I should add another three-letter acronym: WTF. I’m quite sure I uttered the phrase a few times during the uphill climbs on the 2016 Leatherwood Ultra course.
It also fairly neatly sums up the conflicted feelings I’ve had about writing up this race report. WTF am I supposed to glean from my performance in North Carolina?
Taking a Trail Roots Trip
A few months back, I stumbled upon local trail runner, businessman, and coach Erik Stanley’s post about an upcoming group trip. It was Instagram runner porn, as you can see below:
Note my response, followed by my friend Claire’s reply. Yeah, I ATTEMPTED to resist but Claire is a “can do” runner. Before committing, I posed two quick questions to Stanley: is it okay if I’m slow, and are you willing to deal with a gluten-free diet? Stanley quickly came back with a “join us!” so Paris morphed from goal race to final long run as preparation for a trail 50K. You see, I pushed for that distance (out of three options: 10 miles, 50K, and 50 miles), assuming everyone else was running the 50 miler and we could always bail (a marathon mere weeks before is a pretty good excuse to DNF, right?).
My “training” was not optimal. Mostly, I ran around Lady Bird Lake on a crushed granite groomed pathway that is really neither road nor trail. My longest training run was a 20-mile true trail route that I now know to have been short (thanks Microsoft Fit Band). Take a look at “Love, Paris Marathon Style” for that full race report.
Too Sick to Run?
Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about North Carolina until returning from Paris, merely two weeks prior. Unusual for me, I didn’t even finish packing until the night before our departure. I’d been sick for an entire week, only reaching a decision Sunday to continue on. I boarded the plane that Wednesday for Charlotte with cough drops and decongestant in hand.
Our merry band drove the two hours into Boone, stopping for a lovely outdoor lunch. As we made our way over the twisty, hilly roads, a severe headache blossomed. Dear Lord, I hadn’t had a migraine in years – really?!? WTF. We got to the cabin and I collapsed on the bed, wondering if by coming, I’d made a colossal mistake.
Two hours later, I woke refreshed and feeling better than I had in over a week. A sign!
Our group of 11 spent the next two days getting to know each other and doing fun stuff – canoeing, running, and hanging out. Basically, there was the Trail Roots pack and our Paris duo. Allow me to geek out for a fan girl moment: one of the Trail Roots tribe, David Fuentes, had recently competed in the Olympic Trials (WTF?!?) and I had him confined in a car for hours. What a thrill to get the low down on what it’s like to compete among the best runners in our country. Stanley is no slouch either (winner of Austin’s Capital 10K, among other stellar performances); as I quickly discovered, these folks were a whole band of young speedsters. With a new marathon Personal Worst (PW) under my belt, I heard Sesame Street’s “Sorting Song” softly playing as a mental soundtrack:
Regardless of differing accomplishments, the group was of a like mind. It’s so much fun to go on a trip where everybody enjoys discovering the place via their feet. If anything, Claire and I were the slug-a-beds, conserving energy for our upcoming trail ultra. BTW, everybody else had signed up for the 10 miler. WTF — all the way to NC to only run 10 miles? Hmmm…was there something we didn’t know? (Short answer: yes.)
Down Time at the Cabin
Rain began to fall early Friday morning, so Claire and I opted to skip the group’s morning run. We slept in until about 8:30 a.m., had coffee, and relaxed on the porch. The morning was cold and crisp – I could’ve sat on the swing, looking at the beautiful hills, for days. After the group returned, Stanley cooked bacon and gluten-free pancakes (another plus about traveling with runners: everybody eats).
Claire and I are well matched in temperament, and we happily spent time over the rainy afternoon reviewing race emails and driving instructions. We’d decided that going to packet pick-up was an important dry run for race day travel. Previous expeditions revealed we’d likely lose phone service among the hills, so Claire prepped by taking screen grabs of the route maps from Boone to Ferguson.
As the larger group debated their schedule, I became nervous and edgy. Pre-race jitters are unavoidable, and my biggest struggle for the day would be how to navigate these antisocial tendencies within our close confines. So Claire and I commandeered a car to head out to the site on our own.
Going to packet pick-up was a good move, as the 55-minute drive was quite twisty. Knowing the route calmed me. We chatted with the race director’s wife, picked up some cool swag, and scoped out the start/finish area. The next morning would be an early one, so we spent the rest of the afternoon at the house laying out gear. The 10-mile race didn’t go off until 9 a.m., some two hours after the 50K and 50 milers took the trail, so the rest of our crew enjoyed the evening while Claire and I retired to our downstairs bedroom about 8:30 p.m.
Race Day at Leatherwood Ultra
We were up and at ‘em at 4:30 a.m. No rain! We attempted to have a quick, quiet breakfast of oatmeal and coffee. Stanley had sweetly gotten up to wish us luck before our 5:25 a.m. departure.
