Friday, January 22, 2010

2010 Mountain Mist 50km Wrap Up

Mountain Mist 50km
Huntsville, AL
January 22, 2010

Eric Charette’s Post Race Recap

  • Put some time in the bank by pushing the pace on the first half of the course, knowing that the trails would be mostly dry and very runnable.
  • Take away the advantage of the competition who were strong at downhill running by being very aggressive on the down hills.
  • Make up time on the field by hammering the climbs without sacrificing recovery at the peaks.
  • Run through the aid stations making a bottle exchange with my crew and saving critical time.
  • Hold on in the last 10km through McKay Hollow.
Section 1: Monte Sano Lodge to O’Shaughnessy Point
Miles 0 to 6.47

Standing at the start line, I shivered slightly as the wind was steady out of the north. It wouldn’t bother us much on this day, as just after the first mile, we would drop down off of the rim and not return for several hours.

As the gun went off to signify the start, Carl Laniak took off like his pants were on fire! Carl told me just before the start that his goal was to not get passed all day. Then he proceeded to ask me who David Ridddle was…. Within a half mile and before leaving the road portion, David had passed Carl to take the lead and would not ease up all day.

As planned, I pushed the pace early on, moving ahead of our chase pack before hitting the trail. I had no intention of holding that pace, but instead of letting the down hill runners pull away from me and having to catch up on the flats, I was going to attack the descents and then ease on the flats. Having been focusing on technique and selecting my lines on the drops, I was able to quickly maneuver down Chestnut Hill and onto Mountain Mist trail.

By the 2nd mile, I had passed Carl and settled into a nice rhythm running along the semi-technical section of the course. When the headwinds would swirl, I could hear the banter of DeWayne Satterfield and Rob Youngren behind me. I assumed that they were leading a small pack of at least a half dozen runners, amongst them last year's winner David Rindt, Tim Vinson and Zach Koch. I quite enjoy running along in ultras and finding my own pace, as opposed to letting others dictate.

By the time I reached the intersection with the South Plateau Trail, Tim had caught up with me and we began to stride together. This section is great for picking up the pace as there is no elevation change and the trails have a zero technical rating. As we made the turn onto the Family Bike Trail, I let Tim take the lead. I could tell that he was pushing the pace slightly harder than I wanted and I was better off to chase at this point. Through the dizzy and winding turns we ran, holding steady at seven minute pace. In no time at all, we popped out to the first aid station, where I checked in at 46:44 in 3rd place. I wanted to be at 47:30 so I was slightly ahead of schedule.

Section 2: O’Shaughnessy Point to Three Benches
Miles 6.47 to 11.9

Tim stopped at the aid station and I took advantage of this to begin my attack on the long downhill of War Path Ridge. The top half to the Grassy Knoll is not my strength, despite much practice on it in training. Tim managed to catch back up to me quickly, but I stayed aggressive and ahead of him as we continued to drop over 600' down to the Power Lines section. Amazingly enough, DeWayne and Rindt closed the gap quickly and were in sight before we reached the bottom even though I powered along holding onto low seven minute pace.

Tim and I made the turn onto the Power Lines together and ran side by side for a short time. I knew that before we began the climb back up into the State Park, I needed some nourishment so I backed off and took a few Power Bar Gel Blasts. I was not nervous that I was ahead of my pace schedule, but wondered how long I could hold on. Tim's amazing fitness level and high mileage training helped him to pull away in an instant. Making my way out of the wind tunnel and back into he woods, DeWayne and Rindt were right with me now. As we approached the base of K2, David asked if he could lead and gladly let him through. Knowing how we was able to pull away from Jamie Dial last year on the climbs, I relinquished the lead of our pack to the stronger climber. DeWayne and I held a steady pace up the hill as we joked about not being the best climbers, despite us both running up one the three major climbs. As planned, I stayed just below my red line, trying to minimize the recovery time at the top. We averaged under a ten-minute mile on the climb. Somewhere along the way, David caught and passed Tim and moved into 2nd overall, still eons behind Riddle.

