Cilantro’s H9 Marathon Race Recap

The day dawned, cool and fresh and … early. I had been in Atlanta since Tuesday, so luckily the 4 AM wake-up call wasn’t as shocking to my system as it could have been (3 AM my time), but I still wasn’t delighted to be awake and racing. In my journal entry that morning, I cursed at myself for registering to race on my only vacation in over a year. Seriously, what was I thinking?

But not only had I signed up voluntarily for this, but I had specially asked to be added to the race and my request was accommodated. I had no choice but to show up.

In retrospect, perhaps I should have chosen an easier race, but this wasn’t exactly a mindful choice. On the Tuesday before race day (Saturday), I woke up and knew I needed to get away. To stay at home meant I’d continue to work and I needed to stop working. I packed up a suitcase, grabbed my hydration pack and a few pairs of running shoes, and I hit the road. I arrived that afternoon in Atlanta, immediately checked out Ultrasignup to see what races were in the area and found the H9 Dragon’s Spine with 99, 50, and 26.2 mile options. From the race description it seemed hard, which never really deters an ultrarunner. When I clicked to register button it looked to be sold out, which was just an additional carrot.

Somewhat relieved, I emailed the race director to see if there was a waitlist. He emailed back within the hour, saying someone had just dropped and the space was mine if I wanted it. I wasn’t exactly sure that I did want it, but I emailed back and said I’d take the slot. I watched myself paying the club dues and a race registration fee. Just like that, it seemed I’d signed myself up for a trail marathon. I mean, I’m not crazy – I did have a four-hour training run on the plan for the weekend, and 26.2 training run is about four-hours for me, so my logic was sound. But 26.2 is about a four-hour training run on pavement or a treadmill. This was 26.2 miles in the trails.

And, apparently, this marathon course was hard. I’ve never gone much for reading course descriptions (and, well, emails, but we’ll get to that later), but as I explored the race Facebook group to see if I could find a roomie at the campsite, I started to read what runners were saying. Hardened runners thought this course was one of the toughest ultra races. The cutoffs were enough to scare me – 12 hours for a marathon. I started to imagine how miserable climbing up mountains for 12 hours in Georgia heat would be, and I started to question my sanity.

This was the attitude I brought with me race morning. I had decided to stay in Atlanta so I didn’t have to worry about getting back before check-out time (Ha. The very idea of completing this course and getting back to my hotel before 11 AM with a start at 7:30 AM is legit ridiculous). I’m not a strong driver in daylight, so the dusk made driving the winding road up to Vogel treacherous. I continued to berate myself for signing up. Why couldn’t I just get drunk, like a normal person on vacation? Self-flagellation is one of my strengths, and I was in fine form.

I arrived, picked up my shirt and had my number written on my arm (no bibs here, and frankly, I think all races should get behind this. Bibs are awkward on any course longer than a few hours.). I then applied sunscreen which made my race number mostly illegible. I joked with the race director at the start that I’d see him in 12 hours, and we set off. No fanfare, no frills, just a five second countdown.

As my trepidation made clear, I had no expectations going into this run. I knew it was going to suck. I didn’t plan to race it – this was just a well-supported training run.

If I want to win and winning seems like a reasonable goal, I’ll try to stay towards the front of the pack at the start. Having only trained seriously for two months after a six month hiatus, I didn’t think I had much of a chance here. Plus I was for-real scared of the course. Plus I don’t run steep uphills even when they occur at the beginning of long courses, to save my legs, and since this course started uphill I started in a brisk walk and didn’t run until it leveled out. By this point I was at the back of the pack, if not the back of the back. I embraced the suck and settled in.

But I’m quite competitive, and my plans to stay at the back couldn’t last. I quickly learned that this course was branded as tough because of the very steep inclines, which is my strength. I love steep climbs! Not necessarily because they feel good, which they don’t, they feel terrible and are terrible, but because I’m fast on them and I can push through the climbing pain. I think this is largely because I’m not afraid of falling like I am on steep descents, which is my weakness.

H9 has a lot of steep single-track ascents and gently sloping descents, which is my idea of dream course, especially if I am trying to win. The weather was also a dream, much to the race director’s chagrin, as it only hit the 80’s close to noon. The rest of the time, it was almost cool and the humidity was manageable. It was perfect running weather.

trail running in the forest

I wasn’t trying to win, I promise.

Within the first mile I was passing men and women. I was worried that the course would descend and everyone I’d passed would then pass me back, but luckily it continued to climb. I soared. By the first aid station I’d built a considerable lead over the back half of the pack. By the second aid station at mile 12, Wolf Pen, I recognized that those who were ahead of me were pretty far ahead, so I’d have to maintain my pace on the flats and descents and push it on the hills if I wanted to catch any more runners.

I ate half a peanut butter Power Bar every 45 minutes and drank water every ten minutes. At aid stations I ate anything with salt, since the only hydration that does not cause stomach problems for me is water. I can be a bit more flexible with my fueling as long as it’s gluten-free, but peanut butter Power Bars work best. This combination is my proven race day magic, and I had no stomach issues and no serious dehydration.

