It’s good to have options. Variety is the spice of life, right? When I decided I was ready to make the step up to a 50mile race, I began perusing a vide variety of events on Ultrasignup and Land Between the Lakes stuck out. Four options to this one; the 50 miler, a 60k, a marathon and a 23k. It’s a loop set up, and oh boy you know I love me some loops for days. Sold! I liked the course description, the fact that it is in Kentucky, it’s challenging but reasonable for my skill level and it’s a well established race with a good reputation. I considered it for days and put the idea out there to friends. All it took was a Facebook message from a friend one night. “We signed up for it” and, well, don’t have a few night caps and get on Ultrasignup or you’ll end up in a stage race or a 50 miler. Ok, maybe that’s just me but don’t drink and race register, folks. Basically all I needed was for 1 person to say “I’m in” and my computer magically navigates to that dangerous website. The roster of friends participating changed over the months leading up to the race due to various reasons but in all, we ended up with 8 runners and 1 very patient crew person/spouse of a group member/Official Race Photographer. Kentucky, party of 9, look out! Huntsville is buckle hunting!
The Basic Set Up: You begin from the cutest little establishment called Lighthouse Landing and it’s just as darling and quaint as it sounds. Think Bob Ross. Dawn is breaking at the picturesque marina as you start with 1.9 miles on the road then hang a right and hit the trail. It’s an 11.3 mile single track loop sitting upon land that is, you guessed it, between two lakes. You’re surrounded by water mostly the whole time and it’s downright gorgeous. The hills on the course are slightly steep but short, about 800 feet per loop. Reading that doesn’t sound like much (and really, it isn’t) but after running anything 3 or 4 times, your quads will be disagreeing afterwards. Like with all hills, the incline gets steeper each go-around. 23k’ers run one loop, marathoners two loops, 60k’ers three loops and 50 milers complete 4 loops. After that it’s 1.7 miles back on the road to the finish line, except for the 50milers who have another little teaser of a .62 mi. out and back to make it an even 50. You’re allowed a drop bag and with very well stocked aid stations every few miles you won’t go more that 3-4 miles in need of anything. Sounds great right? Of course! There are several other little details in the race description including the 11 hour cut-off but does one really pay attention to all of those things when you’re lovestruck with the idea of finishing your first 50 miler and you have a vision in your head of crossing the finish line with Chariots of Fire blasting in the background? No? Ok, maybe that’s just me.
We gathered Friday morning and did a 3 vehicle caravan up to Nashville, lunched at the Spaghetti Factory, then kept the train rolling another 2 hours to Grand Rivers. Quite a short half-day travel from Huntsville, just a 4 hour jaunt. If you ever go to Grand Rivers, I highly recommend Lighthouse Landing.
Three bedroom cottages on the shore within walking distance of the starting line. Sailboats, scenic views, friendly locals and just downright peaceful. Reasonably priced, clean and comfortable enough to house a few friends for a few days. I definitely could’ve stayed there a couple more days, relaxing on the porch in the cool morning mist, enjoying the silence with a book and a third cup of coffee. That kind of place.
Packet pick up at the Community Center was very well organized. The race swag was pretty sweet: a thick shoe bag stuffed with a Trail Runner Magazine, product samples, coupons, a choice of short sleeve or long sleeve t-shirts in several colors and a variety of ball caps. This was for all distances. I was pretty daggum nervous as this would be my first 50 miler but once we got there and settled I felt a little better. OK, not much, I was about to jump out of my skin nervous and I couldn’t stop thinking about plan B in the back of my head. Plan B being the safety net of the drop down option. I kind of forgot about that whole 11 hour cut-off thing until someone pointed it out about a week before the race. Um… what? Oh yea, it says it right there in the race description. So to be fair, 11 hours is a reasonable cut-off for this particular course, it’s not ridiculously impossible at all. Like all runners, I have good days and bad days and days I’m just out to finish but most of the time I’m a middle-of-the-pack-er. It would be tight but I could do it. CAN do it. More specifically and perhaps more importantly, the 50 milers have 8 hours to reach the beginning of the 4th and final loop otherwise you are kindly pointed towards the finish line to get a buckle for the 60k race. I told myself several times you did not sign up for a 60k. You signed up for a 50 and you aren’t going to Kentucky to not run 50. I didn’t want to rely on the fact that I could drop down but it was definitely tucked in the back of my bonnet. I don’t know if that helped or hurt but the option was on the table for participants in all distances.
