Sometimes it’s the little, unassuming things in life that pack the most punch. Much like a habanero, it’s cute and small, it looks like something I’d grow in my garden. Seemingly harmless. I wouldn’t say the Autumn Equinox Ultra is quite a habanero but it’s definitely “got a whang to it” as we say in the south. Maybe a little jalapeno.
AEU offers two options, a 32 miler and a 16 miler. I arrived to find out that us 32-milers would be running in a field of 25 participants. I particularly enjoy these smaller, no frills type of events. I’d rather pay a lesser entry fee and receive little or no swag than shell out double the amount and get a shirt and and a medal and a mug that will inevitably end up at the Salvation Armani. I get to run more races that way too. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate it when race directors make the effort to secure these items for us (thank you RD’s, I honestly DO love and wear most of my t-shirts and I know it’s a lot of work) but I’d rather snap some pics, write a race report and call that my souvenir. AEU is that kind of race. Located in Pelham, AL on the trails of Oak Mountain, it appealed to me for several reasons (a rare Sunday race, love that) and had been on my radar for over a year. It fit nicely in my 50 mile training schedule so logically I had to, right?
Megan, my trusted travel companion and race buddy, offered a ride so of course I accepted. What can I say, my friends are the best! Emily would join us the morning of the race as well. Ultrarunning is all about making life-long friends and mine are a huge part of the reason I do these things. Nothing I own or could ever purchase, no shoes or running gear, could ever elevate my mood or performance quite like the friends I’ve made along the way. Chris was nice enough to drive so our trio traveled south on 65 to end up chilling at a Hooter’s watching the end of the Bama game. Roll Tide! We tanked up on race fuel (try the Mahi sandwich, it’s awesome) and called it an early night. 4:30 a.m. always rolls around too soon.
Race morning, we arrived at 5:45 to pick up bibs and prepare for the 6:30 start. The 16 milers would have to wait until 8:30 to begin so not a whole lot of activity at the pavilion yet. It was still dark and starting to sprinkle a tiny bit. I love rain runs and was happy to see a little bit of drizzle predicted in the forecast. September is hit or miss in the South, we could’ve had 90 degrees and 100% humidity (typical) or it could’ve been 50 and foggy. We lucked out somewhere in between with a cold front moving in. I had a feeling this day would be tolerable compared to the past 3 months of living with a thermostat stuck on the Satan’s Den setting.
Many trail races begin with a road section to thin out the crowd but thankfully this one had so few participants that wasn’t necessary. With basic course instructions and little fanfare, we were off and on the trail within minutes. Just the way I like it. My friends and I fell somewhere in the middle of the pack and would continue on the Red Bike Trail for 16 miles out, turn around at the pavilion where we started then 16 miles back. A big loop. Just the way I like it! Staying on one trail is a huge reassurance for me since I go into most races knowing there’s a possibility I’ll take a wrong turn. Any dummy can follow the colors on the trail blazes though (you’d think). As for elevation, I was told that it was a “flat and fast” course. Oak Mountain is the same location that absolutely tore me up last year on day 3 of the Birmingham Stage Race so I couldn’t imagine any spots on that mountain that might fit the flat and fast description. The other trails in this park still cause my I.T. band to have night terrors of the unrelenting downhill sections. After some research, I found that the elevation would actually be tame compared to what I’d made it out to be in my mind.
Around mile 2.5 I decided it would be a great time to go ahead and get my trail-meets-body slam over with. More like a 3 foot long skid on my side, really. Usually I see it coming but not this one, I still have no idea if it was a rock, a root, or a trail goblin. Sometimes I go to work feeling like Tyler Durden when people sheepishly ask “what. the. ….. did you do to yourself?” But hey, trail running happens. No bones showing? Keep on going. Buck up and walk it off.
