Tuesday, March 30, 2010

2010 Mckay Hollow Madness

Saturday was the 4th running of the Mckay Hollow Madness trail run held in Monte Sano State Park in Huntsville, Alabama. The original concept of the course was to offer another distance for racing on the mountain to complement Mountain Mist 50km and also to use different trails as well, exposing runners to new portions of the park. Since then, a new race director has taken over and it has grown from 50 runners to 200. Modifications have continually been made to the course and the result is a challenging route from beginning to end.

After the race was over, inov-8 representative for the SE USA, Dwight Davis, commented, "That is the most difficult course I have ever race. The only way to make a course tougher would have been to add elevation."  This finish line photo shows the final climb on top of the Death Trail Water Falls.

The first half of this race is typically known to be easier, as it is less technical and dry for the most part, but does have two significant climbs before the first aid station atop O’Shaughnessy Point at mile 5. From there, a very technical drop down into Mckay Hollow on Rest Shelter hill is followed by the muddiest part of the course, known as ‘Slush Mile’. Starting at 7.5 miles, runners climb the second most difficult hill, a 400’ technical ascent on switchbacks over 1/3 mile to the top of Natural Well. From there, the course flattens slightly before an out and back section that crosses ‘SOB Ditch’, a portion of the mountain that is slowly sliding downhill. After returning from the ditch, a fast downhill on Arrowhead trail leads to the historic cistern before 2 more miles of nearly un-runnable muddy trails. The best is saved for last as runners drop down to the deepest depths of the hollow which crosses the stream twice, then progresses to the base of the Death Trail which is an 800’ climb up a waterfall to the finish. The unofficial distance of the course is 14.25 miles.

This year Huntsville had been getting pounded with rain all spring and the week leading into the race was no different. Heavy rains through Thursday meant that the dry portions would be wet and the wet portions would be ankle deep for certain. We were given a little break with temperature as it was in the low 40’s for the 7am start and windy enough that people questioned my sanity for wearing split shorts and a singlet. I had already warmed up and knew that before we even hit the trail after the brief road section that I would be warm enough.

The competitive nature of this race was about the same as it has been in years past, with the exception of a clear favorite. For the 2nd year in a row I wore the number 1 bib number, being the fastest returning runner from the year before. In the three previous races, I had finished 6th, 4th and 2nd last year. Despite being the top seed, I had been training mainly for ultras this spring and was coming off of a fast 50 miler at Delano Park two weeks prior and had been logging 90 mile weeks in preparation for our fastest known time (FKT) attempt on the 325 mile Pinhoti Trail (PTAR FKT) coming up on May 1. I knew that I would be competitive, but was unsure if it came down to a battle with Tim Vinson, David O’Keefe or David Purinton if I could stay with them, given their recent success and training focused on shorter distance events.

Standing at the start line with each of the David’s, we looked around for Tim but he was nowhere to be found. Reports had him out warming up ahead of time, but as the gun went off, he was not part of the lead pack. I would later find out that he thought the start time was 8am and began started about 15 minutes behind the rest of us. Of course thinking that he was behind us the first few miles kept us moving quickly.

From the start, I moved out into the lead, wanting to build a small cushion before the first technical downhill. Not surprisingly, David Purinton stayed with me for the first half mile but backed off a little as we climbed past the ranger station. The road section is a little less than a mile long and I was running 5:50 pace before turning down Old Bankhead and onto the trail. Making that first turn, I was able to see that David O’Keefe had passed Purinton and was now running just a few seconds behind me. I blasted my way down the hill focusing on my form and trying to keep my breathing under control. The pace fell slightly as we ran around panther knob and up the first climb through Super Cuts, but was still 8:16 after a 6:05 first mile. O’Keefe held very steady with me as we traversed the hand climb up the rocks to the top of the bluff, and then back down to Stone Cuts bypass. My effort seemed very even, though slightly more aggressive than I had planned but did not want to relinquish the lead this year and have to play catch up. Either way, O’Keefe was ‘winning’ as we were now running his race (style) and not mine.

Coming down off the bluff toward Three Benches I was running all out on a technical downhill. It was both exhilarating and scary at the same time as despite wearing Tifosi sunglasses with yellow lenses, my eyes were watering with the pace and I had no idea if the footing was stable, or if I was going to roll an ankle with every step. Both being good climbers, we traversed back up the Sinks Trail and started to head south. Mountain Mist trail climbs ever so slightly in this direction and has very technical footing with plenty of firmly placed sharp rocks. Running this section a fast pace during the Xterra Monte Sano 15km last fall left my ankles sore for weeks after. We clocked a 7:30 3rd mile and kept that pace up to the base of War Path Ridge with a 7:34 4th mile. On the climb there was a humorous sign that read ‘Real Men Run This Hill’, which I found ironic as both O’Keefe and I took several walking steps of recovery as we climbed, not wanting to spend too much energy this early in the race. I am sure that just about everyone else behind us walked portions of it too. We reached the first aid station in 37:33 for an average pace of 7:30; but as I mentioned earlier this is the easy part of the course. The goal would be to hold the overall average pace under 8:30-8:45 given the difficulty of the next 9 miles.

I had been carrying my usual Ultimate Direction hand held bottle as my philosophy on hydration is when I need it, I want it right now. Plus it gives me a spot to carry an energy gel, which in a two hour event, I would probably need. I had been training with Honey Stinger Gold recently with much success. It doesn’t require the same amount of water to digest it like other gels do and given my normal affinity for honey and its natural ability as simple carbohydrates to turn into quick energy, it is quickly becoming my new favorite fuel source. With O’Keefe stopping at the aid station, I used that opportunity to take half of the gel on a flat section of the South Plateau Loop before the technical and rocky downhill at Rest Shelter.

