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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Chattooga River 50k: ...and though we've only met, we've known each other long.

After a disastrous approach to the 2011 edition of the magical Chattooga 50k I looked forward to a fresh, relaxed attempt to cover the distance and enjoy the trail time. Coming off zero running for all of December and January and then a slow, gradual ramping up of meager mileage leading up to the race date I  knew that time was not on my side and neither was fitness for this time around. I was confident I would finish but unsure of how much running I could really do and for how long. In the back of my mind I figured 6 hours was about what I could expect for trail time on the day.

I chose to run on the first of the two days offered for the race to give myself a bit more rest before getting back to my normal M-F routine. I know this was a challenge for Terri but it was a neat experience to race one day and watch the others take off on Sunday.

Section One- Winding Stairs
I purposely hid out in the middle of the starting pack in temps hovering below 50 degrees,a  perfect day for June in South Carolina. The pack sorted out along the dirt road leading to the single track of the Winding Stairs trail. I was easing along in 10th place and feeling good about where I was and how I was moving. My plan was to move at about 8 min pace on the flat and downhills and stay under control on the climbs- they point was to manage my heat output. If I felt hot it was time to back off. Fortunately I stayed pretty chilly and sometimes even cold out on the course except for the warmest section toward Oconee St. Park.

Moving down Winding Stairs with Viktor (who doubled running Saturday and Sunday!!) I gradually loosened up and came upon Greg who was running a similar race to mine, if only better executed. On this initial 3.5 mile out and back we were able to gauge our early progress and found ourselves in about 7th and 8th place as we turned for the climb back up. My goal for this section was to run 70 minutes for the 7 mile section.

As we gently climbed while greeting the entire field of runners and exchanging howdy-do's we closed in on the eventual 2nd place woman and our secondary pack moved on well. I could not help but wonder where the front runners were and had to battle to let myself sit here and remember the tool set I had with me this year. Fortunately I was able to stay off the ego and remain where I belonged for the day from an effort stand point.

We closed in on the end of the first section and cruised into aid station one in just over 60 minutes... a little quick but feeling fresh and chilly. I grabbed my prepared bottle for section two and crossed the highway descending into the Chattooga watershed on Big Bend trail for the first time of two on this wild and scenic 10+ mile stretch.

Section Two- Big Bend to Foothills Trail
At the aid station I saw that the first runner had stopped. Speaking with others after the race I learned that he had not carried a bottle with him and so I assume he had planned to only run this 7 mile stretch. There was however a large group of folks at the aid station and tough to discern how many were runners and therefor take stock of position. I was still doing my best to NOT concern myself with racing, especially this early on, but curiosity is powerful and as I moved down toward the river I found myself utilizing clues in the trail.

Most obvious was a pair of Inov-8 Roclites that were somewhere ahead on the trail.The track left is distinct and I could see it at every wet, muddy spot and on large stepping stones. I also noticed leaves disturbed at an irregular spacing indicating that at least two runners were up ahead on the trail.

Eventually the downhill cruise led to the Chattooga River and Big Bend falls which was best observed with its powerful sound. Vegetation obscured its details and all that could be seen was a white froth and its accompanying roar. This volume came quickly and receded slowly as I made my way along the Foothills Trail. Climbing up away from the river I remained patient and climbed with little effort enjoying the bird songs of the cool June morning. As I crested this ridge to descend back to the river I heard voices and wondered if they belonged to runners or campers.

Shortly I came upon a man who seemed fairly agitated. He was a camper and I announced my approach on the trail. He stepped aside and mentioned that I should retrieve his dog, a terrier, should I come upon him. I said I would and moved on keeping an eye and ear out for the pup. For the next 10 minutes I wondered what I would do if I found the dog... run him back to the owner by the collar? Was he wearing a leash? Not sure what to do... turns out the guy had apparently found his dog later in the day, lost it again and asked for us to keep an eye out at the camp ground and during the second race on Sunday... I have no update as to the final outcome.

A second climb away from the river brought me toward what I expected to be rough, rooted, technical climbs and descents over a large humped ridge line. However, what we were treated to was a mile or two or newly worked, FLAT clay trail! It was a breeze to run on and made the course quite a bit quicker than in the past, with the amazing weather we were so fortunate to have I was beginning to expect some fast times from those up ahead and those due to run on Sunday as well.

Hitting familiar land marks I was checking my paces and seeing that I was due to be about 20 minutes ahead of schedule at the 17 mile mark, but still feeling decently fresh. No hints of walk breaks were entertained though I did welcome the return to the river for a quick dip to remove any heat build up. I stayed on the my gel schedule and refilled my handheld Nathan 22 oz. from a feeder spring before finally leaving the river (for now) and moving toward Highway 107 and aid station #2 at 17+ miles.

