Thursday, June 2, 2016
If You Can't Stand the Heat, Don't Mess With the Dragon: 2016 Cruel Jewel 56 mle race
The Cruel Jewel got to my head in the month before the race. I had signed up for the 100 sometime late last year, knowing it would push me to train harder. Which it would have, had I not also signed up to run Monument Valley six weeks before Cruel Jewel. Two totally different races required totally different training. Monument Valley meant lots of relatively flat running and I did not spend much time climbing in the months preceding it. That left me approximately four weeks of climbing training if I were to factor in recovery from MV and a taper before CJ.
In the meantime, Cruel Jewel psyched me out. During the long, difficult training runs, I began to lose my desire to suffer for extended periods of time. (Where else but in an ultra report would a sentence like that even make sense?) If my training runs were nine hours, would I really want to extend them by thirty-one more hours? Thru-running the Bartram has been my only run over 35 hours, and I predicted CJ would take me more than 40. I was okay with suffering so much for the Bartram, because I had a goal of being the first to do it, but I couldn't find the motivation to spend 40 plus hours on that terrain for the CJ. If I lacked motivation before the race, I knew a DNF would more than likely be in the cards. So, I downsized to the 56 miler, still with a respectable 17,000 feet of elevation gain (about the same as the Massanutten, in half the distance).
Hit the Road
The first section starts downhill out of Camp Morganton (I love downhill starts) and then follows paved roads to the first aid station. It was during this section, that my right shoe began to feel not quite right. I stopped and retied it but then at the aid station, discovered that my insole was not staying in place. I actually had two in the shoe, a thin flat one under a regular one in an attempt to make the shoe fit better, but the top one kept creeping up and out the back of my shoe. So I again stopped to deal with my shoe and took the thin insole out. As a result, at the first aid station, I was already at the very back of the pack. Well, I was ahead of three people. I ran the next few miles with one insole in my hand in an attempt to cut down on time if I had to stop and make adjustments. And I would. I think I could have knocked another twenty minutes off my time if I didn't have to keep dealing with insoles!
The next section is a loop that had a lot of runnable terrain, which I ran (despite being advised by a fellow runner, whom I sure meant well, not to wear myself out early in the race. I must have looked like I hadn't done this sort of thing before.) The trail was not very technical and the loop went by much faster than I expected.
Now the fun starts
After leaving the aid station, the first real climbing starts. I broke out the trekking poles and headed up the mountain to an intersection with the Benton McKay Trail. (A word on the trekking poles....I loved my trekking poles! I used to use them as a hiker, but after putting them away for over a decade, it took awhile to get used to them again and I wondered if they would just end up aggravating me. But not only were they great on uphills, but helped with balance on downhills and technical sections after I got tired.) After making a right on the BMT, there was some nice downhill running. And more downhill running. And it just kept going. And the race leaders were heading back up the hill, so I knew there was a lot more downhill left. (And they looked so darn happy as they were running uphill). There was so much downhill, that I began to wish for uphill. When I finally reached the aid station at the bottom and turned around, I dreaded the three mile climb back up the hill, but it turned out not to be as bad as I thought it would be. Maybe that's why the leaders were happy. It felt a lot steeper coming down than it did going up. When I reached the top, I ran on some nice rolling terrain down to the next aid station.
On the road again
This section started out nicely, on a dirt road, downhill, in the shade, which was a nice break from trail. But soon, it turned to pavement, and while much of it was rolling and runnable, it was getting hot. I took lots of walk breaks in the shaded areas and eventually reached Shackleford Bridge. (It was across the street here that Tony and I worked an aid station the first year the race was held. The race was MUCH smaller then, and I think we only saw two runners come through during our shift.) The course then follows the river on a road and takes a sharp left, back onto trail, and back to steep climbing again. My legs and body were not pleased with this turn of events, so I stopped for a minute to use my inhaler, take a 5-hour energy, adjust the darn insole and eat something. I continued climbing, which did not last for too long, and then descended into the next aid station.
A word on nutrition...
Tailwind sponsored this event, and despite my recent reliance on GU liquid Roctane, I decided that it would be a whole lot easier not to have to carry all that powder and simply use the Tailwind. I bought some prior to the race to test it out on my stomach and it was agreeable. The orange flavor was good and that was what they had at the aid stations. But by this point in the race, it was too much. It seemed to work fine energy-wise and stomach-wise, but my mouth started wishing I had some plain water instead of that somewhat salty flavor. I dumped it and drank plain water until the next aid station, where I had my drop bag and Roctane. I used the liquid Roctane the rest of the way and felt great. The flavor did not bother me and my energy level stayed steady. I combined it with a shot of Roctane gel every hour and never felt hungry, so I didn't need anything at aid stations. Both my tummy and my mouth were happy. I think I would be good with Tailwind for shorter periods of time, but I am really, really happy with my Roctane combination for long runs. It has taken years to figure out what works for me. I used it at MV and it worked well, but here I went without solid food for over 19 hours and still was not hungry when I finished.
