The Huntsville Track Club’s Grand Slam event is a four-race series consisting of three 50Ks and a road marathon occurring over a 10-week period. This was supposed to be a goal for me in the 2017 running season, and 2016 was supposed to just see me do my first 50K (Dizzy Fifties).
My Dizzy time was good enough to make me consider whether I could pull off Mountain Mist this year, and I was fortunately still able to register for the overall series event by Nov 20. For what it’s worth, the day after one’s first 50K is kind of a terrible time to try to talk oneself into doing two more, but I did.
Without further ado…
Dizzy Fifties 50k
19 Nov 2016
In preparation for my first 50K, I kept trail running throughout the summer. Normally I dial it back due to snakes, poison ivy, and just the general misery of humidity in a Southern summer. I laid out my own 11-week program (12 would have been nice, but I was 11 weeks out when I finally decided to do this) to ramp up my long-run mileage, and I borrowed an idea I’d seen from another training plan to alternate symmetrical and asymmetrical weekend mileage (e.g., 12/12 one weekend, then 17/10 the next weekend, increasing each weekend).
Once race day arrived, I was more than a little surprised that my head was not in it. I hadn’t slept well (which is not news if you know me… I usually only get a few hours of sleep the night before a big race), and I just generally felt like I didn’t want to be there. But distance running teaches you to push ahead anyway, and I started feeling like a human being a few miles into the race.
The format for Dizzy (three big loops coming back to your personal aid setup at the picnic pavilion) is great for a first 50K, and it also gave me a chance to have a little company here and there, which I’m not used to in a race.
I ran well through miles 13-19 but pushed it a tad since I was feeling good, and then I kind of blew a gasket. I bonked pretty hard and spent most of the rest of the day trying to recover from that. I like to finish strong, though, so I was able to pull it together for the last mile or so. Dizzy allows a time cutoff in the neighborhood of 10 hours, but even finishing in 7:16, there were not too many people still hanging around! This made perfect sense but was not something I’d considered going into the race.
In a way, I was glad there weren’t that many familiar faces still around, because I was emotionally pretty raw at the end of this race. I’d put in three months of summer runs and heart rate work followed by 11 weeks staying on top of my long run mileage while working in other runs and races, and there was a lot of build-up to finishing this and setting a new PR for my longest run.
I was talking to Kim Holmes after the race, and like any good runner, she peer-pressured me on the Grand Slam. She said it was a good rule of thumb to add one hour to my Dizzy time for Mountain Mist (scarily accurate), and so I went home and signed up for the Grand Slam and girded my loins for Mountain Mist in January.
2016 Rocket City Marathon
10 Dec 2016
RCM was the only race in this series that I’d done before, and this was my fourth time out. Due to having a semi-coherent training plan and favorable temperatures, I had hopes of getting a new PR.
I didn’t put together a very smart strategy for race day, though. Knowing I wanted to finish around 4:30 to break a 4:36 PR, I split right at 2:15. I know better than that, and things predictably unraveled a bit for me on the second half of the race.
Finishing in 4:46 was my second-best marathon time, and not PRing wasn’t a big deal. I know a lot of folks doing the grand slam just try to run the races as easy as possible to save on wear and tear, but I’m competitive with myself and wanted to give it a shot.
I also now had, in a three-week period, just done my first 50k and a road marathon, and now I could finally appreciate what runners mean when they say the road marathon is much harder on the body than a trail 50K. Ouch.
Recover from the Holidays 50k
31 Dec 2016
I admit that I approached RFH with the wrong expectations. Having heard others describe it, I was expecting a non-technical run, and while it is technically a loop, the out and back legs run within just a few yards of each other, so it’s not like going around a big circle where you only see people on one side of the loop. With 10 three-mile loops after the initial one-mile spur, you see everyone a lot.
Whereas with Dizzy I didn’t have my head in it, at RFH I didn’t have my body at full strength. I’d gotten really sick on Christmas day and then had lingering chest congestion all week. It was around 40 degrees when we started (which was enough to make the light rain freeze, which is handy since it bounces right off), and the cold air immediately irritated my lungs even more. It hurt to cough, and I was now coughing a lot. I honestly wondered in the first mile if I was going to pull it off that day. If there was any silver lining, it made me go out slow, which is something all runners aspire to do at least once in their lives.