As DeWayne and I reached the summit, I walked for a few steps, counting to five in order to minimize down time. DeWayne moved ahead and I tagged along, now in 5th place. This was part of my strategy from the start, knowing that I was running against a handful of guys who had all recently run road marathons with times in the 2:40's or better. I would do my best to hang with them, but that I was racing for a top 10 finish and not against them. If any of them would slip just a bit, I wanted to be in position to capitalize.

Now nearly one third of the way through the race, I was feeling great and moving along on the rocky terrain of Goat Trail with ease. The recent hip pain that had hindered my at Rocket City Marathon was not an issue at all. Having been to several sessions of physical therapy at SportsMed, I was benefiting from increased flexibility and strength in my hips and groin.

Nearing the aid station, I took one more drink from my hand bottle full of Strawberry HEED and mentally prepared to see my crew. My wife Laura hiked down to Three Benches to exchange bottles with me so I wouldn’t have to stop. When you are basically running in your own backyard, it is ok to take advantage of it. Normally 50km is too short for crew support but today I was glad to take it.

I had planned on hitting Aid Station 2 at 1:28:30 and came through officially at 1:27:17 so I was still ahead of goal pace.

Section 3: Three Benches to Fearn Road
Miles 11.9 to 17.1

Getting a natural high from seeing people, I grabbed my bottle from Laura and sprinted down the hill toward the Keith Loop. There really wasn’t anything exciting about running along Keith and onto Logan Point Trails. We run them all summer long as double as mountain bike trails, so are kept in good condition when other trails close up with summer foliage.

Somewhere just before the turn onto Stone Cuts, I did have one slight mishap. I was trying to eat and run and in the process bit through an S! Cap, thinking that it was my Power Bar Gel Blast, as they were both in my mouth at the same time. It immediately made me sick to my stomach and I considered throwing up. I opted against it, but slammed down some HEED and chased it with an Gel Blast to clear my throat. In the process, I slowed down and two runners behind me began to close in.

Running up through the Stone Cuts is always an adventure. At the top of Panther Knob, the course runs through several caves and in between some tight places. Unlike Super Cuts, there is no hand climbing, but it is still cool to have this mixed into the middle of an Ultra. Coming out of the Stone Cuts, the course heads right back down toward Three Benches, but turns toward the Sinks just before getting there. I was getting my stomach back now and had turned up the pace running back down hill. I blazed through the sinks and headed back up a short climb toward Mountain Mist Trail.

Running back on the only part of the course where two-way foot traffic occurs is along Mountain Mist Trail. This meant that trail conditions were much worse than when I had gone through two hours earlier. Wet and heavy feet covered in mud made the processes of taking each step much more rigorous. I could tell for the first time that I had some fatigue in my legs along this section. Now looking back at my splits, it is clear to see that my pace had slipped. The 90 seconds that I had put in the bank ahead of my goal pace at Three Benches was now gone. I was looking at coming in over a minute behind my goal time to the next aid station at Fearn Road.

Shortly before the Bankhead Road crossing along Mountain Mist, the ‘Red’ and ‘Blue’ guys (noted by their singlet colors) passed me, dropping me into 7th overall. I had glimpses of these two running together ever since Stone Cuts and it seemed as though they were closing the gap with each passing mile. I did notice that as ‘Red’ passed me, he wasn't carrying a water bottle; while not required, it seemed odd for him to not have fluids with him. Despite the short distance between aid stations, having water on demand has always been my preference. As he powered by, I asked him his name and mentioned that he was looking good. He mumbled something back that I couldn’t understand, but would later find out his name was David. Shortly thereafter, we crossed over Bankhead and began the climb up Cold Spring toward Fearn Road.

I was pleasantly surprised that the pace of the two guys in front of me slowed drastically on the climb toward the waterfall and I was able to take a deep breathe and pass them both back at the crest of the hill. This was significant for me as it was a confidence builder that I still had my climbing legs amidst the sloppy conditions. Mentally my mind was still very much engaged and I remained focused as my body continued to respond positively as I asked it to move forward at goal pace.

