Stars Fell on Alabama. I’m Pretty Sure One Hit Me.
Alabama is a lot of things. Home of my in laws. Home state of two of my favorite bands. Home of the throwed roll (if you stop in Foley). It is also home of the Lake Martin 100 Mile Endurance Run. Billed as a great first 100 miler due to the absence of mountains or traffic or any of the things that can make a race significantly difficult, plus a very generous thirty-two hour cut-off, it flat out broke me off, y’all.
One thing is clear after Lake Martin; I am actually getting worse at this ultra-marathon thing. Now, yes, I get it. I ran 100 miles. I’m not minimizing that. It was hard and I’m proud I finished. But my first 100 Mile finish was in 27:05 and my second in 28:40. I’ll just cut to the chase on this one and tell you I finished Lake Martin in 33:40:05. That’s damn near thirty-four hours of shuffling around a twenty five mile loop. I was so slow they deflated the Start/Finish line. I was so slow that the winner had been finished long enough to fly to Hawaii from Atlanta (if he were so inclined).
Get it? This race was more:
But first things first, as some background is in order. Lake Martin is about 65 miles south of Birmingham, where my Father-in-Law Bob and Brother-in-Law Dave and his wife Donna live. My other brother-in-law Steve and his wife Joanna live on the lake with their family. That was certainly a draw since rarely can I combine family visiting with performing feats of misery. My partner in these Quixotic events, the inestimable John Dailey, and I (I’m not sure who is the Don and who is Sancho Panza) intended to run Lake Martin last year but we waved off in favor of the C&O 100 for reasons that escape me now.
So on March 17, 2017, Katy, Annabelle, and I arose in D.C. well before dawn’s first gloaming, and took a plane to Birmingham. Having spent the better part of thirty hours in 2013 trailing me up and down NC 12 in the outer bands of a tropical storm with then two-year old Annabelle in tow, Katy has long sworn off attending these races (a wise woman she is). She and Annabelle would visit family whilst I was running in circles (albeit large ones). Thus the path that brought John and I to the shores of Lake Martin.
John and I converged at the race check in station. I was very happy to be back in the south and having arrived first, I chatted with folks who were only too happy to talk to me (or anyone). A lot. Southerners can do a lot of talking over a truck tailgate and I learned pretty much all there was to know about the guy parked next to me in fifteen minutes. Central Alabama is the real south and the genuine friendliness of racers and race staff was a nice break from D.C. Once we were checked in (a very efficient check in I might add) we headed to Steve’s house. This would normally be the time to repack all the drop bags for the hundredth time. However, the course at Lake Martin gives you access to your drop bags fifteen times over 100 miles via the same two Aid Stations and has no restrictions on bag size, so I had everything I could ever need in both bags. It was pretty much time for dinner.
Alexander City, Alabama is not widely known as a gustatory destination. But it does have the historic Kawliga Restaurant. Hank Williams wrote the song “Kawliga” sitting in a cabin on Lake Martin and the restaurant has been there since Hank’s heyday. Any place that’s still open 60 years later and where you can drive up in your boat is worth a look. John and I added to our legacy of questionable pre-race nutrition (in my case, that’d be a 10 ounce hamburger steak in onion gravy and fries followed by dessert) and headed back to Steve’s where we chatted with my Sister-in-Law Joanna and then headed off to sleep for the last time in forty eight hours.
As always, 5:00 AM came quickly. We were caffeinated, fed, and standing at the start line by 6:15.
Here’s where my one complaint comes in. The LM100 also has 27 and 50 mile options. The 50 and 100 start together with the 27 following five minutes later. This was not cool. The 27 mile folks immediately over ran the 50 and 100 mile runners which is super-annoying on single track trails. Meanwhile, we were slowing them down which I’m sure is even more annoying. I’m not sure why they didn’t flip the start order. Whatever, that’s my one complaint.
