Smith Mountain Lake Dam 50k Ultra Run

Event in Penhook, VA at the Smith Mountain Lake Dam. 50k that was really 32.25 miles…Horton Miles they called it.
This was my first ultra marathon, and well, it was a doozy:

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Well this was more impromptu race than planned. The plan was to use this race as a training run for the Blue Ridge Marathon (coming up April 22nd, Roanoke, VA, ~4000 ft elevation gain), because living in Wisconsin, there was nothing to prepare me enough for my goal marathon. Looking at previous years’ garmin data from three other people, I saw:
1. It was 32ish miles, not 31
2. There were two mountains, the first one less steep at the start, the second one looked like a 90° wall at mile 21
3. No one ran up the second mountain no matter what pace they displayed
4. Roughly 5000 ft elevation gain
5. The “hills” between the two mountains looked rolling
My initial plan was to run-walk up to the 5k mark (where the first mountain ended) until the 21 mile mark (where the 2nd mountain began), get to the top and take it easy until the finish. Let’s say that plan was thrown in the trash after about 8 minutes in of the 7 hours and 40 minutes I was out there.

I had driven to Virginia (home) two days before, and prepped the way I knew best, bringing down my sitting swelling I got while driving for 17 hours, and hydrating the best I could. I had my protein bar before the race, along with some sweet tea. I decided to bring along my hydration pack, as annoying and heavy as it is with 2L of water/nuun inside, along with my honey stingers and phone. So let’s get on with how the race went…

Started off on the bridge in front of the Smith Mountain Lake Dam, a place I never got to visit before as close to it as I lived my whole life (to be fair, I never saw Natural Bridge either…). It was windy, and at a starting temperature of about 57°F, it was chilly. I ditched my jacket at the start, don’t regret doing that, because the first mountain heated me up fast. There were about 30 some people doing the 50k, a very small gathering, but EVERY SINGLE PERSON seemed to be an experienced ultra runner, even by appearance, they just looked like seasoned runners.

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Smith Mountain Lake Dam wedged between two Mountains

Apparently I was the only one who hadn’t done an ultra before, as many had done 50+ miles before. Gun start, no chip time, which isn’t a problem when you are inches away from the starting line. The course went directly upwards from the start up the first mountain. My plan, was run four minutes, walk one. I was successful in two cycles of that before I had to just walk. My calves were already crying and aching. Not a good sign in mile ONE out of 30+. I had done some warm up exercises before starting, but it wasn’t enough. Everyone was walking. Finally reached mile two after 18 minutes. Great start? Reached the top a bit after and started to run again. From what the elevation profile looked like, it would just be rolling hills from there to mile 21. Wrong again. The course soon became pavement by mile 4 or 5 and was paved until mile 20.

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The course rose and fell, but the rises were a LOT steeper than the profile led on. I did my best to run the more level bits and downhills and the starting of every uphill. My feet were bothering me a lot actually with the swelling. I knew it would eventually go away (turns out that was mile 6 when it dissipated), so I fought through and ignored it. I figured out by mile 4 that this would not be my race, not feeling my best. I kept on going. I finally got a few sub 10:30 min/mi splits along the way, but I said I would take this race easy. I really took it as easy as I possibly could, not feeling guilty about my average time constantly displayed on my garmin. I occasionally stopped to check my directions for the course to make sure I wasn’t lost. I had had three nightmares the night before, and one of those was getting lost. The course WAS marked really well, but I can’t help my anxiety about getting lost. My legs actually felt better by mile 9, they actually felt warmed up (my calves weren’t screaming anymore). I hit the half marathon mark by 2:47 and some change. Possibly my slowest half marathon ever. This was 5 minutes SLOWER than my half at Ironman Los Cabos 70.3, and that was at 97°F and 65% humidity! I thought THAT was a struggle! Granite I was taking this much slower on purpose. I still didn’t feel good at this point, just sluggish and not at my potential. No injuries or nagging pains though.

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I honestly don’t remember much after that, I refilled my water at the aid station at mile 16. There was an aid station every 4-5 miles, which I found pretty often from what I’ve heard about ultra marathons/trail races. I was thankful for that. There was tailwind at every other aid station which I was also thankful for. Around mile 19.5, I was passed by two guys a few minutes apart. I figured out later that was first and second place. They looked unphased by the course! Little did I know, that the first place finisher was attacked by 3 dogs about a mile back! These were also the first people I’ve seen since everyone separated by mile 2. I came into the finisher area (the finish of the first loop), I panicked for a hot minute thinking I cut the course. I was assured by the race directors I was fine. I took a quick bathroom break and refilled my water again before making the trek up the second mountain…the death climb. I may not remember much of the first 20 some miles, but I sure remembered everything from that point on.

