My absolute favorite thing about this race, was realized in the first 30 seconds of the race. There is an 11-mile race option, and instead of grouping everyone together on the trail (like so many other races do), the 11 milers started in a different chute and they turned off in the opposite direction as us, almost immediately! YAY for not having to step off the trail every minute for the first 5 miles to let speedy 11 milers pass you. Nice work, Stumpjump.
As we started running, before we even hit the trail, my shoestring untied (I can feel Vandy Montana rolling his eyes this very minute). So, I shuffled off the road and tied my shoe, while April made some shoe adjustments of her own (new shoes, afterall). At this point, we got on the trail and we were like the last two people. But, we didn't care. I hate having people all up on me and breathing down my neck on trails.
We had decided as we always do, that we weren't going to try to stay together. Attempting to stay together on a trail can be a nightmare situation. It's hard for two people to pass multiple people, etc. So, we were just happy to be able to stick together for the first few miles.
My strategy was I was running to every aid station. I was not thinking about what was ahead, how many total miles I'd ran or had left. All that I was focused on were each individual aid station ahead of me. I also planned on eating a little something at least every hour on the trail and drinking plenty of water, whether I felt like I needed it or not.
The first segment of the race is pretty easy. There are portions of the trail that are wide and dirt packed and most of this segment is downhill. With some pretty steep downhill parts. We cruised along, chit-chatting, and passing people. The first aid station was around 6 miles away and was the longest stretch we had to run the entire day between aid stations.
There was a random thing that happened about 2 miles in... we crossed a street to get back on the trail and the race officials were stopping traffic to let us pass and I thought one of the cars in line was my parents. Turns out, it was!
This part of the trail, wasn't particularly scenic. About a mile or two in, we did hear a marching band practicing... which was kind of fun. Marching band music is fun when you're running. We discussed why the country music marathon doesnt try to enlist more high school marching bands for the course. The one cool thing on this part of the trail though, was Mushroom Rock. It's a crazy rock formation that looks exactly like a mushroom. You know how when people tell you about something like that and then you get disappointed when you see cause it's wayyyy smaller than you thought (cough, The Alamo, cough)? I was expecting this.. but it was actually pretty damn big and pretty damn cool.
The shitty thing was that it's apart of a steep downhill and there were course officials there, shooing us down the trail and a photographer was there to catch us looking down and trying not to lose our footing.
Around Mile 3.5. Yes, we were smiling. At this point,
we still had no idea what the rest of the day would bring.
I think at this point, April and I were both cautiously optimistic. I mean, sure, we've got a long way to go, but so far we were having fun and staying together (even while passing people) wasn't a problem, at all.
We plugged along and finally made it to our first aid station. That was on the side of the street. I had my handheld filled with water and drank HEED from cups at the aid station (this was my routine for all the aid stations). I snacked on a few m&ms and checked out the cars that were passing along the highway. And what do I see? Another car that looked like my parents! I got over closer to the road and as it passed by, the window started rolling down and it was them! We said hello, my dad asked if we were finished yet and they went on their way. It was a nice added bonus. (completely unplanned as my parents really didnt know the course or where it went and were on a mission of their own to go hiking for the day, etc).
After that first aid station. We had to climb up a little bit of a hill and then took off on a part of the trail that ran by the TN river and was supposed to be fairly flat. It became apparent pretty quickly that there was NO one else behind us. We were the last to leave the aid station, and no one had caught up to us yet. Hmmm...
We stopped on the trail for a few minutes so that April could pee and then started back up again. We were chatting about anything and everything. And talking a lot about how good we felt. April expressed a little concern though, about no one being around us and whether or not we were on pace to make the cut-off at mile 19. For whatever reason
because I'm generally naive, I wasn't all that concerned. We kept plugging away and were able to run for a good portion of this section. This segment of the race between aid stations was only 4.5 miles. With about 2 miles till the aid station, a pretty big group of runners caught up with us. Turns out, they had taken a wrong turn off the trail and had added about a half a mile to their race. They ran with us till the aid station and we chatted and joked around with them. They seemed like a fun group.
I was in the front during this section and when we were almost to the aid station, I heard someone coming towards us and I looked up and saw local trail running beast, Josh Wheeler, coming right at us. I quickly jumped off the trail and he flew past us yelling, "Get out of the way!" (in a friendly way, of course). We were all amazed where he was on the course... he had 10 miles to go, when we still had 20 to go! He looked good and was flying over the trail, so we all expected to see his name at the top of the results list.
