Thursday, October 10, 2013

Race Report: Norris Dam Hard Trail Race 50K - Sept. 1, 2013

The Norris Dam Hard Trail Race 50K was a goal of mine when I sat down earlier in the year and made a list of trail races that I wanted to do. Included in that list was the Dark Hollow Wallow at Big Ridge, and The Panther Creek Challenge. Of course as the year has progressed I've thrown a couple other races into the mix. I guess you can say I've become somewhat of a nut when it comes to trail running, and the further the distance the better.

After taking a week or so off from Panther Creek, I developed my training plan and for 14 weeks leading up to the race, I was running 3 days a week, one of which was my long run which started at 8 miles and crescendo-ed at around 24 miles two full weeks prior to the event. Long and arduous were those long runs, but in the end they definitely paid off.

Race day was finally upon me and that evening I finally made it to bed just shy of midnight. That evening, it was all I could do to keep myself calm. Until our little rug rat went to bed I was keeping myself busy helping Robin with evening chores and playing with Boo mixed in with getting things ready for the morning. I got my pack all ready, water bladder full and in the fridge, drinks for the half way point and afterwards mixed and ready, extra fuel in a bag to leave in the car for the half way point, extra clothes in case I needed to change shirts or socks, etc and of course something to change into after the day was done.

That morning 4:50am came early but I shot up out of the bed and stumbled towards the kitchen to get myself ready. My breakfast consisted of 2 waffles with peanut butter and syrup. Got myself dressed and ready and started lugging my gear out to the car. A little after 6am and I was on my way to Norris Dam State Park, of course that was after telling Robin goodbye while she slumbered a couple more hours, only to have to deal with Boo most of the morning and afternoon by herself. Of course Kiddo was home but you know teenagers, late to bed, late to rise. I wouldn't see them again until I approached the finish line.

Photo Courtesy:
Knoxville Track Club
I arrived at the starting/finish area around 6:30ish only to see half the runners and volunteers milling around in the pavilion or around their cars prepping for the start of the race. The next 30 minutes until the start seemed like an eternity. After checking in, I went back to the car to get everything in its place so that I could easily transition from the first loop to the second loop after restocking my needs. After it was a good stretch and an easy little warm up jog to get ready. It was finally GO Time. All the runners, both 25K and 50K gathered on the road beside the pavilion at the start line to get all the announcements from the RD. You could feel the excitement in the air. It was going to be a good day...

Photo Courtesy:
Knoxville Track Club
Runners set! Go! We were off, all cheery and happy to be heading for the trail. It was just barely breaking day light and there was plenty of fog. We made our way for the trail on the road and heading in a direction I had not trained for. From the pavilion we took a left and headed down the road to the Lakeside Trail head. At first I was trying to hold myself back as we ran downhill toward the trail, but then I figured I'd let gravity pull me down the road. As we hit the trail, I found myself in front of a pack of about 5 other runners, runners I knew were a bit faster paced than I was but I continued on, happy to have my feet hitting dirt instead of pavement. It was moments later when tragedy would strike.

Not more than a quarter mile into the trail, we came to a stone culvert that crossed the trail and my foot struck it, it just as quickly slipped off it and down on my butt I went. Thankfully there were small trees and brush all around for me to grab onto and pull myself back up, otherwise I would have slid down the embankment straight into the lake. Other than my butt cheek and my pride being a little sore, I was quickly back up on my feet thanks to the fellar behind me, and I was back at it. Little did I know, that fall would plague me later on.

A mile or so into it, we were on the lake view trail and the trail itself widened a bit. That's when I decided to slow my pace a bit and let the group behind take the lead. I kept them in my site for another mile but it wasn't much longer before I wouldn't see them again until the passed me going back out for the reverse loop. A good two miles or so into I had a couple of runners behind me, Connie from Indiana, and John from around the Chattanooga area. When Connie first got in behind me, I moved over to let her pass but she was content to stay at my pace.

It was great having them for company as we ran the next 6 or so miles together. It was around the 5 or 6 mile mark, shortly after the first aid station that the course through me for another loop. Where I though we would go up Upper Clear Creek Road to the Boundary Trail, we instead crossed the road and straight onto a single track that I hadn't noticed before. It's a good thing someone was there to point us in the right direction otherwise I would have had us taking a scenic loop and costing us precious time. As we made our way to the Boundary Trail, John started dropping back. Connie and I continued to stick together.

