Sunday, February 9, 2014

Mountain Mist

Sometimes separation provides the best way to properly reflect on something.

After taking a few weeks of recovery running after the Chicago Marathon in October, I moved into sharpening mode for Mountain Mist.  This included long training runs on the second half of the course, helping to pace the 3:40 group with Andy Durr at Rocket City Marathon, a surprising 4:05 at Recover from the Holidays 50k and a sharpening race with 2nd overall at Xterra Monte Sano 15km. While two straight DNF's at Mountain Mist would normally have gotten into my head, it was the confidence gained during RFH50k and a 51 minute tempo run on the last section of the course a week prior gave me the right mindset for success.

Race morning featured ideal conditions, including dry, frozen trails and temperatures in the low 20's.  The headwinds on top of the mountain were steady, but in the hollow it was dead calm.  With a fairly stacked field of competition, I had my sights set on the top 10 and a target of 4:30.

Monte Sano Lodge to O'Shaugnessy Point
With the course adjustments in the first section, there was much more road running early in the race which helped to give me enough time to warm up before hitting any of the technical trails. Surprisingly David Riddle and Scott Breeden didn't blast out of the gates too fast, so the lead pack was able to run together in a small group for the first mile.

While it was subtle, being able to tuck in to stay out of the wind helped to save energy early.  By the time we hit the gravel road past the ranger cabin, the lead pack started to string out.  Before turning onto the Fire Tower Trail, I was already running solo in the low 7's.

I could see Tim Vinson along with one other runner ahead of me, and I managed to stay the same distance behind them where they were just out of sight at times.  We barreled down Walnut hill, going low and avoiding the ice before hitting Mountain Mist for a quick 2.7 miles of trails before the first aid station.  I was running very relaxed, and the pace seemed comfortable.

The wind at O'Shaugnessy Point was enough to blow a skinny runner over!  I felt so badly for the aid station crew that had to stand there in the cold, so I made sure that I thanked them as I ran through.  My Ultimate Direction bottle was still nearly full of Grape EFS and plenty of fuel so there was no need to stop.

O'Shaugnessy Point to 3 Benches

I ran down War Path with some trepidation, taking my time on the technical terrain.  I didn't want to risk a spill so early in the race and a few seconds lost here would easily be made up on the flats and climbs to come.  There was no mud at the base of War Path Ridge which made for less effort not having to slip and slide like we did two weeks prior at Xterra Monte Sano when the trails were river beds with the deluge of rain.  I continued to keep it under control as the trail continued to wind downhill toward the power lines, occasionally catching a glimpse of Tim.

Powerlines is normally a nasty section that warrants carrying a stick to scrape the mud off the bottom of your tail shoes.  The mud is then compounded by the tail grass that grows up from the summer and together makes you feel like you have "scarecrow" feet.  But this year, with the lack of rain in the previous two weeks and a tail wind, it felt faster than ever before.  I was closing in on Tim, but my stomach finally had enough of the bouncing around and I was just looking for a place to pull off to the side of the trail.  I could see DeWayne Satterfield far enough behind so I stopped for a little "business" that required leaving both outer cotton gloves behind.  While not preferential to stop, if I hadn't stopped, I wouldn't have been able to hold the pace.

For some reason, my left foot continued to feel numb.  It wasn't because of the cold weather but I think from some lingering hip flexor issues that I had during Peachtree City 50k that caused me to drop out of that race when after 10 miles I had a hard time lifting my left foot.  Despite working on strengthening of my hip flexors, the weakness was showing up on my left side in terms of numbness.  I continued to fight through it, but no matter what I tried, it would not subside.

Finally back in the woods on the narrow and greatly overgrown trails before the K2 climb, I saw Graham Gallemore.  He had gotten an early start to help him make the cutoffs, and it was great to finally see someone.  We shared a laugh before I went on.  There was plenty of ice on the stream crossings which lead to my first fall of the day; nothing too serious but it was the first of many falls to come.  I surprisingly made up the 30 seconds I lost with my stop on powerlines before hitting the climb and now Tim and another runner were right in front of me.  I didn't hammer the climb, trying to stick with my plan of holding back in the first half of the race.   I pulled just about even at the top, and then they pulled away on the flats.  

Goat Trail was uneventful; just catching glimpses of Tim from time to time and maintaining an even effort for the two miles before Three Benches.  Just past the Chestnut connector trail and with less than a quarter mile from the aid station, I fell for a second time, this time slightly more violently.  The fall really shook me up and it wasn't until the aid station that I was able to pull myself together.  Luckily running through the aid station gave me an emotional lift, hearing the encouraging voices of the volunteers.  I have no idea who was there or what they said, but running down into the Sinks I felt much better.

