This past weekend was my 53rd birthday. I decided to celebrate by doing an ultra. It is not unusual to do a birthday run, but it is kind of rare that one’s birthday falls on a race day. So, late last summer, when I saw a posting about an ultra that was falling on my actual birthday, I jumped at the chance to sign up. Little did I know what a great decision that would be.
The race I found was a small one held up in the Florida panhandle, just out of Crestview, called Bear Bait Ultra. As I read about the race, I found that they had a 25k, a 50k, and a 50 miler. I immediately decided that the 50 miler would be a good choice, and that rather than the 50 miles I would attempt 53. My decision was solidified when I read about the course. It was 4 mile loops (I like loops, and 4 miles is a great distance for them) and in what looked like a really pretty place. I was marginally familiar with the area because my daughter-in-law and her husband live not too far from there in Baker, and I knew that the forests up there had some good running.
After I signed up, I joined their Facebook page where I was welcomed to the race by one of the race directors, Bo. Right away I was struck by how friendly he seemed and how helpful in giving information about the race and area. I learned that the race had been done in prior years but that the race had new race directors this year, Bo, Dan, and Dalia. It was their first time doing the race director gig, but they are obviously a bunch of overachievers because the race was awesome in all areas! I have never seen a race where the directors worked so hard to take care of all the details and to make sure that each individual had a great race experience.
I felt even better about my decision as time passed. They set up several training runs, which unfortunately I could not make it up to. With each run, more and more pictures of the area were posted, and the trails looked great. Training was going well, and I was looking forward to the experience. Then in early December disaster struck in the form of problems with my shoulder, neck, and upper back. Training came to a halt as I dealt with the pain. I immediately contacted the RD to ask about switching down. Again he was super pleasant and helpful. He made the switch with no problem, and I was back on track.
Somewhere during this time, they had also put a picture of the finishers' “medals” on the site. They were not medals at all but these absolutely amazing handmade amulets with a bear claw on the front made by Tracey Thomas who has a company called Marvelous Mud. She posted some pictures of the amulets, and on her Facebook page even showed pictures of the amulets and awards before they were fired. It was really incredible, and I knew right then that I was finishing the race no matter what because I wanted one of those amulets for my birthday present!
As the weekend approached, I was very excited. I was planning to camp overnight. The race is at a campground at Bear Lake, but unfortunately it was first come, first serve. I was loathe to head up without a reservation, so I made one at the nearby Blackwater RiverState Park. I made the 5 hour drive up on Friday night and went to packet pickup. I found the park pretty easily. Packet pickup was at the pavilion in the campground which would also be the start/finish area for the race and the location of the aid station on the course. Packet pickup went smoothly. I finally got to see the shirts for the event, and they were awesome as promised. Mine was a powder blue Pantagonia, women’s cut, with the very cool race logo on the front.
I headed out to get a pre-race meal over in Crestview (for future reference, green Thai curry although delicious is probably not the best pre-race meal) and then headed back to my campground to hit the sack. I was car-camping (too lazy to set up a tent), which was a first for me. It was actually more comfortable than I expected, and 4:30 came quickly. It was cold outside, really cold, like 31 degree cold. I debated for a while the whole tights versus capris thing before settling on capris. Although it was in the 30s, it was clear, and sun was predicted. I compensated with lots of layers on top and headed out.
I arrived at the race course and met up with my friend John from New York who had stopped by to crew for me while on a snowbird escape from the subzero temperatures. I checked in and did the usual pre-race messing around but somehow got off schedule a bit. The pre-race briefing came up before I was quite ready for it. Bo was sweet enough to announce that it was my birthday, but unfortunately I had run back to the car because I had forgotten my race number. I made it back in time for the tail end of the course information, but then decided to hit the restroom again before the start.
The restrooms were inside the building where it was nice and warm. I must have been enjoying the heat a bit too long because when I came out, John said, “They already left.” I was like “What?????” He said, “They already started.” I was like “Oh shit, which way?” and off I went. I had paid attention during the briefing (sort of) but I knew I wasn’t going to be leading the race, so I figured I would just follow. I had to catch the group!!! The first mile was pretty frantic. I ignored the numbers on my HR monitor that said that I was way over my target HR. As I crossed the campground to enter the trail section, I could see the groups of people spread out across the dam and disappearing off into the woods. I had no idea how many there were ahead, so I kept passing people until I got the first mile alert from my watch and then decided I needed to just settle down.
After the trail got into the woods, it had become a really nice single track. It was well packed with lots of pine needles in some sections and fallen leaves in others. There were some roots on the trail, some of which were a little hard to see because of the leaves, but it was not what I would call technical. I had been worried about mud on the course because it had rained heavily two days before the race, but there were really only two spots which were slightly wet. The rest of the wet spots were covered with a series of short wooden boardwalks. We had been warned that they might be slippery, but I did not find that to be true. I usually don’t like running on boardwalks, but I did like them on the course because they were landmarks to help me recognize where I was on later loops.
