Monday, March 30, 2009

Aaron Mulder Terrapin 50k Race Report

So of my extensive experience of three, I think this was far and away the hardest 50K I've done.  According to Web sites, it's actually got less elevation change than the HAT Run (7560' vs. 9800').  However, the catch is, it happens all at once.

OK, maybe not once, more like two huge and two little bits (or perhaps, two giant bits and two huge bits).  But I'll get to that.

This time, there wasn't anyone I was particularly close to during the race.  I passed and was passed, but not by the same folks.  So it's more of a terrain report, I guess.  But I was hoping to come in under

5 hours, and I wasn't sure if that was realistic... I figured I'd give it a shot.  It was a nice day for it, in the low 50s, though the fog visible on the mountains was a little ominous.

Anyway, the race started with a short road section (in company with the half marathon runners), turning onto a gravel road, which eventually turned into more of a dirt/rock road (all uphill, though more steeply as we went).  That got annoying fast -- largely because it was *really* foggy, and my glasses kept fogging up, and it was hard to actually improve things by wiping them.  But it was a tough time, with lots of big and little rocks in the trail.  Other than the fog, it reminded me a lot of parts of the Arkansas Traveller, and I didn't look forward to going back down it (I was anticipating a steep downhill through rocks and fog).

Finally we crossed a big stream and got to just plain trail, and that was nice -- we got out of the fog a bit too.  Though it was still all uphill.  I was walking bits within the first 4 miles, which I'm not used to.  And I was passed by an aggressive race-walker, who I never saw again (I'm not totally sure he wasn't a half-marathoner, though I didn't think so for some reason).  Still, I was feeling pretty good about my position when I got to Camping Gap (the first aid station, which we'd also return to).  This ended the 4 mile (!) uphill, at about 2/3 of the maximum elevation for the day, and it's where the half marathon split off.  And hey, they had Rice Krispie Treats!

Awesome!  So then, the 50K went off on a hugely steep downhill.  I had been sooo looking forward to a downhill!

Mistake.  The first problem was, it was a really steep downhill.  In fact, it felt steeper down than up, though I guess it probably couldn't have been.  The nice part was that it was on a gravel road, so at least a (comparatively) smooth surface.  Though after a mile or so my legs started feeling a bit heavy, and I decided this wasn't going to be any better than the uphill.  It didn't help when I heard footsteps behind me, and a swarm of folks were running pretty hard down from that aid station.  One just shot by; most of the rest stayed close behind for the moment.  I guess that means I sped up a little.

Sigh.  Two miles into this, I was really wishing for some uphill again!

After maybe three miles, it leveled out for a second and there was even a momentary uphill.  My upper legs felt totally numb!  Uh-oh.

Then it went downhill again and I just resigned myself to it.  I skipped past the next aid station at a little over 7 miles, since I wasn't drinking much on the high-speed descent, and it was only a little over 2 to the next one.  Fortunately it wasn't as steeply down after that, but unfortunately that meant a couple of the lurkers passed me.  Oh, well.

Pulling into the 9.4 mile station after 4 miles of straight uphill and

5 miles of straight downhill, there were a bunch of spectators cheering people in.  I was a little bummed because it was the only one with crew access and I didn't think Erin was going to be there (I forgot to print directions to it and I knew she'd need to get Caelan breakfast and so on).  So I pulled up to the aid table, and imagine my surprise when I noticed Erin and Caelan there!  Woo-hoo!  That picked me up.  When I looked at my watch, I found I was ahead of my best-case time, which didn't seem right.  I guess that downhill went *really* fast.  (Looking at the results, I averaged, get ready for this, 6:13 per mile for that 5.3 mile segment.)  Heading out of the station, I was pleased to see it went right into a little uphill, so I didn't feel too bad walking while I sucked down a gel.  I think I did get passed, though.

This segment started out with uphill on gravel road, and eventually turned off to be uphill trail.  The trail section had some scary parts

-- very narrow trail (like, 8 inches!), just barely etched out of the steep mountainside, and in parts, covered with wet leaves.  I felt like if you slipped, you'd be going a very long way down.  Fortunately those sections didn't last TOO long, but there was nothing like that in the other races I've done!  On the up side, I did pass someone at one of the wider points.  Still, it was a slow 4 miles of solid uphill.

We got a brief respite in a quick downhill back to the aid station I skipped last time, making about a 6 mile loop total.  This time I stopped, as it had been a while.  Someone popped out behind me to ask if they had tape -- they said only duct tape, so he took off, while I was still refilling my bottles. Sigh.

Now came a part I was really dreading.  Remember that super-steep 3 miles down from Camping Gap?  Now we got to go back UP it.  My only consolation was we'd again be like 2/3 of the way to the ultimate top.

I tried to jog whenever possible, and I did pass a couple folks who were walking more.  That cheered me up.  But I was feeling pretty beat when I got back up to Camping Cap.  Plus, it was tremendously foggy this time.  They filled me up and I asked which way to go, and they said up the hill.  I had taken a few steps away and couldn't see which the guy pointed, and I didn't see any of the streamers, so I headed up the grassy slope.  Hey!  Mister!  Yo!  The road!  Up the road!  Oh.  I went back to the road and carried on.  Then I saw a streamer.