3 Benches to Fearn

Looping around Keith Trail and connecting onto Logan Point Trail, I had again narrowed the gap on Tim.  Chasing them really kept me motivated and now that I had caught them, I knew it was time to make a move.  Just past the Flat Rock connector where the trail becomes very technical with a short and steep climb, I ran past Tim and wished him well.  It looked like he was hobbling a little, which would later cause him to drop out.  I had moved from 9th into 8th place.  Moments later, I passed the next runner on the flat section around the Super Cuts Trail connector, moving from 8th place into 7th place.  That runner stayed with me on the flats, but having watched his climbing ability on K2, I knew that I could substantially put some distance between us on the Stone Cuts climb. Making the hard left off of Logan, I pushed hard up Stone Cuts and never saw the runner again.

Running through the cave on Stone Cuts felt weird, having only run through it in the opposite direction with training for Xterra Monte Sano 15k.  On one of the narrow passes, I accidentally slammed my left knee into a rock wall.  The damage was starting to take a toll on my body and I had to shake off this one with some limping as I climbed back out toward Golan Heights.

I had to slow down coming off of the Heights, despite the normally fast section, I had a hard time lifting my feet.  The numbness was still there and my technical footing wasn't a work of art by any means.  I did see Keith Henry again before turning onto the Sinks Trail.  He seemed surprised to see me ahead of Tim and we had a quick laugh before pushing forward.

After climbing out of the Sinks and back onto Mountain Mist, I again felt like I was running in no-man's land.  I hadn't really been focusing on my splits but I remembered wanting to be around 2:11:00, which with a slightly slower second half would have gotten me to my 4:30 goal.  Before crossing Bankhead, I noticed that my watch was already at that time and I still had the section between Bankhead and Fearn to go.  I couldn't wrap my mind around the time; I was running very well, under control and felt great was almost 5 minutes behind my plan.  Not wanting to dwell on this for another second, I stopped thinking about the time and just kept running hard.

Approaching Fearn, I was excited to see Rachel for the first time.  Finally able to see the Red gate, she was standing there waiting for me with bottle in hand.  I still had plenty of EFS left and decided to stick with my same bottle, so I gave her a kiss, told her I loved her and ran on toward the second half of the course.  My first half split was 2:17:01.  Looking back at my 3 previous finishes, this was my second slowest, although virtually the same as 2009.  With this split, it looked like I would be facing an uphill battle to break 4:30.  But I refused to give up.

Fearn to Land Trust

Starting out onto the Land Trust, I decided that I had been running solo long enough that it was time to put in ear buds and listen to my iPod.  I fussed with it for a minute or two but finally got it settled just in time to focus on the rocks heading down Tollgate Trail.  I saw Emily Ansick (again) and she said that William was running well; I knew that he was ahead of me but I had no idea how far ahead.

Running across High Trail seemed like an even effort and given the dry conditions, I made very good time.  With barely any water in the creek crossings, I was at the top of Bluffline in no time at all.  A week before the race I had the chance to run with DeWayne Satterfield on the Land Trust (his back yard home turf) and we cruised down Bluffline pretty quickly.  He made a comment at dinner the night before the race how I was able to pick out the line and race down this half mile section pretty fast.  Luckily I had that stuck in my head, and it reminded me that I had practiced this section quite a bit during training and I did have a line and my feet seemed to remember it by heart.

Making the hard right at the bottom, I took a quick peak behind me, thinking all along that soon DeWayne would close the gap on me and blow past.  In my previous three finishes at Mountain Mist, it was only a matter of time before DeWayne would pass me by like I was standing still, so it gave me some motivation that I had held him off for this long.  The rest of Bluffline Trail to the aid station was just as fast as High Trail and I was approaching the Land Trust aid station quickly.  In those three previous finishes, my splits for this section were 34:48, 33:25 and 32:50.  This year I was slightly faster, but not significantly, hitting the aid station in 32:32.  I remember seeing Robin Giles at the aid station, but again I was so focused and in the zone, that I just ran through the aid station quickly, not needing to take anything.