I was in pain for the first four and a half miles; with cramping in my calves and lower back. But that’s an old story. It happens on pretty much every hike in the Marines. It happened on the first five miles of the JFK 50 Miler both times I ran that race. I knew it would loosen up around five miles and it did.
By that time though, John was out of sight. No problem there, he’s a better runner than I and we have a rule about running your own race so I settled in for some time to think. Even at this early point I felt like I was moving too slowly, but I didn’t seem to do much about it, just kept cruising along. Upagaindownagain. Then up. Up some more. Then up some more to the first Aid Station, Heaven Hill, at 7.24 miles in. When I got there the name made sense. Surrounded by forest, the hill was clear cut and seeded with grass. You could see several ridge lines in the distance (though at that point they were fogged in). Had I not been so slow I would have taken a picture.
Anyway, I blew through the aid station as rapidly as possible, which was easy because the volunteers a) were awesome people, b) knew what they were doing, and c) were all about servicing the racers. From Heaven Hill, I had a six mile loop to do. That was a more pleasant loop with some time on red clay roads in addition to the single track trail. This was a good loop on which to pick up time and I did, coming back to the fine folks at Heaven Hill and then heading back five miles to the Start and the Cabin Aid Station to start the aforementioned seven mile section leading back to the Cabin once more. I hit the twenty five mile mark at 6:37:15. I was fine with that but the law of diminishing returns was already in my head as I stepped off on lap two.
The second twenty-five mile lap was unremarkable save the fact that it took me more than eight hours to navigate it. An eight hour trail marathon is great if you’re an inspirational story on Buzzfeed, not so much if you’re normally used to about a five hour effort for twenty six miles. The upside was that my friend Tyler and his wife Jenn (a couple who are the human equivalents of a Mountain Dew Extreme commercial) were meeting me at mile fifty to pace me overnight.
That they ran a trail marathon in Chattanooga, TN that morning and then drove to Alabama to meet me made their effort all the more kind and generous. I had not seen Tyler in years and had never met Jenn so I actually had something to look forward to. I was texting with them from about mile forty two with Tyler telling me to “listen for the music”. Sure enough, at mile 48 they were sitting in the middle of the woods, rocking out to Spotify and waiting for me. We hoofed it to mile 50 at 14:52:55 where they headed out to get some food and said they’d meet me at the next Aid Station. Doubling my time indicated a thirty-hour finish, but again, the law of diminishing returns is always a factor. So I launched out on the second half, making good time to the top of Heaven Hill for the third time. I did the next five mile loop by myself and then Tyler stepped off back to the Cabin with me for miles sixty-two through seventy-five. I had been moving for twenty four hours at that point and had sat down twice for less than five minutes apiece. I was tired but feeling pretty good aside from knowing I was genuinely pressed for time given the thirty-two hour cutoff. That was not a position I had envisioned myself in.
Jenn joined me at mile seventy five. I was a little goofy at that point but it was fun getting to know my friend’s beloved. I was really hurting by Heaven Hill and mile eighty-two. Tyler met us and told me “You did this next leg in 1:40 last time, you need to do that again.”
As we stepped off on the five mile stretch I’d used to pick up time previously, I was deep into a pity party. Jenn was doing a great job of keeping me from going too far into my head. We talked about books, movies, races, her law practice, Ohio vs. Atlanta…whatever she could come up with to keep me from getting too focused on the pain in my feet. By mile eighty-five, I was still having a disturbing inner monologue, largely focused on my awareness of the approaching time cutoff and my questionable willingness to continue enduring a lot of pain if I was only going to time out of the race before I could finish. Jenn, like the terrain, was relentless. Her relentlessness however was a stream of positivity designed to keep me moving.
By mile eighty seven I knew Tyler had chosen well on the spousal front, but the drama was increasing. Bluntly, I quit. I had 3:45 to move thirteen miles and had decided it was an impossibility. I had “gone internal” as we said of students when I was working at the Marine Raider Training Center.
