Sword, ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and took a pita bread and Nutella for the road. There was a quick run over a bridge and then it was back to the trails. I passed a couple of people as the sun was starting to peek out over the tree line. It wasn’t long before I found myself crossing the Rock Creek. I had saw a video a few days prior of the race director showing how deep it was. It had rained since that video so I knew it would be deeper. It came up to my knees. My shoes, which were almost dry at this point, were now certainly soaked. I knew the next aid station would have my drop bag with my Merrell shoes and a dry pair of socks. All I had to do was get there.
I ended up catching up with a group of two girls and a guy. The guy let me pass and then the first girl let me pass her. The second girl told me to let her know when I was ready to pass. The problem was we started going up hills at this time. Since I didn’t do very much hill work during training, I had made myself walk all the hills. I ended up staying behind her because we were walking hills. We talked for awhile. Her name was Meghann. There would be a long hill on a gravel road that we would power hike right into Aid Station 4.
I was pretty excited to see this aid station. The drop bags were here which meant I could strip out of my warm clothes and change shoes. I had just ran 21 miles. Overall, I still felt really good. It didn’t take long to find my drop bag. I sat down and changed my shoes and socks – one of the best feelings during the entire race. I stripped out of my wool undershirt and threw it along with my beanie and gloves inside the drop bag. I pulled out some Clif gels and Clif Bloks and tossed them in my pack. I had stashed them in my drop bag just in case I didn’t like anything at any of the aid stations. I also wanted familiar foods to power me through those final miles. I stood back up and walked to the aid station where another awesome volunteer filled my pack with water for me. I eyed their food selection and took a handful of chips and a coconut ball. They told me to take a left and follow the road for a bit and I would be right back on the trail. I chewed on the coconut ball for a couple seconds, hated the taste, and threw the rest off the side of the road. This would be the only food item I didn’t like during the whole race.
Heading back into the woods, I was on my own again. I had packed my Jaybird Freedom earbuds and I had planned on listening to music once I got tired. My legs were still feeling great and I had new feet from changing shoes and socks. I was now in my Merrell All Out Charge trail runners. They have seen many miles on the trails and my feet were happy to have them. At the last aid station, I had also swapped out my glasses for prescription sunglasses. I was in good shape. A guy with a handheld came up and passed me but I caught back up with him. His calves were locking up. He could speed through the uphills but had to slowly creep the down hills. I was walking the uphills but speeding through the downhills. We passed each other several times before he finally took off.
A short while later, I saw a familiar stride up ahead. “Is that you, Alex?” “Yep. Just me.” It was Meghann, the same girl that I had ran with up to Aid Station 4. At this point in the race, everyone had thinned out about as much as they would. We saw runners but it was not near as often as it was for the first 8 or 10 miles. The fact that I had caught up with her, I knew I was probably going too fast. Just like Charlie Sheen, “I’ve got one speed. One gear. Go.” I’ve never been very good at pacing myself. After the first couple of miles into a run, I just fall into a cruise control and go. I knew if I passed her, I would most likely fizzle out at the end. She had a great attitude and provided very good company. We talked about trail running gear, podcasts, and our families. Her husband was out there running the race as well. I decided to just stay behind her and let her do the pacing.
Somewhere along mile 23, there was a gravel road that led up and up. This mountain of a hill went on for well over a mile. Once the hill ended, it was actually a relief to start running again. We came upon a guy that had something in his eye. Come to find out, he was having issues with his contacts. She stopped to help him – which is one of the cool things about trail runners. Unlike a road race where its basically everyone for themselves, trail runners stop and help each other. I watched a couple different people take spills early in the day. I stopped to help but I was quickly greeted with. I’m ok! I’m good!” It’s obvious the only thing hurt was their pride. After a short little run, Aid Station 5 came into view.
If they voted for best aid stations at Yamacraw, Aid Station 5 would win hands down. Before we even got to the canopy, the volunteers were cheering us on. They had their own little party. I went through the line and handed my pack to someone to fill up while I sampled the food laid out on the tables one last time. Since we were at mile 26 and there were only 7 miles to go, I tried a lot of stuff. I was talking to the guy filling my pack and he mentioned whatever food item was in my hand would go great with some beer. I told him it would be awesome to have some beer. It was then that I saw a silver can in a huggie next to him. He said “I just opened this if you want a drink.” I had just ran 26 miles. Of course I wanted a drink. I said “Only if it’s an IPA!” I was in luck. He handed me the beer and I took a decent drink. It was magical. Everything I expected it to be and more. I handed him the beer and said thank you. I chased the beer with about 4 ounces of Coca Cola. I haven’t had a coke in years. That really hit the spot. I had some minor pain so I popped a couple of Excedrin. Beer, coke, and excedrin. That’s a win. There were only 7 short miles left separating us from the finish line. 7 short miles that were unknown territory for me. I had never ran over 26.2. Breaking into a new distance feeling good was a great feeling.
