February 20, 2016: Thrill in the Hills 21K (trail run)

Goal C: to enjoy a trail run on a nice day in the forest, without falling.

Goal B: to set a PR in my first trail half-marathon.

Goal A: to finish my first trail half-marathon before the winner of the full trail marathon crossed the finish line. 

I received several e-mails from "Dirty Spokes Productions" over many weeks about a trail run at Fort Yargo State Park, about an hour's drive east of Atlanta.  I didn't have a great experience in my last trail run at Serenbe, and wasn't too sure about running a half-marathon distance on a trail, but I enjoyed the Red Top Roaster trail run put on Dirty Spokes in the summer.  A few days ago, I received one more e-mail (only 45 spaces left!), looked at the weather forecast for Saturday (dry, temperature around 50 deg F at 8 am), and decided to register.  This is proof that persistent e-mail advertising does work! 

We arrived shortly before 7 am to get a good parking space, picked up my race number, and warmed up a bit.  I jogged up the hill to the starting line, next to the site of Fort Yargo, which was built by European settlers in the late 1700's.  The marathon was set to begin at 8:00 am, and then the half-marathon would begin 30 minutes later, to spread out runners in the two races.  Bonnie and I watched the start of the marathon from the side of the road, and I captured the first minute of their race in a short video.  One amusing moment shortly after I turned off the videophone: two young men were jogging toward the start line, one saying as they passed us "Dude, we're gonna be the last ones to start."  Everyone that overheard them started laughing.  To their credit, they went all the way to the starting line, even though there wasn't a timing mat.  After a moment, they came running back.  I called out "Good luck guys!" and one of them waved as they passed. 

Beet juice about 20 minutes before the start
I jogged for about 10 minutes to warm up, as the half-marathon runners began to gather.  I could feel the tiniest discomfort from a micropebble in my left shoe. Knowing that this might feel like a more substantial rock in the next 13 miles, I sat down on the road, removed the shoe, thoroughly shook out the shoe (because the nanopebble was too small to be seen by the naked eye) and tied back up.  Whatever had bothered me was gone.  As the time approached 8:30 am, I took a position about 2/3 of the way back.  From my previous trail runs, I know that most of the people running these races are quite good, and it didn't seem reasonable for me to start any closer to the start line.  The race director counted down to the start, and we were off!  

100 yards into the race
The crowd immediately began jogging forward.  It was a bit crowded for the first half-mile, but I was able to get with a group that was running about the same pace, an easy 10-minute mile pace on the asphalt road.  Well before the first mile marker, we had turned onto the trail and into the woods.  As I had hoped (from the organizer's final e-mail to registered participants), the trail was well-groomed and we could see the ground, to avoid roots and rocks.  That was the biggest problem with the November Serenbe race, as those hazards were hidden by a layer of leaves.  We were running in single file, but maintaining a 10 minute / mile pace, which was comfortable for me.  On the first switchback, I could see that the participants a few hundred feet behind us were walking, so I was glad that I had found a good place in the line of runners.  

Mile markers and water stops marked in blue

The sky was cloudy but the temperature was comfortable at 52 deg F at the start, and I had chosen to wear two dry-fit shirts.  I had debated as to whether or not I should wear tights under my running shorts and decided that I might want the protection for my lower legs, although on this course it didn't prove necessary.  In the early miles, other runners had enough stamina to chat quite a bit while running, but as we got further into the race, we became quieter, except to alert others when we were passing.  The hills weren't too challenging in the early miles and I didn't need to take many walk breaks, although I tried to take one about every 10 minutes, knowing that I needed to conserve energy to finish strongly.  I had taken a couple of shot block cubes midway through the fifth mile, so I was feeling strong and maintaining a decent pace.  I and most of the other runners had passed by the first water stop at 1.7 miles, but at the second water stop, just beyond the 5-mile marker, most of us stopped for a moment to drink down a cup of gatorade or water.  I was carrying my own water but it was satisfying to have a cup of gatorade - thanks to the volunteers for coming out to keep us hydrated!  The next stage of the race passed under an earthen dam, over a large metal pipe gushing a large amount of yellow water into the wetlands downstream.  I hope that the yellow color was from mud.  The route then gradually took us up to the lake level at the height of the dam.  I heard Bonnie call my name, and she was running along the top of the dam to take my photo.  I stopped for a moment, gave her the "Mobot" pose, then started running again.  Unfortunately I didn't know until after the race that her camera didn't activate until after I began running again.  Sorry Bonnie! 
Midway through mile 6, unknowingly running away from Bonnie's camera
The next mile was along the lakefront, which was mostly flat, until we made a sharp left turn to head straight uphill in a utility right-of-way.  I took a couple more shot block cubes as I slowed to a walk, along with most of the others.  After a minute, I felt strong again and began jogging up the hill, passing several walkers in this section.  At the top I realized that I had just climbed to the top of the "Monster Mile".  From this stage, the course seemed tougher and hillier, and I'm not sure how much of it was real and how much was simply my perception, although the elevation map suggests that the uphill sections were more sustained in these miles.  The tenth mile was particularly hilly, and I took the last two shot blocks in this area.  Somewhere in this mile, I heard a woman immediately behind me trip over a tree root and fall.  I looked back for a moment, but another runner was helping her up and it seemed that she was OK.  (When I looked at the map afterwards, I was amused to see it labeled "Root Garden" although I suspect that the park officials were growing roots away from the path, even though there were plenty of roots on the path in this area.)  Fortunately that was the only fall that I saw today.  