We got to our next aid station, the Indian Rock House and fueled up. This was a pretty busy aid station. It was here that I started eating pringles. Loving the salty flavor, and I'd always grab some m&ms and sometimes some pretzels filled with peanut butter. One of the volunteers started talking to us and was telling us how good we looked, etc. And not only did we look good, but we felt great, too! I was telling him how beautiful the trail was (it had been a pretty stretch with views of the TN river along the way) and how much fun we were having. It was time to head off though... Only 2.7 miles till our next aid station.
And off we went. The guys that had been running with us, had left the aid station a little earlier than us and I was relieved. We kept a pretty decent pace for those miles with them and even though I was feeling awesome about it, I knew that there was no reason for us to be speeding up now. There will be time later for speed if we still have it in us. So, we were able to settle back into our good pace.
About a mile after the aid station, I had a scary, scary moment. I tripped on a tree root and fell straight down. As I fell, I put my hands out to break my fall and as I fell down to the ground, I fell directly on my handheld water bottle. As in, my entire body weight landed on my water bottle on my chest. The first thing I noticed was the pain, it was excrutiating and the next thing I noticed, was that I couldn't breath. It had completely knocked the wind out of me and from the pain, I thought it had made my right lung collapse, too.
I stood up and started tearing up when I realized that this might be it for me, I might have to drop out. I quicky regained my breath and as I started to breath and then run, the pain completely left and it was like nothing had happened! (My chest is still sore there, though).
We powered through to the next aid station. At this aid station I started asking people about the Rock Garden. I was still feeling awesome and I was ready to tackle the Rock Garden, when I still had energy and my mind was still fresh. Someone at this aid station assured me that it was in this next stretch. So, I mentally prepared myself as we left this aid station.
We had 3.5 miles before the next aid station. We had off and on been leapfrogging with a guy from Atlanta. He told us about how he'd recently lost 40 pounds or something awesome like that and that he was signed up for the Rocky Raccoon 100 mile race in February. And I secretly took this as a good piece of Karma. You see, I had told April just that morning, that I'd had Rocky Raccoon (the song!!! Not the race!!!!) in my head for the past week or so and that I knew I was going to be singing it my head all during the race. And I had been singing parts of it to myself off an on for the race so far. I kinda laughed to myself and kept on trucking.
I was ready for the rock garden though. I was feeling good and getting nervous that by the time we hit the rock garden, that I wouldn't be feeling so hot. We finally got to a dirt road and realized that we had to climb up a steep, but short hill to get to the aid station. Ugh. No rock garden!
As we climbed up the road, there were two volunteers at the top cheering for us. It was kinda funny, cause it was taking us a long time to get up the hill and they were just yelling and hollering for us the whole time! It was awesome.
We got to the aid station and there was a young girl there that gets my shitty volunteer award. She made the comment... "you're past the worst part." And lucky for me, I knew better than to believe her. The worst part is either going to be the rock garden or the last 2 hills starting at mile 25. She thought she was being cute and helpful by lying to us, but I wanted to go off on her. I didn't. Instead, I asked about the rock garden again. Everyone had different opinions, some thought it was in this next section, others didn't think so. The funny thing is, there was a park ranger at this aid station and he never weighed in on the issue. WTF?
We took off, hoping the rock garden was soon.
Pretty quickly on, we caught up to a guy that had a Stumpjump 2009 shirt on. I started talking to him, asking him about the race and the rock garden (which he assured me was coming up). And then we hit it... the infamous rock garden. I had kept hearing about how it was only about a half mile long, but that it felt like it was 3-4 miles long. As we walked through it, I kept looking back at April and giving her a face, like.. "this is the scary rock garden????" I mean, sure, trail runners of our ability and experience were by no means able to run through this section. But, I had imagined this section to be soooooo much harder and soooo much longer. I think we were both just so properly hydrated and fueled, that it wasn't a big deal to us, at all. The worst part would have been trying to stay on the trail (which is why I stuck behind the guy the whole time). Eventually the rock garden was over and I said thanks and goodbye to the gentleman, assured him that we'd see him again and we pulled ahead to the next aid station... the mile 19 aid station.
The rest of the race to come...