Sunday, January 5, 2014

Wild Azalea Trail Challenge-A Race Report and A Love Story

Aid station
     You never know what you are going to get when you sign up for a race you've never done which is one of the reasons I was excited to register for the Wild Azalea Trail Challenge.  I opted for the 27 mile distance over the 50 knowing I'd be one of the slow rollers on the trail.  I didn't want to hold anyone up while they waited for me to daisy pick my way through the darkness.  Part of me was hoping it would be rustic and barely supported but the other part of me, the part that likes reclining on a couch and digs a well-stocked pantry was less sure.  Lucky for me this trail would have both



     The pre-race meeting was the night before the race.  We learned 10 people were registered for the 50 miler, 40 for the 27 miler and an additional 50 for the 27 mile mountain bike.  This was an increase from the 20 mountain bikers that did the race last year, always good to see a race grow. They offered to put anything out on the trail that we wanted.  We were encouraged to think about it and let them know.  Quite a bit of the meeting was spent going over the trail.  We were told to look for yellow diamonds.  "Always look for yellow diamonds.  You should see one every 50 feet or so."  Alright, that sounds easy enough.  As the meeting went on we learned that some areas would be marked with green tape. "Oh and you may want to look for brown paint on the trees.  In places where they changed the markings to the updated diamonds they painted over the old areas with brown paint, so if you see brown paint you're good!"   Oh dear, this was starting to sound scary.  In Southeast Texas you know pretty quickly when you are off trail because you have to push through thicket to get there.  You pretty much have to deliberately go off trail to get off trail.  In all my trail naivety it honestly hadn't ever occurred to me that in other parts of the world you could wander off trail because the rest of the woods didn't contain a natural Brillo pad barrier.   At this point in the meeting I raised my hand and asked for rum. 
Sofa that marks a turn.  See the yellow diamond?

     Back at the hotel that night I continued to check the Accuweather forecast trying to convince myself that it wouldn't be that a real feel of 29 degrees wouldn't be all that cold.  Two weeks ago when I signed up for this race I thought the hills and terrain would be the big challenge.  I'm a flat lander with a serious lack of training trail.  That was part of the appeal of this race for me.  I wanted this challenge.  I knew we would suffer going into it and I was okay with that.  I was starting to feel a little less okay.  By the time I was 2 hours into the race it would be 20 degrees warmer.  How does one dress for that?  Like a trooper, I real set my alarm instead of faking it.  Since Rich set his there was no use in pretending it didn't go off in the morning causing us to miss the race. 

        In the morning, I opted for my warmer Under Armour tights, a lightweight short sleeve shirt, a long sleeve shirt over the short sleeved shirt, gloves, a neck buff and a baseball hat (a hat with a brim is very useful when you go from shade to light in the woods) with an ear band over it.  I can go a long way if my ears, neck and hands are warm.  I also wore Gore X running gaiters.  Even though they promised to have supplies every 4-5 miles I opted to run with my Nathan four bottle hydration belt as well as my Amphipod belt.  In my Nathan belt I carried emergency Tylenol, Pepto Bismol, bandaids, Amino Acids, four gels, a packet of lady wipes, (trust me, always carry lady wipes) and two ginger chews.  In my Amphipod I carried my trusty iPhone.  I like having it in a separate pack so I can pull it out without worrying about losing anything.  On my feet I wore my favorite pair of Asics socks.  They're made of nylon and function like anti-blister superheroes! (You can get them at On The Run locally.)  I also wore my brand spanking new Nike Wildhorse trail shoes that I bought from Running Warehouse.  Never, never, never, never, never, never wear brand new shoes on a long trail run.  Sure it worked out okay for me but you don't want to be miles away from civilization with jacked up feet.  This happened to me at Rocky Raccoon last year and for a searing moment I had a vivid idea of how hard it would be to crawl three miles.  

     A van transported us to Woodworth where our trail run would start and the race was off.
The first mile and half or so of the race is on the road.  We ran to the trail to make up some distance since the trail is 25 or so miles long.  In the meeting we tried to nail down the specifics.  Even the official sites seem to vary in their information.  This is no big deal.  If you understand small ultra races you'll understand that distance precision isn't a big deal.  Maybe 27, maybe 29.  We knew it would be under 30.  It's an unspoken, universal ultra run rule.  If you ever sign up for an ultra, carry extra supplies for this reason.  Maybe your distance will be right on target, maybe you won't get lost, chances are it won't and you will.  You'll be glad to pull out that extra gel at some point.  

