Monday, April 22, 2013

Leatherwood Mountain 50 Mile Ultra

It seems like the better an ultra marathon is, the longer I feel disconnected from "real life" when its over.  At mile 45 of this 50 mile race all I wanted was to be finished.  It seemed the harder I fought for it, the longer it took.  

It's always the best to return to my family, but simple things like forks, phones, TVs, and vehicles just seem strange as I stare outside and long to be out on the trails again.  It felt nearly alien-like to walk into a Burger King on the way home from the race and watch ice fall into my cup from a machine.  It's such a far cry from enjoying hot Coke and crusty PBJ sandwiches on the trail.  The pain is masked by vivid memories of happiness, struggles and friendships.  As the experience continues to sink in, it's already crystal clear that Leatherwood was a very, very special race.

The weekend began with Joe (Epic) Parker and Bo (Uno Banano) picking me up on Friday afternoon.  We made a pit stop to pick up Jonathan in Shelby then eventually met up with Annie & Bryan near Leatherwood.  Excitement was already brewing as Bo signed up for his first 100 mile race (Pinhoti) on the drive up. 

After the usual getting lost and surviving a high elevation down poor of rain we made it safely to the resort.  We were all surprised by just how beautiful the property was.  Check in was at a cozy restaurant and stable:

RD Mark Connolly working hard at packet pickup:

We quickly had our race bags and found the cabin nestled away in the forest.  It was great to be joined by the rest of the crew - Angela, Nick, Heather, Angie, and Scott.   It was great to have so many different runners looking to achieve different goals.  We were covering all the bases between the group, everything from the 10 miler, 50K, and the 50 miler.

Half of the group headed to the pre-race meal and speaker, the rest of us opted to chill at the cabin and eat whatever we could find.  Jonathan hooked Bo and I up with some baked beans, avocado, and bread.  I threw in a Nutella burrito for good measure as well.

As I headed into this race my training has been fairly horrible.  I suffered running burnout at the end of 2012 and my family moved over the last six weeks.  On top of this I've added about 25 lbs. back to my linebacker frame so my goal for this race was to not die.

Making it 25-40 miles would be awesome.

Simply finishing would be excellent.

We walked down to the pre-race meeting as the dinner was ending and stumbled in about halfway through.  I remembered hearing that there would be three different colored markers for each corresponding loop.  Sometimes there would be more than one color on each loop.  Sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right.  I just wanted to finish alive, but I had a feeling that would involve going way off of the course at some point.

We all ended back in the cabin resting for the night fairly early and race morning came quickly.  I didn't wake up nervous, but was super excited to check out some new trails. 

The plan heading into the race was for Bo and I to kinda "pace" Annie since this would be her first 50 miler.  Scott also mentioned that he would probably hang out with us so it was great to have some friends to share it with.

Annie gave Nick and I her race "plan" sheet with aid stations on it and asked what she should do about her drop bags.  Nick noticed a vital strategic move that she had made on her planning sheet.  She had originally ordered her husband Bryan to get her a hamburger for mile 24, but crossed it out and switched to a cheeseburger.  This came only after hours of personal debate and soul searching  :]

Critical Ultra strategy at stake here:

You could feel the energy in the cabin on race morning!

I lined up with about 65 runners for the 50 miler at 7:00 AM.  The weather was perfect at 40 degrees under a bright blue sky. 

We began with a beautiful guest singing of the National Anthem.  The perfect way to begin the journey.
Immediately after, we were commanded to begin and left the comfort of the stables.  I couldn't help but laugh (and whimper) as AC/DC played from the loud speakers "You're on a highway to hell......"

We ran the 1st mile on a fairly flat paved road, then immediately began with a steep 800 foot climb up a gravel road.  The views on this course were absolutely beautiful.

The course followed a pattern most of the day.

1.  Run a short distance on a road.
2.  Climb very steep up a mountain.
3.  Go straight down a mountain.

There was very little flat or "easy" running over the entire 50 miles.  I loved it during the first 20 miles or so until my lack of training caught up with me - then the suffering began.

I remember the last time I felt fairly good during the run was around mile 19.  We made our way up a long/steep/slick mountain to see a beautiful view like this waiting for us.

It was almost freaky to feel so isolated in the wilderness and then stumble upon one of these gorgeous cabins.  From time to time we would hear people out partying on the decks and cheering for us at times.  At least that's what I told myself.