Land Trust to Trough Springs

Leaving the Land Trust aid station, I quickly spotted a runner ahead that I had not seen since the first mile of the race.  It was one of the front runners who was wearing what looked like racing flats.  As we approached the first rocky section of Rail Road Bed Trail just before the power lines crossing, he said that the rocks were chewing up his feet.  I didn't say much, but used his lack of enthusiasm and stole a little bit of his energy as I ran around him.  Minutes later I would see DeWayne on Bluffline Trail just above me, which meant that he was maybe 3-4 minutes back at most.  Then minutes later the adrenaline rush of passing the last runner must have wore off because I fell hard, again.  This time it was down onto the jagged rocks of Rail Road Bed.  I tried to roll, but mostly jammed my hands into the rocks.  I hoped up quickly to brush off of the leaves and dirt, but I was physically shaken after this fall and it took a second for me to regain my composure.  As I started to run again, it felt like I had sprained all of my fingers on my left hand as they had all bent backward on the fall.  I couldn't grip my fingers around the hand held bottle so I moved it over to my right hand.  I always knew that it would be miserable to fall on this section and limbering along toward the creek crossing I could say that it was everything I hoped that it wouldn't be.

From Rail Road Bed to Alms, I kept shuffling along and kicking more and more rocks.  I was making great time, but I wasn't lifting my feet very much.  This lead to yet another fall.  I can't remember ever falling in Mountain Mist, let alone 4 times.  They had clearly taken a toll on me, but mentally and physically, but each time I got up and kept going.

My main race fuel was Vanilla EFS Liquid Shot.  I had tested out travel shampoo bottle with a flip cap filled with EFS which allowed me to sip on the gel a little bit from time to time.  One thing I learned from RFH50k this year was how to take in a steady stream of calories to even out the peaks and valleys of energy.  This approach worked very well all day at the Cross Country Park and it was working well during Mountain Mist.

Up next was Waterline and I was ready to tackle it head on. The bottom section was a nice steady effort, never breathing too hard but I was making very good time.  I suspected that I was going to be around 10 minutes for the climb, which is great on a training run, and on race day would be one of of faster times up the waterfall.  Toward the top where the trail ascent seems to go exponential, I saw two runners ahead.  It looked like they had their hands on their knees and were bent over on the climb.  I used this as my motivation to try to close the gap, but by the top of the climb, they were already pulling ahead out of sight across the Christmas Tree graveyard.

The original plan was to see Rachel again at Trough Springs and take a fresh bottle and calories just before the final section.  Running up to the parking lot, I spotted William Ansick and Vince Molosky standing at the aid station.  Rachel was there and (so cutely I might add) was holding a small bag with my bottles and pre-planned Oatmeal Creme Pies!  In a split second I made the decision to capitalize on the situation and ran hard right through the aid station.  I think I tried to grab a bottle from Rachel and missed or I didn't try whatsoever, but regardless I had stated my intentions that the race was now on and I was making my move.  With no more than a splash of fluids in my bottle, I raced through and hit the new Arrowhead extension.    Looking back at my three previous finishes at Mountain Mist, my 4-mile split from Land Trust to Trough Springs had been 41:57, 43:55 and 42:23.  On this day I smashed my fastest by over a minute a mile and ran 37:58 which included a 10:25 on the Waterline Climb.

Trough Springs to Monte Sano Lodge

Leaving the aid station, William immediately started chasing after me.  I had moved from 6th into 4th place and was now running more scared than ever.  The re-route around the washout on the Arrowhead extension is about a tenth of a mile longer and much rockier in my opinion, but I was making good time.  In the back of my head I kept thinking about the tempo run that I did the week prior with James Falcon and Alex Clark where I was able to hammer the last six miles in a personal record pace.  There is a switchback where the extension meets back up with Natural Well trail and I saw William, who was maybe a minute back.

The flats of Natural Well helped me push the pace into the low 7's before the rocky descent into the hollow.  I really focused on my footwork, while taking some chances and risks on the ice covered creek crossings, loose rock and roots that define the trail to the bottom of McKay Hollow.  From the main creek crossing the climbing began and I was able to run up all of Cry Baby Hill.  There was a large group of hikers out on the trail that were not paying much attention despite me announcing (in a friendly way) that I was coming through.  I stumbled once taking a wide path around them but luckily I didn't go down.