Down Boundary Trail we ran, keeping a pretty steady pace. I was feeling pretty good and new that I would either make the cutoff without any issues, or I would die out there from keeping too fast a pace. It was on the Belmont trail that the next unfamiliar stretch was presented to me. Instead of running out onto the gravel road again, we detoured off Belmont and onto another section of single track that I've never noticed before. Luckily we spotted the flags right off. It was on this short stretch that we did lose our way for a second as we continued straight at one point where we should have turned to the right. Luckily it didn't take us but a few seconds to realize we went off course and got back on the right track. We were cruising down hill like mad. There were 4 or 5 us total trailing each other down this portion of the trail until we came to the mud slide.

Photo Courtesy:
Janice Davis
I've only been at this trail running thing for almost a full year and this was my first ultra and I'd never encountered a drop off like this before. I guess it was a good 10 - 15 ft 80 degree drop from the trail down to the road where we would cross and head up Sinkhole trail. Needless to say, we all got nice and muddy at this point. Thankfully just across the road was our second aid station. I got a cup of water and some electrolytes and got back at it. Connie lingered a minute or two as her husband was there to cheer her and fill her water bottle for her. It didn't take her long to catch back up with me and it wasn't much longer that again I had to slow my pace.

It was here that I began to run on my own and this time on another unfamiliar trail. The Sinkhole trail eventual led me out to the Red Hill trail that I was familiar with. I continued on feeling pretty good still and still confident that I would make the 3:30 cutoff for the reverse loop. Up Red Hill I continued and another runner or two passed me. After Red Hill, it was down White Pine to Clear Creek trail which I knew would be gravy. Of course after this would be the grinder of Ridge Crest to Freeway to Longmire.

I made it up Ridgecrest and managed to pass two runners on the way up, of course the leaders of the 50K started to pass by me in the opposite direction as I marched upward and onward. I finally made it to Freeway to find much to my delight that we didn't have to go down Freeway but rather up Freeway. Even brighter was that once I made back to High Point trail I quickly discovered that going up or down Longmire was not even part of the course this year. I had the cutoff in the bag.

I made it back to the pavilion in 3:05 and some odd seconds. I made my way to the car so that I could refill my bladder with water, take on some Gatorade, throw down some Pringles, stuff the pockets of my vest with more Honey Stinger gels and waffles, eat half of a large Snickers bar, and change my shirt before I was heading back out onto the trail. 16 miles down, 15 to go, and in the reverse direction.

Photo Courtesy:
Knoxville Track Club
Familiar with all the changes of the course from previous years, the only thing I had left to speculate about was whether or not I would have to come up Kerry's Revenge, or the killer steps behind the tea house at the end of the course before making it to the pavilion and the finish line. I was cruising along through the cabin area, and then back on the trail and walk up the hill to High Point trail only to cover the same terrain but in the opposite direction. I finally made it back to Freeway trail and was happily making my way down Ridgecrest when the first of my problems decided to show up. Of course I had no clue at this point that it was going to be a problem.

I suppose it was the combination of Gels and Electrolyte drink, of course it could have also been my inability to go number 2 before the race started, but I got the first of a lower GI cramp pain, that I thought I'd be able to get over pretty quickly if only I let one rip. Of course it was a lot easier thought of than done. I actually had to stop and try. Of course once I did a felt better and continued onward. I guess I was about 17 to 18 miles in at this point, but the pains kept coming and kept slowing me to a walk and then to stopping each time. Finally about 20 miles in, I thought I would try to alleviate the problem once and for all and off the trail I went.

Photo Courtesy:
Janice Davis
I guess after all that running and my body being so tensed up, there was nothing moving. So I quickly gave up on that notion and got back on the trail and continued to suffer through the waves of pains and cramps. To make matters worse, it was around this time that the side of my right knee was starting to nag. I pressed on running for a few, then walking for a few, then stopping, until finally the cramps/pains subsided completely. It seemed like forever before I hit the aid station at the mudslide again. I took my time and drank water, ate some salty snacks, and stretched for a minute in hopes to alleviate the pain in my knee. Knowing that I still had a race to finish, I mustered my strength and will and up the mud slide I went, of course after some advice from the aid workers suggesting that I go up in the weeds next to the mudslide because that's what most everyone else was doing and it was working for them.

After some cheers for a successful ascent, there I was walk up the trail, all alone and no one in site. My fight with the inner demons began. I pretty much had to walk this whole section of trail until I made it back out onto Belmont. Even after that it looked alien to me even though I've run this section in this direction at least 4 times during my training. After cresting the uphill of Belmont I was slogging again with that knee talking to me. I somehow managed to make to Boundary trail. Here I knew it was another mile or so before I'd see my next aid station.

