I had a 50k on the books for this weekend, but after two weeks (and one, two, three events) of hard racing my legs had a lot of accumulated fatigue. I could especially feel the strain in my left foot, and wasn’t sure if I should race the 50k on my training plan or try to fit in the miles on my own. A race has supported aid stations and super nice people, but I get competitive. I didn’t want to push myself too hard and burn out before my target race. Not only that, but panic was starting to onset about the condition of my foot: “Stress fracture?!? Metarsaglia? Plantar fasciitis? All of the above? None of the above?”
So. A 50k on the plan, and what to do? The race was the most logical option to keep me motivated to run all morning. And while I wasn’t fresh enough to go out and race it, I felt like a little motivation from competition wouldn’t hurt me. Plus I really want to run those races that are geographically close to me. It makes financial sense since I don’t have to travel, but more importantly I want these races to stick around and be here for a while. For that to happen, people need to register, pay, and show up.
Now of course my dithering about whether to run or not meant that I missed online registration. Once I finally got a signal of good health I emailed the race director to see if it was even possible to sign up late (I am every race director’s worst nightmare). She said yes, I said yay, and I prepared to do the damn thing.
The Southern Fried 50k/50 mile
If anyone is Googling to find out if they should run The Southern Fried 50/50, here’s what I think: Great course, well-organized, amazing volunteers, and super race organizer.
This is an unusual ultra race because it takes place mostly on bike trails (read: pavement). This meant that the pounding on my legs would be much harder than a normal trail race and, given the August Georgia heat, would get progressively hotter and more miserable as the day progressed. I had to wake up at 3:30 am to get to the 7 am start, and when I arrived it was a refreshing 70 degrees with 90-ish percent humidity. Since I’m still acclimating to southern heat and humidity I intended to bank mileage at the beginning, before it got too hot.
The course begins at the beginning of the Fall Line Trace Trail, and the sky was barely lit as we set off. Not sure who I was running with, I settled into the middle of the pack behind a group of very chatty 50k runners. While I am usually happy to chat later in the race, at the beginning I just want to set my pace in peace.
Just over a mile later the course leaves the Fall Line Trace trail for my favorite part of the course, the Flat Rock Trail. This section was very hilly and I saw my opportunity to put some distance between myself and them, so I pushed the pace a bit on the hills to establish some space. After the three-mile or so loop I had built a considerable margin that would only grow as the race continued and things heated up. At this point, although I didn’t know it, I was third-place woman, but I was still much farther back in the overall standings (i.e., men included). I’d maintain my placement with the women after a very short stint leading, but would make my way up the overall standing as I passed man after man all race long.
My major race fail was failing to use the restroom before the start. I had driven about an hour to get there and arrived late, so I scrambled to get water and didn’t see a bathroom opportunity. I kept hoping one would appear along the course, as if by magic, but it wasn’t until mile nine that I found one along the trail. Aside from water/salt imbalance, the major cause of stomach issues for me whilst running is a full bladder, so my reluctance to go off course for a pit stop meant that I was setting myself up for a major stomach meltdown.
Which happened. My legs felt strong as I went through the first aid station, and I had passed the second place woman runner and had the leading woman in my sights. I was eating and drinking according to plan. Finally, I saw a restroom around mile 9, and with relief I made the stop. Coming out the aid station, the now second place woman was just passing by, so I settled in. Feeling temporarily great, I ran strong, passing the second place woman again and banking miles while it was still only manageably hot. The course along the Fall Line Trace Trail is beautiful and well-shaded and gently sloped downhill (which I didn’t realize until I ran back). I ran well through the second aid station. Shortly after, however, the stomach problems that had been rumbling became intense, and I had some pretty severe cramping. I ran with the second place woman for a few miles until we passed a port-a-potty, and I had to stop. She kept going, and didn’t see her again until the finish.
Although not hot-hot yet, the miles between 9 and 13 were the toughest of the race. My stomach was cramping and I slowed to a slog. It was starting to heat up too; the course here was largely unshaded. I knew my only option was to keep moving, because I wasn’t going to quit, so that’s what I did.