So another mile or a bit more of somewhat more gentle uphill, and I saw the leaders coming back the other way.  That was cool -- there were two guys way out front of everyone else, but I tried to cheer them all a bit as they went by.  I saw maybe 5 runners going the other way before we split off into the loop section that went around and eventually to the top, the highest point of the course, and back down to rejoin the road back to Camping Gap.  The road had turned from gravel to dirt, and I figured it couldn't be too bad from here, since we had just added a mile or two of uphill to the previous massive uphill, and there couldn't be that much more elevation left.  Maybe you see where this is going.  Ha ha!  Joke's on me!

There was a lot of steep uphill, and I walked a lot.  I could only hope the people behind me were walking too.  Every time the trail turned I thought "oh good, this turn means we're just about there".

Wrong, wrong, and um, wrong.  At least the trail was nice -- it was probably technically a road, but mainly dirt, and nice and soft.

FINALLY I got to the summit, and headed back down.  At this exact moment I realized I was overdue on a gel and electrolyte tabs, and I didn't want to get behind since I figured all the fog meant humidity and I'd be losing a lot of salt.

So I sighed and slowed to a walk down the initial descent, feeding as I went.  Finally I got all my junk back into my belt pack and started jogging.  No one passed.  Whew!  Then maybe 50 feet later, I came around a turn, and guess what?  Steep uphill.  What the?!?!  I KNOW we were at the top!  The mountain did not agree.  So I trudged on, walking a lot as it was steep, with a keen eye out for the sign reading WELCOME TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD!  After 10 miles of straight uphill, I sure felt I deserved it!  Never did see it.  Eventually, the road-thing just started downhill again and this time it meant it.

Boy, did it mean it.  It quickly turned VERY steep.  But this was quite nice, because it was soft earth, easy landings, and periodic little bumps to slow down on before things got completely out of control.  After a mile or so, the loop finished, and became the "back"

part of the out & back to Camping Gap.  This was may favorite part of the course.  It was downhill but not too steep, fine gravel road, and I swear every single person going the other way said something nice to me -- way to go, looking good, big whistles or cheers, whatever.  Wow!

What a pick-me-up!  I'm afraid I just waved to most of them, I was beat.  But happy.

That brought me back to Camping Gap for the last time.  The elapsed time was around 3:35, meaning I had 85 minutes to make the last 9 miles or so and squeak in under 5 hours -- this seemed doable since a huge portion of that would be downhill.  There was one little uphill to the top of Terrapin Mountain (lower than the one we just did), and a little uphill after the last aid station, but otherwise a couple miles of flat and a lot of downhill.  Maybe now you can see where this is going...

I left the aid station and was fine with a steep climb because I could walk and eat on the way out.  It was a narrow twisty trail, but nice soft earth again.  I figured I'd start jogging once it leveled out some and widened a bit.  Never happened.  I don't think I jogged more than 10 steps between Camping Gap and the summit of Terrapin Mountain.

It was all super-steep, narrow switchback trails, over and through large sets of rocks, steep, steep, steep.  I walked the best I could but someone passed me anyway (this was to be a very good thing).  He asked if I had passed the first punch and I said no, had he?  See, there were two orienteering punches on the course, and you had to stamp your bib with each one.  One at the summit of Terrapin Mountain, and one in "Fat Man's Misery", whatever that was.

Finally, after eating through any conceivable time buffer I had, and joking about the punch a few too many times to be comfortable, we came to where we figured the top must be.  This was the only problem I had with the course markings.  We came up to tree with a streamer on it.

The path went right, with a couple streamers.  The path *also* went left, with a couple streamers.  What the?!?  The guy who was just in front of me ran down the left a bit and then hollered back, "it just keeps going down here!".  So I figured let's go that way, maybe this was some weird loop thing or something (note: brain not really functioning any more).  But he went to check out the right trail and said he'd call back, so I hung tight a few yards down the left trail.

Then I hear "the punch is over here!"  So I went back to the intersection, by which time there were three more people there

(aargh!) one of whom said "oh yeah, the punch is to the right.  Last year they had a sign."  Great.  I fell in and we went to the punch.

It was on a big pile of jutting rocks -- another pretty frightening place.  If you slipped there, there was no tumble down slope, it was fall through the air!  I crept over as cautiously as I could.

Supposedly, the rocks here look like a big turtle, giving the mountain it's name.  I'm afraid I forgot to look.  Eventually we all punched and headed back down the left trail.  The one experienced guy had just waited there and was directing more people (wish he had been there for me!).  As we headed down, he said I should pass, he was just running with the girl behind us.  I had still lost another place to the delay, but I made that up too.  But if anything, the trail got crazier!  It was steep, with frightful switchbacks when gravity had really taken hold.  And another big rocky area where it seemed the trail just went over a cliff, but the guy behind directed us through.

And then we got to Fat Man's Misery.  I took one look and just turned the other way to find where the trail ACTUALLY went, because there was sure no way it went through there!  Wrong again.  The guy says, "just jump in!"  I said "YOU jump in!"  So he went first.

