Sunday, October 3, 2010

FATS 50k Race

The Fork Area Trail System (FATS) is a celebrated mountain bike trail system in the Long Cane Ranger District of the Sumter National Forest just North of North Augusta, SC.  The trail system has six loops and this race utilizes four of them, with us running the Great Wall loop twice.  There are no major climbs or elevation changes, the trails are mostly single track but not highly technical and other than the somewhat annoying 'whoop de doo' style mountain bike rolling hills, the course was very runnable.

This doesn't happen very often, but even more important than the race course was the Race Director - Terri Hayes.  Terri has around 300 ultras over the past 30 years under her belt.  In an effort to give back to the sport and encourage others to follow in her footsteps she has created the SC Ultras On Trails series.  This is a series of ultras run all over South Carolina put on by Terri with fully stocked aid stations, no cut-off times, unique finishers awards, goody bags & food at the finish... all at a price that can't be beat... FREE (donations are accepted and welcomed)!  This is quite amazing in a time where you would have to pay well over $100 for a marathon that you wouldn't get half of the aid at... not to mention the extra miles!  Speaking of 'extra miles'... even though this race was listed as a 50k, which should be just over 31 miles, it was actually around 33 (or 33.5 for me).

Going into the race I really had to put the goal at just finishing and preferably under 7 hours.  I have never done an ultra before and had never raced anything longer than 8k (unless you count my 9 mile leg run during the Blue Ridge Relay just two weeks prior).  I've heard many horror stories of people thinking they were ready to run an ultra only to find that just finishing would be a victory and there are so many factors that you just can't train for to take into account.  With potential issues of cramping, chaffing, issues with my gear, not fueling properly, stomach/GI problems, and the list goes on... I knew I had to be conservative on my estimate and 7 hours would give me a little wiggle room for any unforeseen issues.  There was potential for running in the low 6 hour range but not knowing the course terrain (how runnable it would be) or how I would hold up after just racing the Blue Ridge Relay I had to try not to get my hopes up.  I arrived at the course just before sunrise and since I would be missing it at church, I took communion with the wine I brought in a spare gel flask and the homemade bread Ashley had made a couple days earlier.  It was nice to just sit in my car as the sun slowly lit up my surroundings and reflect on what really matters and put things into perspective for me.

With people now scurrying around in the fresh daylight, the atmosphere started feeling more like a race.  It was definitely different though, it was missing the palpable anxiety/nervousness and excitement that you might get at your run of the mill 5k road race.  It was a more laid back scene with lots of people chatting/talking about family/life and catching up on running adventures since they had last seen each other.  Before I knew it we were all bunched together and after a quick explanation of the course & thanking of the sponsors Terri simply said... 'Go' and we were off.

Hebrews 12:1
...let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, on whom our faith depends from start to finish.

Great Wall Loop    |    Miles 0-8    |    Gain 597'
The Great Wall (7.5mi) gets its name from a section of trail built up by concrete pavers that makes you feel like you're running on a 'mini' Great Wall... if you blink you'll miss it.  This loop had 'a little bit of everything' with tight & twisty turns, some quick downhills, tougher climbs on the course (but still not really tough by trail standards), and of course the dreaded 'whoop-de-doos' that we would be running all day!  These are the quick/sharp up and down hills (mounds almost) common to mountain bike courses that I'm sure are a blast on a bike but are killer when running.  You don't get any relief and find yourself fighting the elevation change if you are going up or down.

I started in the front in an effort to video the start with my Flip video.  Other than that I had planned to slink back to a nice comfortable spot somewhere further back but that's not the way it worked out.  I soon found myself running with the lead pack of 6 (counting myself) and a mile or 2 in heard the few guys in the pack behind us taunting... 'you guys are starting too fast'... and another saying 'we're going to catch you when you die'.  It was all meant in jest and I thought it was pretty funny but I also took it as a reminder that I planned to be further back.  I slowed my pace to join these guys since they sounded like they might be fun to run 30 miles with, but after a mile or so of slowing my pace, they weren't gaining any and I soon found myself running alone.  I decided it would be more fun to run with people while I could so I sped up and caught the lead pack again.  We all stayed together for maybe 5 miles when a few started to break away and I found myself running 5th/6th with David (a veteran of ultras who had just run the Hinson Lake 24hr run the weekend before).  We chatted and hung together for a while until I had to 'water the bushes' and let him take off.  I'm glad I didn't wait for pack behind us since nobody caught me by the time I got back to the trail and started running again.  