I kept close to my friends for the first 6 miles then decided I’d scale back not knowing what the rest of the course had in store. I reminded myself this is just a training run, I’m not racing. Conserve. We would weave up and down on the single track until a small climb led us to a wide and long section that reminded me of a Jeep road. Parts of this section of trail had a concave quality and large, loose rocks but mostly it was very runnable. It was a gentle uphill with some paved dips that made me want to take up mountain biking. For about 5 minutes. We reached the top and there was the one main intersection on the course. I was pretty sure I remembered the RD saying it was all Red Trail ONLY so I went with it and took a right. I knew there was a guy in a red shirt not too far behind me so I went down a ways, had a moment of self doubt like I always do after making directional decisions and waited till I saw him at the top. He gave me a nod and a thumbs up so I split.
Woo whee, 2 more miles downhill until the aid station! There would be full aid at 10, 16 and 22. Perfect. There was even a surprise water station not mentioned in the race description at 3.5 and 28.5… bonus! It was all downhill after the turn, it didn’t feel terribly steep and it went by so quickly that it definitely didn’t seem like 2 miles. A gentle rain began to fall and I was grinning from ear to ear. This rain was a nice compliment to the beautiful orange and red leaves that were beginning to cover the ground. There was still a backdrop of lush, wet greenery too. It’s the perfect transitional period of seasons. All the colors. Fresh smell of rain. Alabama red clay soil and soft pine needles. My happy place is here and now. Pretty soon, red shirt sped past me on the downhill but I decided not to care. No one likes being passed, even if you’re not racing. It’s a fact.
I never know what to expect from aid stations so I always come prepared. Rarely have I seen one depleted but it can happen. That and I’m a picky eater so I expect NO ONE to cater to my wants. But… This. One. Was. AWESOME. The food was neatly portioned out in plastic containers so as not to get soggy. (I’ve eaten a wet sandwich before. It’s &#@%ing disgusting.) Pickles, pretzels and Clif Bars oh MY. Aid station volunteers are always super chill and accommodating people but I could’ve pulled up a chair and talked to these two for a while. They even offered me goodies that hadn’t been put out on the table yet. “Are you Lindsey Hardesty?” Yes… “um, do I know you?” No genius, the guy has a list of names with bib numbers and he’s checking you in. Light bulb goes off, it’s too early for fog brain. “So are you racing today?” one of them asked. “Nah, just havin’ fun. A training run for my 50-miler. ” He laughed as we both realized how skewed my perception of distance has become. 32 miles. “Just” a training run.
I was lingering now and had to get back at it. Two runners I hadn’t seen yet emerged from the trees, so I yelled “thanks guys!” and took off. How dare you catch me, right? Yea, they’d pass me in about a mile. Three passers was plenty and I vowed not to let it happen again. That’s the thing about these small races, depending on who shows up and what kind of day you’re having, even people like me can place and occasionally take home a sweet little extra something.
The rain stopped and the sun came out. Things were getting steamy. Bikers were starting to come out too. I had no idea what time it was and I kept trying not to look since I knew I’d only completed a little more than 1/3 of the task at hand. I have a pretty strict personal policy of no iPod on the trails (it’s a definite requirement for road runs though!) because I’m out here to enjoy nature, not to mention it’s dangerous and rude to other runners and bikers who want to pass. You can’t hear them coming so it’s pretty simple to eliminate the problem. Plus if you rely on it all the time in training, it becomes a crutch that you have to remove on race day when most devices are prohibited. FOR SAFETY REASONS. Don’t be the dumbass with 5 runners behind you yelling “BIKE BACK.” Let me tell you how I really feel, right?
So guess what I brought with me? My iPod! I felt like it was ok this time since the trails were wide enough for passing. I only use one ear bud and I keep the volume low. I don’t mind running alone at all but by this point I could feel my mind getting bored. Physically I was well but I was doing anything to keep my mental state off of that slippery slope. I bribed myself to get to the turn around and then music would be my much anticipated reward. The carrot in front of my horse.