The reduced stress of racing was bring sections to me more quickly and really seemed to shorten and beautify the course in a way unlike past years. Maybe it was the lack of spider webs to run through but this was turning into a true experience! Eventually I reached mile 17 aid station and swapped bottles again to enter the out and back "4 mile" stretch to the first bridge. This section is always pretty tough for me.

Section 3- Bee Right Back Bridge
At a conservative effort I made my way downhill thinking 15 minutes would be about the time needed to reach the first bridge. I hit the highway parallel section on time and had not seen any returning runners yet, though knew there had to be at least two runners ahead. In a few minutes I saw the leader looking fresh, smiling and gobbling up the uphill. It was clear that this guy was not going to fade and he did not! Becoming the second runner in the 5 year history of Chattooga to break 5 hours! It takes a real battle in training and on race day to achieve that performance!

Soon number two rounded the bend and uphill also looking good. Then the lead woman powered uphill like a locomotive with an intense focus. 2 more runners were behind her and I was in 6th... apparently my tracking skills need some brushing up!

As I reached the turn around I removed the orange marking tape from my handheld and tied it to a branch next to the bridge hoping that no runner would bonus in this section this year. Then I turned and settled into the grind. It took 21 minutes to run "2 miles" down to the bridge... and so I figured on 45 to get out and back to the aid station. I figured on a good deal of walking on the climb out. I settled on a schedule of walking and eating during the steepest sections and running the rest which brought me up in only 26 minutes feeling great! I strategy to rely on next year... though maybe a bit quicker on the way down...

Section 4- PTSD 10
I had thus far had a very successful day. This is where I dropped in 2011, overheated, defeated and done. I had made the right call, considering the situation I had put myself in and now I was reaping the lessons of that day and prepared to enter the crucible of the PTSD 10!

I was riding a high of knowing now that I would finish... and also knowing that I was not racing, not PR'ing and not pressuring to move at any kind of effort or speed. Now, I had the whole day to get back if I wanted to and with that I entered the Chattooga watershed once again.

I zoomed downhill and continued to encounter the field of runners who were each smiling at the weather and the beauty of the day! After about 3 miles I reached a low point and began walking more and more eventually just walking. My stomach was queasy and I immediately thought of the spring water I had used on the way out. I was a bit dejected to feel so awful and wondered what I could do to remedy the situation. I tried burping to release gas from my stomach... a byproduct of gels it seems, but that made me feel worse and I immediately was dry heaving on the trail. My stomach cramped and it was honestly extremely excruciating. I decided to move on slowly... walking.

At this point I began thinking it might actually take me all day to finish... runners passed me and I greated each one eventually losing track of how many and not caring either. To my left was the river, my river, the Chattooga and I knew it would be foolish to not just soak this in and spend the time enjoying the scene. There are far worse places to feel this bad.

After an hour of walking I thought I might need to eat. My stomach was still uneasy but I knew I had to eat something. I grabbed a gel, down it, washed it down and suddenly I felt much better and began running the flats and downhills again, even some short climbs! My goal now was to reach the river and swim!

After a quick soaking I again reached the bottom of the re-worked trail section and a big ol' climb. Relieved to allow myself to just walk it in I made my way up knowing that the end of this hill was an hour (of running) from the finish.

More runners caught me as I reached Big Bend and day hikers were coming down into the river as well. I answered the typical questions. Finally I came to Big Bend Trail and the last real climb, 4 miles or so from the finish. My walk in the woods continued with a partner as Mark and I talked about trail running in Tennessee and North Carolina. When we reached the top of the climb I knew what kind of meandering trail was ahead so left Mark and went on running. I always feel great in this section of the course and with a perma-smile I weaved left and right and bobbed up and down over the terrain. Once final soak in the last creek crossing and I then walked the final approach to Highway 107.

I brought it home slowly, exhausted and feeling sick again... a gel at 1 mile to go felt like a waste... (cheapskate) but did the trick to allow me to at least run to the finish line without losing my bile. Into the finish line with a big group eating and chatting and laughing I could not help but feel so happy to be right where I was.

Eating beans and BBQ chicken did the trick along with a cold beverage. I scarcely moved until about 5:30pm when the Sunday runners began to arrive. The rest of the night was spent around a cozy fire with friends of the trail.

...and though we've only met, we've known each other long.


  1. It reads like a good Huck Finn story/post! Congrats Seans!

  2. It reads like a good Huck Finn story/post! Congrats Seans!

  3. Great job, Sean! Good hanging out with you this past weekend.

  4. 6 hours with a sour belly is good! Congrats on making sure you soaked in the beauty, even though you were miserable at times. In my book, that's a win.

  5. As always . . . a great, thoughtful race report! I'm with Scott . . . that's a WIN!

  6. Awesome recap of the day. It was great meeting and running with you.

  7. Great RR, Sean! Sounds like the perfect redemption from last year. I admire your tracking skills. In-Joy


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