Monday, January 21, 2013

Race Report: Tsali Frosty Foot 50K

On Saturday I ran the Frosty Foot 50K in the mountains of western North Carolina. That’s the simple part. The experience I had and gained is a little more complicated. It’s almost enough to say that I laughed I cried I finished.

The data I got from the race timers says something: I ran the course in 6:58:22, came in 112 of 118 runners, and placed 12th of thirteen in my age group. I have never (I don’t think) finished so deep in a race, and I mean that to brag about my finish. It’s hard to recreate the experience on the trail, but I went deep.

To the start: after driving 2 1/2 hours from Spartanburg to the Tsali Recreation Area near Bryson City, North Carolina, I checked in, gathered my gear, and chatted with a runner friend Scott as runners gathered at the start line. One decision I made--not to carry my handheld bottle, but to wear only my vest with a 50-ounce bladder--proved to be more important than it sounds. We headed up a paved road for a couple hundred yards, then turned onto a dirt road into the woods. 

Tsali is an area known for mountain biking that sits around Fontana Lake. I’d never been there, always an attraction to a race for me. To get to see 31 miles of it in one shot--pretty good tour, I’d say. 

The start
First run: We climbed up the dirt road and crested the ridge, turning downhill toward the lake. The woods reminded me of Croft, pines, hardwoods, beech trees holding their brown leaves, the trail contouring in and around draws. I was conscious of staying slow and easy, The woods were wet and the clouds hung low.

The morning was misty, and it rained the last part of the drive. The timer’s data says something else: 53 degrees at the start, with 95% humidity. I found myself in an in-between spot, seeing runners ahead and behind, but I was basically alone. Through that first section I stayed easy, and tried to drink enough. I hit the first aid station (6 miles) in about 53 minutes. I chatted with Aaron Saft, the race director, whom I hadn’t met. I drank a little water and ate a gel. I did not fill up my bladder, which still felt heavy. I joked that I had now finished the first of my five runs that day (four aid stations).

Second run: Through the next section, I started getting passed by one after another runners. In that time, a group of three women caught up to me, and they’d been laughing and talking the entire time. I told them I felt like I was being chased by “The View.” I ran at the head of that train for a little while, then stepped off to eat another gel, and slow down some. They pulled off ahead of me. 

The course had so far climbed and descended gradually, but for longer pitches than at Croft. Already I started to feel bad, and hoped for some chips or something at the next aid station. This one was just stuck in the woods along the trail, accessed from who knows where. They had drink; I refilled the bladder in my vest, and fumbled around with it all. It didn’t matter much: I was drenched from sweat and mist. I ate a gel, and chatted with local bad-ass Anne Lundblad, who was volunteering with a couple of other enthusiastic folks. I asked her if she was ducking me,and that was why she wasn’t racing. She laughed, and off I went.

Fun at the 3rd aid station.
Third run: I was definitely at a pretty low point. I slowed dramatically, and maybe even panicked a little at how much more I had to go. Runners passed me, always cheerfully. Scott rolled by with a group, which raised my spirits. I love the camaraderie--strangers become supporters--that develops almost immediately at an ultra. But I thought about dropping at the next aid station, which was back at the start/finish area, a little more than halfway, but without conviction. I hung out a little longer here--there were chips and pretzels, my favorites during these runs. I told the folks there that I felt pretty crappy, but that the race pullover was too bad-ass not to finish. I had fun there for a good 10 minutes, eating and drinking, and I think they were finally glad to see me go. For some reason I did not fill my bladder, thinking, I suppose, that I had plenty. I turned back up about 20 yards down the trail to go back and snap a photo with Aaron and a couple of the other volunteers.

Fontana Lake, from one of the overlooks
Fourth run: I’d been walking the steepest uphills already, and this section climbed the second of two awesome overlooks of Fontana Lake. The Tennessee Valley Authority lets the lake down in the winter, I was told, as part of the flood control Fontana Dam was built to provide, along with the electricity at the center f the need. The low water level left engineered slopes exposed, giving the lake a kind of industrial look up close, but which left a clay-orange border between the water and the woods. There were several docks left beached, no doubt to float again in spring.

