Monday, March 12, 2012

Mississippi 50 Race Report

There are a lot of first timers signed up for the 50 miler. I'm sorry say that many of you will not finish it tomorrow. -- Dennis Bisnette, Race Director

Back in July of last year I had the pleasure of dinner with Mark (bamarunner) while he was in town on business. At some point the conversation turned to ultras, and before I knew it he'd put a bug in my ear about making the Mississippi 50 my first. It's an easy course, he said. You can even switch distances mid-race if you feel like it. It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I paid the suggestion forward to my friend, Dorothy. For some reason she took me seriously and signed up, and at that point my fate was sealed.

At no point did I consider doing the reasonable thing and attempting the 50k distance. That's "only" five miles more than a marathon, right? In my mind I already knew I could do a 50k, so the only choice was to sign up for the 50m. As has become a pattern of mine, I underestimated what I was getting myself into and was too overconfident. I neglected to consider how much of a factor running on trails would be, and that five miles was a hell of a long way after you've already done 26.2.


Late Friday morning Dorothy rolled into town, we moved all her stuff into my car and then headed towards Laurel, MS. It had been a few months since we'd seen each other, so there was plenty to catch up on and she had me laughing most of the way. There were many quotable moments, but my favorite was when I asked if she was hungry and she replied, "my stomach is like a swallowing crocodile!"

After checking into our hotel and getting settled we headed over to the race HQ for packet pickup and the pasta dinner. I knew Mark was going to be there doing the 50k, but when he called asking for directions he said "we." I shouldn't have been surprised when he showed up with his partner in crime, Doug (SweetDaddyD), who was also tackling his first ultra the next day. He was smarter than me though, opting for the 50k.

L-R: Dorothy, Me, Bamarunner and SweetDaddyD!
Unlike your typical road race, there was no expo. Without fanfare we just picked up our race packets and fell into line for the standard meal of spaghetti, rolls, and salad with cookies and brownies for dessert. While the four of us chatted the race director went over everything we'd need to know for the next day and took a few questions. In all I think we were there for an hour before we headed back to our rooms for the night. I somehow managed to get a decent night's sleep despite a late, unexpected distress call from my daughter and heavy rains that pounded the rooftop.


Up at 4:00 and out the door by 4:45, we made it to the race with about 45 minutes to spare. We checked in at the officials tent, got our dry bags loaded up and staged (Thanks, Hil!), and after a last-minute bathroom stop went over to the start line. We ran into Mark and Doug again, and a few minutes later were off into the twilight with an unceremonious start.

Although the weather conditions were almost ideal (50°/84%), it quickly became apparent the heavy rains from the night before were going to be a factor. The word of the day was mud, and it got tossed around like a baseball at spring training. It was around every turn and had the consistency of margarine. When you planted your foot not only would it slide and you'd have to steady yourself, but it clung to your shoes. Every time I exited one of the muddy stretches my feet felt like I was ready to sleep with the fishes. There were also a number of creek crossings, some of which came up to the middle of my thigh. They weren't as technically challenging and were good for rinsing off the mud from the exterior of my shoes. Unfortunately, that luxury was typically short lived with more muddy sections awaiting.

The first time I went around the big, 12.5 mile loop it a blast. We started around the middle of the pack and everyone was chatty. We struck up a conversation with a woman named Wendy the first couple of miles, and also talked at length with another guy who was a beer distributor. After Dorothy and I cleared the first aid station at mile 6 I became impatient with the pace. I didn't feel like I was running that fast, but kept pulling away from her. Finally, she told me to go ahead and I stupidly did. A rookie mistake, this turned out to be a huge regret. In hindsight I should have stayed with her, measured my pace and stuck to my original plan of running together. Instead, I let my natural pace lead me around the rest of the loop. I hopped, skipped and jumped around obstacles and felt like a little kid at the playground. Too bad the rest of the race didn't go the same way.

The second time around the big loop started out well. A few minutes before I arrived at the start/finish area the 20K race had started, so I got to fly past some of the walkers. I was still having fun until I again ran into the mud, which was now even worse having had over 250 people trample through it. It was becoming more difficult to skirt the edges, as the pits had grown in both length and width. Still, I kept pushing on and felt strong until about mile 23. At that point, however, my splits started to slow some. I finished the second loop and completed 25 miles in 4 hours flat. I was a little surprised when I saw that number on the clock at the check-in station.

When I started the big loop for the third time I was dreading the mud I knew awaited me. Sure enough, it was somehow worse than the second time. There was no getting around it, and every step was getting more and more painful on my quads, who weren't used to all the extra time my feet were contacting the ground. In a road race on solid footing my foot touches the ground for a fraction of a second, but in the mud I had to plant and then fight my shoes as they slid around underneath me for an extra second or two. It all was starting to add up and take its toll. It's hard saying what my splits were when you figure in the time I stopped at aid stations to eat, drink and collect myself, but the Garmin data suggests my last moving miles were in the 13- to 14-minute/mile range.

