June 17, 2013

The 50K that broke me. Psss, I'm talking to you, Rockin Choccolocco.

About two weeks ago, I went over to the Pinhoti trails for the inaugural Rockin Choccolocco 50K. The title of this blog post is a huge spoiler alert, so if you're still reading, you might want to know just how broken I am.  Nothing required hospitalization or anything, but my body just was not having it with the heat and the running and the fueling -- so pretty much every aspect of the race. Luckily, I had a kick-a running partner who pulled me through.

Let's get down to the nitty gritty. 

Getting there: It was a haul from Birmingham down to Heflin, AL. After we got into the state park, we drove and drove and drove down narrow, dusty dirt roads. So long that we required a pee stop or two. For this drive, factor in that a lot of your driving time will be spent on slow-going dirt roads. Just when I thought we would have to turn around and go back or get eaten by a bear, we saw a tiny Rockin Choccolocco sign with an arrow. It would have been nice to have a couple more of those along the way so we knew for sure we were on the right path. Although they gave very specific driving instructions on the site that were accurate, it's just nice to have a little extra assurance. I really thought we left in plenty of time to get there, but we actually ended up with just enough time to check in and use the bathroom.

Race parking

A lot of our friends from Birmingham opted to camp out the night before at the Coleman Lake campground that was so close they could reach out and touch the start line. After I visited the camp facilities, I thought it would be a great choice for next year. The bathrooms were pretty darn clean and had a nice shower.

Some of the Birmingham folks before the race.

Pre-race: You could check in the morning of the race, which we did with no problems. There were some bathrooms near the race start plus the additional set of bathrooms (which I used) near the camp sites. Can you tell I have a one-track pre-race mind? Where is the nearest hole in the ground, and how long will it take me to make it through the line? Because we took a little extra time to walk to the camping restrooms, there was virtually zero line. We made it back just in time to catch the tail end of race director Todd Henderson's pre-race instructions. I'm really not sure if I missed anything, but I think this was the first time I realized that we were running out and back along the same trail.

Lisa, Sonia, Michael, and Kelli

Race course: Since I had already been on the Pinhoti trails for the Cheaha 50K, I was expecting water and hills, but fewer hills because we were significantly down the trail from Mt. Cheaha, the highest point in Alabama. I got the fewer hills and less water, but there were still a handful of spots along the course that I just couldn't avoid getting my feet wet. If you are really careful (i.e. cross very slowly), you could navigate the rocks and keep your feet pretty dry. Also note that we ran this race during a pretty dry week, so the water might be higher if you're in a rainy spell.


My Garmin did not work very well at all for the first few miles, and we didn't have any cell service at all -- just a note for anyone trying to figure out what technology might work while they're on the trails. My running buddy Michael also noted that about 9 or so miles in was when we picked up the trails that they run for the Pinhoti 100. I was thinking that the whole course would be on the Pinhoti 100 trails, but the race director added a little bit of new territory.

Overall the trails weren't too challenging hill-wise, especially compared to Cheaha. It felt like there was a lot of downhill on the way up to the turn around and back. I'm not sure how we accomplished that in both directions on the same trail, but it felt like that.


The start of the race included a little piece of road, which we didn't run again on the way back, so the turnaround point was actually a little more than halfway. The half marathoners did the same thing, except their turnaround point was earlier.

The aid stations were pretty spread out on the course. There were only three aid stations, two of which you pass twice and one at the turnaround, with drinks and snacks. There were three or so more others that were unmanned, water-only aid stations. You will definitely want to have some kind of fluid with you, especially considering how hot it was and could get in June.

Directionally, the trails were well marked and easy to follow. We almost got lost at one point because someone who we thought was with the race crew told a whole chain of us to take a different path around mile 3. I had my doubts about their advice because there was clearly a race flag in the opposite direction. We veered off course for a few seconds but quickly realized that following a random non-racer's advice was probably not the best choice in this scenario. Don't listen to strangers in the woods!

Photo by David Christy Photography.

My race: It was hard not to spew my painful race experience in that last segment, but I was trying to contain all the agony for this portion of the review. That may have been an even bigger challenge than this race.

The sad news is that I really thought this would be my best 50K yet. For the first time, I wasn't going to have to run through a half foot of gooey mud with each step of a 50K. I hadn't run any crazy long distance races in the few weeks before the race, so my legs should have been OK for the distance. The hills were going to be mild, and the distance runner with the most positive running attitude in the world agreed to run that day with me. Seriously, the outcome was looking very positive.

Until I started running.

From the first mile, my legs were dragging. They just felt like they had been through an egg beater and were now perfectly mushy and ready to bake. Granted, I had told my coach that I wanted to use this race as just a training/fun run, so my training plan didn't call for any taper. I did strength training with a friend the day before the race, and I did speedwork the day before that. So, yes, my legs should have been a little tired, but I wasn't expecting them to feel that tired from the first step.

I know they didn't. Photo by David Christy Photography.

Then there was the whole heat situation that sapped even more energy from me. The high for the day was 86 F, and when combined with the humidity, it upped that to a hot cavern in hell. At the last manned aid station with a few miles to go, I realized that my Camelbak was out of water as I was running into the woods, and I panicked at the prospect of losing instant access to water. I spent ten minutes with my Camelbak straw in my mouth still sucking on it, just in case there was one last drop of fluid in there. Wasted effort. That thing was drier than a Mormon wedding.

The sun invading the tree shade. Darn you, sun!

It was so hot that I needed fluids constantly, but my body was not able to process them as fast as I needed/wanted to take them in. After every aid station, I had to walk it out for several minutes to calm down the stomach sloshes and let some of the food and drink settle in.

