For those without the back story:
Steve and I were supposed to run the Dogwood Canyon 15k Saturday and 50k Sunday. After realizing Thursday of that I messed up our registration and that it was too late to enter- We looked into plan B races. After the initial disappointment, we realized the this was really a great opportunity for us to do something else. So.. We found a few local races and a few not-so-local races that would require Steve to take PTO the next day.
Hoping to take a not-so-local option.. Steve emailed his boss around 8PM requesting PTO and we went to bed unsure if we were going to wake up and hit the road or if his request would be denied. He woke up at 1AM to an email approving his request. We were so excited we packed the car and hit the road around 2AM. Steve took the first driving shift while I caught some extra Z’s.
We decided to head to Tennessee. There were two 50k races the next day that looked cool. We knew nothing about the people there or the area the races were in other than that they were close in proximity to the Barkley marathons. We also thought the road trip itself sounded fun through STL, Nashville, etc so Tennessee it was. After talking to both race directors, we decided on Norris Dam Hard trail race.
We were like “hey we’re on our way from KC. Just confirming you have race day registration…?” 😂 They did.
It was fun to watch the sunrise as we drove. And a bonus to the 2AM start time… we missed morning rush hour in KC and STL.
We arrived in Tennessee around 7PM on Friday night. It was an epic road trip. We stopped a handful of times, finding local coffee and eats along the way. We even went for a run along the river in Nashville. It never felt like ‘an entire day of driving’ as we had so much fun along the way.
We grabbed dinner (Qudoba) checked into the hotel and went to bed. We were both so tired- I’m legitimately not sure I’ve ever slept better in my life.
We arrived at the race start. shelter #2 at Norris state park. There were 3 people at a picnic bench running race day registration. Some runners were standing around- most by the fire. Others waited in their car. It was in the low 30s before we started so I don’t blame them. The vibe was perfect. It was a small race (about 115 people) and you could tell it was a very friendly and tight knit community of runners.
Very informally the race director stood on a bench and explained course to us then told us we’d start in about 10 minutes. It felt more like a group of friends meeting than a race briefing – Steve and I both liked that.
We lined up for the start. Steve started towards the front. I started in front 1/3 of the pack with another girl named Lauren. I was taking inventory of her- trail shoes, solomon pack. She was nice and seemed like she knew what she was doing so I decided to run with her.
The race director walked over to where we were lined up. He asked if everyone was ready and gave us a minute. He then stood on a rock and gave us ‘3,2,1 go’ and we were off. We ran on the road until we got to the trail (single track mtn bike path) Immediately upon entering the woods, there was a very steep downhill section. I started shortening my steps but kept slipping. I regretted my starting position a bit as I felt I was holding up the line. Lauren, from behind, told me to turn my feet sideways, brace myself from behind and slide. She shuffled in front of me to demonstrate. I decided to take the set of stairs to the left but took mental note of the slide technique to try another day.
We passed the downhill section and began running rollers. I felt myself pulling away from a lot of people on the flats and uphill sections. I am a strong runner – especially on hills. I realized, though, that this didn’t matter- You can be a strong runner and not be great at trail running.
So although I broke away from my initial group, I knew to be successful in this, I needed to run with someone with experience. I settled into pace with 6 guys. We made some conversation, but mostly I ran behind them and watched their every step. I put my feet where they put theirs. I observed the way they turned their bodies going down hill and the way they shortened their stride going up.
This was fast paced and I learned you have to be ON at all times as the leaves made a very beautiful but dangerous camouflage over the rocky terrain. I loved the way that you could go from hiking a steep hill at 20 min pace (in zone 4 HR 😅) to free for all, heart pumping 7 something minute pace on stretches of flat trail.
Around mile 6, there was a fork in the trail with no marking. We didn’t know then, but this would not be the last time we ran into this problem. We hesitated. Stopped. Looked at the map, and decided to go right. I followed. Although I felt hesitant, I was at ease knowing that even if I totally effed this up I wasn’t the only one.
We hit an aid station. We tried to figure out if we had messed up the course. They didn’t seem to think we had and sent us off. I knew we had as we never hit the first aid station.