I tripped on the descent from the Mouse Branch Trail overlook, stumbling a bit, but immediately cramping hard in both legs. Up to that point I’d felt the onset of the cramps, and had started consciously drinking more.  About halfway through that 7-plus mile loop, I ran out of water. I was trying to run 10 minutes then walk two minutes, but the terrain wasn’t cooperating. I decided to walk the uphills and run the downhills and flats, which all came in pretty rapid succession.

I was bonking bad. I got discouraged, I walked and cramped, I tried to run more. By the time I got to the last aid station at about 23 1/2 miles, I’d decided I was going to drop. I knew it would only be a mile walk back to the start/finish, and I was prepared to pack it in. I got to the aid station, though, and just hung out. I told the volunteers I was dropping. I ate some chips, and one of the volunteers just dug my bladder out of my vest and refilled it. I handed the vest to him to put back in--my fingers would not work. Another of the volunteers told me to sit down for a while. I did so, fearing I would start cramping. I didn’t, and I relaxed in the chair and drank. Another volunteers (these folks were awesome all day long) brought me cups of water and GuBrew every time she saw me empty. I nearly finished the bladder.

My stomach was feeling a little queasy, but after a while I saw the potato chip bag sitting on the table. One of the volunteers asked me if I wanted him to give it to me. “No,” I said, “Leave it there to lure me out of this chair.” He laughed.

The last aid station
That turned out to be a good decision. I’d been sitting there a good while, watching about 20 runners come and go, all in various states of hurt. I cheered as much as I could, joked with people, and tried to stay positive. I was now able to put food in me, and had not cramped getting up. I finally decided I would continue on, about 7-plus miles to go, and finish this damn thing no matter what.

Fifth run: I high-fived the volunteers, who no doubt had thought I was finished, and set off down the trail feeling remarkably good. My gait was reasonably smooth, and I was moving along at a fair pace. I was still walking the uphills, but with intention. I passed a few runners, and we cheered each other on. 

That lasted a couple of miles, maybe three. Then I was basically alone, a cheerful woman in pink ahead of me working hard, too. I did not learn her name, nor she mine, but her presence was invaluable. “Who’s tough?” I called out a couple of times. “We’re tough,” I answered for us both.  

I walked fast those last miles, but every time I ran I started to cramp. I decided I would just walk (again with intention), though I did try a few more times to run with varying short-lived success. Two guys I had seen all day on the course spectating and helping out came back towards me. They told me I was about 5K (3.1 miles) from the finish; I thought I was much farther, so got that little mental boost. The Fig Newton one of them gave me was another treat.

I was not (that) miserable. I knew I would finish, and I rallied the mental troops to help out. I thought a lot about my dad, and how he “soldiered on,” as he said. “I’m still here,” he'd say when you asked him how he was doing. I thought of a woman I follow on Twitter, YumaBev, who approaches her Parkinson’s with humor enough to write a book about it.  I thought of Dave and Dr. Dennis, whom I met at the Jam in the Park for Parkinsons. Again, life gave me lessons important in running, and I kept going, if only to show them that I could face my temporary difficulties with at least some of the grace and endurance they face their permanent ones. I always say that I am celebrating my mobility by running the Ice Age Trail 50 at age 50, and in part to raise money to find a cure for a disease that degrades mobility. The least I can do is finish.

I got pretty emotional, actually, when I started thinking about the finish of my goal race. I thought about who might be there--my Wisconsin cousins maybe, my mother, my Gorgeous. I went pretty deep, mostly to occupy my time still walking. I learned a great deal about running and finishing. I could have gone another 19 miles to 50 miles. I wouldn’t have gone fast, or run much, but I would finish. I will finish.

1 comment:

  1. Enjoying watching this journey Ned. Well written.