Another plus to the course was that it is about as flat as you get on a trail ultra with single track. There was really only one very minor hill out on the loop, a slight hill up to the finish, and a set of short up and downs to get from the campground to the dam and up to the single track. The rest was just really awesome, mostly worry-free, pretty running through the trees. There were very few opportunities to get lost. There was one section on the far side of the lake where we had to cross a clearing, but the race director had told us to keep going straight and look across for the flags. It was well marked, and I don’t think anyone in the race had problems staying on course. One fun thing was that throughout the course the race directors had left us little signs to make us smile, with witty sayings like "You run better than the government" and "If ultras were easy, they would be called your mother," and what I thought was some very sensible advice:
The course goes around the lake, with glimpses of the water occurring quite often. We had started just at daylight, and as we went around the lake for the first time we were treated to a magnificent sunrise, blue and pink and orange skies. The cold temperatures made for steam rising off the lake. It was gorgeous!
After the race got going, things ticked along smoothly for the first couple hours. I met a few people who I ran with for a while, including a really nice guy named Chris, down from Fort Benning, who was doing the 50 mile. The loop I ran talking with him was probably the most pleasant of the whole day.
There was one aid station on the course, at the start/finish area. That meant 4 miles between aid, but it was definitely adequate for the course. It was a cool day, and the aid station was very well stocked. There was a slight hill across the finish mat and up to the aid station which was under the pavilion. On every loop volunteers and usually one of the race directors met me on the hill asking if I needed anything and offering to fill bottles. I was working mostly from my drop bag, with John as crew (thanks, John!) which was easy to locate because it was at the pavilion, but the aid table was well stocked with anything a runner could desire. For most people just carrying one bottle would be sufficient to have enough fluids to tide one over between aid stations.
|Slight hill approaching the finish line|
As I said things ticked along smoothly and partially due to the flatness of the course, I was rolling along way ahead of schedule. I had decided on a 9 minute run/1 min walk race plan, and after the second loop, I settled into that. The plan was working well, but I was surprised to be almost 20 secs per mile faster than I had planned to be, with my HR still within my acceptable range. It went that way until about mile 22. As I was getting close to the start/finish on loop six, I started getting the all too familiar electrical impulses in my calves that signal that cramping is imminent. I was pretty sure I had been taking in enough electrolytes, but had also been battling a wanky stomach for the last few loops, so maybe not. Then BAM! Out of nowhere I was on the ground. That was fall #1.
I got up, with the required amount of cussing, walked to be sure I had no unusual pains in the spleen region, and headed on. Finally the aid station came into sight. These really great spectators had been meeting us at the bottom of the hill on every lap with signs. I did my best to smile as I approached them, and then SPLAT. I was on the ground again. Fall #2. Right in front of the finish line. With all the spectators and aid station personnel looking on. DAMN!
As I went in to the aid station, I yelled at John to give me an electrolyte cap. I swallowed it down and stopped in quickly to see if Bull, the Active Release Therapy (ART) guy they had on-site, could do anything about my calf. He was out for a moment. Bo offered to get him for me, but I did not want to lose any more time. I headed back out and hoped for the best. I barely made it another mile and my hopes were dashed. The cramping started in my right calf. The next four miles were a nightmare of walking, jogging, cramping, and falling. I fell two more times on that loop. It just went on forever. Strangely, though, only two guys passed me during that time, so I wasn’t feeling too bad about anything except that my awesome finishing time was slipping away.
When I went into the aid station for the final time, I was feeling pretty crappy. My stomach was a little sloshy, and I was not feeling like putting any more in. It had warmed up some, and I felt like I was getting behind because of the lack of absorption/sloshy stomach. I could not stomach any more of my sports drink, so I grabbed some water: 5 cups to be exact. It was cold and went down well. I decided that it was either going to come back up or get the absorption started. I was cool with either change.
The last loop started like the previous one, with me doing a lot of walking and some listless running occasionally. Then somewhere around about 29.5 miles, I got passed. By a woman. As she went by, I said to myself , “Well, Lori, how many people are you going to let pass you like that on this loop? Get your butt in gear.” I took off after the woman who was quickly disappearing in the woods. Surprisingly, I started to feel better. I think the water was just what I needed to get all the sugar and electrolytes going into my system again. I finished out the loop running and crossed the finish line without anyone else passing me.
I crossed the finish line and knew exactly where I was headed. I went straight to get some ART on my calves and glute. I had a 5 hour drive home that afternoon and wanted to do all I could to make sure it would not be pure agony. I have never had ART at a race before, and I was amazed that he was there free of charge for the racers. He did an outstanding job of working on my knotted up areas, and I owe him big time for my comfort on the ride home. Thanks, Bodyworks by Bull!
I wandered out after the session with Bull feeling pretty good and headed down to the finish line to get my official time. I also had a chance to meet the other race directors, Dan and Dalia, and was standing there talking when Bo came down, tugged on my arm, and said, “Come on, we need you up here.” I was like “For what?” and then I figured he was probably going to announce my birthday again or something.
It turned out to be way better than that. It was for the awards ceremony. I had not realized it, but I had placed second overall for the women!!! I was surprised and shocked. I had no idea that I had been doing that well or that when that woman passed me it had been a pass for the lead! As my award, I received the most awesome handmade mug!
That was the icing on the (birthday) cake for me!! What a great day!
The Bottom Line:
If you are looking for a nice, small, kind of old-school ultra on beautiful trails for next January, you should definitely put this one on the schedule. It is a really great bunch of people putting on a really great event. The course is flat and has the potential to produce some really fast times. It would be an excellent course for a first-timer at the 50k or 50 mile distance. My advice is to get in on this gem before the word gets out. A quality race like this is likely to grow. Thanks to Bo, Dan, and Dalia for a fabulous birthday!
|So when I said "flat," I wasn't kidding. :-)|