I knew from this point on that running solo was not an option. Most of these guys were local and knew the area. The map, although helpful in theory, was still gibberish to me. We hit mile 10. Although I do think we were all comparable runners on the flats, they had a lot more trail experience than me and began to really pull away on the down hill sections. I tried very hard to keep pace out of fear of running alone. I rolled my ankle twice trying to keep up. The second time was pretty bad but the pain went away for the most part after I got my footing and momentum back.
Eventually, I dropped off. Luckily for me, my friend Michael did too. We ran together. Sometimes we talked aloud. Other times we fell into pace and silently enjoyed one another’s company. He liked to walk the steeper sections. I followed suit and trusted his strategy as this was my first trail race.
We made it back to the start where we would set out for our second loop. We knew something was wrong when we saw our mileage and the lead group of lead guys running towards us. Steve was in it which made me smile. He stopped and told us that everyone had missed the lower loop (about 3.5 mi) which made sense as to we were only at 11.3mi. The lead group took off and we continued to the start (also the finish) where there would be aid.
We refueled and used the bathroom before hearing back out. I sat on the toilet and suddenly everything looked like a vortex. You know – like when you look at a spinning wheel then look at something else and it too is spinning? It was like that. I knew I had eaten enough, so I decided it was just from looking at the moving leaf covered ground for hours.
I grabbed coke and chips while Michael talked to the race director about the course markings. I was getting really cold at this point as my clothes were totally wet and it was still in the 30s. I wanted to get moving again, but wanted company more so I stood by the fire and waited for Michael.
We set back out on the trail- counter clockwise this time. Essentially: the course is 25k consisting of one big loop and one small loop. The RD told us to just run the small loop twice on our second round.
When we got to the aid station before the small loop the people there apologized profusely and took responsibility for sending us in the wrong direction our first time around. We laughed and told them it was fine- We’d get the mileage in either way.
It was an absolutely perfect day to run. It was cold when you stopped, but perfect moving. We were hidden from the sun and the rest of the world in the deep woods. I️t was so different than the racing I am use to and I was having a lot of fun. I kept thinking how pissed some triathletes get when a course isn’t marked well enough and how all of these runners just seemed to roll with it so seamlessly in stride.
On my first time around the small loop, Michael pulled away and I was suddenly running alone for the first time all day. Steve passed me (must’ve been on his second small loop). We ran together for a few minutes. It was good to see him. He broke away and told me he would see me at aid in a mile. Before I could say “ok” I was airborne. I rolled my left ankle (3rd time) going over a rock and was suddenly on the ground. I slid, shoulder first, a few feet in the dirt and screamed as my calf simultaneously cramped up. Steve stopped and looked panicked. I told him as well as another man that I was fine and to go.
I laid there for a minute taking inventory trying to decide if I was actually fine. After stretching out my calf, I got back up and hobbled for a fourth of a mile. Eventually I hit aid. Everyone there had amazing energy. They were all trail runners themselves- one woman, I was later told, had run Barkley and makes the cake every year that says “Good luck, morons.”
As I stood there, I felt something in my shoe. Must’ve gotten in there in my fall. I reached down to fish it out when I realized it was just my ankle swelling and taking Aileen form in my shoe. This should be fun.
I was increasingly cautious on my second small loop. Unstable on my feet from fatigue and my new bum ankle, I was especially cautious on the section that took us right along a ledge with a very steep drop off. I took a wrong turn once. Another poorly marked fork- but a friend going the other direction helped to guide me the right way.
I made it to the final aid station. It was 6.5 miles to the finish from here. I was relieved to see aid as I was sick of the food I had. I grabbed a coke and two donut holes. I set out to run with one donut hole in my mouth and realized I’d have to save the other for later. This time around (counter clockwise) we had to go UP a section called “butt slide.” It is an appropriate term as it is a straight up and down mud covered ledge. It was equally discomforting to ascend as it was to descend.
I dug my feet and knees into the mud and started climbing using branches to pull myself up. I watched a guy in front of me slide back down 3 times as I drank my coke at the aid station. I took note and was careful to not make the same mistakes.
