Saturday, February 26, 2011

50k - An Outsider's Perspective

The Race to the Top of Alabama

I'd planned on writing a quick note on dailymile describing my spectating experience at the Mount Cheaha 50k. Maybe throw up a couple of pictures and call it a day. But after what I saw today I knew it warranted a full-blown blog post extravaganza.

I'd been tossing around the idea of driving up to Cheaha ever since I met up with Mark for a run this past Monday. I wasn't certain I'd be able to make it, so I didn't mention it to him or Andy, who I also knew would be racing. I had two motivations for wanting to go. First, both of them had gone out of their way to accommodate me in the past. Great guys that they are, I wanted to return the gesture by supporting them in their endeavor. Second, now that I'm not as terrified of the longer distances I wanted to see what all the ultra fuss was about.

Before I left I tried to figure out approximately when Mark and Andy might finish. I looked at last year's results and noticed the winner crossed the line in around four hours. I couldn't put much stock in that though, considering the second place finisher was over 35 minutes behind him. And scanning down the rest of the list of finishers didn't help either. It looked like every participant finished five minutes apart, with some taking over nine hours. Yikes! Nevertheless, I knew they were starting at 7:30am so I should get there no later than 12:00pm - 12:30pm if I was going to catch them on the course.

On my drive up to the Delta, AL I got a little romantic about the race. It's only 50k, right? That's what - about 4 miles longer than a marathon? Heck, I can do that. It's beautiful up here. Nice, rolling hills. Clear, blue sky. Moderate temps. Hey, maybe I could do this next year! It's like a baby ultra! Oh, how naive I was.

(Credit: CC Johnny Stiletto/Flickr)

I arrived a little before noon and made my way to the sixth and final aide station. Just as I got there a runner was coming in and I was informed he was the leader. Figuring the guys would be a while, I drove a little more than a mile down the course on a dirt road until I reached an intersection at about the 43k mark. I grabbed my binoculars and sat off to the side of the road looking down a very long hill. And waited.

As the trickle of runners slowly passed me I encouraged them as best I could. I noticed that aside from the lead 10-15 runners almost everyone was run-walking. Some would run until they got to the hill and then walk, while others walked on the flat and then tried to run up the hill. And almost all of them were alone. Every once in a while a couple would be running together, but that was the exception. This is one lonely event, I thought.

On the plus side, however, almost everyone was in good spirits. Many were hurting, but I could see that beacon of hope when I told them how close they were to the last aide station. I made a conscious effort not to tell them they were "almost there." Better to give them something specific to focus on rather than a cliché.

I sat there for almost three hours looking for numbers 184 and 60. People of all shapes and sizes kept coming, but none of them were Mark or Andy. And though I was anxiously awaiting their arrival, I didn't mind a bit. It was inspiring to see so many people persevering, and a lot of fun giving back to the community I've appreciated so many times when I've been the one racing.

Suddenly, a guy passed me that looked familiar. I took a chance and called out his name, and sure enough it was Mike! I jumped up and started walking with him to see how he was doing. I had no idea he was racing, so it was quite a surprise. He told me a little bit about how his race was going and filled me in on Mark and Andy's progress. He guessed how far back they might be and told me what they were wearing. After about a half mile I wished him luck and headed back to the intersection.

Around 20 minutes later I spied Mark's orange shirt and hollered at him as loud as I could. I began walking with him and noticed he was in obvious pain. Come to find out he was cramping from dehydration. Despite this he was walking at a pretty fast clip, and in the time I spent with him he passed a few others. I left him with an older gentleman he'd been trading leads with throughout the race and headed back for Andy.

It was only couple of minutes after I got back to the intersection when I saw Andy and his red Alabama shirt. And he was the first person I'd seen in over an hour that was actually running up the hill. Even though his feet were giving him trouble I could tell he was running strong, and he never once broke stride. I told him at the rate he was going he'd catch up to Mark, and sure enough he eventually did.

I ran back to my car and made my way to the top of the mountain. Alabama's highest point at 2,407'. As soon as I got there I saw Mike coming towards the finish line! I didn't have time to pull out my phone to take a photo, so I gave him a high five instead. Dang!

Andy Making it Look Easy. And Fun!
I figured Andy or Mark would be along in about a half hour, so I found a place in the shade to wait. I'd been there a few minutes when a couple came up to me and the gentleman asked me where I was from. I told him Prattville, but that I was actually there waiting for one friend from Tuscaloosa and another from Columbus, GA. That's funny, he said. His son was from Columbus and was running with a fellow from Tuscaloosa! Very nice to meet you, Mr. and Mrs. Sparks!

Eventually Andy came into sight, looking strong and still running at the same steady pace as when I last saw him. This time I was ready to snap a picture! His parents followed him up the last hill to the chute as I continued to wait for Mark.

Mark Finding a Way to Get it Done!
A few more minutes passed by and Andy made his way back down to me. He said he wasn't sure Mark was going to be able to make it, and told me how he'd come across him sitting down on Blue Hell, a half-mile climb of 900' straight up. His legs had cramped so badly that he could no longer walk, even after Andy tried massaging the lactic acid out of them. We were discussing what his options might be when I saw him rounding the last corner. Woot! Knowing he was almost home he broke into a slog and crossed the line strong!

Thanks to these guys and the other participants of the Cheaha 50k I learned a lot today. First and foremost is that there's no such thing as an easy ultra. Especially when climbing to the top of Alabama on very technical terrain. If I ever decide to run one of these it will first have to be on a more modest course. I also learned that the ultra crowd is a unique breed. Maybe I haven't "watched" enough races of shorter distances, but this group appeared to have more grit and determination than I've ever seen before. When almost everyone is struggling with 7k to go, yet still finds the strength and determination to finish out, it's freakin' impressive.

So, if you were on Mount Cheaha today kudos to you! You guys and gals rock! And a special thanks to Andy, Mark and Mike. Each of you showed me a lot today, and it was a privilege to watch you complete such a tough race.

BTW, if you want to gain an appreciation for just how difficult the course is check out this race report by Christian of Run 100 Miles. He does a great job of making you feel his pain.


  1. Great race report and first person account of the inner strength required for this type event!

  2. Wow. Thanks for writing, Drew. What's funny is that I can rarely be tempted to work on speed/distance, but distance/distance? Totally. And I love that you went out to support these gentlemen. ROLL TIDE, Andy!

  3. Drew,
    Great account of the race and, as always, a nice piece of writing.. It was an interesting day and you helped make it special.

  4. Thanks for the comments, all. It was a humbling experience to witness.

  5. Drew, I came back to read your post again of our this race Andy, Mike & I were participating in. It meant so much to see you that no matter how bad I was cramping and maybe grimacing, I was smiling on the inside, you were a very welcomed surprise. It's kind of neat reading this as you were reporting as an outsider to the event. Great writing and insight. Thanks