I was told that there were some 'cheetahs laying in the grass' (not my words) behind us and with some sub 3 hour and low 3 hour marathoners, I knew I would/should have company again at some point.  Just before the first aid station, I had David back in my sights and decided not to close the gap anymore before the stop.  Coming into the 1st aid station around mile 8, I was 6th with 4th and 5th still in the station.  My drop bag wasn't there, but I had an 'emergency' gel on me so there was no need to panic as long as the bag was there next time around.  I topped off my Nathan hand-held 22oz with something blue (found out later it was Powerade), munched 2 Cheetos and took off with David leaving the other guy at the aid station.  I drank around 16 oz of water and had 2 vanilla Powerbar gels and 1 'Chomp' during this loop.

Isaiah 40:31...those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Deep Step Loop    |    Miles 8-13.5    |    Gain 737'
This 5 mile loop had some steeper climbs and more of them than the other loops.  The Deep Step name comes from the road this loop crosses in 2 different places.  I've developed a bit of a hate-hate relationship with road running in my second new-found life as a runner, so it was great that this was the only amount of asphalt we had to touch during the entire 33+ miles.  The funny thing is this also proved to be my only real relief from the rolling hills that punished my knees.  My knees have caused me a great deal of grief in the past couple years since I've started running again.  The pain/discomfort was almost a thing of the past during the last few months, but I'm afraid going so hard on my three legs of the relay made the knee pain rear its ugly head again.  This surfaced big time around mile 6 or 7 and was starting to be a killer with a bulk of the pain coming from my left knee. 

I started this run the way I start almost any run... I thank God for giving me the ability to even take the first step and that I won't take that gift for granted.  I pray for all of those who are disabled and don't have the ability to feel what its like to run and that maybe somehow/someday they will.  A nice side effect of doing this is it helps put things into perspective, and at times when you are hurting like I was, you can still find room for being thankful.  I was grateful for being able to run as far as I had and for even being able to feel the pain when there are so many others who might not have use of their legs.

Since misery loves company, it helped to have David along as we traded taking the lead and chatted about our running resumes and other random things.  A runner passed us around mile 10 putting us in 5th/6th. Although I told myself I would still be stoked to finish top 10, I decided to try and go with this guy and told David I would probably see him in a few miles when he caught up. 
With my knee still killing me and running alone, I passed the 1/2 marathon mark in just over 2 hours.  I called Ashley with an update for the second time and also asked her to pray for my left knee to make it.

Coming into the second aid station, I was 5th with 3rd and 4th still there and 6th came in as I left.  I grabbed some gels from my drop bag, refilled my water bottle with what I thought was water (but turned out to be Heed), ate a couple more Cheetos, and a gummy bear.  Even though I felt like I spent too long chatting, messing with my gear, and pondering the food options at this aid station, I still managed to leave in 4th.  During this loop, I drank 22oz of diluted Powerade, ate 4 chomps, and took one Endurolyte capsule.

Philippians 4:13
I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength.

Skinny & Brown Wave Loops    |    Miles 13.5-25    |    Gain 814'
This is actually two loops run at once.  We started the Skinny Loop and split off along the way to run Brown Wave (another 6mi total) with an aid station in the middle.  We finished this stretch with the remaining portion of Skinny (around 6mi in total length) before returning to the common aid station.  Around mile 8 or 9 I would have put the pain at a 5 out of 10.  By now it was closer to an 8 on the pain scale (eventually a 10+) and it was hurting no matter the terrain or pace.  I pushed through the pain alone in 4th place for 4 or 5 miles before I was passed by Jeff from Upstate SC.  We chatted briefly and even though he looked strong and was moving fine, I decided to ride his coattails while I could.  It took all I could do to stay with him and chat, but even though it hurt more, I think it helped to forget about my knee for a little while.  

I was just about ready to let him take off around mile 16 when he pointed out another runner up ahead.  I knew that if I wanted to also pass and stay in front of that guy, I would have to stay with Jeff.  I knew if we were running together and looked strong, then the person getting passed wouldn't bother to go with us and would be content in looking for the next person back and try to hold his newly given place in 6th.  If I was straggling behind Jeff, then the guy may hope to hang with me.  It worked, and I did my best acting job when we passed to look like I was as strong and effortless as Jeff.  I laughed a few miles later at how I probably looked great (with good form and stride) from behind as we passed the guy, but if he could have seen my face, the grimaced look would have given me away.  Jeff and I hung together in 4th/5th until the aid station around mile 19.  Third place was there and 6th came in while we were fueling up.  We got word that the leader and 2nd place were now about 5 and 2 minutes ahead.  We had heard the lead runner had a 13 minute lead at the previous aid station, so this gave hope that a chase was possible.  I tried to eat a lame excuse for a salt potato (a boiled potato with salt sprinkled on it), but spit it out and then managed to eat a couple plain potatoes and guzzle some energy drink (possibly Gatorade this time?).  I left the aid station thinking I'll need to bring some genuine Central New York salt potatoes to the next race.  Jeff followed right behind as we took over 3rd and 4th place.