As I slowly stepped up the hill, returning to the Heaven Hill Aid Station I yelled to Tyler, “I’m all done, man.” And I was, in my head. I had completely accepted that the LM 100 had defeated me. I wasn’t looking for excuses, I wasn’t crafting rationalizations, I was just done. Here is where the value of volunteers and pacers comes in. Everyone began telling me I could get this done. I told them I could not beat the cut off. The Aid Station crew told me that South Eastern Trail Runs considers a cut-off time “a suggestion” and that if I was moving forward at the last check point, I could finish and still qualify for a finisher’s buckle. They told me I wasn’t even in last place and that one racer had only just stepped off from mile eighty-two. Tyler, Jenn, and a volunteer convinced me beer was the key to further performance. I’m not a drinker, but a quick supply of carbs seemed in order. Thus, on bended knee, I asked for fermented assistance from The King of Beers, arose like Lazarus, and slowly, step by step, Tyler and I began making our way the next six miles to mile ninety-three.
I found John Dailey at mile ninety three, he having finished relatively recently, and attempted to enlist his sympathy.
“My feet are really trashed, man.”, I said.
“Isn’t that always part of the deal?”, John responded. That was not the hug and a back rub I was looking for.
So Tyler, Jenn, and I stepped off together for the last seven miles. These are some really fine people. The last seven miles were pretty uneventful. I did it in about 2:40 which was not a whole lot slower than I’d done it the three previous loops.
The brightest spot came about a half mile from the finish when we found Jason and Jeff, two Alabama natives I’d served with in the Marines more than a decade before, waiting for us on the side of the road. Jason and I were in Iraq together and it was awesome to see both of them. They made fun of me as any Marine should when another Marine is at a low point. I should have taken a picture with them, but that notion got lost in the happiness of finishing. So here’s Jason back then (because his hair was exceptional):
The finish line had been disestablished by the time we got there. I didn’t care. There were still three other racers on the course, I wasn't last, I qualified for a buckle, and I was done. There was a beautiful breeze and I had a cold Coke. Tyler and Jenn gave out high fives and bolted for Atlanta. Jeff and Jason made plans to take John and I to dinner. John and I headed to Steve’s for showers and Motrin.
In the end, what really set this race apart was the terrain. Another racer described it as “relentless” and there is not a more perfect word. The course’s four trips around a twenty-five mile figure eight equal 100.33 miles. The figure eight has an eighteen mile loop and a seven mile loop that I came to hate with a passion for reasons that are unclear to me, but are nonetheless absolute. The loop features about 3100 feet of elevation gain over the twenty five miles. There are no really dramatic features. No crushing uphills that just won’t end. No soul sucking downhills that feel like they’re pulling your quads off the bone (as in some races I’ve done in the Shenandoah Valley). It’s just mile after mile of upagaindownagain in some truly beautiful lakeside terrain. I recommend it for fellow ultra-runners, but I am not sure I agree that it’s a great first 100 (save for the kindness and generosity of SETR Race Director David Tosch who WILL get you across the finish if you will keep moving) because of the relentless nature of the terrain. The winning time was 21:13:58, a relatively slow win. The last finisher came in at 34:00:33 (I think). It’s just a deceptively tough course.
As for my less than inspiring performance? Well first off, I simply “ran” really slow over the course of the race. I averaged 20:08 miles. That surprised me as I had been averaging 12:00 minute miles for up to twenty miles at a time in training, with the actual splits between 8:00 and 14:00 minutes per mile, depending on terrain and how tired I was. I had done multiple twenty-eight to thirty-one mile training runs. Secondly, I was about ten pounds heavier than I planned, having gained it all in the three weeks preceding the race. The good news story is I was not DFL (as I was eleven months ago on the C&O Canal 100 Miler).
I would not have finished this race without Tyler and Jenn. I am truly appreciative of them, glad I did this one, and glad I’m going to take a year or so off from ultra-training. See you out there sometime in 2018.