Finally, we entered Columbus and the trail turned onto the RiverWalk. The scenery was beautiful! I’d never been here before, but I have been thinking about moving to Columbus, so my mind started to wander as I passed potential living options. As I mused, I suddenly found myself at the mile 13 aid station.
This aid station was unique, as the course was designed so that we would pass it four times. Already an out and back course, we ran an out and back jag at mile 13 and again around mile 16. After this out and back, we then ran to the 50k turnaround (the 50 mile runners keep going) and then the out and back jag again and then headed back to the start, which was now the finish. While the out and back, out and back, and out and back was confusing, this was the highlight of the course for me. I was able to see where I was in relation to other competitors, but more importantly I got to see other runners, talk to them, and encourage them. I recovered from my stomach issues and started feeling strong again. I left the aid station for the last time feeling great, with a hydration pack full of ice.
The temperature increased from 81 to 82, and then to 85. With the sun beating down, the heat felt physically oppressive and I instinctively slowed. This part of the course was directly in the sun. I knew I just needed to keep moving until I was back on the Fall Line Trace Trail again. This was also where I realized that the course had been gently and not so gently descending since the start, so the course was now gently and not so gently ascending to the finish. The uphill climb alongside the rising temperature meant the only thing to do was moderate my pace so I didn’t overheat. As I ran, I dreamed about my return to the shade of the trail. The out and backs broke the race into two manageable 15 mile chunks, so in a short time, I was back on Fall Line Trace Trail again.
At the second to last aid station I filled up with ice again. I had let myself get too dehydrated early in the race, and now I was exceptionally thirsty and couldn’t drink enough water. Aid station volunteers said there were only about 1.5 miles of unshaded trail left in the course, which turned out to be true. In fact, for perhaps the first time at any race ever, race volunteers only told me 100% correct information (e.g., how much was left in the race, the nature of the next part of the trail). That alone made this race totally worth it.
In the sunny portions of the course, it was so hot that I couldn’t run, so I power hiked a 12-minute mile, which given the conditions, I was very happy about. At the out and back party I’d started passing men (alas, not the first and second place women), and this continued the rest of the race. I’m always motivated by seeing racers ahead of me and slowly reeling them in. I found I could run in the shaded portions of the trail, after a little recovery, so for the next 10 or so miles, I walked through the sun and ran the shaded portions: all mostly uphill, but nothing prohibitively steep. The trail had markers that indicated how much of the trail was left. While this was helpful since I again did not wear a GPS watch, I only had a general sense of how much was left.
I made it through the final aid station feeling strong—so strong that when the volunteer said we only had six miles left, I assumed he was wrong. Surely, we had more course left to run? Somewhat skeptically, I began using the six miles left to calculate how much I had left to run at each trail marker. Finally, I saw the turn off for the Flat Rock Trail loop. The course led us in the opposite direction than the way we had gone the first time we took the loop, and while it might be because I’d just run a marathon and a 5k and a 20k in a row, it felt much steeper in the reverse direction.
But I like hills, the steeper the better (I will rue the day I say this, I’m sure). Here, I passed the last man runner I’d pass before the finish, and finished the loop strong. With just a mile left, I kicked.
At the finish I immediately started staggering, and slowed to bend over. I didn’t realize until that point how hard the race had been. I was completely beat, not because of the distance, although 31 miles is no joke, but because I mostly race that distance on dirt trails, which are easier on the body. Most notably, it was hot and humid, and even more so with the the sun reflected back hardcore by the pavement. I don’t think I’ve ever raced at that intensity in this level of heat.
There was a a gazebo at the finish, and I sat there for thirty minutes, drinking ice water, unable to move. Luckily, there was a great group at the finish, volunteers and the race organizer, so it was a perfect recovery location. I confirmed that I finished third woman, though results haven’t posted yet so I’m not sure where I fell overall.
After a while, I hobbled back to my car, shoes untied because my feet were on fire. I began to suspect this was going to be harder on my body than the last two weeks of racing, and while my quads and hamstrings are fine, my shins and feet are in some serious pain. It’s a good thing I have a recovery week coming.