Elevation map.  The distance appears a bit short, but that is because the
Garmin watches don't accurately record distance on trails. 
One amusing thing that happened in the 10th mile: a man passed me with his left arm supported in a sling.  I was impressed that he was running with the injury, and was passing me even though he couldn't pump both arms to propel himself.  I pulled out my phone and sprinted for a moment to get close enough to get a photo.    

The man in the sling passed me a minute ago.
You can decide if I'm recording my shame or his dedication and toughness. 
We climbed a ridge to reach the last water station shortly after the 10-mile marker.  I said "Just three more miles to go" as I threw my water cup into a garbage bag and resumed running.  I was surprised that there were as many uphill as downhill sections in those remaining miles, as we ran through the Cemetery Hill area and then the area marked "Heart Attack Hill."  We were scrambling up and down across several shallow gullies in this area, just challenging enough to be fun.  In these miles, I was catching up to and passing a few people.  I had eaten a package of Sport Beans - thanks Temilola and runningnerds for the free sample!  In one stretch after the 11-mile marker, I decided that I would try to keep up with and perhaps close some distance on a group of four runners in front of me.  There were some long gradual downhill stretches, and I enjoyed flying down the trail after several miles of slower running.  Before long I had moved right behind the last runner, passed her, and then gradually passed the other three in this group.  Up ahead I saw a man wearing a yellow jersey from another 13.1 trail run that I had seen from time to time in front of me throughout the race.  He had passed me in the first half-mile on the pavement, and now I was finally just behind him, in the final half-mile of the race.  As we approached the Fort Yargo house from the southeast direction, I managed to pass him, but he stayed right behind me, then caught up to me as we moved onto the shoulder of the main road for the finish.  A few spectators realized that the two old guys were starting to race to the end and began cheering.  He sped up to get a few feet ahead of me as we crossed a small bridge to approach the intersection leading to the finish line.  We both turned right and saw the downhill finish.  I lengthened my stride and let my weight carry me downward and forward as I blew past him, deliriously laughing as I flew to the finish line, seeing 2:26:37 on the clock as I reached the timing mat.  I accepted the medal, and turned around to shake the hand of my opponent (Tim) as he passed over the finish line a few seconds later.  It turned out that he was a few years older, so we weren't in the same age group, but the most important thing for me is that I had enough energy to finish strongly.  

After rehydrating and stretching a bit, I enjoyed a couple of slices of pepperoni pizza.  It was a little cold by the time that I had finished, but it contributed to the party atmosphere at the finish line.  I was standing near the finish area when a young man wearing nothing but blue running shorts came blazing through the finish area shortly after 11 am - he was the winner of the trail marathon in 3:05:52.  The half-marathon awards ceremony began shortly afterwards, during which the first woman crossed the finish line, in an impressive 3:38:48 time and only five male finishers in front of her. 

Goal C: to enjoy a trail run on a nice day in the forest, without falling: Achieved! 

Goal B: to set a PR in my first trail half-marathon: Achieved, at 2:26:38!

Goal A: to finish my first trail half-marathon before the winner of the full trail marathon crossed the finish line. Achieved! 

I'll finish with three recommendations:
1) Dirty Spokes Productions:  This is the second event that I've run with Dirty Spokes, and I highly recommend their races.  Everything was well-organized, the atmosphere was fun, and the race route, although challenging, was well-groomed, clearly marked, and safe to run.  If you're interested in trying out a trail race and you live in or are visiting North Georgia, definitely check out their website.  They are running about 25 races this year. 
2) Clif Shot Bloks: I bought a few of these at Big Peach Running Company around the beginning of the year.  These are much easier to use than gel packs: they aren't messy, you can take just 1 or up to the 6 in a package depending on what you need.  Although I think that it's always a good idea to wash down any nutrition with a little water, it isn't required with Shot Bloks, as the sweet taste stimulates the saliva glands to produce enough moisture to wash it all down. 
3) Smokin' Po Boys BBQ in Winder: We enjoyed a celebratory lunch in downtown Winder, just a mile north of the park entrance.  It had been a long time since I had eaten ribs, but they were delicious and perfectly cooked.  The potato salad side was also really tasty, and I really enjoyed their spicy barbecue sauce.  Service was great.  I give them a 5-star rating! 
Bonnie surreptitiously took a photo of me finishing the last rib.