I stumbled upon this gem of a race as I was looking for something semi-local to fill my training schedule as my last long run, the third weekend out from my first 50-miler. There were a handful of options, mostly in Georgia or Tennessee and requiring an overnight stay, which I was trying to avoid because let’s face it, you can break the bank with a running addiction. I’d heard about the Black Warrior 50k just south of Moulton AL and it is notorious for falling on weekends with dicey, at best, weather conditions. I pondered it as it is only 45 minutes from home, I initially decided against it as I’ve only heard negative things regarding the race (the course and conditions, not the volunteers or organizers, to be clear). In fact last year it fell on a weekend with an ice storm and several friends couldn’t make the trip due to road conditions. The friends who did brave the local drivers came home very unsatisfied with their finishing times since it took so much longer to get through the frozen mud and icy creek crossings. Another charming quality is that the course is entirely on horse trails. This requires dodging horse poop for hours. No that part isn’t charming but turning a corner and seeing a beautiful, well mannered horse or three isn’t something I see on the trails in my backyard. I had hesitations about committing. I went back and forth on my decision but after Mist, I figured I could handle any amount of ice Mother Nature could throw at me and I can handle a little poop. So it was decided, I’d fill the gap in my training schedule with Black Warrior.
So who is Cary Long? If you don’t know him, you should because he is a wonderful person. Everyone needs a friend like Cary. You can often find him organizing weekend training runs and posting open invites on the We Run Huntsville Facebook page. I came to know Cary a few years ago through one of these runs. Though he won’t admit it, he’s pretty darn fast so I don’t often get to keep up with him but when I do, he’s a lot of fun to run with. He’s also one of the funniest people I know so you should definitely check out his blog. As a healthy guy who runs 100 milers for fun, it was a lot disconcerting when he suddenly fell ill and ended up in the hospital for 2 weeks undiagnosed. Undoubtedly, those were some dark days for him and his family and as his friends we wanted to do anything we could to cheer him up and show our support. There were much appreciated hospital visits and kind gestures from many but a week before Black Warrior it hit me…. T SHIRTS! I am a huge fan of making t shirts. No, I don’t and won’t wear costumes or tutus but I’m all about some matching t shirts!!! Not that there’s anything wrong with tutus, you just won’t see me wearing one. Ever. So with the race less than a week away, I scanned the list of race participants and sent one of those annoying group messages asking if others would be interested. The response was immediate and an astounding YES! Because the race is so close, I’m picturing myself in my kitchen at 2am, ironing letters on shirts I bought at Target just to get it done. I didn’t think I’d be able to find a printer who could turn them around so quickly but alas, I did. I sent out the word, got sizes and funds were showing up in my Paypal. My friends are pretty badass and they made it just that easy. My save-the-day Sister (her official title) tweaked a simple design, emailed it to the printer and just like that, t shirts were ready to be picked up Friday. I couldn’t believe I pulled this off in the same week I’m starting the never ending home buying process. With all of that going on, it was a pretty sweet deal that everything came together. Race day was predicted to be 60 degrees with a little cloud cover. PERFECT. Now if only Cary could get out of that hospital bed and join us. He was where he needed to be though, working on getting a diagnosis and getting healthy. In his absence we’re going to smile and Keep Calm and Cary Long our happy tails all the way to the finish line.
Race day conditions did turn out to be ideal. I woke early and did my usual “gah I just want to go back to bed. It’s 4am….” That lasted about 3 minutes when I thought of the t shirts and got pumped. I drank my coffee, packed my car and headed to Moulton. Aaaahhh… Moulton. It’s the kind of place you go if you want some really great pics to submit to www.peopleofwalmart.com. No seriously, there’s no reason to go there, like, ever. Unless you’re just passing through and even then it’s sketchy. Unbeknownst to me, there’s a hidden gem in that area called the William B. Bankhead National Forest. It’s one of Alabama’s four National Forests, covering 181,230 acres. It is also home to Alabama’s only National Wild and Scenic River, the Sipsey Fork. Also several great camping spots, from what I’ve heard. So I take back all of those bad things I said about Moulton. Everything except for the Wal-Mart jab, that part is totally true. I’m almost ashamed to admit that I’d never set foot here until age 35, even though I grew up in North Alabama, such a short drive. As soon as I turned off of the highway and started heading up, up and up, I knew the scenic drive would translate into a beautiful course. I had no idea just how beautiful!