I was packing an orange slice as we left the aid station. We came upon someone ready to take our picture. I’m sure I rocked the “packing an orange slice trail runner” look. At this point in the race, I was surprised we were still passing people. I knew this meant that we were still strong while others were fading out. I’ve been on the flip side of this equation before. I was glad to still feel really good. There was a guy that ran with us for a couple of miles. He didn’t say much but it was nice to have someone else running with us for the late miles. It was here I told our little group the story about how I had been part of a team building exercise in Detroit back in October. We did one of the Sips and Strokes events where you drink wine/beer and paint. Our canvas was a sign post in a field. There were 6 wooden planks stacked on top of each other. One of our company values was chosen as the 6 words to put on the signs but the instructor said we could write anything we wanted. I did a quick google search and came up with “Be Strong. Stay Strong. Finish Strong.”
With about 3 miles to go, I was starting to get just a bit tired and I took my last sips of water before running out. My mind wandered. I wasn’t focused on the trail. I wasn’t focused on Meghann’s footsteps. I wasn’t really focused on anything. I fell. Damn it! I was just talking about how I hadn’t fallen all day! Before they could even ask if I was ok, I said “I’m fine! Let’s go!” It was more of a scoop fall. I came down and was quickly back up in half a second. I was very lucky. My right knee skidded across a pile of leaves. Not long after this, it was back to just Meghann and me running. I’m not sure if the guy passed us or fell behind. Let’s just say he fell behind because it sounds better. We passed a sign that said “Dick Gap Falls – 100 Yards Ahead”. I know this! I’ve been here before!
A few years ago, one of my good friends and I brought his camper out to Big South Fork and we hiked several miles of trails in this area. Since I still have a 12 year old mind, I had to take a picture of that sign. I knew we were close to the finish at this point. That’s when Meghann excitedly exclaimed “I see the bridge! It’s over there!” She picked up the pace. I’ll be honest. I didn’t see the bridge. I thought maybe she was hallucinating. All I could think was I would have to finish this race leaving my running companion of the past 15 miles behind. After a few more seconds, I saw the bridge in the distance as well. Hmmm. Maybe I was the crazy one.
I slowly started remembering this trail. Meghann was very excited. She kept talking about how ecstatic she was to finish. We had been running for over 7 hours. We turned one more corner and the only thing between us and the finish line was a rustic old wooden bridge about 100 yards long. The crowd was roaring as each person crossed the finish line. We came in right before the clock clicked 7:18:00. The Race Director congratulated both of us as we finished. Meghann and I hugged. Sharon appeared and I gave her a big hug. I hadn’t seen her since before the start of the race! She had finished in 7:03.
We were at the final aid station. I filled my pack with water and started drinking immediately since I had ran out 3 miles earlier. I was pretty hungry as well. I ate several bites of boiled potatoes. I grabbed a fork and tried to get a pickle out of the jar. I couldn’t quite grab it. I looked at one of the volunteers with a sad face and said “Could you please get this pickle out for me?” She smiled and finally fished it out. I remembered I had a granola bar and some Famous Amos cookies stashed in my pack from a previous aid station. I devoured those quickly. I talked to Sharon and listened to how her race went. She only stopped at two aid stations! I couldn’t believe it. I stopped at all 5 aid stations. Clinton crossed a short time later and we waited for a shuttle to take us back to the start line. Our shuttle happened to be a prisoner work release van for the state. We all joked about how they would make us pick up trash on the side of the road before they would let us out.
When we got back to Stearns Heritage Hall, there was a barbecue dinner waiting on us. It was free for all the runners. Pulled pork, cole slaw, baked beans, and chickpea salad. We sat at a table with a guy from Colorado. He ran this 50K in less than 6 hours! We finished eating and headed back to the car. We ran into Meghann and her husband, Jim. They were very excited to be done and I was glad to meet him since I had heard so much about him during our race. We congratulated them and said good bye. We were headed back to the cabin to meet up with Clinton’s wife. We would spend the evening laughing and talking about the day we all crushed our first 50K and became ultra marathoners. We went to sleep somewhere around 10 only for the three of us to wake up at 3 AM and have snacks because we were starving. It was a wonderful experience and a great race. I was glad to do it with great company.
Years from now, when I look back on this experience, I hope I remember all the training that went into this race. Going through the long days and weekends at work. Running long miles – Sometimes when I didn’t want to run them at all. Replaying through my head will be the same verse of “Everlong” over and over:
The only thing I’ll ever ask of you
You gotta promise not to stop when I say when.
One thing is for sure. I am an ultra marathoner.