Leading up to the Sylamore Trail 50K Run I had heard many words to describe the event: great trails, lots and lots of climbing, waist-deep river crossings, rocky terrain, and breathtaking views. It was all true, except I was pleasantly surprised to find that the freezing, crystal-clear water only reached mid-thigh during the river crossings!
I went into Sylamore feeling good about my physical and mental preparation. I had logged hundreds of trail miles since December including my first 50k in January at the Swampstomper. Because of the technical, unpredictable nature of trail running I have learned that I run best when I don’t focus on pace-per-mile, distance run or distance left-to-go. I focus on one of my favorite mantras: “Just keep running”. Just get to the next aid station or landmark. I also learned that getting into that “zone” works for covering the distance, but it can also cause me to lose sight of nutrition. I was going to be sure and focus on drinking every 15 minutes and taking an energy gel every hour.
Race day was nearly perfect: cloudy and 40 degrees at the start. To say that ultramarathon trail runs are low-key is an understatement. A few minutes before 7:00 the race director called everyone to the start. There were no pre-race instructions or speeches. He lined us up and yelled “Go!” and we were off. We had a mile of pavement before we reached the trailhead so the pack of 175 runners was nicely spaced out by the time we hit dirt. I made the decision, along with a couple of my training partners, to follow a very experienced ultra runner that I knew was familiar with the Sylamore Trail, would run a smart race and at least get me to the halfway point in decent shape. There is an art to knowing when the hills become too steep or the trail becomes too risky and metering out your effort. Richard proved to be an excellent trail guide. The first infamous river crossing came just after mile 1. There was much pre-race chatter and anxiety about the river. As it turns out, there is only one strategy: get across the river. It was really a non-event… 50 yards of thigh deep, freezing water.
Our group of 7 soon formed and moved steadily in single-file formation through the first rocky, muddy 6 mile section. We reached the first aid station at Blanchard Springs in an hour. We quickly topped off our water bottles and faced our first big climb of the day out of Blanchard Springs. The trail greatly improved at this point as there was very little mud and fewer rocks. The twenty minute climb went by without incident and we were greeted at the top by a beautiful vista of mountains and the river 500 feet below. We would face another 20 minute climb before the next aid station an hour away. Our group was relaxed and talkative which made the miles roll by quickly. We made it to the second aid-station at Gunner Pool in two hours. After a quick pit stop for fluids and fuel we were back in our single file drive to the turnaround an hour away. From Gunner Pool to the turnaround the climbs were not as big but the course seemed to always be going up or down. The pitch of the incline dictated our pace. The steeper it got the slower we ran in an effort to preserve our legs for the return trip. Somewhere along this stretch we encountered the two race leaders who were flying. They had reached the turnaround an hour ahead of us and were on their way back. I am amazed how quickly they can negotiate the hills, descents, rocks and mud. As exciting as reaching the turnaround can be I had to remind myself that it was just a marker along the way. Richard pulled us into the turnaround aid station at 2:59. I had a goal of running 6 hours so we were right on time. My only problem had been a stick to the shin and a sharp rock to the other that left two impressive streams of blood down my legs. They looked cool but really were no big deal.
Now the dilemma… I felt good and did not feel like I was really working yet but realized there were still three hours of running left. If I wanted to run close to six hours it would take an aggressive approach to maintain a steady pace as the impending fatigue was hiding out there in the woods waiting to jump on my back and slow me down. Two runners in our original group and local training partners, David and Roy, said they wanted to give six hours a shot. I made the decision to go with them as long as I could because I knew they were strong and fast runners. I also knew that I did not want to get separated from a pack and have to run solo for several hours. Another runner from our original group, a young guy named Ferris jumped on and we headed back. We quickly hashed out our strategy: push the pace for the next hour to the Gunner Pool station. Then run conservatively over the two big climbs to Blanchard Springs. Then we would (hopefully) let it all hang out the last hour. We made it to Gunner Pool ten minutes ahead of pace and made sure to hydrate and take on fuel for the two big climbs ahead. Although a negative split was not realistic, that ten minute cushion provided a great motivational boost that probably propelled us to our eventual finish.
We made it over the two big climbs and then descended into Blanchard Springs, the final aid station, at exactly 5:00. Our group of four quickly became five as another local athlete, Leslie, caught us at Blanchard Springs. The last hour did not present any significant climbs but it was the most technical section, rocky and muddy. Not ideal conditions for fatigued legs trying to quickly move laterally and step over rocks and roots. David set a brutal pace through this section. Just hang on...just keep running. My right calf started twitching and I was having trouble stepping over the bigger rocks. I yelled at myself a few times: “Pick up your feet!” With less than thirty minutes to go my calf was on the verge of a complete cramp. “Oh please don’t cramp… I do not want to lose my convoy of runners and limp home”. Normally in a competitive run or triathlon I would never admit my true condition so as to keep my rivals guessing. The ultra environment is different. I am not sure who first voiced their level of discomfort but it was met with a chorus of “me too…” as everyone had a pending cramp or aching body part. Ok, everyone is hurting and we are all in this together. When I reached the river crossing at mile 31 there was no hesitation or concern. Just get across and get home.
A mile from the finish and after six hours of suffering, we made the group decision to finish together. My personal mantra of “just keep running” had blocked out the mileage and time calculations but as we headed down the last stretch of road someone commented “we started this thing SIX hours ago!” A wave of realization came over me as I let that thought soak in: “we just ran 32 miles… awesome!” As we crossed the finish line in 6:04 there was … relief. It is so nice to be finished. We ran out in 3:00 and back in 3:04. I think that is a great day’s work. I did the training and raced the course but I must give kudos to my running partners. The positive energy and hard work of the group added so much to the journey.
- Patience and self-control in the early stages of an ultra pay off BIG in the latter stages.
- Finding the “zone” where you are on autopilot and not consumed by the clock or the mileage can take you a long way.
- Fueling “on the clock” keeps your energy intake steady and keeps you from getting in an irreparable hydration or nutritional deficit.
- A little bit of extra effort to hang on to the group is easier than the physical and mental effort required push yourself solo.
- Just keep running!