In my rushed packing to leave on Tuesday, I’d forgotten my Suunto Ambit, so I only had my Apple Watch to measure distance (which I learned, it doesn’t do very well when not actively tracking). This meant that for almost all of the race I had no idea where I was on the course. I didn’t know how far it was to the next aid station or how far I’d come. Instead, I measured in Power Bars. Having only my estimates and what I knew about the course as distance gauges, I resolved to push as hard as I could until I finished. And, for perhaps the first time in my racing career, I did.

After the 12-mile aid station the course was on an nontechnical logging road and I pushed hard, taking advantage of the flatter ascents, descents, and flats to push as hard I could. I wanted to make sure I didn’t get caught by anyone behind me. I didn’t think I could catch anyone during this stretch, but I wanted to give myself the chance to overtake a few people on the next set of climbs. I continued to feel strong as the course turned back to single-track and began to climb again. I passed another three runners shortly after the trail started to climb again, and I only slowed down on the technical descents. I kept pushing, still without any idea of how far I had left to go. The uncertainty was disconcerting, for sure, but I let it sit. I would just push as hard as I could as long as I could and be happy with whatever that meant.

I did check my Apple Watch for distance a few times without knowing if it was accurate or not. It estimated that I had run 24 miles when I hit the Fire Pit aid station, and it was a bit demoralizing to learn that I still had 8 miles left. This meant my Apple Watch stats were really inexact. On descents I shorten my stride considerably and take quick little steps; my theory is that the Apple Watch, calibrated to my normal stride, counted all those little steps as normal steps and overestimated my distance traveled. Still, to learn that instead of three miles left, I had 8, was a blow no matter how good I was feeling.

But it so happened I was still feeling really good. After Fire Pit, the course immediately climbs straight back up again to the top of Coosa mountain. The climb sucked, but knowing that this was where I could overtake more runners, I pushed hard and passed three. I was dripping with sweat by the time I hit the top of Coosa, but it wasn’t with relief that I took the sharp left. The descent here was very technical, so while I went as quickly as I could, I was still passed by one runner as I descended. As the course flattened onto another logging road I was able to run hard again, and I pushed without knowing how much longer I had to push.

The lack of knowledge about where I was started to eat at me, and I wondered how far I really had left. About then, I passed a runner who had slowed considerably. As the day had finally started to get hot, I was worried about dehydration or hyponatremia, so I slowed enough to ask him how he was doing. He wasn’t confused and seemed fine, but admitted to skipping the last aid station, so I gave him my last protein bar and surged ahead. As I ran away I asked how far we had gone. He said 23, and my heart sunk a bit. I was sure we were closer to the finish. But I still felt good, and I kept pushing.

And pushing.

And then I hit the highway.

At Fire Pit, a volunteer had told me, “if you hit the highway, you’ve gone too far.” I think he was referring to the highway I’d hit if I had missed the turn down from the top of Coosa Mountain, but I’d just run 24-ish miles and I panicked, remembering his caution about the highway meaning I’d gone too far. I turned around and started running back, searching for flags or a missed turnoff until I met the runner I’d just passed. “Did I miss a turn?” I yelled. “There is just a road up there.” He replied that the pre-race email explained that the course would continue on the other side of the road. Which of course it did, something I easily saw when I ran back and ran far enough onto the road to see the trail on the other side of the road. Two lessons here: read the pre-race email, and before turning back run a bit further until you can actually see the other side of the road.

I was frustrated with myself and extra mile I put on my legs but pressed on. The trail kept going downhill, but the course was single-track, technical in places, and I slowed enough to be passed by the runner I’d re-fueled. And then by another man runner I didn’t recognize passing. “Keep pushing,” he said. “You can do it.” Never having doubted that I could finish the race I retorted as much. Perhaps not my finest moment, but I resented his suggestion that I was struggling.

The course finally left the single track and transitioned to the road we ran up at the start, which meant the finish was close. I started running as fast as I could. What had been quiet that morning was now a bustling campground, and I struggled to find indications of where I was supposed to run. Luckily there were flags and I finally made it to the finish.

When I arrived, it felt good to stop. It was finally hot and I drank the last of my water as I collected my finisher prize. As I stood at the finish, I asked where I stood in the standings and I learned that I had finished 9th overall, 4th woman. (Of note, the first three finishers were women!)

I was stoked. I was excited about my place, of course—it felt amazing, especially as a course newbie. But this race was the first time, perhaps since my very first marathon a decade ago, that I pushed through the pain and kept pushing, even when it got hard. I executed a nutrition plan without adjusting when I felt like I didn’t need to eat as often because my pace had slowed. I finally figured out how to balance my electrolytes. And, again, I didn’t stop or slow down when things got hard. I pushed and kept pushing, and I ran the very best race I was capable of running. Even if I’d finished DFL, I would have been happy with that.

But, of course, I didn’t.

Have you ever achieved a positive result in an unexpected way?

Ultrarunner, adventurer, academic, and feminist. Running Across the USA in 2021 to raise money for Girls on the Run. Next challenge: Pinhoti FKT. I write about ultrarunning, adventuring, and the intersection of endurance athletics and life.

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