2010 FATS 50k - Elevation Profile
Jeff and I ran together trading the duties of leading while keeping a pretty fast pace.  Jeff intended to try his best to run the next 5-6 miles at a decent pace and hopefully continue to close the gap at the final aid station (leaving 7.5-8 miles to give it a go)... I intended to hang with him as long as possible, which unfortunately wasn't as long as I would have liked.  I wished him luck as I took the solo 4th place spot around mile 20-21.  The pain was off the charts giving it an 11 out of 10 and I had to walk a lot more than I would have wanted.  The 'hit the wall around mile 20' thought had crossed my mind but it wasn't so much that I hit the wall as it was that it felt like the wall had landed on my knee.  Other than the knee pain I honestly felt pretty good.  Unfortunately with the pain and disappointment of not being able to push my knee any harder I started to slide into a little bit of a self loathing/dark place.  I had bible scriptures to remind me of what really matters and to inspire on my homeade pacing band but I still had a bad case of the 'whoa is me'.  The Brown Wave Loop didn't help any either.

Brown Wave is named so because of its CONSTANT wavy 'whoop de doo' hills.  Mountain bikers say its like riding on waves of dirt (hence... brown wave).  For me, it made for very little runnable surface and lots of painful (physically and psychologically) walking.  I had grabbed a long straight hiking stick to run/walk with and kept chugging along waiting for the 'cheetahs' to pass me and talked myself into trying to go with them when they did. Earlier in the race, when comparing running resumes, someone asked me what my best marathon was... I had to laugh when I told him 'I'll tell you in a few hours'.  This would be the first time I had raced a marathon and with my good start, I was hoping I could keep the time low, but I saw that pace slipping away with every excruciating step.  

This is where, or I should say when, I experienced something amazing.  While running, I felt the pain ease up to the point where I could run with minimal pain.  It was so noticeable that I checked the time on my watch (12:04p) just for a mental note.  With this seemingly miraculous pain relief, and the knowledge that I had less than 10 miles left, my spirits were lifted.  Nearing the final aid station, I caught one of the two guys that was in front of Jeff and me earlier.  He was standing off to the side of the trail stretching with severe leg cramps.  I wished him luck and (silently) said a quick prayer for him as I passed and arrived at the final aid station.  Is this possible?  Am I really now in 3rd place?!  Nope... the aid station workers said the leader took off in the wrong direction and Jeff was now in the lead putting me possibly in 2nd.  It would be possible (due to the direction of the final loop) for the guy to still be in front of me, but hopefully unlikely.  Also arriving to the aid station was the 4th place runner or maybe now 3rd (the guy with cramps).  I had taken in another 22oz of water since the last aid station, but lost track of gels/etc during this leg of the race.  I tried a few flavors during this portion, but nothing tasted very good and my water was low so I didn't want to drink it just to choke down a gel.  I did take two Endurolytes since I started getting hamstring cramps in both legs earlier, but thats about it.  I filled up my water bottle one last time, grabbed some different flavors of gels in hopes that something would taste good, chugged a quick cup of sprite (the Mt. Dew I was looking forward to was gone... who drinks Mt. Dew in the middle/earlier stages of the race anyway?!).  I left the final aid station in 2nd place, passing the 5th place runner just arriving.

1 Corinthians 9:24-26
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize.  ...They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly...

Great Wall Loop (in reverse)    |    Miles 25-33.5    |    Gain 647'
Shortly after starting this loop, I eclipsed the marathon mark around 4:18.  Spirits were high knowing I was in second place, but the pain in the knee started resurfacing. It really was frustrating because I didn't feel like I was working too hard when I was running, but wasn't able to take advantage of the gradual downhill early in this loop like I had hoped.  I knew there was a chance that I was in 2nd place, but it was also possible that the guy that took a wrong turn would be allowed to jump onto this loop at the other end and run it in the reverse order and pass me going the other way.  

Palmettos lining the trails
The thought of a runner passing me (in either direction) as I ran/walked seemed inevitable.  I told myself that second place would be amazing and third would still be great, but for some reason fourth just didn't make me as happy.  This is really funny since going into the race I would have been very happy with a top 15 or 20.  This being said, I was OK with the thought of being passed by one guy, but if two passed then I would be crushed and have to resign to hoping nobody else (or not many others) passed and I could finish top 5.  For some reason I had a feeling that the runners behind me would be paired up in 3rd/4th like Jeff and I were earlier, which kept me going not wanting to slip too far back in the overall finish.  If I was passed by two then it would be hard to break them up and stay in the top three.  The constant thought of slipping to 4th place kept me looking back way more than a XC and Track coach would want to admit (I'm always telling my runners to NEVER look back), but also kept me moving as best as I could.  I tried hard to keep walking limited to 30-45 seconds at a time.