So while RFH has more elevation and is more technical than Dizzy, it’s all relative. Compared to other races (*cough* Mountain Mist), this is an easy race.
I got some company on lap 6 when my best friend Rory came out to do a loop with me. I started to feel hungry at the end of the lap, which is a bad sign, and by the 7th lap (miles 19-22), I was fighting a bonk. I didn’t start to come around until the end of the 9th lap after I got some motivating words from my friend Lorelai, and I tried to reel in a few of the people who were still out there with me.
Sometime around lap 3 or 4, there had been some confusion about which lap I was on, and the volunteers tracking it asked me several times to confirm how many I’d done. Whatever I said, we misunderstood each other, because after I finished 9 laps, there was some excitement over seeing me head back out for another lap. I was sure that I was on mile 28 and had just finished lap 9, though (I’d just looked at my Garmin, fortunately, since it died within mere minutes of heading out on lap 10).
RFH is a low-overhead, low-budget race that is great to let you see running friends and get back in the groove after the holidays. I don’t think most people would say it’s supposed to be a special or landmark race. I’m not really sure what happened on that 10th lap, but I came alive like I hadn’t all day. I started running hills I’d been walking, and my pace steadily increased the entire way out and back. By the time I came out of the woods for the last quarter mile, I was pretty much at a dead sprint.
Just like with Dizzy, there weren’t a whole lot of people left still racing, but I reeled in several people and made sure I wasn’t leaving anything out on the race course. I like to finish strong. My friends Ryan, Lindsey, and Lorelai were still hanging around in the volunteer tent post-race, and they may be my only corroborators. The photogs had gone home, and my Garmin had died at the beginning of the lap, and there’s really no record of what an incredible three miles that was for me.
It was an amazing way to finish that race, and I was hit with some really intense post-race euphoria over the next half hour. My time of 7:31 tracked with the additional technicality and elevation compared to Dizzy and continued to make me think that completing Mountain Mist would be hard but possible.
Mountain Mist 50k
28 Jan 2017
None of the first three races in the series were really much in doubt for me. I realized I’ve had a bit of a bad habit of setting my running goals on new but high-probability-of-success races. Attempting Mountain Mist gave me a much higher chance of failure than I normally accept. It was definitely outside my comfort zone.
The weather on race day was near ideal—low 30s making it up to the mid 40s. In the past two years I’d volunteered at MM, there had been snow or ice. If I’d had to deal with that, or rain, excessive mud, or heat, I don’t think I would have pulled this off. But we got an amazing day, so I knew I’d have a fighting chance. I also felt like my head and body were both ready for the day ahead.
I laid out a race strategy based on some front- and back-half of the course preview runs I’d done recently. I knew what sections were going to be slower and where I could bank a little time. MM has multiple on-course time cutoffs that I needed to beat, but I also needed to go slow enough that I didn’t blow up late in the race. Someone had called it “threading the needle,” and that’s what it felt like. I am not ashamed to admit there was a spreadsheet involved and a little printed guide I made with my pace goals between various aid stations.
I lined up literally about as far back as I could. I knew where I planned to finish in the pack and time-wise, and I didn’t need to be ahead of anybody. Once we got off to a shuffling 50K start and headed down the road for a few minutes, I glanced to my left and noticed I was running next to the sweepers. Maybe I didn’t need to go that slow…
Other than losing my pace chart at the very first aid station (I think it was a message from the running gods to listen to my body and not rely on the numbers), the first half of the race was pretty uneventful. There were a couple tough climbs, and there were enough rocks and roots early on to tenderize my ankles for the fun that was to come. It really felt like more of a buy-in for the second half of the race.
At Aid #3 at mile 16.9, it was my first chance to see my parents, who had been able to come out to spend hours waiting for me to show up for 60-90 seconds before disappearing again. I was about 17 minutes ahead of the cutoff (which became a little more lenient later in the race). It was great getting to see some friendly and familiar faces. I thanked them for coming out and kissed my mom on the cheek as I got ready to roll onward. Right about then I started hearing, “Metoometoometoometoo!” and I realized the blur dashing toward me was my best friend Rory coming out to support me, and he’d almost missed me. He got a kiss on the cheek too, which got everybody at the aid station laughing, and then I headed on to the Land Trust section of the course.
