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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Chattooga 50k Race Report

Chattooga had been relatively kind to me in the past. It had allowed a freedom of steps and relatively decent weather... this year, things were different.

Toeing the line I was not thinking about the "normal" things... like:

  • Finish.
  • Enjoy
  • Slow down
  • Don't "race"
Instead I had a lot of 5k/10k thoughts in my head... like:
  • Get out easy and under control
  • Don't get boxed in on the single track
  • Find a strong rhythm
  • Where is everyone? Where is everyone? Where is everyone?
The underlying difference here was a haze of race stress and not an organic experience which culminates from a journey of steps- the essence of running. Even while I thought I was running smart and free it is clear now that I was not. Instead I fell into the trap of my expectations, rushed through the moments and ultimately wasted an opportunity in a beautiful place with amazing people. Not to say that the time wasn't worthwhile, it always is and this 'race report' will cover some of the reasons why this failure is important.

What happened?
This is the question that buzzed in my head for the following two nights... I had run 'well' (on pace for Winding Stairs) and PB'd the first 10 mile section to arrive at 17 miles 10 minutes under CR pace... while feeling pretty fresh, fully hydrated and eating well. Then... what happened? The walls tumbled down.

Down into the mid section, mile 17-19 of the race I began to feel pressure, or realize that I had been feeling pressure since about mile 4. I had not seen anything on this course. I'd bypassed the joy of the river, didn't jump in or soak my feet and head... I didn't smell the mountain laurel and barely noticed a single thing along the way. I was rushing against myself, against previous versions of this race... and doing everything I could to fail... all while telling myself that things were going fine in this race.

The Downfall
I entered aid station 2, 17 miles into a warming morning feeling under control, I thought. My focus was to get in and out quickly, brashly exchanging bottles and muttering nonsense and believing that I was bettering my race- I rigidly went back out onto the trail, still being stalked by the second place runner. He had been vanishing behind turns throughout the run. When he was suddenly shirtless, I had estimated that the heat was taking a toll on him, that the hills were zapping his strength and that I had only to keep covering miles to have a successful day. Then my reality hit like a lead pipe. Conserving energy on the 2 mile downhill into the turnaround at 19 miles I found myself getting hot and tired, I finished 22 oz. in about one mile and began on the second bottle on my waist pack. 44 ounces gone in 2 miles... 

The chasing runner was getting closer, running aggressively downhill and chewing up the trail. I could feel him grabbing me and reeling me in, almost tangibly. My condition worsened and within 5 minutes of the turnaround I began having some very negative thoughts.
  • "Well, that's it. You can't do this for 12 more miles... 12 MORE MILES"
  • "The 2 mile climb will be too much."
  • "It is so HOT..."
These things and like fears recycled through me and as I tapped the bridge at the turnaround the lead I had built was gone. I ran in first, feeling like I was keeping his seat warm for when he wanted me out of his way. For now, he was patient, he ran smartly and followed my effort up the trail. The difference was he was out for a stroll and I was pulling a piano, or not even that. I was pulling nothing- I had no power... and I mercifully thought to myself, "please... just go by me..."

Dropping the Weight
Within 5 minutes he did and like any good racer, when he went, he made the break quick and clean. Within 30 seconds he was out of sight... bounding away up the hills as I struggled to get a measly breathe and a six inch step. I had a good 10 minutes left on this brutal climb on a good day. As a result, I built the hill up in my head, recalled all the past pain of previous encounters with this beast... and slowly I came to a 'power' walk... at 20 miles I was already walking the hills... never before.

I figured, okay, I can recoup. I have a long downhill to the river, it will be cooler down there I hoped. Maybe this is a tough stretch, maybe the new leader is just having a good spell... maybe maybe maybe. But this was wishful hoping and each time I tried to resume running, it was the same equation; increased effort, exponential increase in perceived exertion and the body temperature was boiling. And I was cooked. I had beads of sweat with cold pasty skin... I was pale and weak. Sometimes listening to your body comes in the form of heading warning signs of trouble.