We went to Paducah for dinner Friday night and it was exactly what I needed to calm my nerves. It looked like the kind of downtown area you see highlighted in a Southern Living magazine spread. I think we all thoroughly enjoyed what we joked was “the last supper” at Ristorante di Fratelli. This is what life is all about. The laughing, the jokes and the great company. Stepping away from the daily grind for a few minutes to relax and have a temporary change of scenery. We were already achieving the number one goal and that was to have fun and make memories.
Rise and shine, of course I was already awake at 4am after having woken up 50 times that night. My first thought was- is this what death row inmates feel like the morning of their execution? I didn’t even want my breakfast. Obviously you have to eat before an Ultra but I had to force this one down. All I cared about was coffee. Finally I decided enough superfluous fiddling with gear, the others are waiting. No need to postpone the inevitable. Tony, Karen and I walked the quarter mile together to the starting line and our group of 8 assembled. 7 to do the 50 mile, 1 to do the 60k. That was the plan.
Really, I’d never been that nervous before a race ever. I remember thinking if this is what 50 feels like, I’ll die of anxiety if I ever try for 100. The R.D. was still making announcements with his megaphone that no one was paying a lick of attention to and out of nowhere, people in front of us bolted so I mashed the button on my Garmin and took off. I don’t think I even heard a gun and if there was one, I was so distracted by my own nervousness that I didn’t notice it. Immediately I felt a sigh of relief that this thing started. I know that sounds weird but it felt so much better just moving my feet and knowing that months of anticipation would soon be laid to rest. Karen and I decided then that we would spend this whole thing together. 50 is a long way and if the going gets tough, it’s even tougher when you’re completely alone. A kind of race day “thing” with friends and training partners, I’ve noticed, is that if we start together but you’re feeling good and fast and the fire lights up and you want to take off solo then go ahead and run your race, by all means. Go for it. I feel like that’s kind of an unspoken creed amongst my runner friends. We enjoy sticking together but we always want each other to do his or her best in any race. That’s just kind of how it works. But here we were on this day going into uncharted territory and I really didn’t want to go alone. I felt better now knowing that she felt the same and wanted company. So there it was, a kind of informal pact. In it together. As we traversed the last little bit of pavement and rounded the corner to head up a small hill, someone was blasting Eye of the Tiger from a speaker. You know all good things start with Eye of the Tiger, am I right or am I right?!
Being the nerd I am, I made several copies of a spreadsheet with split times and laminated it for us to pin to our race bibs. It seemed like a reasonable plan. I actually swiped it from someone else’s race report and it seemed totally do-able. We hit the trail section 3 minutes ahead of the plan then we finished the first loop right on the nose of where we were supposed to be. First loop, done, great. Nothing too scary that I can’t handle 4 times. As we began the second loop, the negative thoughts started creeping up and I went to that grey area in my mind, “the cliff” as I think of it. You’re on the verge, not in the dark place yet but you’re precariously close. It’s up to you whether or not you are going there so I tell myself don’t. Back away from the ledge sister! Easier said than done though. I stayed on that ledge for too long but was able to right my mind back where it needed to be to get this done. I started stressing mostly because we’d slowed down more than what our plan allowed us to and the runner math started. DO. NOT. DO. Runnermath. I stress, DO not run and math.
It’ll only make you worry more. About 16 miles in when we weren’t speeding up any I realized that we’d wear ourselves out and be utterly miserable if we pushed too hard. Marathon, sure, that’s short enough to push but with 35 more to go (or even 20 if we dropped down) it would be a looooooong tough road. And not fun. We’re here to have fun, right? I was thinking it and Karen said it; we decided it was a 60k kind of day. Immediately a mental burden had been lifted from me and I could really start to relax and enjoy the run. Normally, I’d be more inclined to be very very disappointed in myself to have made a decision to do less than what I am capable of. It was a hard decision to make but it was the most sensible one. If not for making that decision, we may have been forced into it by default anyhow if we would miss the cut off to start the 4th loop. Either way, we’d still get a buckle and it would be a distance PR for me so I could lay my head on the pillow and sleep tight not feeling like I’d copped out and been a total loser.
Though it was cloudy and overcast, the sun started peeking out. Yep, it got hot and humid. Originally the forecast called for rain around noon but when you’re in the thick of these events your perception of time is completely warped. Obviously I had my Garmin to tell me the time but it seemed like the rain would never come. At least it would cool things down and though some people won’t run in the rain, I certainly will. It’s never stopped me. It’s like being a little kid when your Mom tells you the rain is coming and you have to get inside. It’s kind of a magical feeling of nostalgia for me so I was ready for some rain.