Within minutes of making the move, we came through the Fearn Aid Station at mile 17.1. This is commonly referred to as the halfway point, not by distance but by time. Few people can negative split the remaining 14 miles of the course but that was my plan going in. I had hoped for splits of 2:11:30 and 2:08:30 on the two 'halves' of race. With the conditions worsening, my split was 2:12:42 and I would need a tremendous finish to accomplish my 4:20 goal. Laura and crew were again at the aid station waiting for me and just as quickly as before, we made the bottle exchange and without breaking stride I was off toward the Land Trust along Fearn Road.

Section 4: Fearn Road to Land Trust Parking Lot
Miles 17.1 to 21.1

Picking up speed down Fearn Road, I caught a glance behind me and saw that David had stayed with me through the aid station. Together we moved on, never again seeing the guy in blue after that; to this day he remains a mystery!

I was looking forward to the rugged terrain of Tollgate Trail as it represented the start of a long drop to the base of Waterline across the Land Trust. Taking an aggressive approach on this negative grade trail, I tried to pull away from David in an effort to put a cushion between us so I could take some Gel Blasts. The footing along Tollgate is not the worst on the course, but with jagged rocks and no clear line to follow, I nearly tumbled a few times by not picking up my feet. I was able to regain my composure, but it slightly shook my confidence, forcing me to back off slightly before I made my way onto High Trail. With this slow down, David covered the distance of my move and again we were pacing together.

The conditions along High Trail were possible the worst that I have ever seen for the Land trust. The recent heavy rains and flash flood conditions transformed the trails into waterways and when combined with soil conditions, the result was an utter mud bath. There was no running around the mud as the trail is winding and quite narrow along the bluff so I blazed ahead right down the middle. Although less than two miles long, this took a toll on my body and the pace was extremely slow. David remained behind me, though several times as we would move up short but steep hills, he would be right on top of me and I sensed that he wanted to pass.

When we made the hard right onto Bluffline Trail, I asked him if he was a good downhill runner, knowing that a fast and technical decent was ahead. He replied that he was not much of a trail runner, which took my by surprise given his position in the race. Hearing his answer, I stayed in front and lead down the slope filled with large rocks. I had been practicing my assault on this section over and over to the point where I had my line picked out and I stayed true it, albeit not as fast as I had in training. The rocks were wet but not slippery so I ran over them with ease. Even though I was coated in mud, the sticky outsole of my Roclite 305's provided substantial grip on the rocks and never once did I question my footing when stepping on or pushing off of a slippery surface.

Missing my opportunity to take in energy before High Trail, I was now a little overdue and once we reached the bottom of the hill and turned left toward the Land Trust Parking lot, I let David take the lead. I pulled out my home made goodie bag, composed of Gel Blasts, S! Caps, Tums and Alleve. My overall approach to eating while ultra running is to do it on the move, though with how my pace slows down, I often wonder if I would be better off just walking in order to get it all down quickly and resume race pace after that. I had been taking an S! Cap about every 45 minutes and with the fatigue and potential cramping building in my legs I took two this time as I passed over the 20-mile mark. With my attempt to snack on the run, David pulled away and as we ran in and out of the coves, he quickly disappeared from sight. It was this segment of trail that I faltered in 2008 during my first Mountain Mist as I began to have stomach issues. On this day my stomach was in check as I had learned much on energy intake during ultra running in the past two years.

In what seemed like an eternity that was finally over, I came up to Land Trust Aid Station. I did not bother to look at my watch, knowing that my goal time had long since grown unattainable and now it was all about overall position. I got a small lift running through the aid station seeing Laura and hearing people cheer. Although I love ultra running on trails for the solitude that it provides, I also embrace seeing others once in awhile to break me out of the trance that I get into. I'm not sure who it was, but someone asked me as I came into the aid station if I needed anything. I responded with "I need to get done." It wasn't a comment made out of pain or desperation, but just a fact that I was ready to run strong for the next 10 miles and put this one into the books. I took a fresh hand bottle and ran toward the infamous Railroad Bed Trail.