And then there were times through this area where we heard multiple gun shots.  They were a little too close for comfort, but at least they made us run.

There were gunshots and Boobies.  Yes, Boobies.  As we ran into the next aid station they had a big setup going.  Bacon, candy, drinks, and lots of other food.  I scanned down the table and there was even a female runner with her shirt off standing there getting ready to change.  As I was heading out I saw a look on Annie's face that I will never forget and we all had a good laugh about that down the trail.

So back to the run itself, the course was very challenging and scenic up until about mile 20 where I began to fall apart physically and mentally.  I've learned from personal experience to embrace the physical fight and wage war against the mental fight.  Short of breaking a leg, I was not going to drop today so I had to cope and hold on for 30 more miles.  30 more difficult miles.

As Bo, Annie, Scott and I completed the first 25 mile loop we found our self running steep downhills back to the Start/Finish area at the Stable.  It was all I could do to keep up with them.  Even running downhill was becoming a challenge, but I put on my best game face and just smiled.  In a sick way it was fun to be "in the fight to finish" so early.

As we ran into the stables I was putting serious thought into taking my race number off and dropping.  I was just too heavy and under trained to head back out.  I felt like I was holding Annie back and new that she could move along much faster with either Bo or Scott.  I feared that I would become a anchor.

I barely remember checking in at the stable.  Joe and Nick meet me and filled my water bottles and I met a lady who I had went to school with since 1st grade who's husband was running the 10 miler while she volunteered.

The four of us were quickly out of this major aid station and Annie handed me half of a cheeseburger.  That's right, she made me eat my words (literally) about her crossing off the hamburger on the list!

The climb to the next aid station nearly broke me.  My legs were cramping and I vomited three times.  That normally makes me feel better, but this time it was worse.  Scott hung back with me as I insisted that Bo and Annie push on ahead.  I was certain that I would drop at the next aid station which would be around mile 30.   There was just no way that I could make it any farther.

My plan was to let Bo, Scott and Annie get far enough ahead of me so they wouldn't know that I dropped at the next aid station.  I didn't want to have a negative influence on them.

Then I began to think about what I would do if I dropped.  I would go take a shower, eat, drink, cool down, and then feel a lot better in about an hour.  I would also beat myself up and be a big baby about dropping and ruin my entire weekend.   NO, not gonna happen today!

What if I just slowed down a little more now, kept moving, and started the entire race over.  Right here, right now at mile 27.  I was already halfway through and I really did want to see the rest of the course.  So I mentally put the first 27 behind me and focused on the next 23 miles.

All I need to do is make it to the next aid station, take care of myself, then get back on the trail.

At this point, I was a little concerned about making the only cutoff in the race.  If runners didn't complete the first 40 miles under twelve hours they would be pulled from the race.

I noticed Scott would run ahead and look back for me up the trail.  It didn't look like he was going to leave me so I decided to try and catch up.  I've actually "drifted" off him in several ultras so it felt good to be with someone familiar while I was in a bad mental spot.

We met up with Bo and Annie at the next aid station as they were heading out so I quickly just refilled my water bottles and went out with them.  They both seemed to be doing fairly well and I fed off of their enthusiasm.  I had left that dark mental spot back on the trail and we feeling a lot better.  Physically, it was still everything I could do to keep up with the pack.  I would drift back several 100 feet and then have to run harder to catch up with them on the downhills.  My climbing ability was nearly gone around mile 35.

Miles 35-40 were more of the same big climbs and downs.  I began to feel a little better through this stretch after realizing that we were going to finish the first 40 miles with about an hour to spare on the cutoff in 11 hours.  I new that barring any major catastrophe we would all be able to finish the final 10 miles.

That still didn't make it any easier to head back out from the comfort & party at the stables at mile 40.  The buzzards were even circling near the finish line.

Scott and Bo were in and out of this aid station very quickly with their headlamps as we had about two hours until dark at 6:00 PM.  Annie was really excited to have her husband join her for the final 10 mile loop and I told the entire group to please go ahead of me. 

My legs and hips hurt so bad I cried a little as I left the mile stretch of road back onto the trail.  Nick had warned me that the 1st three miles in this section were steep and all uphill and that was really pulling me down into a mental funk.  I tried to listen to some music, but it didn't help much. 

At this point I convinced myself that I was finished with ultras.  Whats the point of being out here walking in the woods all day and soon to be night?  Look at me, I'm not a runner.  I should be at a bowling alley or just laying on a couch somewhere.  Just finish this loop and I will never put myself through this agony again.