     Onto the trail!  Oh boy.  Rich told me a story about his dad taking a rural road in Louisiana and corn brushing both sides of the car.  This was something similar, only it was grass against my legs  and not corn against a car.  The first 3-4 miles was extremely narrow.  This side of the trail seems less utilized.  In a way that was quite lovely.  I managed to evert my ankle in the first half mile and cramp my calf so I was alone.  The last lonely soul on the trail.  I wasn't lonely though.  I was absolutely delighted to be there.  I was all by myself, relying on me and it was perfect, minus the rebel calf.  I stopped about four times trying to find the perfect tightness to the laces of my new shoes.  I stopped and stretched the calf.  I took a natural break.  Race nerves.  

     Around mile 5-6 things were looking up and my calf finally let go.  The yellow diamonds were easy to spot and the trail was well-marked.  I had to pay attention at this point as I no longer had the tall grass to keep things tight.  I encountered a lovely couple, Keith and Carol.  Keith rolled his ankle and the damage was slowing his progress.  He was still handling it like a champ but cautious.  
Keith and Carol-31 years of love!  

      I ran the rest of the race with these two wonderful people.  They were celebrating their 31st wedding anniversary. I inquired over the long hours and many miles about their lives and shared stories of mine.  I wish I had paid more attention the exact mile but somewhere in here were the most difficult miles of the race.  Hills so steep I could have climbed them on all fours, boggy creek crossings, paying constant attention to stay on trail and not tripping over roots.  The roots aren't bad. Compared to Rocky Raccoon it's smooth as glass but they're there.  It's a twisty piece of work but once you get past it the trail opens up to some nice terrain.  Scenic, serene.  At each road crossing we found bottles of water, gatorade and other items.  See the picture above.  Twice they were completely out of fluids.  We all carried fluids so we were okay but we were running low.  A guy rode up on a mountain bike checking on us and we informed him of the low fluid issue. He promised to take care of it for the runners behind us.  Eventually got what we needed and everything was fine.  The race staff worked hard.  This is the reason I pack my own fluids and food on the course.  Anything can happen and it's just smart to be prepared                                                        

Keith stumbles into a nap
     Little creeks crossed all over the trail. They were crystal clear and cold but we had been warned not to drink from them.  All creek crossings had either some sort of concrete, branches or they were narrow enough to cross.  Our feet stayed dry but if I did this run after a good rain I'd think about the potential for wet feet.  We got lost once or twice.  Nothing major but we did have to pay attention.  One crossing involves going across a road to what looks like the trail and has a shelter with a trail map but isn't the trail.  We had to cross the two lane highway to pick up the trail.  Always look for those yellow diamonds.  We were able to navigate back to the trail quickly because we were looking.  The second sneaky section was down a deep ravine that didn't look like the right path.  It was.  The rest of the trail is pretty normal trail.  The end of the race looks like an old asphalt path that has been allowed to decay.  The hardest part of this race was the leaf coverage.  It was thick! The leaf coverage made the roots tough to see and the trail slightly slick under my shoes.  Keith took a couple more stumbles because of this.  He ran that race on all heart.  Carol was the steady determination behind him.  It was truly a pleasure to run with them.  
  Love birds at the finish
     I kept going back to one question though "Why do you think you've been successful in your marriage?"  The answer was much like running the trail.  "Perseverance," they answered, "We are committed.  We've had our hard times but we don't give up.  We believe in each other.  That is the reason we love to do things like this together.  Trust has been invaluable.  Trust has been the guide during the rocky parts of our marriage."  They were a team.  Trail running is hard.  It zaps your strength.  It leaves you hungry, dirty, tired, lost and doubting.  They crossed the finish line holding hands and smiling.   It was a lesson on the trail within a lesson on the trail.   

After losing his way and running an additional three miles Rich was still there at the end smiling and taking my picture.  

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