March 9, 2014

The lowdown on the Mississippi 50

The kitchen is finally clean and the they've-been-on-my-to-do-list-way-too-long returns are back on the shelf at their home stores instead of in the trunk of my car, so I now have mental permission to sit down and write this 50 miler race report. 


If you are interested in how I felt about my shoe choices, see this post.

Warning: If you scroll down, there are some chafe and bruise pictures -- in case you don't need to see that right now or ever. 

Bib transfer: I ended up running the Mississippi 50 because a friend of a friend was not able to run the race. Originally I thought that I could just transfer their bib into my name with no charge, but it turns out that in order to transfer the bib, they require that you pay the entrance fee (including an additional fee to active.com). They say that they will then issue a refund to the original registrant. I never got confirmation that that actually happened, but I'm hoping that it did. After fees, this race cost just under $90. There is also a 20K and 50K, and I believe that all races are the same price. They will also let you drop or upgrade your race at any point on race day. A lot of kids dropped their distance down, but there was also actually one guy who upgraded front he 50K to the 50 mile. Kind of cool surprise to yourself on race day! Like, surprise, I'm a freakin' running ninja. 

Getting there: We carpooled from Birmingham, which took about three hours. Very doable drive. We headed straight for packet pickup when we got into town. Easy to find, at least it seemed easy for Lara (our driver) to find. One of the benefits of being a passenger. 



Pre-race party: At packet pickup, they served a spaghetti dinner (simple salad, spaghetti, sauce, maybe some rolls, bottles of water), free for all of the racers and for a small fee for friends and family. Because I was trying to avoid gluten and the clogging up of my intestines, I was happy to join some other Birmingham kids at a Japanese restaurant down the road. I ordered the giant plate of shrimp fried rice. 


The race director gave a few race instructions during the dinner. Honestly, it was hard to focus on what he was saying because of his thick Southern accent. I'm from Alabama and can handle a little drawl, but this business was thick as Conan's sarcasm. Occasionally-need-an-interpreter thick. All I really cared about hearing was whether or not wearing headphones were allowed because on their website it says they are prohibited. I didn't hear anything about it there (although we truthfully did not stay for the entire race debriefing) or at the race, so I'm guessing it isn't a huge deal. And since I already have my belt buckle, I can admit that I wore them for parts of the race, one ear bud at a time to make sure I could hear if someone yelled at me that I was disqualified. 


Packet pickup was super organized and very well staffed. Thanks, volunteers! We could have been in and out in two minutes if we had needed to hustle that action. 

Swag-a-dag: Tech shirts were men's sizes, in case you need that info when ordering yours. I probably would have opted to get this in my husband's size if I had known that. I liked the color though (snaps fingers). 



The swag bags contained some magazines, a pen, some Endurolyte fizzes, and, wait for it, the Mississippi lapel pin. Nothing says I ran 50 miles in MS like the state name on a light plastic pin. 



Weather and course condition: This is a traditionally wet course. My friend Olivia ran it last year in cold and wet conditions, and she ended up in the hospital with hypothermia. So I was pretty much hoping to get the opposite of that weather. Hope achieved! Although there was a light sprinkle the day before, there was no substantial rain in the week before the race, and you can see below that the high was in the 70s, not the most ideal racing weather but not horrible. I prefer above freezing to 50s for my most ideal race outcomes.


So even though there wasn't much pre-race precipitation, the course was still muddy in a lot of spots. Enough so that we slowed down a lot to cross mud paths, trying to keep our feet dry as long as we could. On the larger 12-mile loop, there were two or three spots that were very difficult to navigate around and required a run straight through the water. Once we hit those spots, my feet were never dry again. 


Pre-race prep: So since you know that my feet were wet for 50 miles, let me tell you the most exciting news that you will read in this race review (or today, if you've had a slow day): I had zero blisters at the finish line!