Slush mile might as well have been desert mile as it was drier than I ever remember.  I kept pace comfortably hard and took one last sip of EFS preparing for the impending climb.  My ascent up Rest Shelter wasn't fast, but it was steady.  I was alternating a fast power climb with a slow run but I was making progress.  Nearing the top, I spotted Josh Kennedy and he was yelling at me to dig deeper.  He said that 3rd place was just a minute in front of me!  No!!!!  I had completely forgotten that David Rindt was ahead of me and now I knew that he might be within striking distance.  Depending on how he was feeling, if I could find anything left in the tank, I might be able to close the gap in the final mile and a half.  I considered taking some fluids at the aid station, but I couldn't get the top off of my bottle so I bailed on that idea and continued on.

David (Rindt) is always in great shape for Mountain Mist and along with his great climbing ability, he too can run fast in the late stages of a 50km.  I was going to the well, but I couldn't find another gear faster than a low seven minute pace.  Even if I couldn't catch him, I was going to run my ass off trying.  The reality of a sub 4:28 Mountain Mist was starting to sink in, and that meant a new personal best.  I shouldn't have let it happen, but I was becoming overwhelmed with emotion in the final minutes. The levity of the moment and everything that had lead up to it was just too much to handle.

Making one last push helped me duck in just under 4:24 and officially posted a 4:23:52, earning me 4th place overall.  I've made many mentions of my last three finishes at Mountain Mist, which ironically were all 6th place finishes (2009, 2010, 2011) so with this 4+ minute personal best I also had my highest finish ever.  I was also closer to the winner (Scott Breeden) this year than ever before.  I think that with David Riddle being injured this year that Scott didn't have to push the pace as hard to take the victory and later mentioned that after The North Face Challenge in San Francisco two months earlier that he hadn't done much training.

2013 Scott Breeden 4:03:52 / 4:23:52 (20:00 back)
2011 David Riddle 3:42:59 / 4:28:12 (45:13 back)
2010  David Riddle 3:58:30 / 4:35:06 (36:36 back)
2009 David Rindt 4:07:05 / 4:32:15 (25:10 back)

My body language in this series of pictures at the finish line speaks volumes as to the emotion of the moment.

Crossing the finish line and taking a few staggering steps (thanks for the help Ryan Chaffin!) I found Rachel and gave her a big hug.  Then with whatever energy I had left, I let out a screaming roar! I had conquered the mighty Mountain Mist!

For the first time in five tries I was able to break in hour in the final section of Mountain Mist, which is usually indicative of a good race.  Previously I had posted 1:00:34, 1:05:04 and 1:00:47.  On this day I was well under an hour, running the last six miles in 56:21.  I also had posted my first ever negative split.

YearFirst HalfSecond HalfTotal

Here are the final stats of the top 20 finishers at Mountain Mist this year.  Much to my amazement, I ran the 2nd fastest back half of Mountain Mist, trailing only Scott Breeden and slightly faster than David Riddle.

Name1st Half Time1st Half Rank2nd Half Time2nd Half RankSplit DifferenceNeg/PosTotal TimeOverall Place
Scott Breeden2:05:4111:58:1117:30Neg Split4:03:521
David Riddle2:06:3822:07:1530:37Pos Split4:13:532
David Rindt2:12:3332:10:1742:16Neg Split4:22:503
Eric Charette2:17:0172:06:51210:10Neg Split4:23:524
William Ansick2:13:4262:12:1751:25Neg Split4:25:595
Vince Molosky2:13:1742:18:3295:15Pos Split4:31:496
Dewayne Satterfield2:19:5192:19:55100:04Pos Split4:39:467
Brett Wilks2:25:49122:16:2969:20Neg Split4:42:188
Patrick Parker2:13:2552:35:451622:20Pos Split4:49:109
Doug Daniel2:22:31102:28:43126:12Pos Split4:51:1410
Dink Taylor2:25:50132:29:55134:05Pos Split4:55:4511
Chad Ayres2:28:17152:28:12110:05Neg Split4:56:2912
Timothy Pitt2:39:58292:18:08821:50Neg Split4:58:0613
Will Barnwell2:40:30312:17:47722:43Neg Split4:58:1714
Dan McBrayer2:31:04182:35:16144:12Pos Split5:06:2015
Waring Porter2:30:43162:40:562210:13Pos Split5:11:3916
Deano Montreuil2:36:24262:37:12170:48Pos Split5:13:3617
Brian Robinson2:35:03222:39:59214:56Pos Split5:15:0218
Alex Clark2:41:50372:35:19156:31Neg Split5:17:0919
Charn McAllister2:18:3382:58:485740:15Pos Split5:17:2120

Here are my splits for the race.