Have you guys experienced those stomach sloshes before? I'm guessing you get them because your body is using all of its energy to power the run and has less energy to digest food and drink. It feels like when you take a big gulp of fluid that it just stays there creating tidal waves for a while and not being absorbed at all. It's very uncomfortable to run when that is happening, and I think it's worse when it's hot because you are trying to take in even more fluid, and you create even bigger tidal waves.

One good note, I was able to tolerate/not hate HEED during this race. I'm not sure if it was just mixed differently or if it was a different flavor, but it didn't have the revolting plastic taste that I remember it having last time. The flavor was strawberry, in case you are wanting to try one of them. A lot of the trail races around here use Hammer products, which I love for the gels, and now I'm happy that HEED is starting to grow on me too.

Another new thing I tried was drinking the coke at the aid stations. I felt like I needed the caffeine to pick my legs up, and part of me hoped that the fizziness would somehow settle my stomach. That may not be a real thing, but whenever I was sick as a kid, my mom gave me Sprite. So, what the heck, I was willing to try anything during this race. It's been a loooooong time since I've had diet coke and an even longer time than that since I've kicked back a regular coke. Actually, I can't remember ever drinking a regular coke, although I'm sure I have at some point. Maybe. But I did starting at the second aid station in this race, and I just kept going for it after that. I also had orange slices, chips, bananas, and about four or five gels. I filled my Camelbak up twice, giving me about 90 oz. of fluid, plus I drank a couple cups of something at every aid station we passed. I should have filled my Camelbak up one last time, but that is a lesson learned for next time. Always check how full your pack is!

Headed to the finish with a totally empty Camelbak. Photo by David Christy Photography.

Now on to the worst decision of the day, my shoes. As I was looking in my closet for shoes the night before, I realized that my New Balance 1010s were falling apart. No wonder I had been tripping so much lately! One of the pods on the bottom was peeled back and dangling off. How had I not noticed this during my runs? Plus these were the shoes that I wore every time I had the severe Achilles pain, so I decided to go with the Salomon Women's XR Mission, even though I haven't worn them for over 13 miles ever.

Mistake!

Because I had issues with the original inserts giving me blisters, I swapped them out with some Mizuno ones I had hanging out in my stash. I'm not sure if it was the inserts or the shoes, but every time my feet got wet in one of the many water crossings, the shoes retained the water for miles and miles. Also, even though these shoes give me plenty of toe room, for some reason, they started killing my toenails. There was a lot of downhill, and maybe the shoes were loose causing my toenails to hit the front of the shoe on the way down. Also these shoes are just plain heavier than I'm used to with the New Balance shoes, so there was extra weight. And they are just more stiff in general. About two thirds of the way through this race, every step became painful. Downhills, which are my favorite part of running (minus the cool people), became my worst nightmare. The pain was extremely intense. My toenails were part of it, but also my feet just hurt all over, maybe because of the rigidity of the shoe. I'm not sure the exact cause of all the foot pain, but that night in my bed, I could not sleep because if felt like someone was taking a hammer and pounding my toenails. Not the most comfortable feeling. I was really thankful for over-the-counter pain meds that night.

Curse those shoes. Photo by David Christy Photography.

There is a bright side to the shoe story. My Achilles was totally fine after this race. So it seems that getting something with a little higher heel-toe drop helped. I really wish there was a magical way to combine all the shoe elements you love into your perfect custom shoe. When I find a race genie, that will be one of my wishes.

Running: always more fun with friends. Photo by David Christy Photography.

The other bright side of the story is that there were tons of cool people running this race that kept me mostly distracted from how painful it was. If I was alone during this, it would have been miserable. As it was, I was in pain, but I still count it as a fun day out in the woods. The conversation with my running partner Michael and the other runners kept my spirits from totally crashing and burning.

Race tip: If you start to not have fun during a race, find another racer to talk to to get your mind off of the hurt.

See, at least we can act like we're having fun.



And the final results, 6:31:54. Six minutes slower than Mt. Cheaha 50K but somehow still fast enough for third place. Weird, but I'll take it because I got a coupon for free socks.


Post race: One of the highlights of this race was seeing the race director frying up burgers on the grill as we rounded the corner to the finish. I immediately hobbled over for water and then hobbled over to take my shoes and socks off and commence commiserating with the other runners who were finishing. When my feet felt ready to walk again, I shuffled over to stack a plate with a burger, chips, potato salad and pickles. The pickles tasted so amazing. I wish those were at some of the aid stations. Seriously good stuff. It's like I turn into a pregnant lady at races.

About to dig into a pile of pickles.

The other cool part about this venue is that the camp showers weren't far away, so I showered and changed clothes before heading home. Guaranteed there was poison ivy out there waiting to happen, and I didn't have any after this race thanks to that shower.

Swag: First, I got some swag that I missed at Mt. Cheaha 50K. They had a box of leftover canning jars. How did I miss these at that race?! I love to use jars for storing cut up veggies in the fridge. So, yes, I was more excited about this jar than anything else!


Some drink samples for the race or later.


Wooden finisher medals.


The shirts were plain white with no ads on the back. I got one in Amory's size because they were out of smaller sizes. So far none of the races I have been to in this series have had lady-sized shirts. 


Overall: Don't go into this race thinking it will be easy even though the course doesn't look too tough on paper. It's an out-and-back course, and the heat is a huge factor in this one. Hydrate well and bring fluids with you! There are water crossings, so make sure to wear shoes that drain well. And you can use the water to cool off during the race. We came across several racers fully submerged in water crossings to try and cool off. Aid stations are fully stocked, but there are not a ton of them. Stock up while you can at the manned stations. At the finish you can get freshly grilled burgers and a shower. Definitely take on this race if you are looking to explore a new part of the Pinhoti trails or if you want to take on the heat challenge. Also if the heat is too crazy on race day, you can choose the half marathon option.