Our cars rolled into the lot one by one and our gang assembled. We picked up race bibs, passed out t shirts, adjusted attire and snapped some photos. As always, we shared many laughs and quelled pre-race jitters before walking the quarter mile to the bridge which would be the starting line. There’s a 25k option and a 50k option so the group was split. I knew this would mostly be a solo venture and I was fine with that. The first 2.5 miles of this race is straight uphill on a gravel road. Luckily it’s the nice finely crushed limestone gravel, not the irritating, erratic kind that I dread.
Having known the first part was uphill, I wasn’t put off by it but what a surprise it would’ve been had I not known. At the top we took a right to split off onto the trail, I realized I was leading a pack of 5 or 6 people and I was feeling good so I made it a goal to keep ahead far enough that I didn’t hear them behind me but could see them if I turned to look. Just enough for a mind game to push me a little. I’m already noticing how amazing the scenery is and how well manicured the trails are. I’ve had a huge problem with ankle rolling in the past 6 months and so far so good, I’m not seeing a lot of potential hazards that may reach out and grab a leg like the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz and pull me down. That’s how I do when I fall. So far no horse poop either. Winning!
Upon seeing the first aid station, there’s several friendly smiling faces, PBJs, oranges, all the typical goodness you delight in seeing under the tent. My friend Kevin is here to greet us and offer words of encouragement which is always a nice sight. Someone hollers “wow, you Cary Long people. He’d be proud whoever he is!” With 9 of us donning lime green Cary shirts, it’s clear this band of friends from Huntsville came out to show some love today! I smile and head out. I came up behind a guy I’d been trailing for a while and ask to pass. He jokingly says “I can’t decide if you’re inspiring me or scaring me?” I guess it’s kind of a compliment, either way it made me laugh. At this point I’m entering an area that is so beautiful words cannot describe. Creek crossings, waterfalls, caves, dips and ridges in the landscape and oddly enough, a lot of green for it to still be February. It’s not even spring but on this day you’d have thought it was. I’ve hit a happy spot so the words of joy start spilling out like a babbling brook. I talk a lot anyways but especially when I’m excited. “OH MY GOD, THIS IS AMAZING. DID YOU SEE THAT WATERFALL?” “We are so blessed! What an amazing day we have!” “I love this race!” As I pass a guy he looks at me with a serious drink this tall glass of shut the hell up expression and it’s then I realize that not everyone is as happy as I am right now. I might want to shut it and keep my bliss to myself, at least until I see a pal in a Cary shirt. But do I contain it? Of course not. The next 2 guys I come upon I say “wow what a beautiful day. We really got lucky with this one.” This guy was on the same plane as me, he says “it’s like God just gave us a big, warm hug, just for today.” I loved that.
At this point it’s about mile 8 and the 25k people are splitting off from the 50k-ers, we’ll eventually be spit back out onto that same section of trail for the last 7 or 8 miles but for now, we have a 15 mile field trip to take. After the split we work our way up a good bit, really the second of only two notable inclines on the course, to some weird ridge that looks like a tornado has been through. It’s odd, I don’t know why the landscape looked this way but it was sparse with a bunch of flattened trees. The Lawrence and Winston County area seems to be a spot that gets hammered every time we have severe weather so it may be a result of that, I don’t know. But it’s surreal looking and unlike any other areas on the course. Right about now is when people are starting to come out on their horses too so I’m ooohing and aaahing. I’m not necessarily afraid of horses but I’ve always seen them as mysterious creatures, gentle giants. I’ve never been that close to one so it was a cool experience. I wanted to touch one but of course I had other things going on right now. This is a vast difference from Monte Sano, my usual stomping grounds. I’m running along wondering why this course has gotten such a bad rap, this is amazing! I’m already sold on signing up next year. I reach the second aid station and and the lady tells me I’m the third female she’s seem come through. Last time I heard that statement it wasn’t a good sign. In fact, it was my first indication I’d gotten off course. This time though, I knew I was at the right place and she’s either had a few females slip past her or she can’t count. I can’t decide which but I like the idea of being third for sure!
