Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rock/Creek Stump Jump 50k

Not long after FITS Sock Co. signed us up for their race team, Alex and I were offered the chance to run in a race close to the company HQ in Tennessee. Obviously, we jumped at the chance, booked flights, registered for the race. But this was in January, and the race was not until October... so we promptly put it to the back of our minds while we concentrated on the rest of our racing seasons.

Fast forward eight months, and we find ourselves sitting on the grass in Coolidge Park, Chattanooga, by the Tennessee River. It's the day before the race and we've just finished sweeping up an impressive array of swag from the expo. Really, it's too hot to sit out in the sun; Alex finds a spot of shade for a nap while I decide to get some late-season tanning in. The temperature is hovering somewhere around 30 °C, but the humidity makes it feel much, much warmer. Five days earlier I'd been the 3:30 pace bunny in the Surrey Marathon. I was wearing gloves, arm sleeves and a ridiculous hat:
Caption unnecessary.

This was a little different.

Still, there was little to be done about it, so we went to the surprisingly excellent pre-race dinner where I used the flimsy excuse of "carb loading" to make three trips to the chicken-and-rice station. We retired early to our hotel room where we had a couple of glasses of wine (well, Alex had one and I had three, so that averages out as a couple) and tried to stalk the competition via

N. Amer.informal
difficult, dangerous, or challenging.

The alarms went off at 4 am; we each forced down a small breakfast before driving out to the middle school that hosted the race start and finish area. The cool, dark morning air was refreshing and as we strolled around the start line, killing time, I dared to think that maybe the heat wouldn't be such a factor after all. But a few minutes before the 8 am start, the sun crept over the horizon, treating us to a spectacular sunrise and instantly warming the air by several degrees.

Happy. Clean. Mostly unbroken. It's still early.
The field was huge by ultra standards - nearly six hundred registrants - so I positioned myself at what I hoped was a respectful few rows back. The race began and there was the predictable "track meet" surge from the leaders. We had about a kilometre on the road to spread the field out before plunging into the trails. I clicked off the first kilometre in 3 min 57 - perfectly reasonable for running a road marathon in cool conditions; less so for what we were about to undertake. Still, this was somewhat intentional; the goal being to avoid getting stuck behind too many slower runners once the trail narrowed. In retrospect, that might not have been the worst thing that could have happened.

During this section, I had a brief chat with Brandon who'd been at nearly every trail race I'd run in the past year - and he'd handily beaten me at all of them. Now a Seattle resident, but originally from Tennessee, he'd run the race twice before, so I thought I'd try to glean some local knowledge from him. He said that compared to the Squamish 50 - the last race we'd both run - this would be a walk in the park. That was encouraging.

Three kilometres in, it's not even 8:15 am, and the sweat is pouring off me. Clearly this pace is unsustainable, and I ease back a bit. "There's going to be a lot of carnage out there", I remark sagely to another racer, optimistically hoping that I won't be part of it. Somewhat over-optimistically, as it would turn out.
Eyes on the trail.

Before long we hit the first aid station at Mushroom Rock and begin a steep descent. The trail quickly changes from the wide, gently rolling terrain of the early race into a narrow, twisty, rooty beast. And so it continued for the bulk of the race. Nearly all single track terrain, undulating, without any huge climbs, and occasional technical sections. On a different day, it shouldn't have been too challenging, but today, even before the half-way point in the race, the following conspired against me:
  1. My left ankle. It had been plaguing me all year, but I thought it had finally cleared up and healed. Nah, I just hadn't been running on any kind of demanding terrain to test it. I rolled it a couple of times early on, which were painful, but not too debilitating. But the third roll... oh I swore. Repeatedly. Then I hobbled, walked, jogged and eventually resumed running, but much more gingerly out of fear that I'd be forever stranded in the woods if it went again.
  2. Wasps! Around 13 km in, the runner just ahead of me yelled, slightly inaccurately, "Bees!", and suddenly I was running through a buzzing swarm. I picked up a few stings. My immediate thoughts drifted to Alex as she's been known to have pretty unpleasant reactions to insect stings. I hoped she'd escape unscathed.
  3. Wipe-outs. Possible related to (1) above, somewhere around 20 km, I lost my footing on a downhill section, flew through the air and found myself quite literally wrapped around a tree. In the process, I clenched my hand into a fist which I then drove into my ribs. Ow. It hurts to run.
  4. Weird, inner thigh cramping. It's happened to me a couple of times before in races, both on occasions where I also fell, and I think it's related to the way my muscles seem to suddenly tense up when I take a tumble. It's painful and incredibly annoying as I have to stop for a couple of minutes to stretch it out. This happened to me several times during the later stages of the race.
  5. The heat. Very occasionally there's a hint of a breeze, but generally it's hot, oppressive and very humid. Apparently we were experiencing the highest temperatures ever recorded on this date in Chattanooga. Of course, it's affecting everyone to some degree, but I can't help but feel that the locals are a little more used to it than I am. Normally I don't spend any time in aid stations in a 50k race, but this time I'm stopping each time to dump cold water over my head.
Still, by about 30 km, things seem to be improving a little and I'm even starting to pass a few of the runners who'd streamed past me earlier while I lay sobbing by the side of the trail. My goals for the race have changed from "sub-5 hours, top 10 finish" to "cross the finish line, no hospitalization required". I feel like I'm actually trotting along pretty smoothly, but the 4th place female passes me somewhat nonchalantly, and I later discover that I was throwing down 7-minute kilometres over fairly innocuous terrain.
Me and some big rocks.

The last ten miles of the course are also the first ten, but in reverse. After trudging up the steep climb back to mushroom rock, I joke with the aid station volunteers - as I had at every other stop - that I want a beer. To my utter surprise, I'm offered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, but I politely decline. Time to get this thing done. There's 6.5 km left, and most of it's totally runnable. The face that so many people were walking much of this section was a testament to how depleting the race had been. I motivated myself with the reasoning that the faster I ran, the sooner it'd all be over. It seemed to work and I passed few more runners before finally emerging back on to the last kilometre of road. This climbed slightly as it headed towards the finish area, but the three or four people I could see ahead of me were all trudging very slowly despite being mere minutes from the end. I tried to offer some encouragement as I trotted past them, but didn't get much more than weak smiles and congratulations on my "strong" finish.

As I squeaked out a slightly pitiful surge down to the finish line, I spotted Alex cheering from the sidelines. It turns out she'd also rolled her ankle, but much more severely, earlier in the race and had had to drop out. Guiltily, I almost felt a little jealous that she'd not been through my ordeal, but I knew she'd rather have endured that suffering than pick up her first DNF.

As I lay on the grass, somewhat immobile from my cramping legs, I spotted a stranger drinking a beer. I asked him where he'd got it, and he explained that he'd brought it with him, but he'd be happy to share his stash. Never has a beer tasted so divine. Thanks, Scott.

I the end I finished 58th out of 587 registrants (or 448 starters, or 343 finishers) in 6:08:21. While not my greatest ever performance, I still felt a certain sense of achievement just to have got through the damn thing.

In spite of the taxing day I had out there, this is an exceptionally good race. The organization was excellent and the volunteers were fantastic. The course itself was a good mix of fun and challenging, including some cool parts that involved squeezing between some narrow gaps in the rock. The refreshments both pre- and post-race were just right.

Once again, FITS Socks ensured that my feet were about the only part of my body that escaped unscathed and I'm massively grateful for their continued support!

Official site.
Official results.
My run on Strava.

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