Bo decided to hang back and wait for me through here and he could probably tell that I wasn't in much of a talking mood.  I wanted to talk, but I was just incoherent.  I couldn't really think much, but in some sick way I thrived off pushing ahead step after step.

The strong Jason was taking this mountain down leaving the weak person alone to die back in the darkness.

I started feeling much better through this section and even asked Bo if he wanted to run some.  It was probably a pathetic run, but it made me feel like we were getting somewhere.  We ran up on Annie and Bryan around mile 44 and all four stayed together for the rest of the battle.

We came into the mile 44ish aid station and had to do about 3-4 miles to get to the final aid station at 48 before finishing.  It got dark on us around mile 45 and it slowed us down a lot.  I always hit a high point in a race just after sunset and it was not different this time.  I was tired, but mentally felt like a new person. 

It seemed to take FOREVER to get back to the mile 48 aid station but we finally did.  Bo hit rock bottom through this section and was starting to run ahead and lie down on the trail to rest.

We spent quiet a bit of time in the mile 48 aid station, but it didn't matter.  I think we all four needed a break before taking on the final two miles.  We re-grouped and headed out into the night.

At mile 49 we came to a tricky intersection that had confusing directions.  There were ribbons and signs everywhere and we all just wanted to cry.  Well, maybe except for Bryan who was still fresh and had a very level head on him.  He and Annie wanted to go left while Bo and I wanted to go right.  Thankfully, my stubborn side was just too tired to fight so I listed to them and went left.  It ended up being the correct way and they instantly became my personal heroes forever.

The four of us finally hit the final stretch of paved road to the finish and it was very fitting to have Scott join us out of nowhere too.  It was so special to see Annie finish her 1st 50 miler with her husband.  Like all of us, she was in considerable pain, but ran into the finish as a true warrior does.  She's a true ultra runner through & through.

We all four made it in around 15 hours and 10 minutes.  I felt like I had just ran 100 miles.  This course was mile for mile the hardest run I've ever done.

Immediately afterwards we walked over to the restaurant and shared some laughs over a late meal together.

Then back to the cabin to get showered and share a drink together.

I felt extraordinarily fortunate to be able to share this trail with my family (Nick & Heather) and my running family.  You form a bond with people when you go through a course like this and it will always be a special one to me.

I didn't want to think about trail running that night, but the next morning I was already getting excited about  training again and getting into better shape. 

I realized that I need "the fight" in my life of ultra running.  It helps to keep me humble and brings some of the most amazing people in the world into my life.  And I just like to get dirty and play in the woods.

Thanks to the Race Directors Mark Connolly and Tim Worden for all of their hard work that went into this race.  The volunteers at the aid stations were just awesome too!  They have put together something very special with this event.

***Pictures stolen from Epic Joe***


  1. wad up dawg??? good read, homey. Still gonna text you every $%^%$! week.

    nice job on the finish.

    your soon-to-be brother in 50-mile suffering,

    1. it's been good to hear about the weekly training. keep me in the loop cause' I need it. actually, I need to do it and not just hear about it.

  2. I'd love to have registered for this one, but so many new races are out there! I knew that Mark Connelly would knock it out of the park, though, and I'm glad that you had a challenging, but awesome finish here. Well done, Jason!

    1. you missed a great one, but take care of yourself man. you're doing the right thing for you right now.

  3. Replies
    1. Yea well not too shabby yourself this weekend!

  4. Jason, you toughed out a hard 50. Never quit. Nice work.

    1. Thanks man. We actually burned your ears up some during the run talking about you. All good stuff.

  5. Well played and thanks for the recap...that climb out of the first loop was tough for sure.

    1. still having nightmares about that one!

  6. Replies
    1. laid on the couch for several hours most weekends and ate pizza. there you go...

  7. Jason,

    Great write up. This race destroyed me. I did the 50 as well, and mentally I have never been hit like that during a race. Its nice to know I was not alone in this feeling. Glad we both finished. Thanks for writing this so I know that I was not alone. Congrats on another finish!


    1. Glad you were able to finish too. I was surprised by the low drop rate. Guess there were lots of hardcore runners out on the trails Saturday. Good stuff man.

  8. Man, I did not sign up for also recovering after MAJOR burnout and being undertrained... And see what I missed - great running with friends and boobies...