Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Mountain Mist Ice Mud Snowpocalypse Adventure 50K: A recap

For the past couple of years, I've had friends who have gone down to Huntsville, Alabama, in January to run the Mountain Mist 50K. It never occurred to me to go down to run it myself, but when Alicia decided to run it this year and started working on me, I couldn't resist for long. I promised myself I would treat it as a training run for my upcoming 100-miler at the end of April and make it a fun birthday weekend with friends.

And then Winter Storm Jonas came and mucked everything up. On the great spectrum of damage and death this storm has caused, my grievance is insignificant, and to complain about it a little petty. But the fact remained that I had reservations for boarding our dogs, a vacation day scheduled from work, and everything else ready to go for a 30-mile training run in the mountains of northern Alabama, and forecasts of up to 14 inches of snow lay directly in our path. Huntsville itself was on the southern edge of the snowstorm and under weather warnings. So not only was getting there going to be a real problem, but there was a very distinct possibility that the race would be cancelled. In trail running you come to expect some adversity, but this was stressing even me out.

I can't believe we actually made it!
Fortunately, everything worked out. The race was postponed until Sunday, most of us were able to get down to Alabama, and after a discombobulating couple of days, I lined up on the ice sheet start line of the Mountain Mist 50K. It's a huge testament to the race organization that they were able to accomplish this feat. Everything about the organization was top-notch and went off without a hitch despite the delayed start.

Since I was doing the race as a training run, my "race" plan was pretty simple: start off comfortably but conservatively for the first third, maintain over the second third, and depending on how I felt in the last third, maybe pick up the effort level a little for a "fast finish" long run of sorts. I knew that more than ever, my effort level and not pace would tell the story: everything I had heard about this course told me that the first half was relatively easy, and the second half disproportionately challenging. Patience on this course could pay off in a big way.

I wore capris and a long-sleeve shirt with a thin jacket over top (plus gloves and buff) for the 15-degree start. For shoes, I went with my trusty Peregrine 5s. Luckily the race starts at a state park lodge with plenty of space for runners to sit and keep warm until moments before the gun. The downside to that was that the first mile or so is on the state park road, which the city of Huntsville doesn't maintain--so, no salt. It was a solid sheet of ice, so instead of spreading out by pace, runners went single file on either side of the road on the narrow gravel shoulders where we could get some purchase. I didn't mind since I wanted a slow start, but I'm sure this was maddening for many!

Finally we reached trail, but it was little better. Even flat stretches and gentle slopes that would normally be perfectly runnable after a few inches of snow were treacherous after a couple days of heavy rain followed by snow and a (for Alabama) deep freeze. I could run, but it took great concentration to avoid falling and it was hard to relax and keep my effort level easy the way I wanted. On the plus side, it was flipping beautiful. The sun was coming up and shining through branches lined with snow. In the course of the run we passed rock faces festooned with glittering icicles. Evergreen leaves showed through white snow and chattering mountain streams gurgled through ice formations made into sculptures of light by the sun. We even ran through a boulder field where narrow cave tunnels had formed, forcing us to climb over and under rocks and around trees.

As promised, the first third of the race was relatively easy with a couple of minor climbs. It would have been very fast indeed without the ice. I didn't fall, but I did go down pretty hard on one knee once, and had lots of slips, slides, and scrambles on the slick surface. I could not imagine running at the speeds that I knew Alicia, Scott, Ron, Matt, and the rest up front would be putting down. I kept up a comfortable but relatively fast trail pace for me of 10:30-11:00 per mile, but worried that I was using up too much energy early. I reminded myself to sip my Tailwind often and took a Honey Stinger gel an hour in.

I came into the first timed checkpoint at 1:15:16, in 177th place. This must have been around mile 7. I paused briefly to thank the volunteers and grab a few couple Oreo cookies, which I nibbled over the next mile. From here there was a long descent. I kept moving fairly well, but went carefully.

Around mile 9, there was a lengthy section along an exposed power line cut. Kim, another one of our awesome Bloomington contingent who was running near me, described how one year she ran this race and fell into briars in this section. So I took it very carefully! It wasn't so bad because the sun had melted away some of the ice on the exposed rock, but there were plenty of slick spots. Near the end, I had another near fall, catching myself on my wrist hard enough to hurt. Just in time for the first real climb to mile 10! I hiked it steadily, still trying to conserve.

I was trying to assess how I felt overall, but it was hard to get a handle on it. The footing seemed to change every few steps: solid rock, smooth but sticky dirt, snowpack, mud, solid ice, roots, rocks--you name it! I spent most of the run in a state of planning my next few steps. Miles 10 to 17 or so didn't have any really long climbs or descents, but many minor ones; the terrain changed constantly and it was quite challenging. I felt good to run at the same effort level, but I kept having to pause to make my way over ice-covered rocks, boulders, and frozen trail. By this time, the sun and the feet of of my predecessors had broken up and melted quite a bit of the ice, but slick spots lurked everywhere. I stayed on my feet but caught myself from slipping often. Although I felt fairly good, I watched my average pace climb steadily past 12 to 12:30.

I kept sipping Tailwind and took a handful of food at each aid station. Sweet things seemed good so I went with it--first the Oreos, then Snickers bites, then a Nutty bar. I also took Gu gels at hours 2 and 3 (lemonade and salted caramel). My stomach was solid all day and the aid stations were fantastic. You would never know this race was taking place a day later than originally planned. The food at the aid stations was organized into categories--sweet, salty, fruit, etc., and cut into bite-size pieces. The volunteers were plentiful, cheerful, and helpful. I thanked them at every opportunity!