L-R: Bamarunner, me and SweetDaddyD
By the time I hit mile 35 or 36 my feet were screaming and my quads failing. I was having difficulty lifting my shoes up to clear small obstacles along the path, and my legs started buckling underneath me when I planted. I reached the end of my third loop, stopped at the check-in station and tried to process what was happening to me. I asked myself if there was any way I could run another 12.5 miles. Would the next two trips around the small loop be any different than the big loop? I hadn't seen them yet, so I had no way of knowing. Could my feet take any more of running on insoles caked with mud? I've experienced a hazy state of mind for a few minutes after completing a marathon, but at this moment the fog showed no sign of lifting. I remember the sensation of my teeth tingling. What the heck does that mean? I hoped Dorothy would come around the corner and make my decision for me, but she didn't. Slowly I turned around and told the race director that I was done. He asked if I was sure, and after I confirmed it he handed me a 50k finishers medal and an Amphipod water bottle. 37.5 miles and done.

Shoes, socks and inserts. They actually
felt "clean" compared to most of the day.
Right after I threw in the towel I turned around and noticed Doug and Mark cross the finish line to end their race. We talked for a few, and about 25 minutes later Dorothy completed her third loop looking strong. I confirmed that I'd dropped and encouraged her to keep going. She disappeared into the woods while the three of us talked some more and got our photo taken. After the guys left I went to the car and spent at least 30 minutes changing out my muddy shoes. It was a painstaking task, and what I found in my shoes - which were relatively clean - was so unbelievable that I had to snap a picture. Now that I've read a few others' race reports I see I wasn't the only one with that brilliant idea.

50m. Tough. As. Nails.
Dorothy completed her fourth loop, but this time when she passed the start/finish area she didn't look so hot. I transitioned to support crew mode and got her some Gatorade from the car, trying to be supportive. My encouragement wasn't really needed though. "I may have to walk the rest of the way," she said, and it was understood from the look on her face that the course wasn't going to win. At the 10:08 mark she rounded the last bend in the road and slowly walked up to the finish line. As she waited to receive her belt "buggle" she reminded me of a victorious, yet weary prize fighter standing over her defeated opponent.


As I already mentioned, one of my regrets for this race was not staying with Dorothy and managing my pace better. Although the rolling course and abundant mud certainly taxed my legs, I wonder if I could have squeezed out the last 12 miles with a disciplined partner and a smarter approach.

"It hurts to a point and then it doesn't get any worse." -- Ann Trason

A second regret that ate away at me a couple of days after the race was my decision to drop. I knew going into the race it was going to be mentally taxing and painful, but I wasn't prepared for the degree. Hindsight is 20/20, and thinking back on that moment at the check-in station I wondered if I truly was done for the day. Could I have kept going? Did I sell myself short? There's nothing I can do about it now, so the only thing to do is learn from the experience and apply those lessons next time. Yes. Next time.

Things I was happy with included my fueling. I didn't experiment with eating real foods prior to the race, and threw caution to the wind when the time came. I ate pretzels, chips, M&Ms, gummi bears, Saltines with peanut butter and bananas, and never had GI issues. I made sure to consume just a little at each aid station so as not to overdo it, and that seemed to work for me. Another thing that turned out well was taking Hammer gels. I'd never tried them before, but they didn't give me any trouble, either. Even better, at no point did I feel like I'd hit the wall. I had decent energy throughout.

Hydration wasn't a problem for me, either. Most of the time I stuck to water, and I popped an S!Cap every hour or so. And when I got tired of water I'd let the aid station volunteers (Awesome!) fill my bottle with Heed. Between these two tactics I was able to fend off the sensations of impending cramping I felt in my hamstrings every once in a while.

Finally, for a couple of months leading up to the race I fretted about what shoes I should wear. I tested out a pair of Adidas adiZero XT 3 (admitted Adidas fan boy here) back in January, but ended up returning them. I then tried some Brooks PureGrit that were designed with input from Scott Jurek. I didn't fall in love with them immediately (35 miles total), but race day was fast approaching and I decided to at least put them in my bag. When faced with the decision to use them or some old Brooks Adrenaline ASR hybrid shoes I figured they were the best option for the conditions. They ended up performing well for me, offering adequate lateral traction under the conditions and I came away relatively unscathed. I'll continue putting them to the test on future runs to see how well they perform on dry trails.


As we ate our dinner Friday night I shook my head defiantly when Dennis said many of us wouldn't finish the next day. As it so happened, he knew what he was talking about. Of the 114 people that started the 50 mile race the next morning, 36 didn't complete the entire distance. And I was one of them. It may take me a couple of years to get back to the De Soto National Forest, but I fully expect to redeem myself one day. Maybe next time there won't be quite so much mud.


Postscript. Though you won't find the same amenities as you would a road race, the MS50 delivered in every way. I was thoroughly impressed with the course, volunteers and how well organized and executed everything was. Kudos to the race director and everyone that made it all happen behind the scenes. Carl Touchstone must have been quite the man to have a race like this held in his honor.

1 comment:

  1. Drew, great recap and review of the event. I don't know that I've run through so much mud, including my 50 miler in December. I do believe you could have finished but only you can make that decision to drop or keep going. I have confidence that with the lessons learned, you'll have an excellent finish on your next 50 miler. I'll say don't beat yourself up over it but you know that. Looking forward to the Run Across GA event. Hope we can run together before that sometime but if not, see you then.

    Great job!