Here is my secret (not anymore!) blister-free feet formula, specifically for puddle-jumping, feet-wet-all-day conditions:

  • Cover your toes and other feet parts liberally with Skin Sake or other lubricant.
  • Then sprinkle baby powder over your feet.
  • Wear Injinjis. Important for me because I get blisters between my toes in rainy or just wet in general conditions.
  • Repeat when your socks/shoes get filled with sand and rocks from mud puddles. I ended up changing only once during the race because I had rocks in my shoes. 


I also put on lots of sunscreen and Skin Sake-d any place I could reach. Wearing a hydration pack with a tank top for that long worried me with the potential for chafing, but the pack didn't cause any chafing on my shoulders (kept adding more Skin Sake there during the race), just on my back. Friends shouldn't let friends not put Skin Sake on their back for a 50 miler. Honestly, I did not even consider this. I've never chafed there before, but you better believe I will be having some stranger at the start line help me Skin Sake this next time if I have to. 



Even though this was painful and stuck to my shirt the next morning (think ripping a band-aid off when the top layer of skin comes with it), I am relieved that this was my worst injury of the race. 

Other than a bunch of random leg scratches, this little spot on my leg was my only other lasting injury. I thought it was just a scratch, but it started bruising the next day. Weird, because I didn't even really feel anything at the time. Endorphins at work!


Pre-race fun: Looks like they provided race-day packet pickup, which always gets a thumbs up from me. 


Because we had a ton of Birmingham friends at the race, pre-race was a time of talking and hugging and laughing. Much better than freezing your buns off in a crowded but lonely corral. 

Coach Alex and Yo Momma.

Ryan, Tanya, Lisa, Greg, Kelly, Alex.

Sally, me, Olivia, Mindy.

Hanging with friends is the best medicine for my pre-race jitters, and once we huddled together for the dusky start, I wanted to dance the I'm-about-to-run-50-miles-and-I-already-have-to-pee jig.

In about 40 more miles, none of us will be smiling.

"Is it time to kick this 50 miler's butt yet?"

The course and race provisions: This is a looped course. We ran three 12+-mile loops and two 6+-mile loops. Most of the course was wide enough to run two-by-two. There were some very mild rolling hills. In the first couple of loops, they felt runnable, but after that, the hills felt like climbing Everest while carrying a family of seven in a Baby Bjorn on my back.


The hardest thing to navigate was the mud. We cut a lot of new paths to go around the mud, which got incredibly torn up after three loops worth of runners trudging through it. The mud provided natural slow-down breaks, which was nice since there weren't as many hills to force hike breaks. 

Not only did I want to save my feet as long as I could from getting wet, but I was trying to escape the mud as much as possible. It was thick and ready to stick to your shoes like a kid booger on the arm of the couch or just swallow them up completely. The mud swallowing the shoes, not the kid swallowing the booger. I witnessed some shoes lost to the sticky, greedy mud and heard rumor of more. 

Otherwise the trail was soft and very easy to navigate. The markings were clear and easy to follow, although I did have to verify what to do with our transition to the small loop. We went through the finish thrice (yes, I just said that) and then followed the trail until we saw the blue (small) trail veer to the right. Not really complex, but there was some blue signage right before the finish/start line that made me think that we might need to turn there on the third loop. This may all sound confusing and unimportant if you weren't there. Feel free to fast forward to where I complain about them running out of Heed. 

Finishing loop one.

The absolute worst part of the race was a little .75-mile out and back that was part of the big loop. It was not shaded, and it was packed harder than any other part of the trail. Also, you had to watch the pain on the faces of some of the other runners as they passed and think about how slow you feel compared to how peppy some of them look. So three times we had to experience the misery of this little shuffle. Someone had put out signs with random facts on them, like "A snail can sleep for 5 months." Or some other nonsense. We decided that we needed to save some to read for our last lap, so we forced our eyes away from the signs, which is surprisingly hard to do in a 50 miler zombie running state of mind. But we did it! And guess what our reward for our immense eye-aversion effort was. Nothing! Because they took the signs down before we got to them on our third loop. Absolutely the worst outcome of sign avoidance I've ever experienced. Heart-freaking-breaking. 