Onward I kept, a combination of walking and zombie running, and all alone for the time being. About three quarters of the way through the Boundary trail and another runner was approaching from behind. It was at that moment, a rock decided to poke itself out of the ground and grab my foot. I was safe from the throw from left field. The runner asked if I was okay as he approached. The only thing hurt this time was what little shred of pride I had left. I dusted myself off, and the other runner and I moved forward once more. What's the term? Relentless forward progress? As Robin would say, if I fall on my face I'm still moving forward.

John, the other runner, a different John at that, and I kept up with each other for a good bit. We hit the single track trail off Boundary looking forward to the upcoming aid station before the final 5 mile stretch to the finish. Just moments after entering the trail, John's foot got snagged on a small tree stump from out of no where and down he went. I was behind him and quickly helped him up to his feet as any good trail runner should. We moved forward once more. John was a bit taller than I and had easily left me behind by a couple of hundred yards, of course my knee was talking to me a bit louder, not yet screaming at me.

We popped out on Upper Clear Creek Road, crossed over to High Point trail and was finally at the last aid station of the race. We both stopped to refuel and catch a bit of a breather. My knee was needing it. Alas it was time to move on and get this thing done. John and I took turns leading the other for a couple of miles. We eventually caught another runner and for a few minutes it was three of us. At one point I had to drop back because of my knee and my gut was starting it's thing again and again I worked my way through it. It took me another mile or so before I caught back up with the other runner that John and I caught. His name was Dale. We wouldn't see John again until we crossed the finish line. I ran with Dale for a few minutes but he was slowing now and I was determined to finish, trying my damnedest to beat 7 hours.

It was a losing battle but my earlier questions on how the route would finish was soon to be answered. I reached the steep incline that begins the Lakeview Trail and slowly slogged up it. When I reached the stairs I found a nice size tree branch and used it assist me up the stairs and the last steep part of the incline. At this point I was already passed Kerry's Revenge, so I was dreading the fact that I would have to climb the stairs up behind the Tea Room. We're talking 50 - 60 steps and after 30+ miles and a knee that was now screaming at me, I was not too keen on the idea.

I was rapidly approaching the Tall Timbers trail when a welcome sign beamed like a light from heaven. It was point it's way up the Tall Timbers trail towards the cabin area trail head. This was the route we were to take to the finish rather than down Tall Timbers to Christmas Fern Trail and the stairs. Someone was watching over me after all. My knee didn't matter anymore, my gut was the last thing on my mind. All I could think about was getting to the road to the finish so that I could see my girls there waiting on me. Sure enough passed the Tea Room, passed the playground and around the corner, there was Robin with camera in hand to capture the moment I finished my first 50K. I am now and ultra marathon runner. Kiddo and Bug waited in the car as Bug had just woke up from a nap and would have been a handful trying to keep her from heading straight for the playground.

I crossed the line and found a good rock to sit, the pain in my knee quickly overtaking me. Robin was very concerned about my well being but she understood the need to sit and relish. Connie came over with her hubby and daughter. We all chatted for a few moments and made introductions. Dale came running through as we cheered him through the finish. A few moments later I was ready to go to the pavilion, just a few yard away, so that I could get something cold to drink and some good solid food. That's when it really hit me, the pain in my knee was agonizing and it had all but seized up and started swelling. Robin helped me get to a picnic table in the pavilion and quickly one of the volunteers (Thanks Kris) offered assistance and got me a bag of ice and wrapped it around my knee.

Robin got me food, drink, a fresh shirt to put on and some ibuprofen to down. I sat there in pain and in glory of having finished the race. I talked with Dale and John both as we all waited for the last couple of runners to come in. Finally, I felt good enough to move again, and Robin helped me to the car. She had kiddo drive me home while her and bug followed behind in the other car.

It was a great day, a great feeling, and a great race. I finished in 7:19:08, 20th overall out of 23 and 10th out of 11 in my age group. I am now hooked and look forward to see what I can endure next.

Happy Trails,

P.S. A special thank you to the Knoxville Track Club and all the volunteers for making this race and the Treadin Trodden Trails series such a kick ass trail series. You guys rock.

Here's the course track and elevation profile for those interested. Not sure to total elevation gain but it's somewhere in the ballpark of 2500+ft.

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