So I left for the rest of the race. It wasn’t straight up at first, there was some climbing, but it was sloped and steady. There were 8 stream crossings, and no way around them except to go straight through them, too far to jump across, besides jumping at this point was probably not a good idea with the chances of falling pretty high. This was a trail race, and they stuffed it into this section. I was already soaked from the first two stream crossings, so I decided to quickly cross the other. The third one was the one that got me. I’m used to running in the woods, no problem, but not really streams. The 3rd one I sank knee deep into mud, getting all into my shoes and socks. I had to stop to remove from pebbles which would have caused me grief later. At this point, I knew I was doing well at conserving because I could still bend over. But trying to hold my foot up off the ground, I got a sudden charly horse in my foot and thigh. I broke out the emergency salt sticks I had brought with me. Never had another cramp! I went on my way, now dirty and trying to clean myself off while going through the remaining stream crossings. The steeper climb began. I took some pictures of it, but little did I know that was not the true start of the climb…

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Half way up the Death Climb

It started getting too steep to even walk around mile 21.64 (I remember distinctly because I needed to know when the climbing stopped). I was getting out of breath after just one minute of climbing…WALKING! I don’t know if you can call what I did walking even as you could not set your foot full on the ground, the slope was too steep, you were forced on your toes. I’m glad I run on my toes to midfoot, my calves were prepared but burning. When I got too out of breath to continue, I would stop at a larger tree to hold on to and turn my feet sideways so I would not fall. When I caught my breath, I would push myself off the trees to continue on and look for the next tree then the next tree, making small goals. I remember looking down at my garmin and seeing 22.18, I hadn’t gone anywhere. My heart sank, it was so hard. The path was washed out from the heavy rain the day before and loose rocks everywhere. This made footing VERY difficult. I spent the time going up looking at pretty rocks and admiring the geology. This mile climb took me 33 minutes. I can run an easy EASY 5k sub 30 minutes! I could not possibly go any faster here. There was only one effort level: go or not go. What seemed like (and probably was) forever, I reached the top. Stopped for a quick pic and to catch my breath. Had some soda at mile 23. I continued on my way for the rolling hills on washed out gravel roads.

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Mile 24, I passed my first person, she was from Richmond, and was gunning for a 50 miler this summer. After a quick chat, I wished her well, and continued on. I hit the marathon mark (26.2) around six hours and 17 minutes in. Hit the aid station up there. I soon caught up to a nice runner Robin. She seemed very nice and we had some nice chats and I felt like we pushed each other the rest of the way. It was nice having someone to talk to and run beside, especially after the aid station at mile 29 (they told us about the dogs). I felt a LOT better after the marathon mark than I had previously in the race. I have no idea why. I stopped taking nutrition though, it mainly slipped my mind. Despite being told to “go on” by Robin, it was more worthwhile to stick it out with her, and a lot more fun. The course didn’t seem as hard, and the final section was a repeat of the end of the first loop, and I think I ran a lot more in the latter part of the race. I actually was feeling good at this point, with the only hold up the space right under my metatarsals. Turns out the skin was being pushed too much on the death climb after getting my skin soaked by the stream crossings and caused some blistering and a small raw strip of skin that developed on the bottom of my foot. I guess I’m lucky that was my only real injury, if you want to even call it that. It was nice coming into the finish. Although I didn’t come NEAR the finish time interval I was aiming for or predicted, I am happy I even finished and was able to push/not push through certain obstacles.

Post race, my legs are not as bad off as they were after the Mesa-Phoenix Marathon about a month ago (hard to imagine since it feels a lot longer than that). My arms ache the most probably, and probably due to using trees and propelling myself up steep hills. My back and shoulders are sore probably because I’m not used to carrying so much weight on my back (but it was worth it in the long run with the daytime high ending up being 68°F with full sun. Speaking of sun, I am sunburnt, which I wasn’t worried about because I thought there would be enough tree cover to not get burned. However, just because there were a ton of trees, doesn’t mean those trees have leaves yet! Looking back, I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently. My quads ache, but far less sore than they have been and my calves are suspiciously doing ok for the most part. If there was a time and place for calf sleeves, this was it. I attribute my calf wellness to them this time.

17632439_1268585806528845_5903544910115254943_oI found out, as a neat tid-bit, that David Horton, the race director, was the 2nd person to finish the Barkely Marathons. If you haven’t seen the documentary or heard of the Barkley, look it up…it certain is interesting!

Right now I am busy recovering for my next race next weekend, my first 10k! (Ironic), which I don’t know if I will be truly racing, depending on my recovery this week. After that, I have a week of further recovery to get ready for the Blue Ridge Marathon. I am hoping to break the 5 hour mark on that marathon this year, the 3rd year I’ll be participating in it. Once again, if you have made it to the end of this, CONGRATULATIONS!! Thanks for reading, I’ll eventually get a real blog page up and running, but I’m lazy and busy running (literally). Lastly I’d like to say, if Ironman is easier than this was, I will 1. be surprised, 2. probably cry…I’ll probably be emotional anyways. Big thanks to my mom for making it out and being patient as I mulled through this course. Peace out!

Post race thoughts: Yeah I probably will go back and do this again. It’s addicting.

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