Officially I was at 2:46:07 through 21.1 miles and well over 4 minutes off of my goal pace.

Section 5: Land Trust Parking Lot to Trough Springs
Miles 21.1 to 25.1

This particular trail is what prompted me to wear the slightly more supportive Roclite 305 over the Roclite 295, which I will wear on less technical terrain. Along the out and back and including the "buttonhook", are sharp rocks that protrude from the ground and prevent any footfall from ever making solid contact with the hard packed trail. It is easy to roll an ankle through here if not careful, but with my footwear choice I ran through it focusing on my body movements and form, completely forgetting about my feet.

We had trained on this trail a dozen times in the last few weeks, which was more than double the number of times that I had run this trail since last year's Mist. Typically we meet at the Hiker's lot in the State Park and unless we are running long, mostly avoid the misery of Railroad Bed. This isn't entirely because of the terrain, but also due to the out and back nature of the trail and that it doesn't really get you anywhere. Using this recent experience on the trail, I moved along just as I had in training, with short choppy steps trying to avoid the spear-like rocks.

Grabbing a tree to swing around the corner, I left Railroad Bed and ventured onto Alms House Trail. Even in training, I have never been that strong on Alms, especially in the second half after Wagon Trail. What starts off as fairly runnable trail over a few creek crossings, turns into a bout of rock hopping as the trail narrows drastically. Knowing that two of the three most significant climbs remained ahead, I reduced the pace slightly in an effort to conserve energy so that I would be strong on the ascents.

I came to intersection of Alms House and Waterline at Three Caves and after taking a few Gel Blasts, started toward the top. I did not run every step, but I made considerable effort to maintain a running motion with good form and resisted resorting to my usual hunched over walking movement in steep climbs. I thought back to the times that I had run up this hill with success and stayed focused on the matter at hand; a half mile ascent with gradual climb the entire time, and nothing more. Though I had an accelerated heart rate, I reached the Annondale Crossing quickly and looked up toward Dry falls. What lie ahead was less than 0.15 miles of hand climbing and rock stairs at the top that often reduce grown men to tears. On the bright side, I could now see David just ahead of me and I knew that I could catch him before the Monte Sano Road Crossing if I kept up a good clip. On the down side, for the first time I looked back and saw that young Zach Koch was now very close and if he had started out the day conservatively, he would undoubtedly be getting stronger late and leveraging his 2:40 something marathon fitness for the final 10km.

When rookie Mountain Mist runners reach the false summit of Waterline, they realize that the 90-degree turn onto Bluffline Trail continues to climb all the way to the Christmas Tree Cemetery. Only if they knew that just ¼-mile to the left was where they left High Trail for Bluffline before mile 20 and they could have cut off the dreaded Railroad Bed and Waterline climb, if cheating were permitted! It was along this stretch just after the top of Waterline Trail that I caught David. As I ran by, I tried my best to appear strong, despite the fatigue. He commented that he was 'out of sugar.' I could only assume that this meant he had hit the energy wall and was bonking hard. I thought back to Fearn when he ran through the aid station and still was not carrying a hand bottle for continual nourishment and now how this had come back to bite him. I told him that there was an aid station just a few minutes ahead. I later discovered that he dropped out of the race at Trough Springs near mile 25.

Again looking forward to the aid station and seeing Laura, I began to stride out on the gravel road approach to Monte Sano Boulevard. There was a spotter ahead to notify the aid station that a runner was coming through and also for the Police to assure a safe crossing over the otherwise busy road. From the pictures, I look less than thrilled at this point, though mentally I still had my head in the game. My goal time to be at Trough was 3:21:30 with 58:30 remaining through McKay Hollow for a 4:20 finish. In reality, I was at 3:30:02 and a eight and a half minutes off of track, though I had come to terms with the fact that it was about position on this day and adjusted my strategy mid race. I took my final bottle from Laura, gave her the nearly empty bottle from my left hand and turned toward Natural Well Trail with a little more than six miles to go.