And that's the end of the rolling stuff
After that aid station, the terrain involved many more steep climbs and descents. Some of the climbs were really unpleasant and I took several short breaks here and there. But I felt okay on the downhills and continued the same steady pattern for the rest of the race. The last half of the race was difficult, but was not as difficult as I imagined it. Of course, if I had already run 75 miles on it, it would have been extremely difficult, but after only 25, I still felt good. I was enjoying the ridge tops and the cool breeze from the incoming cold front.
Wilscot Gap Aid
All the aid stations were great. They were not out of anything when I went through, as is sometimes the case in races. The volunteers were encouraging and helpful and I left every aid station with everything I needed. They filled my water for me and fought to get it back in my pack. Even though they were busy, I was never ignored. Wilscot aid station was the only drop bag location (another difficulty of CJ), so I spent a little extra time there digging through my bag. Throughout my time there, the volunteers were getting me things, mixing my Roctane with the water they got for me, offering me wet wipes (was that a hint?) and body glide, making suggestions and giving me the great advice to go ahead and change into the new shoes I had stuck in the bag even though they only had a few miles on them. My feet were very happy the last half of the race, especially since I no longer had to deal with insole issue.
For much of the remainder of the race, you are on the Dragon's Spine, a series of sharp uphills and downhills (hence the name). Okay, to be honest, I don't really know where it started since it seemed most of the course was up and down, but I am assuming it was somewhere around here. The course was very pretty up on the ridges, with abundant, healthy poison ivy lining the trail, alternating with ferns and may apples. It was somewhere in this section that Ray from Ohio, who was finishing the 100 mile, joined me. Unlike all the other 100 milers I passed at this point, Ray could still run downhill just fine and was good with my slow uphill pace. He was good company and kept me from any whining or complaining or thinking that I was doing any suffering. After all, he already had 50 miles and twenty hours on me. He also gave his long-sleeved shirt to a runner who was dehydrated and shivering, which exemplifies what makes ultras so special.
The last climb
We finally came to the last manned aid station. (The workers joked that they had seen our lights approaching and moved it up the road another mile. "Do you know how hard it is to move an aid station that far?"). I think there might have been some Horton miles involved in that section. Anyway, I was dreading the next and last climb up Coosa Bald. My only experience with Coosa was from the other side during the Death Race and I remembered a long hard climb. The elevation profile at the aid station looked a little scary so I headed out expecting a lot of vertical. When we got on the trail, it was uphill, but not too steep. Ray remarked that he was good with the grade, at which point, of course, the grade became significantly steeper. But then it eased up and there were actually a couple of little flat sections. By now, the wind was howling and I am sure the wind chill was below zero. My hands were numb from the cold and I kept moving as fast as I could to get up and over the top. I know Ray was cold without that extra layer he gave away. We started heading downhill pretty quickly and I kept waiting for the last hard climb, but apparently it was not as long or hard as I thought and we were actually on the last long three mile downhill. Here on this section, we passed a lot of people who were suffering pretty badly, 100 milers, I assumed. There was not a lot of downhill running going on and there was some crying. I know that feeling well (it's hard to run and sob at the same time) and was very thankful I was still feeling great at this point.
The last 3.7 miles are mainly uphill, another cruelty of the CJ. But a good bit of it was gradual and runnable and I was surprised that I and especially Ray were actually still running. We finally hit Vogel State Park, still running and crossed the finish line sometime after 3 a.m... Ray got his huge buckle and I got a very cool coffee mug. Inside the warm cabin next to the finish, there was a lot of food being served by Leigh Saint and a lot of people enjoying it. I was not at all hungry and was in a bit of hurry to get into our doorless Jeep for the 45 degree ride back to the hotel. And instead of going to sleep at the hotel and waiting for my call, Tony had been waiting at the finish for me for a very long time and we were both exhausted.
For the last couple years, I haven't done many races and the ones I have done, I have been at the back of the pack. In this race, it was hard to tell where I was, but I assumed with my slow but steady start, I was again at the back of the pack from the first aid station on. I passed a lot of people in the last half of the race and assumed they were mainly 100 milers. But to my surprise, I ended up finishing in the middle of the pack and fifth in the women's race. I felt good all day and the race restored a bit of confidence in myself as a runner. I was a little afraid I would be disappointed that I did not do the 100, but no, I'm good. Well, for a couple of days I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but other than that I was good.
I ran three days later, fully expecting to feel horrible, but I actually felt great. Granted, it was only a three mile trail run, but it felt really good.
I would highly recommend any race directed by the Saints (www.dumassevents.com). They are great people and their events are so well-organized and thought out. If you aren't up for a lot of climbing, but like running in circles, try Merrill's Mile. If you are okay with a little climbing and and little circles, try 12 or 24 hours of Hostelity. And if you just aren't quite right, the Cruel Jewel is for you, either the 56 or 106 mile options, depending on just how not right you are.