I made it up the steep section but the fun of butt slide was far from over. The best part is that there is no real trail once you get to the top. It is a heavily wooded area with a thick forest floor full of burrs, thorn bushes, sticks and leaves. I literally couldn’t run through it let alone find the flags I was supposed to follow so I submitted to hiking this section. I eventually made it into the clear.
I passed Michael at the aid station before butt slide, but could hear him now not far behind me. I thought about waiting for him. I think he was hurting- but decided not to as I was too and wanted to get to the finish. This would be my largest regret of the day.
I pushed on. I watched my watch tick over to 26 miles. I thanked my legs for another marathon and began feeling excitement in my gut that the end of such a tough but fun journey was so near. To top this- a course marshal confirmed my suspicion: I was the second overall female. I figured I was somewhere towards the front, but wasn’t sure. Anyway it was nice to hear something positive in the back third.
I ran fast- even on the steep sections. I was thankful to have run with Michael, but I realized walking some of those hills was a mistake for me. While I am not the best at descending (he is), climbing is a strength of mine. While I still walked some of the steeper sections, I ran most and saw the improvement in my time and confidence.
This was probably the best and worst part of the race for me. I had reached a place of deep muscle fatigue. Legs. Back. Arms. It only hurts to a certain point though and then it doesn’t really get any worse. I have learned it is about getting into that space and using the pain as a doorway, not a wall. These thoughts helped me to run strong despite the fatigue.
So that rocked. What didn’t rock was running out of water. But whatever- I was 3 mi from the finish at this point. Eating was kind of a turn off too. I knew I should and had I had longer than 3 mi… I would’ve made myself take the calories in, but decided I’d just have a big bowl of chili when I crossed the finish. Falling also didn’t rock. I took two more epic spills here. One bruising my hip and the other driving my knee and hand directly into a sharp rock. Ooopf. Whatever. All in a day on the trail.
Another unclear fork in the road. My gut said right so I went right. After a while, I started to feel as though it was wrong. I hadn’t seen a course marker yet, but continued on in hopes that I wouldn’t have to back track this entire section. My watch read 29.8 miles and I knew I messed up. This was no where near the finish.
I flipped open google maps to try to get my bearings. After I did, I was more confused than before. (Again, maps = gibberish) I began to worry as I was out of water and behind on food now. I called Steve (who had finished) for help. He tried to help me, but it was too difficult as I didn’t quite understand where I was in relation to the course. Finally there were a few runners coming towards me. They told me they were around 24 miles and on their way to the finish. My heart sank. I turned myself around and ran with them, but I was doing the math in my head- I would be close to 40 miles by the time I made it to the finish.
I decided I was going to pull out at the aid station. (you know… the one before butt slide hill. The one I left with 6.5 mi to the finish? Yep back there again.) Now before you start gasping that I DNFd- Im going to say that I in no way feel as though I failed in this. I actually ran more than 50k by the time I made it to the aid station lol
Could I have run the remaining 6.5 mi to the finish? Maybe. Did I plan to or want to? No. We came out to Tennessee for fun and an adventure and I had ticked the boxes. I wasn’t sad nor did I feel a loss of pride in what I had accomplished. It would’ve been nice to finish second overall so I️ guess that sucks but… I finished what I set out to accomplish ….even if it didn’t land me at the finish line. So- I was happy. I was especially happy when I was told Steve had won the race. (And broke course record… by 40 min)
My time for my 31.2 miles was 5:42. The course had about 5,800-6,000 ft of climbing. I was totally pushed out of my comfort zone and it rocked. It was an abnormal experience- to feel so confident in my running but feel such a lack of confidence in my ability to run trail. BUT I learned on the fly and made a lot of mistakes and friends along the way.
That is what it is about for Steve and I. Good times, good experiences, and good people. Tennessee delivered. Who knows maybe we’ll make the road trip back next year.
For now I’m going to ice the s*it out of my ankle so I can start official training for Ironman Santa Rosa next week. 😜
Thanks for following along with mine and Steve’s crazy adventures. 🤘🏼 Life is for living.