The trail was about to be cruel and dump us out on the road for about a mile before reaching the pavilion. Longest. Mile. EVER. I saw Emily headed towards me and realized she was 3rd female. Megan would follow a few minutes later in 4th. I’d soon discover when I saw no other females at the turnaround, I’d be in 5th place. Pretty nice surprise since I expected at least 10 of them between me and her. I checked in, surveyed the smorgasbord of treats and filled my pack with my super sauce, Raspberry Tailwind & Coconut Water diluted with regular water. It’s actually not terrible! The RD offered me a beer and as tempting as it was (Good People IPA, no less) I abstained for the moment. I grabbed a cookie for my pocket and shoveled pickles and pretzels into my cheeks like a chipmunk. I was back on the road for the second longest mile ever, pressing along to get back to my beloved shade and dirt.
Things were off to a great start after half-time. I collected my reward now and hit shuffle on the ol’ iPod. The Killers Smile Like You Mean It was the first thing I heard. It’s a bittersweet song that reminds me of a not-so-amazing time in my late 20’s when I had a track record of making really stupid decisions, before I discovered the thing that would ultimately save me. Running. It was exactly the pick me up I needed. “Save some face, you know you’ve only got one. Change your ways while you’re young.”
Gnarls Barkley up next, Smiley Faces. “What went right? What went wrong? Was it a story or was it a song? Was it overnight or did it take you long? Was knowing your weakness what made you strong?” Well actually, Cee-Lo, that’s exactly what made me strong. It definitely didn’t happen overnight either. I sang to myself as I often do when I’m alone to pass the time. By now, the 16 mile runners were approaching from the opposite direction, dotting the race course at their various paces. We’d exchange smiles and “good job” salutations and fist bumps. Standard trail runner greetings.
After reaching the aid station and refilling again (I drink a lot), I began ascending the 2 mile hill that seemed so gentle and effortless earlier. WRONG. I didn’t even feel the wall sneaking up on me then out of nowhere, bam. I’ve been really fortunate in these distance events lately and I can sometimes make it through 6,7, or even 10 hours without any problems, feeling amazing the whole time. Not today though. I was in for little spell of woe is me trudging up that hill. I never doubted I’d finish but I questioned how damn long it would take. I knew I had to concentrate on pulling my mess together otherwise it could get worse. Did I walk the entire hill? You bet I did! All 2 miles. It felt like an eternity. I had an overwhelming sense of relief when I reached the top because I knew the next 6 miles could be a nice respite if I’d just relax and let it be.
As quick as the wall hit me, it went away and turbo-fire kicked in. That’s the thing, you just have to wait it out. Why waste time wallowing in self-pity when you can have faith that eventually it will go away? Sometimes just having that faith is exactly what makes it go away. My music was still helping a lot and it seemed that with each song, I felt better and I ran stronger. TV on The Radio, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Jurassic 5, Florence & the Machine, Gang of Four, WuTang and Fugazi. I’d been (mostly) fine going solo this whole race but I was super happy to see Megan at mile 30ish. As we spent the last couple of miles together, we mutually decided we weren’t sure if we liked this race or not….?? Later that evening while lying on my couch with calves slathered in BioFreeze and a belly full of Zoe’s Kitchen, I’d decide that I can’t wait to do it again.
This particular race experience was all mental for me. Sure, I had the typical aches and pains you’d expect from an Ultra but I was dangerously close to letting my mind get the best of me. It became an exercise of emotional self control. Next year I want to push myself and really race it and see what happens. I’ll either crash and burn or surprise myself and wonder why I didn’t race it this time? Either way, this was a great experience and I recommend Autumn Equinox. It was a little spicy but I like that. I like the small things in life that are actually quite bold.
*Sidenote* I had several friends run the Barkley Fall Classic 50K this weekend. Hot Wing Runner can tell you about that right here. I say this as a disclaimer because I’m well aware that I have no right to whine about anything that happened to me during my cakewalk at Oak Mountain. Barkley sounds like the Carolina Reaper of peppers, actually. Other Sidenote, I WILL NEVER DO A RACE WITH THE WORD BARKLEY IN IT or any race that has a section called “Testicle Spectacle” for that matter.