aka A Tale of Three Michaels From Atlanta
aka How I got ready for a 50k with less than 4 hours training per week – plus lessons learned.
Well that was fun!
In case you aren’t aware, Mt. Cheaha is a 50k trail race to the highest point in Alabama, held 2/26/11.
This was the sixth annual, a point-to-point that runs along the Pinhoti trail and finishes in the Cheaha State Park at the summit of Cheaha Mountain at 2,407 feet.
It’s mostly single track, with lots of natural beauty to behold as you run through the Talladega National Forest.
I was doing it with two buddies, Michael A and Michael E. Michael A got me into this whole mess by suggesting it at the finish of the Augusta 70.3. Whether it was euphoria or low blood sugar (probably the latter) I said, ‘yes’. Michael E thought it would be a good idea to go since heck, 22mi training runs are no big deal for him.
Me? Not so much.
My longest run prior to Cheha was a half marathon back in October, so this was more than doubling that, on trails no less. And like most of us, training time (or lack of) was a factor, so I wanted to see if I could perform well at Cheha with as little prep as possible. Did I succeed?
On what your definition of success is. Did I break any speed records? No.
My longest training run in the 3 months leading up to Cheaha was a 7.5 mi trail run, up and down Kennesaw Mountain. I averaged 3.7 hours per week training in the 12 weeks lprior to Cheaha. This includes running, cycling, stretching and strength training. In other words, not much training time, but I was emphasizing quality over sheer quantity. OK, I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start with…
Trying to Get To Alabama
First, Michael E’s wife got invited to a job interview in Seattle the Friday before the race. She wouldn’t be flying home until some time on Sunday so, nobody to watch his 2 kids. And my wife had already agreed to watch 3 other kids in addition to our 3, we thought for the entire weekend, but it turned out only for Saturday after the first day of a soccer tournament. My wife, trooper that she is, took Michael’s 2 and our 3 Friday and then all 8 after the tournament Saturday.
Michael A. was going to ride with us, but his wife had been sick all week so he was iffy, not wanting to leave her with their two kids, and have her get ready for his oldest daughter’s birthday party on Sunday. He decided to drive separately, and got in a few hours after us on Friday evening.
Superhuman Sighting #1
At the hotel check-in we met a very nice runner who regaled us with some crazy stories. She introduced herself as Abby Meadows and told us Cheaha was just a ‘training’ run as she prepares to do The Barkley and later a 325 miler(?!?) It was a training run for us, too. Training to run a 50k! I’ll probably get the details wrong, but you can get a sense of Abby’s superhuman-ness in the story she shared of running something like 60 miles, at night, without food or water in near freezing conditions and another where she ran a 50k (I think) after breaking her big toe in the early part of the race. I won’t spoil her stories as she told us she is writing a book. I’ll be on the lookout for it and will post a link when it’s available.
Off to packet pick up and the famous spaghetti dinner. Annette Bednosky from Montrail gave an inspiring talk about ultrarunning. Annette reminded us to not hurt anyone and not hurt ourselves. Sage advice. She also talked about how wanting to cry is normal. I experienced that in Augusta at my first 70.3 and thought there was something wrong with me. Well, maybe. The spaghetti was delicious as I hadn’t had pasta for quite awhile. E and I wolfed it down and then basked in the ultra vibe. Very, very cool people. Some of these folks are bonafide superstars in the ultra world, but they don’t act like it. Todd Henderson, the RD, is one of the nicest people you’d ever want to meet. They had a raffle for registration to the Pinhoti 100 miler. Fortunately I won a pair of sweet Recoverite socks instead.
We rented one of the cabins in the park and I highly recommend it. They require a minimum 2 night stay on the weekends, which was just fine because I wanted (needed?) a shower after anyway. The two nights totaled about $230, split 3 ways, not bad. 2 beds but Michael A brought a sleeping bag and air mattress so we didn’t have to share, ’cause none of us wanted to spoon The cabins are nice, warm (after “A” built a fire), clean, with a decent kitchen, what more do you need? Maybe best of all, not too far to the bus in the morning.