Coming down rest Shelter Hill I was again running all out with blatant disregard for personal safety. From the top portion with is moderately difficult to the bottom section after the switchback turn at the bench, I picked my line and held true to it. I tried for the first time all day to make a move here and open up a small gap with a strong push downhill with a 7:53 paced mile to the bottom, but on the last switchback, I could tell that he was still right with me. I could not tell if we were the same runner today, if he was just barely hanging on, or if he was just holding back for the second half. At Xterra last fall I tried to shake him by pounding the last hill climb, but he stayed with me for a mile and a half and finished just a second back.

Mile 6 was much of the same effort, but the mud of ‘Slush Mile’ was truly debilitating. Each step was into a puddle or into the mud so the footing was poor for landing and takeoff. It was clear in looking at our 8:18 time for this mile that even though it is completely flat, that the recent rains were the clear victor on this section. I would find out on my run Sunday in this same section how poor the footing was for the back-of-the-packers after 200 people had run through there. There is no doubt in my mind that we were lucky going through it first and that the slower runners were made to be even slower as the trail conditions worsened as the day progressed.

As we approached the climb up Natural Well, I could tell that it was only a matter of how long I could hold onto the lead. The left hip pain that had been plaguing me lately was starting to flare up and I had just taken two Alleve to reduce the swelling. David was just steps back of me now, though as we made our way up, he stayed there. It was not until reaching Natural Well that I showed the first sign of weakness all day. I took just a few steps of walking to catch my breath and take a drink from my bottle and told David to go through, using proper trail etiquette during the race when you are clearly holding up stronger runners. The course continues to climb on a rocky, washed out road to the top and despite my efforts; David had obviously gotten a tremendous lift from moving into the lead and capitalized on it by picking up the pace. My time for the mile as 10:37, including the climb but as I reached the top, he was already out of sight. It was an impressive display of running, especially beating me at my own game; the hill climb. I got the pace back down to 8:17 for the 9th mile before crossing the ditch, but O’Keefe was already back across and heading back up toward the drop on Arrowhead. That would be the last time I would see him all day.

Reaching the far west side of the ditch, I checked into the aid station, greeting Josh Kennedy and James Falcon with a fleeting smile before turning around to head back. As I crossed the ditch to the east, I was very surprised to see that David Purinton had closely the gap. An equally impressive display of running, given that he was doing it on his own and until now had no idea how close he was to the leaders. The slight climb back up to Arrowhead was relatively fast paced and the drop down to the cistern equally as quick. By the time I had reached the hard right onto Big Cat Tract, I clocked mile splits of 8:10 and 8:05 for 10 and 11 but Purinton was now dangerously close and I was really beginning to fatigue, even with the Honey Stinger and the Strawberry HEED in my bottle. As we climbed out of Big Cat, David was right behind me and inevitably would pass me by. The question would be if I could stay with him and re-pass on the last hill.

Running through constant mud on Arrowhead from Big Cat to the intersection with Natural Well was slow for me. Mile splits of 8:23 and 8:50 up to mile 13 were not enough to retain second, as David passed me by. My only consolation was that he was breathing hard and it was possible that he would not have the energy to maintain that effort through the finish. The mud was possibly worse than through ‘Slush Mile’ as the trail winds around trees and rocks and is unfortunately positioned just where you want to plant a foot and make a cut. I was wearing a brand new pair of inov-8 Roclite 295’s which always seem to grip well with the sticky outsole, but now they were so covered in mud and debris, you could hardly tell the brand. I did appreciate the fact that they don’t hold a lot of water when they are immersed so my feet were not overly heavy.

Crossing both streams at the bottom of the Hollow was very refreshing on me feet with the cold water and I proceeded slowly to give them just a little more soaking than normal. On the final approach to Death Trail, there is two way traffic and I passed by people still at mile 6 on their way out. It would be a long day for them! My tactic for the final climb was to maintain a steady effort and see if I could close on David at all and then start to red-line past him and to the finish. It was this same plan that helped me to pass DeWayne Satterfield last year in this same section. As I started up, I could tell that he was consistently 1-2 switchbacks up from me and never walking. I held even through the half way point of the climb but was not making any progress toward closing the gap. Now with less than ¼ mile to go, he was still 30 seconds ahead and I slowly realized that I was not going to be able to catch him, given the narrow section at the end on the waterfalls. That said, I did not back off at all, as I had no idea how far back Derek Albritton from Grissom High School was behind me and I was not about to risk a podium finish after putting forth this type of effort in one of my favorite races of the year. I pushed hard to the end and with two switch backs to go, I could hear the clapping as David finished, which then blended into shouting for me as I came through the finish in 2:02:58. Translated into average pace, that is just below 8:40 minutes per mile on a course with 4,000’ of elevation change. Last year the course was slightly shorter at 13 miles and I ran slightly faster at 8:30 pace, but the conditions this year were just that much more difficult.

Here is a great post race picture of the top 3 (Purinton, O'Keefe, Charette), taken by race director Rob Youngren.

I am disappointed in that I was not able to hold onto the lead, but I tip my hat to both David O’Keefe and David Purinton who ran masterful races and deserved to be first and second place. On a day where I didn’t have my A game, I was still able to hang onto 3rd place overall amongst a field of 200 starters.

Here is another great snapshot of the footwear of the top 3 (same order as above).  All three of us were wearing inov-8 roclite 295's and actually the majority of finishers in the top 10 were all outfitted in the same shoes!