Aid Station 3
Lynnea and Sylas waited for me at the third aid station and I was 50/50 on whether to continue on. Here are the contemplation points I reviewed as I sat down with a frozen towel on my head, changing socks and gulping water for minutes on end...
  • Don't Quit
    • The heat is dangerous
  • You can walk
    • It'll take 3 hours at best to walk that distance... with Lynnea and Sylas waiting  in this heat
  • Don't Quit
    • Don't go to the hospital... go hang out with your family at the river...
With that I packed my things up. Runners continued passing by, returning runners looked strong as they headed out into the PTSD 10, the crux of the Chattooga... the section I only saw from its friendly side this year. 

I stopped by the official clip board and said the words... "#146 dropping... no, no injury..." and then I turned to the car, the cold a/c and the soft seat. We drove to the finish area, picked up my drop bag of finish line items- the reminder of what I wanted to have for comfort upon a successful run... no comfort this day.

My boy Sylas
As I tossed these gear items into the car I looked up before closing the hatch. There I saw little Sylas sitting peacefully and smiling with his chubby cheeks and toothless grin and his bright blue eyes shining... He was laughing and giggling and having a great time. I just couldn't spare a thought of being disappointed by a run in the woods. We spent the rest of the day as a family visiting the river and waterfalls in the area and swimming. 

Disappointed? No. 

What are some lessons that "failure" in running have taught you? How did your running change as a result?

Happy Running!!


  1. having a "failure" in my recent past I can fully relate... the change? to try and train/fuel in similar race conditions. thanks for sharing your experience

  2. I think you touched on this, Sean, but I've learned that when I don't run for the right reasons, I don't enjoy running, regardless of whether or not I "succeed" or "fail" in a race. If I don't enjoy running, then why do it at all? If I run with joy and "succeed", fantastic. If I run with joy and "fail", I still have the joy. Win-win in my opinion.

    Thanks for the insightful "failure" post. ;-)

  3. I think we all have those days sometimes ( and sometimes those days fall on race day). I always conclude that we HAVE To have those races filled with adversity and where things don't go our way, so that we can TRULY appreciate when things go RIGHT in running/racing. and they are such great learning experiences. It's hard to run ultras in june. I had a rough time at highlands sky and it was only 76! I ate about 8 S!caps and drank a easily 200oz of water.

    I think you have a great perception of it. Spending time with family friends, your sweet wife and baby.. swimming and hiking to waterfalls sounds like a GREAT way to spend an afternoon!

  4. Haha! When I saw his adorable face, I stopped feeling bad about your race, too!

    I ran two miles the other day at a roughly 9 minute pace. I had to work so hard for that pace. I was exhausted beyond words by that run, so much that when I got home, I had to ice my leg and just stare at the TV. But I was so happy, so giddy, so excited. It felt so rewarding. It's been such a long time that I had to work so hard to run only two miles at a 9 minute pace, when in the past, I would completely write off long-distance runs at a pace much faster, completely missing the forest for the trees. Silly. Things you learn, right?

  5. What a great race report . . . but sorry your story ended in a DNF.

    I'm getting pretty good that that DNF thing myself. But rather then bore you with my failures I'll just tell you that I'm focusing more and more on the run itself and less and less on time and finish place . . . but I run like a three-legged turtle.

    We have good day and bad. And you just happen to have a bad one on a day you wanted to run well. Heck! It happens! You are a smokin' good runner . . . there are more days coming!

  6. Sean you're still rather new in the sport. Enjoy the a as ctivity as a hobby. We're not pro athletes earning a living from this endeavor. There will be ups and downs. I have a couple of DNF's and let them get to me for way too long. Life is often much better in other areas than on the trail, so enjoy the good parts and leave the rest behind.

  7. Great race report!!! Love Tom's comment.

  8. Nice report Sean. In my 50 earlier this month I felt like I was far too preoccupied with the details beyond "just running" at certain points. I could have soaked up the experience a bit more and see where you are coming from. I definitely plan on taking things in a bit more during my fall ultra.

  9. Great report Sean! I had a similar(scaled-down) experience recently. I wish i would have had your perspective then. This post has so much wisdom. It really resonates with me. Thanks for sharing! By the way, the "journey of steps" so nails it!

  10. Sean, you are always and inspiration to me. In my eyes, you are a winner.


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