AidLocationSplitTimePaceTotal DistTotal TimeAve PacePlace
Aid 1O'Shaugnessy6.7248:357:146.7248:357:149
Aid 23 Benches5.2243:388:2211.941:32:137:439
Aid 3Fearn5.3344:488:2417.272:17:017:567
Aid 4Land Trust3.7432:328:4221.012:49:338:047
Aid 5Trough Springs4.0337:589:2525.043:27:318:176

It was great to hang out at the finish line and watch ultrarunning legend DeWayne Satterfield finish his 20th (every one!) Mountain Mist, race director Dink Taylor finishing his first and many others who had great finishing times.  Above all else, it was great to have the best crew there to support me.


I started off in my favorite Nike split shorts, a Fleet Feet Huntsville zip triathlon top underneath my Michigan Tech Huskies top, Headsweats winter hat, Swiftwick wool socks, 2XU compression calf sleeves and a brand new pair of inov-8 Roclite 243's right out of the box.

The Aftermath

In the hours of the race, my body was very beaten up.  This was my right leg, which from the surface looked like it had taken the brunt of many falls that I took during the race.

Just a day later I had to travel to San Antonio for a work conference that would have me gone until late Thursday night.  While there, I spent each day on my feet, wearing compression socks to help ease the recovery, but the pain in my legs was more than normal.  After sitting for a minute, my left knee would tighten and be very painful to get up.  I was walking with a limp and each step hurt.

I had some travel woes coming home which meant that I had to drive from Atlanta after my flight was cancelled and got home at 3am.  After just a few hours of sleep, I picked up my phone and sent a message to Dr. Krichev, my family doctor, asking if he could see me right away.  Something wasn't right and after a week of pain, it was time to seek professional advice.

The pain of twisting my left knee was immense and Dr. Krichev recommended that I get an MRI that would confirm a possible MCL sprain.  Fortunately I was able to have the MRI on Friday night and the results on Monday morning.  All weekend I had hoped for the best, but the results were somewhere short of that; Dr. Krichev recommended that I go see Dr. Michael Cantrell, an Orthopedic Surgeon because my MCL sprain was actually much worse.  Officially it was a tear of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus in my left knee.  I spent the next 24 hours researching the injury as much as the Internet had to offer so I was informed of the severity before my visit.

Dr. Cantrell came highly recommended and had an impressive resume.

Dr. Cantrell is a member of The Orthopaedic Center Sports Medicine Team. Board certified in orthopaedic surgery, sports medicine and AO Fellowship trained, Dr. Cantrell has earned the Subspeciality Certificate in Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. He specializes in arthroscopic and open reconstruction of the shoulder and knee. This includes shoulder and knee arthroscopy, tendon repair, ligament reconstruction, and joint replacement. Dr. Cantrell applies the least invasive, most effective techniques in surgical treatment and rehabilitation of sports injuries and other orthopaedic conditions. 

Dr. Cantrell is a USA Boxing and United States Olympic Committee Physician, providing sports medicine coverage for events such as the U. S. Olympic Team Trials. He is team physician for Oakwood University, the Rocket City United Soccer Team, Huntsville Gymnastics Center, and Southern States Gymnastics. Dr. Cantrell works with the Huntsville Havoc and the Alabama Hammers, as well as several area high schools. He is a former team physician for the University of Mississippi, as well as a former U.S. Air Force Staff Orthopaedic Surgeon.

Things were moving so quickly; on Tuesday morning I met with Dr. Cantrell and he confirmed what I had suspected.  The meniscus can not be repaired and it does not heal; it requires surgery to have the tear removed.  So when we talked, I was not surprised that he recommended having surgery.  The comical part was that he knew that I was the Krispy Kreme Challenge champion and used that as an ice breaker.  He added that he knew I was much more than that as a top tier local athlete, which I appreciated that he understood where I was coming from with my motivation to get healthy and return to the top of my game as quickly.  We had a great exchange and he said that if it were him, he too would have the surgery as soon as possible to begin recovery.

Just as quickly as everything had happened in the last few days, the surgery was scheduled for Friday afternoon.  From diagnosis, to x-ray to MRI to consultation to surgery in less than seven days.

The surgery went very well and I was back home and resting a few hours later.

While I am eager to start the recovery, I am taking a smart approach and have a plan to come back when the time is right.  I have some personal goals for this year and I will be back.  Trust me.

I feel tremendously blessed to be surrounded by people who care very much for me and have taken care of me both during training, through the injury and now in recovery.  I had the best doctors in town and have a great attitude, knowing that this is only a minor setback in what will be a long career of running to the best of my ability and being healthy once again.