It had rained prior for 2 days as well so the thick thick mud got even muddier and traction became an issue especially once you had hundreds of folks beating down the same path over and over and over. The heat will zap you fast and dehydration can equate to game over if you don’t correct it quick enough. I ended up consuming about 7 liters of fluid not counting things I chugged at the aid station. I found temporary relief pouring water over my head as well. Karen wasn’t feeling her very best, any Ultrarunner could sympathize with her right now. Sometimes these things pass after 30 minutes or an hour but it seemed to take a long time to ease up. You know what though? She didn’t complain. Not once. It was impressive because I know I’d have been whining like a baby. Look up determination in the dictionary and she defined it that day, 110%.
The best thing you can do for someone to ask a couple of basic question to try to diagnose the culprit but not ask too many questions because you don’t want to annoy the holy bejeezus out of someone if they’re already pained. You have to stay positive but not annoyingly positive in a Stuart Smalley kind of way. Just a gentle reassurance that this too shall pass and hopefully sooner than later.
You have to break these things up into manageable chunks and I told us both we had just one job, make it to the next aid station. Then of 3 more miles and make it to the next one. For 37 miles, that’s all. So when we got to the end of a couple of our loops (I can’t remember which one, it all is a blur now) it was such a nice sight to see our friends Chad and Jill. Chad is originally from the area and just so happened to be there at the time so it was such a cool surprise to see those two. Definitely a mood elevator to see friends especially when it’s unexpected. They asked if they could help in any way or get us anything but just the support was enough. We’d see Karen’s husband Gregg, the “Official Race Photographer” several times on the course and nothing makes you feel better than seeing family. Best thing ever, so I was happy for her that he was there. Eventually the rest of the Huntsville crew would come to pass us. Now let me say this, and do not take it the wrong way; I hate to see anyone not make their goal but I won’t lie. When we found out that Kass, Casey and Suzanne, Carrie and Jay all made the same decision as we did to take the 60k buckle, it made us feel not quite so bad. I even told them that too. While it may sound wrong to you, they know exactly what I mean! We decided Tony was the smart one since he registered for the 60k in the first place. So there it was, the Huntsville crew would all take home buckles with a slight adjustment to plans and that was completely fine with all of us.
We muddled through the last few miles in the rain (hallelujah!) and honestly I felt pretty good the whole time. I never really hit “the sads” which I usually do at some point in distance running. I felt good enough to scarf down a whole ham and cheese wrap at mile 30, which I shoveled in my mouth off to the side as not to make anyone sickened if food sounded like the enemy at that point. I don’t even eat ham. American cheese is disgusting. Oh but those things tasted like heaven rolled into two bites. I didn’t care, the run-gries had set in. No more dinky Lara bars and potato chips and peanut butter pretzels, I needed real food. MUST. EAT. ALL. THE. FOOD. Perhaps I felt pretty decent most of this race is because when one person in your group hits a rough patch, you know it’s your job to stay cool and keep in the happy zone so that you both survive. And I don’t know if it was my slower pace but I really felt like I could’ve run 13 more miles to get my 50 if it weren’t for that pesky cut-off. I’m not stressing though, it’s like my Mom told me before I left the house, “if it doesn’t happen, it’s ok. There will be plenty of other chances to get your 50.” And guess what? She’s right! She usually is though.
The last 1.7 miles on the road is kind of demoralizing. It’s just that it’s….well, road! Not a fan of pavement. At this point we were using the run to that sign, walk to that sign then run to that sign tactic to make it through. As we approached the finish line, all of our friends were there waiting. They made a little tunnel and Karen and I joined hands we ran through amidst the cheers and well-wishers. We hugged, collected our buckles and from there we both needed a moment to collect ourselves. After any Ultra there’s always this feeling of “WTF just happened?”After processing that we watched Tony come in and our group was complete. We survived. Some faster than others but all made it. Now it was time to compare wounds and mangled feet (yep we do that, it’s gross) hit the showers, scrape the mud off and party!
We knew we’d be too exhausted to go anywhere so everyone contributed a little to the cause and we had a nice family dinner at the cabin in our pajamas. Cheese and crackers, fresh guac, venison chili and all the toppings. Oh and plenty of libations to dull our aches and pains. Lots of laughs, lots of memories made and just one thing left: I have to go back next year and finish the 50 mile version!
In the end, I have nothing bad to say about this race. It lived up to my expectations and I was thoroughly impressed with the volunteers, their kindness and willingness to help as well as the selection of food and beverages. Obviously races on this scale are a little more expensive than others but this one is reasonable and well worth every penny. Another great job by Durbin Race Management, the Huntsville crew thanks you for all of your hard work and effort. I know I’ll be back for more. And by more I mean that plus those extra 13 miles I missed out on. A big thanks to We Run Huntsville for capturing the day through the lens and a gigantic hug to my little runner family.