Imagine a trail going down very steeply, with a big mud bog.  Now put two huge upright rock slabs, maybe 10 inches apart (not kidding!), that you're supposed to squeeze through while sliding down the muddy slope.  Now bend them 30 degrees to the left, so you can't even be vertical when you do it!  That guy hit the bottom, shimmied a little, and yelled back "Go!  Just slide down!"  I jumped in and immediately lost my footing and slid halfway down.  One water bottle went flying.

It felt like I scraped up my arm.  I'm kind of lying on the slab in front but my backside is pressed up against the slab in back.  No way could I get back up to the bottle, but one of the folks behind graciously offered to bring it through.  Holy crap.

I slid on out and there was a photographer, of course.  They found the "best" spots on the course, that's for sure!  I went and applied the second punch while waiting for the crew behind.  The first one got out and tossed me my bottle.  I turned to head out, and again, no trail.

Just a little round hole through the rocks about 4 feet up.  You got it, that was the trail.

And the hits just keep on comin'.  The rest of the descent was crazy steep, on super-narrow trails, with frequent switchbacks.  Imagine you're pulled to full speed and then realize you have 5 feet to make a 180 degree turn.  It was awful.  I mean, OK, trail surface is nice, weather is nice, scenery is nice.  But it was easily the slowest downhill I did all day.  Then we got to the rocky sections.  Still every bit as steep, but unnavigable unless you walk.  Coming down Terrapin was my least favorite part of the course.

FINALLY I saw a runner coming the other way.  I wasn't really clear on why, but it seemed like a good sign.  Of course, then I remembered that you double back a bit after getting to the last aid station.  I though it was only a quarter mile from one of the course descriptions, so I felt pretty good, but it just kept on going and going.  Steeply down and rocky, of course.  People (well ahead of me!) were walking back up.  Then I stumbled on a rock, and my legs all tensed up to keep me from falling, and BLAM!  Leg cramp.  My calf knotted up and I had to stop and try to stretch it and massage it back to life.  Sigh.

Fortunately it didn't take real long, and no one passed.  I made it the rest of the way to the aid station OK.  It had been nearly 50 minutes for 3.5 miles (my slowest segment of the day, despite including the largest downhill), and it was pretty obvious I wasn't going to make it in under 5 at this point.  I was well and truly ready to just coast the rest of the way in.

That is, until the aid station volunteers told me my place.  I was doing a lot better than expected (even though, as it later turned out, what they told me was wrong).  Suddenly I didn't want to coast any more!  I took off with a new spring in my step...  until I got to the steep part very shortly and had to walk again.  But I pushed.  I saw people coming in as I was going out, and they were close, but they didn't get there before I left, so that was good.  Now I'm figuring how to stay just a bit ahead for the next 5.5 miles.  Crap.  I had nothing left, had already gotten a cramp... this was not going to be easy.

So anyway, I made it up the last serious incline to where the trail leveled out for a few miles (which just meant the parts I had to walk weren't more than 50 feet and the downhills never got out of control).

We were mostly keeping to a level on the mountain, meaning we went in and out at every crease in the side. And every one had a stream crossing, of course, but they weren't bad.  I kept looking back to see if I saw the next people behind me, and I frequently didn't, and I kept telling myself to stop looking, but it didn't work.  Then one time I looked and saw people pretty close behind.  Uh-oh.  I jogged more uphills.  I tried to pick it up on downhills.

Finally the trail turned downhill for real, which was great -- this was the last bit on the elevation chart.  I knew I was getting there!

I ran!  And got to a massive stream crossing, with, of course, a photographer.  My leg cramped when it really hit the icy water, and I heard the camera clicking just as I had a huge grimace on my face, but the cramp left as fast as it came and I tried to smile on my way out the other side.  We'll see what he got.

That led to the downhill I had feared at the start, but the fog was gone, and it turned out that when running fast enough the rocks don't matter.  At least, you have big strides to clear them with.  So long as you don't fall.

Then I made gravel.  I remembered them saying there was 0.7 miles of road at the start, so I was thinking I was home free!  I could run hard for 0.7 miles.  Then a few minutes later I passed a "1 mile to go!" sign.  Aaargh!  Apparently the 0.7 was the *paved* road, not the gravel part.  I didn't think I could keep the pace I was doing for a whole 'nother mile, but I tried.  I got to pavement!  I saw the start-finish pavilion in the distance!  I turned into the grass, and people cheered and I saw the finish line!  The race director called my name!  I crossed!

I just stood and tried to catch my breath.  I didn't make 5 hours -- a bit over 5:15 actually.  I sat down and didn't move for a while.  Erin got me drinks and food, and Caelan played with my discarded running gear (eww!).  Apparently my back was totally black with mud from Fat Man's Misery -- Erin called it my Terrapin Rorschach.

Anyway, I finished.  It was hard.  I am sore.  I'm not sure I'll do this one again.  At least, that's how I feel today.  But it was fun all the same.  Would I recommend it?  I guess to skinny people, not afraid of heights, looking for a challenge.  Otherwise, maybe stick with the HAT.

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