Our arrival was perfect, with just enough time pre-race to stow our stuff under a tree (my Paris Marathon plastic poncho made a perfect bright green tarp), hit the Port-a-Potties as needed, and stay warm. While the temperature wasn’t as cool as previous mornings, there looked to be good trail weather ahead.
Less than 100 of us milled about the start/finish area. “The Star Spangled Banner” was played, the race director blew a car horn, and we were off at 7 a.m.
The first bit was on road surrounding the equestrian lodge, and I quickly fell behind the pack. There was a brutal uphill climb on pavement. A guy passed me as we turned off onto trail. The ground was soft, and I was happy to see that the earth had absorbed yesterday’s rain. I’d worried the trail would be slick or clumpy, like the dirt at Bandera that sticks to shoe tread. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Hills, Hills, and More Hills
The woods were beautiful, populated by tall trees not yet fully leafed. Late April was still a bit early for full spring splendor. From somewhere behind me, I could some guys talking, and I hustled to keep ahead.
When the course wasn’t climbing or descending in a grand way, it had quite a bit of roll. I’m a terribly sucky uphill runner but my body likes a rolling course, and I embrace a nice downhill. These were equestrian trails, often with a fair-sized rut in the middle covered by leaf litter. As a Texas runner, I’m used to rocky, scree-covered downhill. Not knowing what might be under those leaves, I couldn’t bomb the downhill. Still, I maintained my lead on the guys.
At one point, the route came out of the woods to cross a road. The race director waited there, making sure we saw the next marker, and I said something about this being my first time in North Carolina. I was still smiling and having fun, though I was a little perplexed…where was the aid station? According to race literature, they were 3 to 7 miles apart, and I somehow had the idea this first one would be closer to 3.
The Art of Trail Sweeping
At some point during the next segment of monster climbs, I figured out that the three guys behind me were sweepers.
Sweeper: a designated person on the trail whose job is to be last. Often, the sweeper will also collect trail markings (flags, signs, etc.)
Ergo, I was Dead Fucking Last (DFL). I’d known being DFL was a possibility, told myself I would accept this, and supposedly embraced the likelihood I’d earn a Did Not Finish (DNF).
Actuality, however, stings.
Ah, well; I vowed to maintain the gap. It wasn’t just about my pride, though. One of the three never shut up. His annoyingly loud, often incorrect political and historical observations were driving me fucking nuts. I actually enjoy being alone on a trail, so DFL could’ve had a bright, refreshing, more positive side. Alas, I was robbed of that small pleasure.
All that propelled me into the first aid station, more than 5 miles into the course. A dejected runner slumped in a crumpled heap; I’d seen her ahead of me earlier, so she’d obviously dropped. Hearing the men behind me, I scooted out as quickly as possible, neglecting to check my water status. The volunteers said the next aid station was almost 7 miles away.
This section’s steep uphill climbs really took the wind out of me, literally and figuratively. I’d brought trekking poles and was thankful to have them. Even so, I stopped often for brief rests as I climbed, opening my arms to give my lungs full expansion. According to race information, the 50K gains 9,000 feet of elevation (50 miler, 13K; 10 miler, 2K); I’d climb out of a valley only to descend and climb out another side. I was walking mostly, using my mountain troll shuffle and attempting to pick up the pace when I could.
The trio was pushing me along, and that pressure had forced me off schedule. I desperately needed a bathroom stop, but these guys were on my heels. Finally, I scolded myself (“Run your own damn race, Leah!”) and stopped mid-climb to rest on a rock and eat my Fritos (I heard Claire’s voice as she paced me at Bandera 100K, admonishing, “When you don’t feel like eating is when you need to eat the most”). The guys came to a confused halt at the bottom of the hill. I ignored them, imagining I was enjoying a solitary picnic. As I washed down the salty chips, I realized I was almost out of water.
I called out to my companions, “Hey, heads up; I’m taking a bathroom break.” One laughed and replied, “No worries, we’re not going to crowd you.” I wanted to point out that, if I felt the need to issue that warning, they certainly were crowding me but I resisted. With no way to know how long I’d be stuck with them, I saw no need to make things more unpleasant.
The food and bathroom break gave me new life. My stomach settled down, but the uphill still sucked. Where was the damn aid station? There it was, just a few minutes farther, at the top of another big uphill. The really wonderful volunteers there were nicely supportive; one refilled my bladder while I grabbed half a banana and some Coke. They jotted down my number and said the next aid station was not quite 6 miles away. I was a bit surprised to have made the 18-minute-mile cut-off pace, seeing as I’d stopped often and even taken that recent break, but no one breathed a word about pulling me. I saddled up, scanned for the next trail marker, and saw nothing. One of the sweepers noticed me searching and said, “Oh, I pulled that marker already. Just go down and take a right past the fence.”
