Monday, July 13, 2009

Rattlesnake 50K - 7/11/09

Tiger, Dennis (Race Director), and Graham at the finish

Danny and Dennis at the finish

The Rattlesnake 50K in Charleston, WV is one of my favorites. It kicks my butt every year, but this is the type of punishment that I thrive on, so I continue to go back. It's 10 climbs in one big loop on some of the most beautiful trails I've ever run. Last year, I finished in 9:56:14, just under the 10-hour cut-off. My best finish was in 2007, when I ran 8:01:26, after three straight years of running between 9:01 and 9:16.

It's always nice to run a familiar course. I had been looking forward to it all week. Even though this was my sixth year, I still get excited about coming back to this race. It's hard to explain. Maybe it's because this race was my 2nd 50K in 2004 when I finally decided to start running ultras. Maybe it's because I am miraculously able to finish what I consider a hard course, under the cut-off. Whatever the reason, this race holds a special place in my heart.

My running buddies were there: Rosemary (KY), Danny (KY), Diane (TN), Rob (TN), Susan (TN), Graham (AL), and Larry (TX). Although I was unable to keep up with them, it was nice to talk with them before and after the race.

Because I haven't been running well, I did not know how the day would proceed. I know the year of my fastest finish, I was probably in the best shape of my life. And because of the difficulty of the course, I knew that I needed a lot more training under my feet than I have been doing lately. I felt that I was in worse shape this year than last year, and last year was definitely a struggle.

The first climb was slow and steady. There's not much road to spread out the field before we hit the trail. But it doesn't take long before there are gaps between the single file up the trail. When I noticed that I wasn't following as close to Danny as I would have liked, I pulled off to the side of the trail to allow others to go ahead. I couldn't breathe very well, and it would be a long day. The first climb was not the time to push my limits. Diane came cruising by, softly saying "come on." I continued to hug my tree (a familiar position for me all day, lol), and through deep breaths, I simply responded "coming."

After the final group had passed me, I continued to climb. I thought I was in last place but later learned that a couple was behind me. We would go back and forth for the next few hours before they dropped from the race.

The reoccurring theme of this race is that you climb, you descend, and then there's an aid station. So at the bottom of the climb was the first aid station. One of the volunteers that works this race every year and who had recognized me at the check-in before the start was at this aid station. Every year he calls me "pretty lady" and asks how do I continue to smile along this course. "Delirium" is always my answer, lol.

At this point, I was good on fluids, so he pointed me in the right direction for the next climb. These trails are full of rocks and roots, so even if I could run up the steep climbs, it wouldn't be very fast. I continue to power walk the hills, stopping along the way to hug a tree and to catch my breath every now and then.

It was overcast and humid most of the day. At certain times during the day, I wished for rain, but I've been on this course in the rain, and it's not a pretty sight. The streams fill up fast, the rocks become slick, and the down hills become just as hard as the up hills to navigate. It was probably better to just deal with the humidity.

At the end of this climb, we hit a paved road that goes up to Aid Station #2. Again, my favorite volunteer was there. He was all over the place today, helping out wherever he could. Here I refilled my bottle with Gatorade and grabbed a gel. Climb #3 is one of the more difficult ones, so I prepared myself before heading up.

Up, up, up . . . switchback . . . up, up, up . . . switchback. Hug a tree and catch my breath. Up, up, up . . . . If the trail wasn't so beautiful, I'd be hating life right about now, lol.

And the mushrooms! Every shape, size, and color you could imagine. Not knowing which ones were poisonous, I admired them from afar during my bonding moments with the trees. But all I wanted to do was to reach out and touch them. They hardly resembled the mushrooms that I loved to eat, lol.

Finally, I reach the top of the mountain (for lack of a better term), running along the double track ridge before heading down, down, down on another single track trail to Aid Station #3. This aid station was in the parking lot of the start/finish area. One of the volunteers asked if I had seen any animals. No, I told him, and I haven't seen any rattlesnakes either, lol. He told me that they were out there and that he'd caught one by the swimming pool a few years ago. As I was leaving the aid station, I glanced over at the swimming pool. Nope, there were no rattlesnakes there today, lol.

Time to climb again and then descend via switchback to the next aid station. Aid Station #4 leads to the shooting range area. It amazes me every year that none of the runners get shot. It's loud and scary coming through this area, but as long as the shooters stay in their area and we stay on the trail, I guess no one is in danger. But you have to wonder why there are shell casings on the gravel road leading from the aid station.

The couple behind me had finally caught up. The guy asked if there were any restroom facilities nearby. The volunteer told him that there were plenty of bushes and trees around. Ah . . . they must be newbies to this race, lol.

The climb up the gravel road is long and relentless. Nothing to it but to get through it. Again we reach the ridge for some relatively flat running before heading back down to Aid Station #5. The aid stations are fully stocked and so evenly spaced that it would be almost impossible to run out of water or to get hungry on this course. This aid station is the half way point where drop bags are waiting for the runners. I don't use a drop bag for 50K's, so I grab food, fill my bottle, and go.