I hear the lodge is nice as well, but it books up early so no chance by the time I made the reservations. Otherwise there are hotels around 30 minutes away.
Of course we stayed up too late talking about running and family and triathlon and then I had my normal “no sleep before a big race” sleep. 4:45am rolled around, I showered to wake up and downed a sweet potato, hard boiled eggs, a banana and some almond butter. Gotta stay (mostly) paleo! The two Michaels ate next to nothing. I don’t know how they do it. Then I filled my Nathan bottles, two with Perpetuem and two with coconut milk, stuffed the pouch with Endurolytes and 2 Hammer Gels and my carry bottle with chia seeds and water. No dehydration for me! (I hoped.)
Dressed, bandaids on the nipples, (Michael A goes for vaseline instead), loaded up the truck and drove to the lodge. We were going to walk the mile or so uphill in the dark, but thought we might not feel like walking home.
Get On The (Prison) Bus!
At about 6am the buses rolled up and yes, the rumors of a real prison bus were true. Apparently it’s the cool thing to ride that bus, but we didn’t get there early enough, maybe next year. Our bus had quite a crew of characters, including Abby from last night who was sharing her crazy all-night no-water adventure story with her seat mate. I told The Michaels that if I lived through something like that, I would da*n sure be telling everyone.
We took a forever ride to the start, hopped off the bus and checked in, then hit the porta-pottie. It was a little chilly at the start so I kept my layers on until about 5 minutes before, stuffed them in my finish bag, dropped it at the truck and was ready to go (more or less).
At the start they announced that one dude (sorry, didn’t get his name) took off from the lodge around midnight, ran the course from finish to start and was here at the start ready to head back to the finish in daylight. What? C’mon, man. That is just nuts. 100k, half in the dark. I’m trying to just get through 50!
The race starts when you hear the first notes of Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.” Very appropriate. And the first couple of miles are “Sweet Home Alabama”. Rolling, mostly single-track, nothing too slippery, and I just ran along with a pack, waiting to see how it was going to sort out. I hung with Michael A, a faster, more experienced runner than I, for about 4 miles, going a little too fast. He slipped away and I settled in to a nice pace, probably still a little too fast, but what the heck, I felt good.
It warmed up fast, perfect day for a run through the woods. February in Alabama can be 10 degrees or 70, sunny, rainy or snowy. Today’s conditions were about as good as you could wish for.
I lost track of Michael E but wasn’t concerned as he always starts a little slower and then comes on later. (This time I should have been concerned. Details to follow.)
I cruised into Aid Station #1 at mile 3.34 feeling pretty good. Took on some Heed and headed up the trail to Aid Station #2 at about mile 8.5. It’s a little before this that you hit a jeep road climb. It’s not tough or technical, just a long grinding incline, but you still have to pay attention. A guy a little ahead of me went down, hard, tripping on who-knows-what. Rock, pothole, ???, but lose focus for a moment and down you go. I slowed and watched him get up and dust himself off. He looked ok so on up I went to #2. A quick refill and back to it.
After #2 you get some absolutely amazing views. This was before I got my Garmin so I don’t know the exact mileage but somewhere around mile 12 I was on top of this ridge with a view of the valley that required me to stop for a moment and just stand there, slack-jawed, in awe of the natural beauty. A quick mental snapshot and back to it.
What The Heck Is An Out And Back?
After the ridge it’s on to the first ‘out and back’ something that annoyed Michael A. to no end in the pre-race briefing. Friday night he’s like, “Why they gotta have these out and backs? I don’t wanna run the same thing twice.” We’ve all got our things, out and backs are A’s. It turned out to be no big deal, although I was glad someone pointed it out to me as I almost missed the turn. And you don’t want to do that because there’s a check-in at Aid Station #3, mile 14.87.