At around mile 17, I arrived at the Fearns checkpoint in 155th place and at a time of 3:32:16. I would later find out that many consider this the actual halfway point because of the difficulty of the later sections. Soon after that was a loooong descent. It went on for miles, with grades sometimes as steep as -10 to -15%. I moved fairly well on my way down, even catching and passing people (which is a big deal for me while descending!), but it was terrifying and treacherous. Excuse the profusion of photos, but I am excited that the following moment was captured.

I had been slowly catching these two men up when we hit this creek crossing.

They were gingerly making their way across the water on rocks.

Guys please. Your feet have been wet for hours. Just run through it, not over it. Wink to anyone who gets that reference.


See you later, guys!
Now I was past mile 20 and feeling pretty strong. It had warmed to nearly 40 degrees and the sun was warm. Somewhere in there, at one of the aid stations, I shed my jacket and asked about the frontrunners while I stowed it in my pack. I was definitely wondering how my friends were getting on! I gathered that Matt was in the lead and probably Alicia as well.

I was passing people pretty steadily now. I still felt really solid, and now I was in the last third so I felt like I could up the effort level a little bit since I felt good. I could run up the smaller climbs, and had enough energy and concentration left to do fairly well on the descents. I certainly wasn't bombing them but I could quick step down at a decent clip. At mile 23 was one of the longest climbs of the race. I alternately ran and hiked hard up until I caught up with a long line of people. I knew the infamous Waterline climb, a steep trail up over a waterfall, was up ahead so I didn't bother to get around them.

I could hear Waterline before I could see it. When it came into view, my heart dropped. I craned my neck up, and up. Far above, but not that far ahead, I could see several emergency personnel standing there to help people climb, and, I supposed, to rescue anyone who fell. My GPS recorded a 37% grade. When the race description says you will need to use your upper body to climb this section, it is not kidding. The volunteers helpfully pointed out the best footholds and handholds and were ready to give a hand up when needed. I took my sweet time getting through there, making sure my feet had good purchase on the rock and securing handholds on roots and trees before shifting my weight. Afterward, the climb continues in a somewhat less death-defying manner, but still a hands-on-knees climb. I was so winded here that I actually had to pause to rest a couple of times on the way up. Once the trail flattened out a little bit, I got my legs moving again and jogged in to the next aid station, passing most of the people who had been in line ahead of me.

At this point I quit eating solid food and started going for liquid calories; my stomach still felt fine but I wanted quicker energy. I took in a cup of Mello Yello and kept going. I was still taking steady sips of Tailwind. Before much longer, I tackled another steep, mile-long descent, with grades in the -20+% range. This one had more mud, so I was able to slither down pretty efficiently and pass a few people. I was working pretty hard now, feeling the finish line getting closer and ready to be done.

The climb from mile 27 to 29 is a tough one--about 600 feet up in just less than two miles. I hiked it aggressively, running any bit that leveled out. I was sucking wind big time, but I knew at the top I would have just over a mile to go and that it would be flat! At this point I broke out my "secret weapon," the little bottle of Mountain Dew that I had been keeping in the pocket of my pack all day long for just this moment. I chugged about half of it and kept grinding.

The voices of the aid station volunteers at the top were music to my ears. "Water, Powerade, Coke, beer!" they shouted. "Beer?!" I exclaimed. Just over a mile to go, stomach solid, why not? They handed me a half-full cup and I downed it as quickly as I could, thanking them profusely.

At last, AT LAST, runnable ground! It was sticky with half-frozen mud, with some twists and turns, but flat! I gunned it, and in fact the last mile and a half was my fastest of the day, around 9:30 pace. It just felt so good to finally be able to open up. I passed two or three guys, making it to the finish in 101st place overall, with an official time of 6:52:16.

As soon as I crossed the line, Mark was waiting for me and I asked after our friends. Matt won, Scott came in second, and Ron took third. And Alicia, despite it being what she later described as "not her day," won the women's race by about 35 minutes. Alicia, Scott, and Ron had had to take off to make late checkout at the hotel, but Mark and I hung around the finish with Matt, Jeff, Travis, and Jeremy until Kim finished a little while later (placing in her age group as well, BAM!), cheering folks in and eating pizza and Moon Pies. All in all, I feel like we stole a very fun and successful weekend out of the grasp of Winter Storm Jonas.

Official time: 6:52:16
First "half" (start to mile 17ish): 3:32:16
Second "half" (mile 17ish to finish): 3:20:00
Overall place: 101
Female place: 11
Age group place: 3
Calories: Tailwind (600); gels (300); soft drinks (170); Powerade (40); aid station food (240); beer (70): 1,420 total or 202/hour
Water: 60 oz

For a 100-mile training run, this could not have gone better. My fueling went really well (although I'll need to drink more water--the cold weather is tricky!), and I unraveled my effort perfectly over the course of 7 hours. I got another demonstration of how beautifully patience pays off in an ultra. Now I just have to reproduce this on over three times the distance and 3.5ish times the time on April 30-May 1.

It's hard not to think, even though I wasn't supposed to race, oh, if I'd gone just a few minutes faster I could have cracked top 10 women, I could have attacked the middle section a little harder, etc., etc. In the end I have to remember that the big goal is the important goal, and that is the 100-miler. This was a stepping stone, and I met my goals for the day in support of the big goal. Patience!!

I don't always buy race photos, but when I do it's because they offer simple downloads for a reasonable price and also are really good photos in beautiful spots.

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