I have finally caught up with the couple. The lady appears to be having trouble on the next climb. She rests at a tree as I pass by slowly, and the guy patiently waits until she's ready to go on. I ask if everything is okay. She responds that they are fine. That would be the last time that I see them. At some point along the way, unbeknownst to me, they drop from the race.

Who's at Aid Station #6 but my favorite volunteer! He must have a magic carpet to get to all of these aid stations. I picked up cheese cubes, a gel, and refill my bottle. Following the familiar pattern of this course, it's time for another climb.

At some point I get these grand illusions of finishing in 9 hours. But, of course, I'm not factoring in how long it takes for me to climb. The down hills aren't any faster. My knees are starting to hurt a little, and my legs are very shaky as I run the down hills. After a while, not only am I walking the up hills, but I'm also walking the down hills. But it's so pretty out here! The slower I go, the more I get to enjoy the scenery, lol. Aren't rationalizations wonderful?

I have arrived at the camp grounds for some pavement running. I am approaching my favorite aid station. There are real toilet facilities here, and I always stop for a break. This year is no exception. I then move on to Aid Station #7. I see an ambulance parked near, and the volunteer tells me that someone is down near the top of the next climb. "Don't go up there if you don't feel good. It's a hard climb," the volunteer tells me.

Well, of course, I felt good. I had been having a great day so far. And yes, I knew it was a hard climb, but this one has a lot of switchbacks, which helps greatly. I tell him that I've been here before, and that I'm capable of continuing. He tells me to be careful and to watch for others going up and down the trail to help out the downed runner.

As I start the climb up, others are indeed coming down. They did not have numbers, so I guess they were campers who had made the climb up to help out. For a moment, I wondered if the runner down was any of my running buddies. I hoped not. I also hoped that whoever it was, however, was not in too much trouble. Up, up, up . . . .

I finally see 2 runners, one's standing and one is sitting. I do not know either one of them. I also see Dennis, the race director, sitting and talking with the downed runner, while 2 EMTs are attending to him. I do not know the downed runner, but nevertheless, I am still worried about him. I stop, wondering if there is anything that I can do. Isn't it rude to continue on when someone is down? But what could I do that the other 5 persons there couldn't do? The downed runner says something that I didn't hear, and Dennis laughs. This is a good sign that he's going to be okay, I thought. I say as much to Dennis as I carefully pass by everyone on the narrow trail. I later find out that the runner would indeed be okay. What a relief!

Down, down, down and Aid Station #8 is next. At this point, I know that I won't make 9 hours, but I'm thinking 9.5 hours is doable. I start the climb up and encounter the section with the boulders. Here's where I get to use my limited upper body strength, lol, climbing up and over boulders bigger than me. It's fun in a weird sort of way and makes me feel like an exploring kid.

After the boulders, it's time to go down, down, down to the last aid station. I see a runner coming towards me. This course is a big loop, with no out-n-back sections, so there should never be a runner coming towards you. I recognize Graham, hammering up the big climb. He tells me that he missed Aid Stations #5 and #8, and he now has to make up the distance by running the course backwards for a few miles. Oh, my! He passes me, telling me that he'll catch up in a little while.

As I'm leaving Aid Station #9, three miles from the finish, Graham has indeed caught up to me. He's an excellent down hill runner. He tells me that we have 56 minutes to do the last 3 miles before the 10 hour cut-off. So on the previous section, I've lost a half hour. Ugh! And thus begins my panic climb up the next hill!

I climb and continue to look back to make sure that Graham is following me. Once on top and as we start our descent, Graham is flying again. It's all I can do to keep up with him. He's going to make it under 10 hours, and I'm coming through that finish line right behind him. We are now on the trail along the creek, flat and runnable. Graham has picked up speed, but I'm staying right with him. I am running all out, getting tired, sweating profusely, and breathing audibly. I look at my watch. We're going to make it. Graham's going to get us to the finish in under 10 hours.

We finally pop out of the woods onto the open meadow to the finish line. My head is down, and my legs, still shaky from trying to run the down hills all day, are churning as fast as they can, just a little further. Rob and Susan are cheering us in. I am so happy to see that finish line that I wave frantically to them. There are very few cars left in the parking lot, but Dennis is right there to congratulate us both and to give us our finishers' award. I finish 8 seconds behind Graham with a time of 9:57:14, exactly one minute slower than last year, but still good enough for my sixth finish of the Rattlesnake 50K.

Tiger trumps rattlesnake, lol. Rest, Tiger, rest!


  1. Nice one! I found your blog from Jason Sullivan and remembered you from Twisted Ankle and Black Warrior. Good job on another 50K. Looking forward to meeting you at Lynch's Woods.

  2. Congratulations!

    This sounds like a challenging race. But you rose to the challenge like the champion you are!

    Happy running,