Monday, March 30, 2015

2015 McKay Hollow Madness

I wish that every race report could be an epic tale of overcoming adversity, defeating evil or defying the odds.  That makes it easy to spin a tale that people want to read.  It is with great dismay that I record my thoughts on my favorite race with a ho-hum attitude but sometimes the build up and hype outshine the actual event.

Each spring for the last nine years has culminated for me with McKay Hollow Madness.  In the early years it was a trail half marathon, then later changed to a 25km and even that has had several minor course variations.  The course really only has two climbs (Natural Well and Death Trail), but Panther Knob, Sinks, War Path Ridge and Cry Baby Hill are nothing to shake a stick at.  Picture 100' of climbing per kilometer, shoe-sucking mud, hills that extract your will to live and rocks that have claimed many ankles and there you have the Madness.

Some have said that it is the toughest trail race, mile for mile, that they have come across.  Some have broken bones, walked away bloody or even finished crying.  This year was the trifecta as all three of those things happened in the span of a three and a half minutes.

This race matches my strengths perfectly; climbing, technical trail running, ability to gracefully float downhill on rocky terrain and in a sub ultra distance.  Historically I have fared very well at the Madness, finishing in the top 3 seven times, runner up twice and was the current two-time defending champion.  When it comes to the Madness, I've gone to toe to toe with some of the best trail runners around and given them all a run for their money.

Leading into this year, I was a little nervous about how my surgically knee would react.  I had been training exclusively on roads all spring to avoid aggravating it further after the lengthy recovery I needed after Mountain Mist.  My climbing had progressed nicely as I had been crushing some hill workouts lately.  My endurance was suspect but I didn't think that it would hinder my performance.

There really is no good way to say this and I am not trying to insult anyone; it is a fact that the competition this year was not as deep as it was in years past.  This year looked to be a one-man race as Josh Whitehead was signed up as he continued to tickle his trail running fancy.  Then there was me, and then it didn't go much further.  The good doctor Krichev is a solid athlete but self admitted to not having run over 15 miles in the last decade and was not as talented on trails as he is on the bike. So as part of my race plan, I had to figure out how to deal with the fact that I would most likely be running alone for two hours.

The weather was perfect; cold temperatures and not much rain meant that the trails were mostly dry and fast.  I would later recant that these were the best conditions I have ever seen.  New race director Cary Long gave us some inspiring words about his bodily functions and we were off.

Starting Line
Josh and Brandon Mader (running the newly formed 12km, or as he called it "the kids race") were out quick as was Nathan Hall.  The first mile is on the road so running at a low six pace, even in inov-8 x-talon 212's was not taxing at all.  By the time we turned on the cabin road I had moved into second place and would stay there for the rest of the race.  I did have an epic fall just before the climb to Panther Knob as some nobs had piled sticks and branches across the trail in a muddy spot so their mountain bike tires wouldn't get stuck.  I did a superman forward, but managed to brace my fall with my water bottle so I was just left with two scraped up and bloody knees.  The climb up to the knob was uneventful, as was most of my day.  After a small climb back up on Sinks to Mountain Mist, I was able to run out to O'Shaugnessy Point in the mid 7's.  I was right on track through the first third of the race.  I was fueling with Honey Stinger Acai and Pomegrante Organic Energy Gel which was perfect to top of my energy stores after 45 minutes of running.

Early road miles
The middle third started with a climb up War Path with a steady effort.  I wanted to have an even distribution of energy all day so I opted against blowing out this early climb.  After the crest and through the aid station, I confirmed with Beth Barry that Mader had, in fact, gone onto the 12km finish (confirmed) then I began the descent of Rest Shelter.  I usually am in a position where i have to take a lot of chances on the rocky downslope, either trying to run away from people to to catch people.  On this day I just needed to stay in control and not take any early risks.  Slush mile wasn't that slushy at all.  A few blow downs for obstacles but otherwise more running in the 8's onto the halfway point.  I have always said that this race really doesn't start until the climb up Natural Well.   On occasion I would glance back just to make sure that I wasn't getting rolled up by the doctor but I ventured to guess that I had at least a 2 to 3 minute lead at the base of the climb and that would extend on the climb.  I ran every step of Natural Well, up past the well and onto the flat top section heading west.  I have always been able to tell what kind of shape that I am in by how quickly I can recover.  My pace on Natural Well and Arrowhead extension were in the low 8's which meant that my conditioning were good.  I had been targeting a split of 1:22 through 10 miles just before the Trough Spring aid station and I hit it right on time.  I got to see the lovely Rachel at the aid station who was waiting for me with a new bottle but on this cold day I would not need it.

Onto the trail
Onto the final third of this race which starts with 4 really easy miles.  The ditch wasn't bad at all given a clear line across and then the short climb up the gravel road to the top of Arrowhead was just as the other miles; steady and even.  I grabbed another Honey Stinger for the drop and sipped on it for a bit.  I let loose a little on the fast downhill to the cistern, only slowing once when I had to whisper to a runner that he had taken a wrong turn above.  Big Cat was like little kitty on this day as I was able to run the whole thing.  Don't take that as boasting or bragging that I was able run the entire thing; it just wasn't that taxing on this day.  Back toward the 4-way intersection was muddier than slush mile but nothing compared to a few weeks ago when it was ankle deep in freezing water.  I dropped down deep into the hollow and crossed the creek, looking forward to the final series of climbs.  I knew that Josh was at an unreachable distance ahead and my lead on 3rd was probably the same but I continued to run hard.  Death Trail seemed slow as I walked a few steps on the lower section below fat man pass, but ran most of the top.  The waterfall was a nice sight with a few people cheering as I made the summit and to the line in 2nd place overall.

Atop the falls
So once again a bridesmaid to much better runners (Riddle in 2009, Mader in 2012.)  The course seemed to be a touch long this year with the modified starting line as in previous years I had measured 14.8 or 14.9 but this year I was closer to 15.4 miles.  My time was 2:13:46 or spot on from last year.  Rachel was there at the finish for a post race hug, a piece of cookie cake and then that was that.

My hot date for the finish line
Top 3
Old school finisher board
Like I said, it wasn't a harrowing effort by any means.  I trained hard, had a solid race plan then executed it perfectly.  There were no surprises, no deviation from what I needed to do.  I tried to smile as much as I could and enjoy the experience.  I had a great distribution of energy all day.

I am proud to be the only person to have started and finished all 8 "official" runnings of McKay Hollow Madness.  (*Note that 2011 was a washout year so even though this was the 9th running, and I did the unofficial race that day in a monsoon, 2015 was just the 8th event.)

Now 48 hours after the race I am in a minor world of hurt.  Not having run many trails recently and having the knee issues which was all multiplied by the tumble, I do feel like I was run over by a Mack Truck.  I am sure it is just the normal bumps and bruises that are amplified by age but I hope that the soreness and stiffness subsides soon since I have two more goals yet this spring.

All photos courtesy of Gregg Gelmis, We Run Huntsville, Cary Long and James E. Hurley.