Thursday, August 18, 2011

Laurel Valley Ultra

I could try to describe this course but I would not be able to do it justice.  I attached this description below as it is fitting.  Make no bones about it though Laurel Valley has to be experienced to truly understand it!
"Laurel Valley Whitewater Ultra is not for the faint of heart. Claude Sinclair, self proclaimed leader of the Runner from Hell running club, conducts the Laurel Valley Ultra every August. It is a very tough and grueling course that traverses over 5000 steps and several major climbs on the Foothills trail in North and South Carolina.
However, the runner is rewarded with many beautiful views of water falls and scenic trails throughout the event. By all means the fact that you have to provide your own aid does make the event rather challenging. It is almost required that you either use iodine tablets or filter your water in some way while out there on the course. There is also supreme camaraderie throughout the event. The trails are always gorgeous and surprising. There is lots of foliage, rocks, roots and rivers crossed by beautiful suspension bridges.

Of course, that is the beauty of Laurel Valley, you have to finish. There’s not a way out, no short cuts or turns to get you off the course. Once you leave Rocky Bottom, S.C. you have to continue on until you reach the parking lot above White Water Falls. People do get into trouble out here. It is rumored that some participants slept on the course last year. There’s always the threat of rattlesnakes, bears, boars, bees, falling and a really good case of giardia. " 

 I might add that there is about 8000 feet of vertical gain over the course which is somewhere between 35 to 40 miles long.  

This race was not on my calendar this year but it pulled me in a little over a month before it's running.  I have not run an ultra or any race for that matter since Mount Mitchell Challenge back in February.  I suffered a tibial stress fracture during the winter and had to take about 6 weeks off from running to heal up.  My return to training came to another halt when I was hit with achilles tendinitis holding me down for another few weeks.  With injuries stacking up I kept the calendar clean and just focused on enjoying running through the summer with no plan.  
Around the first of July I got hit with the Laurel Valley itch and was eager to attempt it for the first time.  For those unaware to run this race you must apply and meet the race directors prerequisites.  One of those prerequisites is to have completed a 50 mile ultra.  I'm still a novice at all this ultra stuff and have completed three 50K's, a 40 miler, and a 50 mile effort during a 24 hour event.  So technically I had never competed in a 50 mile race.  I gave it a shot and sent in the application anyway and hoped for the best.  

Race director, Claude Sinclair, was gracious enough to let me run but as with all rookie entries you must run as a race sweep.  I did not mind this at all as this would keep my adrenaline in check  and keep me from going out there and bonking which could be life threatening on this course.

Skipping ahead to the night before the race where I went out with family and threw back some high gravity IPA's and a table full of appetizers.  The perfect pre-race diet... for disaster.  I was able to get to bed around 10PM but unfortunately I would be getting up at 2:30AM to make the drive to Rocky Bottom for the start at 5AM.  It was going to be a long, long, day but one I would not soon forget.  

I picked up John Gregg, a runner from Alabama, who needed a ride to the start and was staying at a hotel in Easley.  We chatted about running and what we might be in store for today on the trip to the start.  We had never met before but I enjoyed his company and the conversation.  John and I would both be running as sweeps as we were Laurel Valley virgins.  

 We arrive in the middle of no where and it is pitch black out.  Head lamps are turned on as soon as we exit the vehicle at the Laurel Valley trail head.  I meet Will Brown who is 65 years old and has run this race about 15 times.  This guy is a retired Coronal in the Marines and has run all 35 Marine Corps Marathons!  Will Brown (sweep captain), John Gregg, Greta Dobe, and myself would be the 5AM sweep team.  After a history lesson from our race director about outlaw John Wesley Hardin he aims his six shooter in the air to fire a shot to signal the start.  Oops... the humidity affected the powder charge and the gun never went off.  I was hoping that would not be a bad omen of things to come.  
We started up the first of many steps into the darkness of the never ending trail.  As sweeps we must help all runners needing aid and stay behind the last racer to ensure everyone makes it out ALIVE.  I understood it would be long day but the pace we were moving at concerned me as we would never make it to the finish before the park gates closed for the night.  We walked the first 8 miles which took us almost 3.5 hours.  Shortly after sunrise the 6AM sweep team caught up to us and it was decided by the two captains that those feeling perky could go on ahead at their own pace.  

