In the days before the Chattooga 50K, I pondered why, despite my knowledge of both South Carolina in the summer and the Foothills Trail, did I sign up for this run? My best answer is that the combination of dehydration and lack of oxygen inherent in ultrarunning has damaged key brain cells. I was very unenthusiastic about heading out to this run, but it is a Terri Hayes race and I do think a lot of Terri Hayes and her runs. Plus, it's a little over an hour from the house and I didn't have any plans for this weekend. Great day for a training run. Which is good, because I feel like I haven't had any time to do any training since I have run a race every three weeks now and I am constantly recovering.
Despite my lack of enthusiasm, I collected Alan and headed down the mountain. The race location was ideal, in a campground with nice restrooms and showers adjacent. The check in was efficient and well organized and you got a nice little goody bag, which was especially nice for the price of entry (Terri doesn't charge one, just accepts donations). Lots of familiar faces again, another family reunion, which kinda makes up for the fact I was about to run in South Carolina in the summer again.
The Pre-Race Briefing
I had read the course directions and looked at the maps that Terri had on her website and this course seemed a little tricky. I had also read race reports where people had gotten off course, so I paid close attention to her directions. I was still a little fuzzy, but did remember her saying, "turn around at the first wooden bridge," an important bit of info later on. Once the race began, the directions made good sense and I took time at the intersections to remember which way I had to turn on the way back.
Part I: Start to Aid Station 1 (7 miles)
The first three miles were fun. A nice gradual downhill on single track, very runnable with very little effort. Just lean forward and gravity does all the work. I was enjoying this section until I remembered that this section was an out and back, which meant that all this nice downhill would shortly turn into uphill. As I began to run back up, it turned out that the uphill wasn't as steep as I perceived it, but all those runners, heading both downhill and uphill had really stirred up the leaves and dust. My asthma cranked up and I couldn't settle my breathing down. It's funny what a lack of oxygen does to you (despite killing brain cells). Your legs feel heavy, you have no energy and worst of all, no clue how you are going to finish a tough 50K when you feel this bad three miles into it. Disregarding doctor's orders not to use my inhaler too much, I inhaled and felt better. Soon I was back to plugging along steadily uphill. Back at the top of the hill, you made a leftie and within a half mile, you were at the first aid station.
A word on aid stations
As I mentioned, Terri does not charge an entry fee, but you could not tell it from the aid stations. The table is covered with food, everything from gels and e-caps to homemade banana bread. The volunteers are extremely helpful, filling up bottles or bladders with ICE cold water or Heed. I savored that cold water as at the day grew hotter. Unfortunately, there was a long 10 mile stretch ahead before the next aid.
The Foothills Trail Section from Hell
After the aid station, you followed a 3 mile nicely rolling trail to the Foothills Trail. I really wasn't sure what part of the FHT the course was on and was not at all pleased to find that it was the Bermuda Triangle section. This was the section during the FHT Traverse where the miles you had put in seemed to disappear because you never, ever got to the end. This is the section during the Traverse where every time the trail turned away from the river, I knew I was approaching the road, from where I would only have 6 miles left. Cruelly, the trail twisted and turned and kept going back to the darn river. This is the section where I was getting ready to sit down in the middle of the trail and cry, when Tony suddenly appeared just at the right moment, having hiked in to where I was. This part of the trail brought back some bad memories.
I was lucky to have done the Traverse because, unlike the other runners around me who kept thinking we were coming up on the aid station, I knew that it was nowhere close and not to ever count on reaching it. When and if you did reach it, it would be a nice surprise. So I just kept moving forward, not expecting to get to the aid station, but being very glad I did just as my water ran out.
Turn around at the first bridge
The next section was a two mile out and back and the landmark to look for to turnaround at was the first wooden bridge. Or so I thought. I had run 17 miles in the heat and humidity. Is that really what she said? After I got to the bridge and headed back up the hill, a fast runner came up behind me. He thought the turnaround was the second bridge. Great, I thought, I was wrong. So I headed back down to the bridge, only to verify with other runners that the first bridge was indeed the turnaround. Excellent, a little extra credit mileage.
Now comes the "back" part of the out and back. All the nice downhills were now long uphills. Just like before, I didn't think about where the next aid station was, I just kept moving forward. I felt pretty good, although I felt slow and like I had not yet recovered from my other runs. No stomach issues, though. Terri had told me to try Prilosec or Nexium before I ran and I did. I stuck to gels and banana bread and a flask of pickle juice in the heat of the day and it all seemed to do the trick. Four SportConnexin per hour in the hottest part of the day, a couple of ibuprofen in the middle of the run when I started to get achy, and it was all good.
When I had looked at times from the previous races, I thought that if I could get under 8 hours, I would be very happy, and I finished in 7:44. Best of all, my stomach felt great and I quickly downed an excellent BBQ sandwich and two glasses of sweet tea.
In retrospect, South Carolina wasn't all that horrible. I heard more than one person comment though that this race was much harder than they expected, and I guess it was harder than most 50Ks. It was very technical, with more roots than rocks, and I think people underestimated how long the unsupported ten mile stretch would take. On the bright side, it was not as hot as Black Mountain and had more shade. I didn't get stung by yellow jackets or see any copperheads, but I did run through A LOT of poison ivy.
When I asked Alan if he would run it again, he said he would. I, however, will wait to see how bad I am itching in a couple days before I even think about it.