The most fun aid station decorations of the race were at Bubba's Trucks Stop (below), although they were out of cigarettes. So we thought that it would be a funny race idea to have an extra obstacle on race day be smoking a cigarette at every aid station. For anyone who has ever run by someone smoking on the side of a marathon course, you know how annoying/challenging it would be.

Pretty sure I spotted an Elvis impersonator at this stop.

The aid stations throughout the day were stocked with peanuts, chips, M&Ms, oranges, bananas, Hammer gels, salt pills, Heed, water, pretzels, and more. Online it said something about them adding more foods, like quesadillas and pizza, toward the end of the race, but we didn't see that. They did put up some rice and beans at the finish/start line (that you pass each loop), but it was too hot to eat that while running. When we finished, the rice and beans were already cleaned up and gone, kind of a bummer.

Happy because I didn't know about the disappearing rice and beans yet. 

Also, when we went through the start/finish at around the 9 hour mark, they were out of Heed. It seemed like a weird thing to run out of during a race where electrolyte replacement is pretty crucial for, you know, survival. There was one aid station on the small loop that had Heed, so it worked out that we did not die, no matter how many times I swore to myself in my head that I was going to.

Near the finish, about to do the ugly cry because I was so happy.

My race: The goal was to finish my first 50 miler. Period. I am easily distracted from smart goals like that during a race and quickly get caught up in a rush of excitement or competitive spirit. The good thing about a 50 miler is that even if you get caught up in a rush of anything, it doesn't last long compared to the total number of hours you will be running. 

It helped so much to have other racers from Birmingham with whom to run. There was a pack of about five of us that stayed together for at least half of the race. We promised each other to take it easy at the start, told stories, reminded each other to take in fluids, cracked jokes, and helped each other keep moving when that started to get harder. 

I kept losing the group because I had to pee a million times. My hydration goal was to drain my 50-oz pack (that never holds the full 50 ounces) every large loop. I kind of pride myself on my ability to not pee during a race (I have run multiple 50Ks with no pee breaks), but in this race, I started early and had to sneak into the scratchy brush often. The undergrowth was a little skimpy, but plenty scratchy, and the trees were scrawny, leaving not much cover for pee breaks. 

If you are a girl and haven't ever considered the pull-shorts-to-the-side method when going pee, I have just changed your life. So much better than pulling your pants down every time. Obviously this doesn't work as well in tights or skirts with shorts under. For some reason, I did not realize that pulling to the side was an option until very recently (thank you, Ali Edwards!). With this little info nugget, my trail running life is changed forever, and I hope to scar a lot fewer young people along the way. 

Most likely had to pee at this moment.

When I wasn't taking a pee break, I not only had people to run with, but we had our friends, who finished the 20K and 50K distances, at the start/finish to cheer us on, change stinky and soaking wet socks, rinse out our shoes, put food in our hands, and promise us that the end was near. 

Best racers/crew on the planet. 

Turns out that I only needed to change socks once during the race, and that time was because I felt like some rocks had gotten in there when I decided that on the second big loop I would splash straight through the middle of all the mud. So the Mississippi puddles are less water and more sludge, not the best for splashing through without gaiters. I went around the puddles as much as possible for the rest of the race and didn't need to change again.

Our gear station.

As far as the actual running, I was able to run pretty consistently, although slowly, up until sometime during the third loop. I had been eating like a champ up until that point -- almond butter, gels, bananas, oranges, Mamma Chia Squeeze, some salt pills, Heed, chips and peanuts. I would grab a little handful of something at every aid station and then a bunch of stuff as we ran by our bags. On the third loop, I grabbed the sweet potato that I had mashed up with honey, salt, and cinnamon and put in a ziploc baggie. It was the best idea, in theory, but when I bit off the corner and started slowly funneling it into my mouth, I totally gagged. I tried a few more bites, but the sweet potato was not happening. From that point forward, anything solid made me feel sick, so I turned to Coke, more gels, and some Shot Bloks. I really did not get enough nutrition in the second half of the race, but I may have overdone it in the first half. So I'm thinking that they balanced each other out.