Whereupon I Rant for a Bit
I’ve been sweeper many, many times. It’s actually an important job, one that’s crucial to runner safety and race administration. A sweeper should always remember that the person who is last has just as much right to the course as the front runner. And that includes enjoying that time on the trail as much as access to the marked route.
There’s an art to maintaining an appropriate following distance, one that is economical for the event yet still comfortable for that DFL runner. In many trail races (such as this one), a goodly portion of participants DNF, so there’s a certain cachet to being last. After all, that person is ahead of everybody who quit, and races may even present a “Last Tail on the Trail” award. Unlike road racers, trail runners will stay for the final finisher. In other words,
A sweeper should never make a runner feel ashamed for sticking it out within the time limit.
Deciding When to Drop Out
I’d made up my mind to quit at the Start/Finish. Though I had evidently made the last time cut-off, I knew it was just a matter of where and when exactly that ceased to be. Finishing at a convenient drop point while feeling good seemed a smarter option than flogging this dead horse to an inconvenient and distant stopping location. Since the trio was pulling markers, I knew no approaching runner would be inconvenienced by my presence, so I quit worrying about pace and embraced hiking, soaking up the beautiful views.
There were a few lovely little creek crossings, but I was disappointed to figure out that forging the big stream wouldn’t fall in this half. I saw a woodpecker; surprisingly, there had been very little wildlife, including birds, at any point on the trip. As I strode into the Start/Finish, I saw the race director by the side of the trail. I walked over, stuck my hand out, and complimented him on how well the trail was marked. He commented on how long the last section had taken; I laughingly said, “Well, I’d decided to drop here.” He replied, “Well, yeah, I was going to pull you anyway.”
Thanks for that.
I turned to the trio behind me, shook their hands, told them I knew that sweeping could be a thankless job, and said I appreciated their volunteering. As the race director had made it stingingly clear he knew I was done, I did not bother to walk the few feet to the aid station to officially drop.
The Trail Roots clan quickly surrounded me, asking how I felt. Yes, being a slower runner does erode the ego, but it still sucks to admit, “I’m fine, I’m just too slow to make the cut-off.” I found out that Claire had pressed on and would surely finish the 50K. The rest of the group had collected an assortment of awards in the 10-mile race.
A Private Pity Party
I’m 54 years old. I’ve run a jillion races. I recognized my lack of proper training. I knew I wasn’t in racing shape. But damn if I still didn’t want to cry. Damn if I didn’t work hard to keep from crying. Damn if I didn’t cry, just a little.
I took some time to clean up, lay out my wet clothes, and order a basket of fries and Coke from the lodge restaurant. I chatted and hung out with the tribe. It was thrilling to watch Claire finish – she’d done well, and I truly rejoice in her wonderful accomplishments.
Without a more accurate and reliable tracking device, I don’t know how far I ran (what the volunteers told me and the 2015 aid station chart don’t quite agree). I’m not sure about any of my numbers. I don’t even know what time I came into any of the aid stations, much less the Start/Finish; I never saw a clock. There was no chip timing. I strongly suspect the first half was heavy, though Claire said folks told her there was less climb in the second, which might account for a faster later half.
That night, I wrote in my journal:
I took forever and ran 16 to 17 miles out of a 50K. I can’t remember the last time I felt like such a loser.
My list of race results contains few DNFs; I can count them on one hand. Most were due to physical problems (heat exhaustion, a bad knee). Only one involved missing the cut-off. It was in the final miles of a trail marathon; though my watch showed a five-minute buffer, I demurred. Afterward, the race director apologized, saying I should’ve been allowed to finish (that race report can be found at “More Adventures of the Comeback Trail” on pg. 2).
So I’ve struggled with my DNF. To be clear, this is all internal – not one runner on the trip belittled my effort at any point; in fact, all were most gracious. I was even invited to come train with the group back in Austin.
Would I have felt differently about my DNF without those sweepers? Would a more supportive comment from the race director helped lessen the sting?
Leatherwood Ultra 50K Teaches Trail Lessons
I’m always going to be hard on myself. Many experienced trail runners, including me, would rightly point out the danger in showing up for an ultra event ill prepared. So WTF, Leah – what exactly did you expect to get out of this race?
- I’d wanted to see North Carolina and experience its trails.
- I’d hoped to make new friends and enjoy time with an old friend.
- My goal was to complete as much of the race as I could.
While I realized all those intentions, it would be disingenuous to label my DNF a success. Still, as with any trail race, I learned a lot that will surely help me at the next one.
Perhaps that’s WRM (what really matters).