I was wearing my Garmin watch and I had run this loop (in opposite direction 1st lap) so I should have had a good idea on how much of the race was left, but a mix of my mind being hazy/fuzzy and a mishap with my watch left me with no real clue of how much further I had to go.  I had itched my back around mile 19 and accidentally paused my watch for almost exactly a mile when I noticed it and started it again.  I knew the distance (.97mi) because I compared to Jeff at the time, but even simple math and the course being longer than it was supposed to be (33+ instead of 31) was enough to confuse me.  I was told there was a water stop somewhere in the middle of the loop but felt like I had been running too far/long and soon started having doubts that I might have taken a wrong turn somehow.  The oasis of a water jug in the middle of the woods soon appeared and I filled my empty (for too long) water bottle... poured a liberal amount over my head and body since I noticed I wasn't sweating anymore and took off with high hopes of only having 3.5-4mi left.  This is when the dreaded happened... someone passed me but it wasn't from behind.  The 'wrong turn' guy passed me going the opposite direction.  Not good news considering this meant he had almost the same amount of distance left as I did and he looked strong/good passing by as I was walking with a support stick/cane at the time.  I tried to stay motivated by breaking down the distances left telling myself... only a 5k left... then only 2 miles but I still couldn't talk my body into actually running all of the rest.  It didn't help that the rolling hills continued and at this point they all gradually rolled higher as I gained elevation to get back towards the start/finish.

My mind kept playing tricks on me as I would swear I would hear the footsteps of someone catching me only to look back and not see anyone.  The trails were dense enough that you couldn't see anyone within 20-30 seconds of you at any point in the race.  Its possible they were there... lurking just behind me, and I wouldn't know it until it was too late to do anything about it.  

The only mileage landmark I knew of was crossing through the utility line clearing along the trail that meant I had about .7mi to go.  All uphill but finally the home stretch!  I wasn't able to run the whole thing and told myself it would even be better to still walk some of the more painful parts in order to save something for the impending oncoming cheetahs and hopefully hold them back.  I took the turn off the Great Wall loop to the connector trail to the parking lot and came out to the main/common aid station asking... 'which way to the finish?' (it just didn't feel right since I knew I shouldn't see any aid station again).  They told me I took a wrong turn and I'd have to go back.  OH NO!  Surely I've let a few places pass me with this bonehead move.  I hauled back to the intersection scanning the woods to my left where the Great Wall trail could barely be seen hoping I didn't see anyone approaching.  I made the final turn (that I should have made earlier) after running about .5mi to go visit the aid station workers and ran the final 1/4mi to the finish.

Total Time - 5:24 (9:41/mi pace)

Miles - 33.5
Elevation Gain - 2,795'
Place - 2nd

Other than dealing with a throbbing/killing knee, I still managed to learn a bit and hope to be able to apply it to my next race.  I must not have  taken in enough water  if I wasn't sweating at all in the final stages of the race (or maybe it was something else?).  For the most part, my 22oz. hand-held worked fine, but there were portions when the well ran dry  with a bit of trail to go before the aid station.  It would have been nice to have a little more water on hand but maybe wasn't detrimental since I survived.  I also realized I never grabbed any electrolyte replacements from my drop bag (Chomps, Shot Blocks or Nuun) that I had intended on taking in.  Having the four Endurolyte capsules they gave us in our goodie bags was a huge save, but I'm sure I was still low on electrolytes.  I should have had a little better plan of what I would do at the aid station stops and opened my eyes to see what was available.  I had been told I should spend time leading into aid stations to go through in my mind exactly what I would need to grab, but this strategy was quickly forgotten once the race started.  Also, if I had looked around more , I would have seen the bottles of Endurolyte capsules and could have taken advantage of those at the aid station.

I ended up finishing second to Jeff (5:02), who I found out after was the winner here last year.  I scarfed down almost a whole pizza, got a massage by Denise who was volunteering in every facet of the race but also giving massages (to raise money for the leukemia/lymphoma foundation), and slowly started processing the race in my head.  As I laid on a massage table trying to recover/hydrate, I watched as 3rd & 4th (just as I had suspected) finished together around 10 minutes after me.  I was beat, I was broken, I was finished!


  1. Thanks Justin! Looking forward to some race reports from you soon as well (even the mile)!

  2. Awesome job! I'm really impressed with you going for so long on painful knees. Hopefully the next one they'll feel good.