Sunday, January 7, 2018

Wild Azalea Trail Challenge

About a year ago, I started trail running, and over the course of 2017, I took on some unexpected and slightly insane challenges, including my first two ultra marathons. I had signed up for a 50K the weekend after Thanksgiving and ended up not being able to go thanks to a case of a bronchitis-ish upper respiratory infection, so I was itching to get back on the trail for some good distance running. For my first race of the year, I signed up for the Wild Azalea Trail Challenge, a race situated mostly on Louisiana's longest continuous trail, the Wild Azalea Trail, which is 23.9 miles long. I could have signed up for the half marathon, but then I would not have seen the whole trail, so I decided to go for the 27 miler.

I have been more consistent with my training than ever before and was even doing a little speed work in the fall. (And maybe I'll go back to track this week...) The weather was set to be perfect for running (mid-30s when I started, in the 50s by the finish), so I set a somewhat lofty goal of averaging 15 minutes per mile throughout the race. (For reference, I ran the Chicago Marathon on a warm day at a 13:09 pace, but I know I am slower on the trail than the road.)

Saturday morning, I started my day with a bagel, a banana, and coffee at the hotel, then I had half of a donut and half of a banana at the church where we were waiting to start the race. Some of the ongoing conversation on Friday night had been the volume of food I consumed, and I was on track to keep the conversation going. (I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact that I ate a McDonald's combo PLUS a double cheeseburger on the drive down, then conquered a large bowl of pho after the pre-race meeting.)

Pre-race photo with my new friend Stefan, who is from my hometown. I can't seem to make it vertical. Stefan is super speedy and won the 27 miler!

27 Miler GOATS before the start

The race started with around 1.6 miles of road running, so I banked a little bit of time to slow down toward the end of the race. I was anticipating hills throughout the course, and the extra time was good to have early. I put myself in the back of the pack and enjoyed the scenery of the trail. In the first mile of the trail, I passed one runner, and we leapfrogged for a while before I eventually left him. Alternating running and walking every minute, I was ahead of pace and feeling good, even on the gradual uphills. At the first aid station (just after mile 4) I caught up to another runner (whose name I later learned is Marty), and we spoke briefly, both agreeing that we were having a good race so far. I grabbed a mini Snickers and continued running.

Sign going into the trail: "You're not almost there!"
This first third of the race went swimmingly. I had seen a few of the 50 milers on their way out, and we cheered for each other in passing. I tripped and fell at mile 7.44, but fortunately I had on leggings and a jacket, so I didn't sustain any cuts or open wounds. After 8 miles, I had saved up over 6 minutes of time for later in the race.  "I can add a minute per mile to my time starting at mile 21, and I'll be fine," I naively told myself. Then, the real hills came, and I realized that I was going to need that banked time well before mile 21. These hills were steeper than anything I train on. I managed to make it to mile 10 before I was out of banked time; feeling hopeful that the rest of the hills would not be as brutal, I thought I might still finish under 7 hours. Letting go of my 6:45 goal, I texted my friend Megan, who was running the half, and told her I was probably not going to make my goal thanks to the hills. Tim and Lauren were cheering me on and checking in on me as well; I don't usually text during a race other than occasionally hearing from Richard where he is on the course, so this was unusual for me. I caught up to Marty, and he was also hoping for seven hours but not counting on it. I eventually fell behind him. Megan and James FaceTimed me for a moment, and I gave the report that I was feeling strong enough to keep moving, just not quickly, as my knee was starting to hurt. I was surprised by how much talking to them for a few minutes lifted me up.

At the halfway point, I stumbled upon a manned aid station (the others were tables of fluids and snacks on a table) and started chatting with the race staff. Marty was there eating a tamale, and when they asked me if I wanted one, I thought, "What the heck? The wheels have fallen off, and I'm probably going to walk the rest of sure." At the pre-race meeting on Friday night, there had been an announcement about a tamale eating contest, but I guess I forgot that it was on the race course, not at the end. Marty ate two tamales, and I was leading the women's division with two. Then my competitive side came out, so I ate a third. And just as I was about to walk away from the aid station, a gap opened in my stomach, and I managed to eat a fourth tamale. (They were truly delicious, might I add.)

Tamale time! This is before I knew I was going to eat four.
I speed walked ("glorified hiked" as I called it) most of the rest of the race, trying to keep my mile times under 20 minutes. Every mile, I would calculate what my finish time would be if I did the remainder of my miles in 20 minutes, and I found joy in seeing my calculated time decrease whenever I finished a mile in 17, 18, or even 19 minutes, especially once I got my calculation under 8 hours. I continued voice texting with a few of the GOATS and learned that Paul was having some pretty bad leg pain about three miles ahead of me; he said he might wait on me to catch him and finish with him. As much as I dreaded the uphill climbs, the steep downhills were as bad or worse, as I don't feel confident that I could run down them without falling on my face. I fell again around 17.6 miles and laughed before deciding I needed a sip of Fireball.

"It's not a trail run unless someone gets lost." Oh please oh please don't let it be me.
At the last aid station, I caught up to Marty and his friend Scott, who had been ahead of us for the entire race. Scott reported pain with his IT band, and the three of us took a moment to commiserate over our walking finishes before I went on ahead of them.

Just before mile 22, I thought I had caught up with Paul; he seemed to be crouching on the ground ahead of me. I called out his trail name, "Schemer!" but he didn't reply. Surely he had not fallen asleep on the trail. Turns out, he hadn't, and I was hollering at a jagged tree stump. Trail delirium can be like that. I settled it with another sip of Fireball.

With about 4 miles to go, Stefan texted me to let me know he was heading back to Rome but that he'd enjoyed meeting the GOATS, and the finish line was awesome. A little later, a 50 miler passed me, and he told me we only had about 3 miles remaining. My watch had me just over 23 miles. but the 50 mile runner had run this section of the trail before, so I trusted him and concluded that my GPS was off a bit from the twists and turns in the shaded forest.  Megan texted to let me know that she and Paul were waiting at the finish line to cheer me in, so I told her I would let her know when I hit the blue diamond trail, which was the last mile. Recalculating, I figured I was going to come in under 7:45. That was a good feeling. 

Finally, with a third of a mile remaining, I ran into Paul (actual Paul, not a tree stump) who was coming to finish the race with me, despite his leg pain. We speed walked together, and as the finish line came into view, I ran for the first time in a few hours. My friends were there cheering for me, and I felt so excited and proud to finally be done. I knew the whole time that I was going to make it eventually, but finally crossing the line made it real. I was handed a medal, and Preacher made sure I got a beer in my hand as soon as possible. Following a few photo opportunities, I joined the other finishers by a fire to chat about our day and cheer in the remaining runners (including Marty and Scott)! I also learned that I was the winner of the tamale eating contest (at least in the 27 mile division), which means I will receive free registration for the Wild Azalea Trail Challenge next year! As much as I question my sanity and reason for doing these things while I am on the trail, the truth is that I'm always looking for something crazy and fun to do, so I'm sure I'll be back as my schedule allows.

Triumphant finisher photo -- I think James took this one.
DeLane, Megan, and me shortly after I finished -- I think this is from Megan's phone

All smiles post race and post-hills (photo courtesy of Megan)

A few of the GOATS who were around when I finished (photo from...James?)
Up next is Rendezvous Louisiane this weekend, with a Quarter Marathon on Saturday and a Marathon on Sunday. I can hardly wait!

Cross-posted to