Not too long afterwards, I find a friendly chatter who is loving life as much as I am. We strike up conversation and make fast friends. He tells me about the races he’s done, the recent injuries he’s had and the races he’s had to miss out on due to the injuries. I share my similar war stories and the miles tick by. We talk about our spouses and how supportive they are, where we’re from and what we do for a living. This type of exchange is something non-runners don’t understand. The fact that we can make new friends within 10 minutes and spend an hour with someone you just met and know more about them than you do coworkers you’ve had for a year. As ultrarunners, we have plenty of time on our hands, stories to share and there’s already the unspoken runner bond that’s been established. You are one of my people. You’re cool, I get you. So to pass the time, I share a theory with Steven, my new friend. Theory is: there’s two types of people attracted to Ultrarunning. (Keep in mind these are generalizations, ok, anyone can be a runner. We’re not elite.) Both kinds are highly motivated, obviously, but the first kind are the people who are rocket scientists, doctors, CEO’s, jet-setting scholars. The second kind are folks who are equally motivated but they do it because they’re adrenaline junkies who simply get a kick out of pushing the envelope. It might be the surfer who works at a gas station, the perpetual student going for his or her third degree, the rock climber, the guy who works at the book store or meat counter, maybe a starving artist or the unemployed super fast dude sponsored by North Face. Possibly someone you’d think of as a more blue-collar type (for lack of a better term, but not always) that has a need for extreme something in their lives. The all-or-nothings. This is also the group of folks who find Ultras because they (we, I guess, I consider myself to fall in this second category) changed our lifestyles so significantly, from one extreme to the other. Self destruction all-or-nothing to sky’s the limit all-or-nothing. Either way, we’re going to be really really good at whichever way we choose to go, up or down. Steven laughs, agrees with my theory, that it’s a pretty fitting description and then tells me he climbs trees for the utility company for a living. Yes, that kind of tree climber. The guys who put on spikes, strap themselves in with chainsaws and shimmy on up to swing from tree to tree trimming limbs or cutting them down piece by piece. I’d say that fits.
We reach the third aid station and another volunteer makes a comment about me being one of the lead females. It just sounds odd because I’m not even running fast but I tell myself all I have to do is not get passed and I may actually have something here! As the miles go by, I only see my new friend’s face once at an aid station and chances are if he were to walk into the room right now I wouldn’t know who he is. That’s another weird thing about running, you can talk to someone for 3 hours and look at them once. This is why I’m more likely to recognize a voice than a face sometimes. I’m just enjoying the scenery as Steven speeds up. That or I slowed down, I don’t know. I say “good luck, thanks for the conversation, see you at the finish line!” I was in a comfort zone and I was just happy to be running a race on a beautiful day, trying not to get passed and wearing my super fly Cary Long t shirt.
Add this to another excellent course bonus- it’s impossible to get lost! Really! This, coming from me, a girl named Shortcut. Orange flags on your right, maybe a total of 6 intersections the whole time. So you can imagine how surprised I was when I’d run almost 6 miles not seeing one face when a tall younger guy ran up behind me saying “OH thank God! I’m so glad to see you!” He about looked like he needed a good cry. I didn’t mind, I was relieved for him that he got back on course but did it have to be while I was looking for a spot to relieve myself!? At least he didn’t catch me 5 feet to the side of the trail, mid-squat… but it almost came to that. Poor guy, I wanted to say “how the hell did you manage to get off course?” but I will never say those words to anyone, ever, other than myself. We chatted about a mile and he thanked me for bringing him out of his dark place. Those were his words, so the fact that I helped someone made me happy. He wished me luck and took off. Like, he booked it. He was ready to be done. I looked down and saw a horseshoe in the mud. It was probably horse poo but I pulled it out anyways. It reminded me of a lucky horseshoe my Grandmother had hanging on a peach tree in her backyard so many years ago and I decided I needed a lucky horse shoe of my own for our new house. I wiped it off in a creek as best I could and put it in my pack for my Black Warrior souvenir.