Section 6: Trough Springs to the top of Rest Shelter Hill
Miles 25.1 to 29.3

After a half mile of steady downhill running, the course comes across 'Sunofabitch Ditch'; a natural feature where the ground has slowly broken away and begun to slide down the mountain. For several years, we ran a side trail around this washout, but this year when marking the course a week prior, we had permission from Race Director to mark the course through the ditch. The ditch was full of light brown or tan colored mud that was extremely slippery. While trying to climb out on the far end, I inadvertently stepped into the mud with both feet and was immediately buried up to my ankles. Usually I run with my shoes tied very loosely and can slip them off and on without untying them. This is something that seems to amuse Rob Youngren when we are training together. In preparing for these conditions for this race, I knew that I had to tie them tight with double knots to prevent from losing them in such a situation. I slowly fell forward onto the bank and used the rocks to pull my feet out the suction created by the mud. Luckily the next half-mile to the Arrowhead Trail is a combination gravel road and creek bed (when it is wet) and I was able to get most of the mud off in no time at all.

I ran through the imaginary marathon mark in around 3:40 on my way to Natural Well. With a little over 4 ½-miles to go, Zach came through and I stepped aside to let him run by. He asked where the Tim and DeWayne were at, and I said that they were well beyond reach now. I could tell that he was disappointed. He did say that the guys behind us were 'well back.' It is impossible to tell what this actually means, especially when it comes from someone running strong. I played it safe and assumed that it was at least a half mile. Averaging 10 minutes per mile in the last 10km for most runners is outstanding. Given this note, I calculated that even if I slowed by a minute per mile, I would still have a safe lock on 6th place. It was at this time that I decided to put it into cruise mode for the rest of the race. I was by no means giving up, as a 6th place finish was still very important to me, but if I could ease up a bit and not hammer the last 4 miles, I might have a shot at a quicker recovery heading into my next race. Yes time was important, but what is the difference between a 4:33 6th place finish or a 4:35 6th place finish? Either way, I was outside of my personal best for the course, so I played it safe.

I navigated down from Natural Well to the crossing with Arrowhead with some caution. I had not come this far and held on to a top ten placement to make a foolish mistake and tumble down into the Hollow. All of the creek crossings were no longer covered with ice as they had been after the snowstorm of early January and thus were easily traversed. The trees that we had fashioned into hand rails to help runners cross the creek toward the bottom of the hollow were still in place, though less useful without the ice cover. I hopped up on the opposite bank and ran down toward the second-to-last significant water crossing, where I dragged my feet intentionally to give them an extended moment of submersion to help reduce the inflammation in the cold stream. Coming out of the hollow and toward the Death Trail spur, I was moving along steady, but by no means quickly. I walked up almost the entire ascent out of the hollow, where just last week I had tripped and slide down off the embankment for 20 feet on my rear while Eric Fritz laughed hardily. He said I was very graceful on the way down. On this day, I was very careful, as I could still see where the leaves were parted back down toward the creek where I had slid.

Mentally I was now breaking down the remainder of the race into three parts to help stay motivated. These were "Slush Mile", "Rest Shelter Hill" and the "White Trail" back to the lodge. The first part lived up to its name as conditions along "Slush Mile" where worse than any other part of the course, including the mud on High Trail. Basically I spent 10 minutes running along a ridgeline in ankle deep muddy water with poor footing. I had trouble getting into any regular pace and just accepted that it would be slow. I can only imagine how foul this trail would be after 250 more people would run it. Eventually it was over and I was ready for the hill climb.