Instead of taking walk breaks based on hills, I started taking them based on the urge to vomit. Luckily, I never threw up because I know that would have been really tough to make up for the lost contents, especially when I didn't feel like eating anything at all. Everything I ate after mile 30 was completely by force, meaning I had to force myself to put food in my hand and then eventually bring that hand to my mouth. Nothing sounded or tasted good. This even lasted after the race. I was starving, but nothing sounded extremely appealing. And at the restaurant we drove to afterwards, I only ate half of my food, which is kind of a giant deal for me. I am extremely into finishing off my food at restaurants. The force eating even lasted into the next day, but on Monday, I got the giant crushing urge to eat again. Finally!

So now I know that is something that if I plan to run 100 miler I have to get under control, the eating. I knew there was a possibility that my body would revolt, but it's been a while since something like that has happened. I'm sure pushing my limits in higher temps added to my body's inability to process food.

After running solo for a while in the third loop, I ended up finding Alex on the course again, which was good because I can only listen to P Diddy's "Can't Nobody Hold Me Down" so many times before it loses its inspirational capacity. Note to self: make a longer playlist for your next 50 miler. I had a two hour loop of music, but it seemed like every time I randomly put in my headphones, P Diddy was back on. I also have the inability to change a playlist once it starts in a race. It's something mental where it feels like I'm using too much energy to get my phone out and push the buttons to change it. Also, my hands are wet and sticky, not the most effective on a touch screen.

Thankfully Alex stuck with me, through many bio breaks and complaints about potential vomits, to the end of the race. It helped so much to have another person around, even though we didn't talk much at the end. Solidarity in silence is just as good at the end of a race as laughing and joking is at the beginning of a race.

When we finished that third large loop, with 12 miles left to go, we knew we would finish before the 12-hour cutoff unless our legs fell off and we had to walk on our hands to the finish, so we just took it easy. Sometimes we pushed a little with running, but for the most part, we just walked when we felt like it and ran when we felt like it (never up a hill!).

Then for the final 6-mile loop, our buddy Lara came back out with us. It was awesome to have someone around who had the ability to talk and make sense while doing so! I can now see why having a pacer during a 100 miler would be so refreshing, especially as your ability to make rational decisions declines, as mine was at that time.

When we were getting into our last mile or so I had a giant rush of emotions because we were actually about to finish this race. Part of it, I'm sure, was exhaustion, but mostly I was just so amazed and happy that I was actually going to finish running 50 miles, something I at one time thought was impossible/crazy. I started doing the happy/ugly face cry. The same one that I did at the end of the race when I qualified for Boston, and the same one I did after each childbirth. Something about giant amounts of endorphins and exhaustion makes me cry every time. 

I cried sporadically through those last two miles and definitely as we crossed the finish line. 

Me and Coach Alex.

Then as we waited and cheered on the rest of the finishers, I cried when any of them teared up too. All happy cries!

Post race: As I mentioned earlier, they had already packed up the rice and beans or ran out by the time we finished (10.5 hours), so there wasn't a lot going on in the way of food at the finish line. Some of the volunteers stayed with the aid station table (bless them!) so there were some chips and M&Ms to snack on. A few groups were waiting to cheer on their finishers, and we waited and cheered on people until the very last finisher, even though we cheered for that person from the seat of our car. 

We also picked out our belt buckles (they had three different options to choose from), and we got a seat protector as a finisher gift, which was super cool and useful!


Overall: This is a great course to run if it's your first 50 miler or first 50K, but be prepared for mud, even when the weather is dry. There are not too many hills and not tons of technical terrain to tire you out prematurely. If you're running the 50 miler, you can expect to see things winding down while you're still running. This is the kind of thing I find disheartening if I'm not prepared for it, but if I'm prepared for that, then I can put extra mental toughness in my arsenal for the end of the race (like for that second loop of the Mercedes Marathon). The loops weren't as bad as I thought they might be, but that one little out and back was the worst. Toughen up your mind for that. There is a definite down-home, non-commercial feel to this race, which I love.