I knew the end was near, my Garmin told me. Or so I thought. I also knew that the last 2.8 miles would be “downhill” on that same gravel road we started up. I’m no land surveyor and I don’t concoct Big Fish stories but I can tell you this, it is possible for something to be uphill both ways. No, really, that damn road was uphill going back down too! I’m not the only person who has made this claim. I thought it was never going to end. At one point the road forks and I saw orange flags on my right, so I stayed to the right. It went on, and on. And on. AND ON. My watch ticked over to mile 32 and I had a few choice expletives. I’m hungry too, not the I kind of want a burrito hungry but the OMG I might die if there’s no food left at the finish line get me done NOW kind of hungry. I’m actually dizzy and a little disoriented so I assume the worst, that I was supposed to go left. Besides, if I came up this way why doesn’t it look like the same gravel and the same curves as it did 6 hours ago, just going the opposite direction? It’s not making sense. Garmins aren’t always accurate and I know this, but WHY oh why is it not over? As the distance accrues I decide to go back up because I see no other runners ahead or behind. I heard a truck approaching. I flagged down the little sweet lady driving because I’m just plum confused. Apparently so is she, bless her heart….. she rolled down her window and said “oh there’s a 5k today! Is that what you’re running, the 5K? How neat!”Not hardly. I tell her I’m fearing I made a bad directional decision, because that’s what I’m good at. I ask her which way to the recreational area and she smiles. It was a definite Mom smile, the “honey you’re ok” kind of smile. She tells me I’m headed the right way and “not too much further”. That phrase is relative so I hope her sense of distance is keen and I keep going until eventually, finally, the gravel road looks familiar and I see the bridge. There are a few people clapping and cheering and eventually I see the finish chute. Most of my friends were already half way back to Huntsville at that time since they ran the 25k and come to find out, several of them took home awards! Though it wasn’t anywhere near my 50k PR, I ended up 3rd in my age group and 5th female overall. I tried to channel my inner Cary Long and go fast a few times but I was most content keeping focus on running with my heart. It was a happy race, all of it. That’s hard to attain in an Ultra so I’m grateful.
The volunteers had a buffet fit for a Trail King! Or queen. Laid out under a huge tent was a spread of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, coleslaw, brownies, sodas, all the fixin’s. When I politely passed on the burgers and dogs, the sweet lady behind the table asked me if I wanted a black bean burger. Now you’re speaking my language! As a picky eater you don’t ask for such things or say “oh I don’t eat that” but I wasn’t going to hide my excitement when she offered! I scarfed down a bowl of potato salad while she had my black bean burger thrown on the grill and I was more than happy. I saw Steven and wished him and his crew a safe trip home. I saw the kid who got lost and chatted with him a while, he was feeling much better but worried about his wife who was running her first 50k today. He expected to be there until dark but I assured him that’s ok, as long as she finishes. A finish is a finish whether it’s 5 hours or 9. In all, my only regret this day was not taking more pictures than I did.
Pros: the awesome friendly volunteers, the humorous race director who authored the most entertaining pre-race email, offering 2 distances with the option to switch if necessary, a well marked and well maintained course, well stocked aid stations frequently located, post race festivities and a large supply of food for both runners and guests, in all a very well organized event with a registration fee offered at a fraction of the cost of many other 50ks I’ve run.
Cons: Cary couldn’t make it this time. BUT! He did get a diagnosis the same weekend of the race and was released from the hospital. Polymyalgia Rheumatica. I’m not googling it either because I’ll have that plus 5 other maladies by the end of the read but I thought you’d like to know he’s on his way back. CARY- keep getting better. We need you on the trails. Thanks to all of the friends who came together and made the shirts happen so easily and congratulations on taking home so many AG awards. Till our next adventure!