Once back on the main trail I caught a group of 3 that seemed to be at about the right pace so I hung with them and when they walked the hills, I walked the hills. It was during a particularly challenging part where there are sharp, loose rocks covered with pine straw that I thought this group might be going a little too fast for me. By now there were 3 of us and the guy in front (Victor Zamudio, I think) peeled off and said, “you’re on about a 6 hour pace,” and then, whether intending to or not, a warning, “It’s a long race”. Maybe I should have listened? I stuck with the girl, didn’t get her name, darn it, but she was strong.
Several times, mostly in these sections I came close to crashing. Caught a toe on a root, a rock, slipped on some loose rocks, yikes. A crash here would have been a big mess. Fortunately I didn’t go down.
Thinks get a little fuzzy here, I think the first stream crossing was about a mile after #3, but I do remember that all of the stream crossings this year were nothing compared to years gone by. We heard stories of waist deep, fast-flowing rivers and having to use a guide rope in previous years. We barely got our feet wet this year (thankfully!)
Cramps! Big Time!
Just about mile 18 my quads started cramping. Big time. No warning, just pow, cramps. Mostly vastus medialis, the “teardrop” for you muscle heads and anatomists. (I thought it was named for the shape, maybe it’s because when they cramp they bring teardrops? OK, maybe not.) Anyway, the muscles right on the inside of the knee. We’re talking “Can’t bend or straighten the legs” cramps. Painful. At first I could jog for 5 minutes before they set in, but as the day wore on, I got to where 1 minute on was about all I could manage. This was just before the #4 Aid Station at Hubbard Creek, mile 18.37. Up til now I was on a 6 hour pace, hitting #4 at 3:12. But 13 miles is a long way to go with quad cramps, as I was about to learn.
I don’t know why I cramped, as I had been taking my endurolytes regularly, had refilled my carry bottle with Heed at the 1st and 3rd aid stations. The only explanation I can think of is, I should have had a few longer runs in my legs. When I bragged Friday night that my longest run was a 7.5 mile trail run Michael A. said, “Bullsh*t” And now I know why he didn’t believe me.
I grabbed a gel at #4, took a minute to stretch, flirted with a DNF but then said, “you’ve gone this far, come on, you got this.
I have little recollection of anything that went down between Stations 4 and 5. Aliens may have abducted me, but it’s pretty much a blank. What the heck? I do remember running some calculations and saying, OK, 6 hours is out, but if I hurry I can get 6:30. Dreaming. I blame the aliens for that calculation.
Nectar of the Gods!
Aid Station #5 is the second out-and-back, around mile 22. For the previous 2 miles or so I was craving a Coke, bad. Odd, that and my flawed time prediction are the only things I remember between #4 and #5. I stumble into the Aid Station and what to my wandering eyes should appear, sitting there on the picnic table? Coke, yes! A fellow runner at the aid station called it “Nectar of the Gods” and at that point, I was in total agreement. Two cups and an orange slice, some Heed in my carry bottle and I was back attempting to run.
It must have been around mile 22.5 where I was in some weird, woozy twilight zone and barely made it over a stream. The banks on either side weren’t terribly steep, but at this point I was doing well just to stay upright. I hopped across, tried leaning into the bank and instead started heading backwards towards the stream. A couple of stumble-steps and I regained some semblance of balance and clambered up the hill. I was feeling pretty good no one was close enough behind to see my fancy footwork. At least I don’t think they were. It wasn’t the last as I had several almost-lost-balance near-crashes. One in particular was fun as I tripped, swung my arms wildly in huge circles and just caught myself only to then feel my back tightening. Come on, really? I wondered if falling might have been better. (Nah!) I was borderline dizzy at this point, several times I was shuffling along with at least one eye closed, just trying to make it to the next aid station.