My strategy to “Rest Shelter Hill” was to power walk the technical sections and run the remainder, to which I executed well. From the base to the first bench I alternated running and walking, but still making significant progress. From the bench to the aid station on the South Plateau Loop, I just put my head down and began to grind it out. The pace was slow, but it was steady. Along the way I took the last of my Gel Blasts, hoping that they would kick in somewhere along the upper rim where I would be making one final push to the finish. Near the top where the actual Rest Shelter is, I could see Grady performing his role of spotter for the aid station. It has been rumored that some runners stop here for an adult carbonated beverage, but I have never actually seen any. For the first time all day, I stopped at the aid station and filled my bottle with two paper cups full of Strawberry HEED.

The last aid station was only a little over 4 miles earlier, but I was running pretty low on fluids. I also treated myself with 4 chocolate chip cookies that I carried in my hand and would snack on over the next mile. I thanked the aid workers and headed for the home stretch.

Section 7: Top of Rest Shelter Hill to the Finish
Miles 29.3 to 31.1

Last year I had motivation in the last 1.8-mile span as I was closing in on Greg Foreman, who had cramped up late and Grady told me that I could catch him if I ran hard. I did just that, running the last section at sub 8 minute pace for a 6th place finish. This year, I was just going to stay relaxed and give even effort through to the finish, given that I had a safe lead on the next runner. I counted off the bridges one at a time, from three, to two, to one, before veering off the South Plateau Trail onto the connector that leads to the North Plateau Loop and ultimately, the finish. I saw several day hikers along the way and asked one of them if there was anyone behind me, even though I knew that there wasn't. I guess I was just trying to make small talk and didn't know what else there was to say.

Finally came the last turn toward the Lodge, and with a quick down and up over the creek via bridge, I could see the finish line chute ahead. I was not looking at my watch at all for time or distance, as whatever it was, it was. As I neared, someone shouted out 'runner' and this let the volunteers know that I was coming. There was no need to kick to the finish, so I just made my way up through the chute and after glancing at the clock, I crossed the imaginary finish line and stopped my watch. After 4 hours, 35 minutes and 6 seconds of running, it was finally over. A second consecutive year of finishing in 6th place.

Looking back at my strategy, I think that it was a decent approach to the race, given the conditions. I am glad that I ran hard from the start, as with the two major climbs late in the race, I would not have made up significant time on running them anyway. My fuel/hydration plan worked flawlessly as I never felt overly weak, only had the single stomach issue, and did not have to go to the bathroom during the race. I felt like I was in 4:20 shape going into the race and that I gave it about 4:25 effort.

Running the numbers, I thought that David Riddle, the overall winner, could achieve the course record and run 3:45:00. His actual time was 3:58:00. Solely basing this on weather and course conditions, it equates to 6% slower than his projected time. Ironically, my 4:35:09 finishing time was 5.8% slower than my goal time. Though some runners like DeWayne Satterfield and Tim Vinson had amazing days, most runners seemed to be about 5-6% slower, including 3rd place finisher David Rindt at 5.4% slower than his 2009 effort.

Looking back am I not sure that I was change much with my strategy or execution. For training I would have logged a few more quality long runs on the trails to work on my endurance. I was very happy with my improved downhill running skills as I was able to hold my own more than in the past.

It was a great day for Team inov-8 as we placed 2nd and 6th overall of 275 starters and DeWayne was first men’s master finisher. In addition to DeWayne and me, Riddle and Tim Vinson were wearing inov-8 trail shoes so we had 4 of the top six in our shoes. This is a great trend that I hope continues as I start to see more and more runners sporting the 295’s, the 305’s and DeWayne’s new favorite, the x-talon.

Top 10 Overall Finishers

1 David Riddle 3:58:30
2 DeWayne Satterfield 4:09:09
3 David Rindt 4:16:57
4 Tim Vinson 4:20:04
5 Zachary Koch 4:31:35
6 Eric Charette 4:35:06
7 Eric Gilbertson 4:39:40
8 Robert Youngren 4:47:32
9 Kevin Boucher 4:49:06
10 David Purinton 4:49:24

As a bonus, I was able to write the article for the local news paper (Huntsville Times) after the race was over.