I jumped at the chance and John, Greta, and I joined Bill Keane over the next several miles for some nice running.  Bill is 67 year old and was competing in his 255th ultra marathon!  Our group stayed together until a water stop before the big climb up heartbreak ridge.  Someone must have lit a fire under my ass because I accelerated all the way up this climb and then bombed down the extremely steep descent towards the first sighting of Lake Jocassee.  I was feeling great and moving with ease but soon realized I was all alone.  I questioned my options but decided that I rarely feel this well in an ultra and kept pushing on.  

I really felt like from mile 15 to about mile 30 that I was running at my best.  I was quite surprised by how many runners I was passing as this is not a common occurrence for me.  My training over the twelve weeks prior to race week was very light.  I averaged just 21 miles a week over that period.  My guess is that all my heat training and the fact that half my mileage is running up and down mountains had really paid off.  

I actually enjoyed all the stairs, climbs, and downhills.  I was running along ticking off the miles and hills thinking how this course was the perfect for me.  You will never see me running a flat ultra as that type of running is flat out boring to me.  I'm really a better hiker than runner so it is these tough mountain ultras that suit me best.

I must have crossed 20 bridges over this course and took many opportunities to lay or sit in the raging waters to cool off before moving on.  I was filling my bottles up with river water whenever needed and treating the same with iodine tablets and a NUUN.  Somewhere around mile 30 I entered that nauseous state I have visited in ultras previous.  It starts with no longer being able to stand the taste of the GU's or my NUUN flavored water.  I trudge along with the expectation of vomiting at any moment.  The moment does not come soon enough and my pace begins to slow quite a bit.  Several miles of suffering go by and then it arrives.  No not the finish... but me vomiting four times followed up with a few more dry heaves.  Then the fear sets in that I just lost a ton of fluid and nutrition and dehydration will creep in.  All the while it is relentless forward motion even while still heaving!  

I recover from the nausea partially and pick the pace back up.  Wayne Downey and Tom Gabel are not far behind me and even though I started an hour earlier than them I do not want to be passed.  I bomb down a descent and create some separation and I'm feeling good once again.  That is until I have to stop on two occasions to let them catch up to me because I'm at a trail crossing and do not know which direction to go.  I've lost my momentum now and nausea is setting back in and fatigue is heavy overall.  I know the end is near but it never seems to arrive.  

At last I make it to the boulder scramble crossing over Whitewater River and begin the final ascent up to the parking lot.  During this period a heavy rain rolled in and took me from overheating to being chilled to the bone.  The trails were like little flash floods.  Every climb on this course was enjoyable to me but this last one just whooped me.  I sat down on a rock halfway up and felt helpless.  That was short lived when I heard other runners a few switchbacks below me.  One foot in front of the other.  It is almost over.  I arrive at the Falls overlook and just at that moment Jason Sullivan appears right behind me.  I ask him how much further and he states "where here".  We run in the last 1/8th of a mile together.  

I think I may have been the first of the 5AM starters to finish.  I think back on how much I loved this course and how it suits me.  I realize that my training mileage was very low and how much time I believe I can take off my finishing time next year!  Despite the nausea and getting sick I suffered no cramping and my legs felt incredible all day.   My legs seriously felt ready for 50 today but my head and stomach disagreed.  

I was glad to be done but actually missed being out there as soon as it was over.  I continued feeling sick for about the next hour.  Once I was able to get some solid foods down the nausea went away.  I had a 2.5 hour ride home and was dreading it.  The day began at 2:30AM and I arrived home at 8:30PM exhausted.  

 Waking up the day after my legs still feel great and I do not feel like I ran more than a 5K.  As luck would have it though I did not walk away injury free.  My nagging bout with sesamoiditis has flared up to the extreme now and I can't push off with my left foot at all.  I will be taking a week or so off from running to let it heal before training begins for the next adventure... Duncan Ridge Trail 50K down in Georgia.