Around mile 24 you get on a never-ending slightly inclined dirt road. I walked darn near the whole thing. Every attempt at a jog was met with cramps. The road eventually turns right onto some black top where I again thought ‘maybe I can jog.’ No. Maybe a minute. Very frustrating. I got to thinking that maybe the lesson here was, “Patience, Daniel, patience”. (or more likely, pacing, Daniel, pacing). Does the little voice in your head do that to you? Refer to you by your proper name? Mine does.
Speaking of pacing, I’m still watching my watch and trying to figure out my finish time. By this point I’ve given up on 6:30 but estimate that I can make it in 7 hours. Really? Obviously I’ve lost touch with reality at this point. I told you I was woozy.
Where is Aid Station #6?
By now it’s pretty hot, I’m out of fluids and endurolytes, and I’m thinking, maybe I’ll just pack it in at the next aid station…which is where, exactly? It seems like it’s forever away. Actually, nearly 6 miles from Aid Station #5 to #6. But after #5 I was sucking down water like it was free beer. Ahh…finally, I can see what appears to be a pavillion with folks buzzing around and a lake just begging for me to jump in and cool down. I resist the lake temptation, grab some orange slices, 2 more cups of “Nectar of the Gods”, thank all the volunteers (something I try to remember to do all along the course, as there’s no race without them) and try to regroup for what’s coming.
I slowly depart #6, gradually starting to pick up the pace until I’m, wait a minute, jogging? Not running, but no kidding, an honest-to-goodness jog. I tell myself I’m foolish as it’s just going to get tougher, but darn it, I’m finishing this thing with as much gusto as I can muster. I pass a few folks along the way as the trail starts to climb, until I reach the true Blue Hell. Ugh. It’s silly, really. There are sections where you literally haul your butt up by grabbing hold of the trees and rocks. Crazy steep. As I’m heading up I hook up with two guys and together we form the team of…
Two Ironmen and One Half Ironman
OK, lame subtitle, but hey, there was Mike Wien (Mike #3 from ATL!) and Tom Malin from AL, both Ironman finishers and me with a half Ironman finish.
Magellan, I’m Not
I was in front, for no other reason than I was in front. Believe me, it had nothing to do with strength or running prowess as evidenced by me taking a wrong turn. I mean, c’mon, how hard is it? See that mountain? Go straight up. Duh. Anyway, we went maybe 100 yards in the wrong direction, all the while saying,”this can’t be right, we seem to be going downhill”. We turned around and Mike, now at the front said, “Yeah, how about I guide us?” Thanks, Mike.
He asked us how old we both were, Tom says 41 and I, 43. Mike teases, “You guys are old.”
“Why, how old are you?”
“59!” You would not guess, the guy is in great shape.
Are Those Vultures Circling?
Mike or Tom, I forget which, notes that when you see spectators, of which there were plenty, you know you are in for a tough section. They were very encouraging, but still, I couldn’t shake the idea that they were more like vultures circling, or folks watching a car wreck.
OK, that sounded mean, I’m just saying, it’s a good place to watch some grade A suffering, if you’re into that sort of thing.
We finally made it out of the worst of Blue Hell and we were passing our cabin. Stop beckoning, evil comfy bed. I was glad of two things:
1) I didn’t have a key on me, and
2) there was no cold Coke at the cabin (the Coke at Aid Station #5 got me hooked!).
Otherwise I might have headed for the cabin and left the suffering to Mike and Tom.
We got a little up the road and Tom slipped back ever so slightly, so I attempted to hang with Mike. From here on out the course isn’t tough at all, but it just goes on forever. You think you’re at the end, but no, there’s more. You can hear the noise at the finish but where the heck is it? Cruel, cruel.
I ask Mike which Ironmans he has competed in. Turns out he’s been to Kona twice, finishing fifth and fifteenth in his age group. Total stud. I had to look him up after the race as he isn’t the bragging type. Check him out here: He gave me some good advice as my wife and I are heading to the Big Island in a few months. We’ll definitely see the lava flow, bringing gloves and a flashlight per Mike’s instructions.