This section of the course is very rocky, and it was tough going. I was at that magic upper-teen mileage when I often start to struggle a bit, and this was no different. I tried to throttle back to the Ultra Shuffle™ while putting in as much sugar as I could stand. It was slow going, and getting over to Aid #4 at mile 20.9 was very welcome.
It was at this point that my mother Jedi mind-tricked me into eating an orange. While folks were helping me refill bottles, she said something about how she’d seen so many people taking orange slices at this aid station. To my weak brain, this was a compelling argument that I also needed an orange slice. If everybody else was doing that, then I should too! I commented at the time that my legs were at least 5 miles more tired than I expected at this mileage… the climbing was taking its toll. I’d arrived about 12 minutes under the cutoff and burned a couple minutes getting both bottles refilled, but I’d planned to be within about 10 minutes of the cutoff throughout the race.
I knew the next two sections were going to be the hardest of the entire day. Even though I was 10 miles from the finish, this is where the race really starts. Getting to Aid #5 involves getting up the Waterline climb, which is long and steep, and in places it requires using one’s upper body to grab rocks and lever oneself up. I can’t say it was pretty, but I just tried to keep moving steadily. My pace dropped a lot here, as expected, but that also made this section seem to take forever.
I made it over to Aid #5 at mile 24.9 within about 12 minutes of the cutoff and knew that I was within striking distance of pulling this whole thing off. I got a quick refill of one bottle and headed out on Arrowhead Trail. I was glad I’d previewed this section recently, because it doesn’t stick in my head as a highly technical section, but it’s full of softball-sized rocks that will try to break your soul (and ankles), so I knew I didn’t need to push it yet. Making it out onto Natural Well, I was able to finally get into a running rhythm for what felt like the first time in an hour and a half.
The descent down Natural Well was as bad as I expected. The big muscles in my legs were shot, and all the small stabilizing muscles were shot. I couldn’t help but think of the scene in Apollo 13 where Gene Kranz is getting overwhelmed with the list of what’s broken on the spacecraft, so he tries to approach the question from the other direction, which doesn’t go so well either.
I made it down Natural Well, up Cry Baby Hill, and finally over to Slush Mile (and hey, it was finally slushy!). I was a mile and a half from the last aid station, but things got a little weird. I didn’t think I was really in a bad place nutritionally, but when you spend 8 hours running in the woods, between trees, shadows, and parallax effects, sometimes you think you see stuff out of the corner of your eye.
I was pretty sure I saw a midget in a bright yellow raincoat on McKay Hollow Trail.
I did a double-take, and just like in the movies, when I came around a tree blocking my view, of course there was nothing there. There wasn’t even anything vaguely human-shaped or yellow. But I decided maybe it was time to wrap this thing up.
Making the climb up Rest Shelter nearly broke me. At the top was Aid #6, where I unexpectedly found a number of familiar faces: Kim, Chelsea, Kara, and Tim. Kim was ready to take care of whatever I needed, but I told her I thought I just needed to reevaluate my life choices as I stood there with my hands on my knees for a minute. Chelsea declared it was the aid station of beer and free hugs. As I accepted hugs from Chelsea and Kim, I told them the joke was on them since I smelled awful. They both claimed I did not, and if that is the case, I probably need to write a letter to Old Spice and tell them that high endurance deodorant is way over-engineered.
I pretty much tried to go wide-open from there to the finish, so if you can picture a car redlining while stuck in first gear, that’s pretty accurate. I did finish with a good kick at the end and powered up the last hill to an 8:15 finish, on the slower side thanks to the last two sections but within the window I’d planned for at the beginning of the day.
I wore my Grand Slam jacket on the way home for practical reasons, tag still attached. I also reached over to my passenger seat and put on my MM hat for non-practical reasons, tag still attached. Damn, I’m proud to have earned those. My MM plaque went to the place of highest honor on my medals/mugs/swag shelf, because that race’s reputation is well-deserved; that is the hardest event I have ever done.
Grand Slam complete, and now I plan to take a weekend off for probably the first time in at least five months.