Mike, so humble, says, “Dan, if I’m slowing you down, go on ahead.” Funny guy. At this point I’ve got one relatively slow gear and I’m happy to have it. I tell Mike to take off if I’m slowing him down. He gaps me a little and I’m back to running alone. At some point I lose it and yell, to no one in particular, “Where the he*l is the finish?”
Finally, I come out of the woods and about 200 yards from the finish I’m surprised to see Christian of www.run100miles.com and several other folks clapping and cheering we later finishers. That was cool. We all start somewhere and while I don’t think C$ ever finished as slowly as I did, I and I’m sure the rest of us 7+ hour folks appreciated the cheers and encouragement. I’m looking around ’cause I assume Michael A. has been done for awhile and I’m surprised yet again to see Michaels 1&2 right by the finish. “E” is in street clothes. I’m thinking, “Uh oh, what happened?” I cross the finish line at 7:29:38, with Mike W about 15 seconds ahead and Tom less than 2 minutes back. Michael A totally rocked it, stopping the clock at 6:04.
High fives all around and then I ask “E” what the heck happened.
One of Many Victims:
E says he was rolling along, having a nice race, feeling good. Around mile 8 he was in a section of single track and loose rocks, rolling hills, nothing too technical. He briefly took his focus off the trail to look at a Pinhoti Trail Sign. Bam! Down hard, on the left hip, twisted the knee and ankle, Oakleys flying, not pretty. He considered running until he tried to get up. No go. E was transported back to Mt. Cheaha. While they were chatting I think it was Todd who said, “It’s a good thing you didn’t do that at mile 23, ’cause you would have probably kept on going.” Yup. Back to the cabin, but I had the key, so E went to the office, begged for a key, got cleaned up and then went to the finish. The runners were coming in in packs so E helped by calling numbers for Todd. A DNF yes, but a good experience and now E’s anxious for 2012.
After the finish I had a Coke, some chicken noodle soup, and some pizza. I was stiff and sore, but nothing like E. We hung around and cheered for awhile, headed to the cabin so I could grab a quick shower ’cause I was pretty ripe between the sweat, the Heed and the trail grime. Then we headed home.
The ride back to Atlanta was not pretty as E’s knee stiffened up. He iced it when he got home and took it easy for a few days, we’ll see how it holds up for the Atlanta Marathon in about three weeks.
Wrap up and Lessons Learned:
Wow! What a fun way to be introduced to trail ultras. Great people, great race, definitely planning to do it in 2012. E and I both want to go back and do the race justice. E wants to finish and I want to avoid the cramp-monster.
The big lessons here:
1. Some advice I got but ignored: whenever going for a new distance, especially significantly longer than you’ve done in the past, say for example, jumping from 13.1 to 31, don’t run for time, run to finish. I heard it but ignored it. Not recommended.
2. While pacing is critical in a race of this distance, I suggest you ignore the running pace predictors on your first try. Start out slower than you think you are capable of, finish it and enjoy it, which, in retrospect, I did.
3. When trail running, pay attention to the trail. A moment’s lack of focus can lead to a DNF as it did for Michael E and others I heard about.
Finally, Did I succeed?
I think so. I finished, on minimal training, enjoyed the experience and paid heed to Annette’s advice, not hurting anyone else and not hurting myself (I think). I had a cramping issue last year with all my tri runs, until I figured it out and then didn’t cramp in Augusta. I figured that out, and I’ll figure this out. So stay tuned while I experiment with my body, with 80/20 training and get this thing right.
p.s. Race fees were $55 for early registration, $65.00 thereafter (me) and the race is usually limited to 220 runners. This year’s had around 200, but as trail ultras become more popular, Cheaha is likely to book up so don’t dilly dally. And if you want to be at the lodge, put your request in early.
p.p.s. Thanks to all the volunteers both at the race course as well as at home who made it possible for all of us to have such an enjoyable race!