(This photo and all photos with a We Run Huntsville watermark are credited to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville)
I was extremely excited going into this race. I knew I probably wouldn’t be running it in any sort of impressive time due to my illness leading up to it, but I had trained well and felt confident that I could at least finish with a smile on my face. When we arrived at the state park we were greeted by several of our running friends, almost all of them asking me how I was feeling and what my plan for the race was. With each question about my health, my confidence wavered a little more and I started to get really, really nervous. What was I THINKING?! On Tuesday I was so sick that I couldn’t even walk on my own. On Wednesday and Thursday I was still suffering from major dehydration and couldn’t eat anything. On Friday, I felt better, and was able to eat two meals. So basically, that’s three days of not eating leading up to a race with MADNESS in the name. “You really have gone mad,” I told myself.
Shortly before we began, my friend, Eric, who is among the elites in our town, walked up and showed me his forearm. On it was written, “With nothing left to draw upon but his will.” The night before the race, Eric sent me a message on Facebook linking me to a blog post he had written about running McKay Hollow days after suffering through a stomach virus. He reminded me that great things happen when we have the will to preserver, and wished me to have a great race. With the reminder of that encouragement, I emptied my mind of all negative thoughts and worries, and resolved to run my best, whatever my best may be for the time being.
The race began on the road. You can see Eric in the lead already, and he went on to win first place overall in the race. I have heard many people gripe about trail races that begin on the road, but for this one it was a good thing. The race takes place upon mostly single track trail, so starting the racers out on the streets helps the crowd to spread out and prevent the traffic jam that sometimes happens when everyone shoots out onto the trails at once.
(Ha! We both have our eyes closed! I guess we weren’t fully awake yet)
After about a mile on the road, we rushed down a steep descent on Sinks trail– I really enjoy this descent and have gotten pretty good on it in our training, so I tried to fly down as quickly as possible. At the first climb, I slowed to a walk and pulled off my long sleeved shirt. It was much warmer than I was expecting and I was definitely over dressed. We navigated our way through the Panther Knob, including some hand over foot climbing, at one point even on all fours as we climbed through the rock formations, and then we made our way towards Mountain Mist trail. Mountain Mist is among my favorite trails to run– the footing is rocky in some places and there are just enough ups and downs to keep you on your toes. I tried to take the opportunity to really push the pace here, as I knew from our training that the second half of the course is much more challenging.
(Before the race, Gregg approached us and said, “If you two are running together I better see you holding hands out there!” So that’s exactly what we did when we saw him, haha… Dorks in love!)
Soon enough we had made it to the first BIG, monster climb– the trek up Warpath Ridge trail to O’Shaughnessy Point. This is one of those ascents that leaves you huffing and puffing even if you stop to walk up it (which is exactly what we did). It’s fairly steep in parts and doesn’t relent at all, just up, up, up and UP! Finally we reached the top and came to the first aid station at mile 5. We paused for a moment so Scott could get a refill on his water bottle, and then we continued on. Scott groaned as he saw the marker for the trail head– it was time for Rest Shelter trail, our next big descent. Out of all the trails that descend into the hollow, I think this is one of the hardest. It is single track and very, very rocky; because of this, Scott absolutely hates it. Thankfully I have run this section several times, so I am fairly comfortable on most of it. I ran down carefully, tip toeing my way around the rocks with Scott trailing closely behind. We passed a few people going down and I laughed at Scott’s conversations with them– “I don’t know how you’re running this part,” one said, and Scott replied, “Me either! I’m just trying to keep up with my wife! She’s part mountain goat!” It wasn’t a quick descent, but we survived!
Finally we made it to the bottom on to the race’s namesake, McKay Hollow trail. This is another fairly flat and runnable section, so we picked up the pace again. Normally this part of the course is referred to as the “Slush Mile,” as it is generally a sloppy mud fest due to little direct sunlight being able to hit the area. There was very little rain leading up to the race, however, and while it was still pretty muddy, it was nothing compared to how bad it usually is.
(Not my feet, obviously! But you can see the mud!)
Running through the slush took it’s toll on my legs, and they were beginning to feel heavy. After finishing the McKay Hollow section, we crossed a creek bed and ended up on Natural Well trail. I looked up to my right and saw the big climb we were about to ascend. I had been holding the need to pee since the beginning of the race and couldn’t stand it anymore, so I jumped off the trail for a quick break. It seemed like no one was around, but as soon as I had my pants down I heard Scott saying “Hurry! There are people coming!” Thankfully I was able to do my business and get back on the trail just as my friends Casey and Robin approached us. Little did they know they almost got the full show! We power hiked our way up Natural Well, passed THE natural well (a terrifying, gigantic hole in the ground that seems to go all the way to the center of the earth–pictured below), and continued on. We were now heading towards the first of the two major course changes, and I anxiously looked for flags to ensure that we wouldn’t miss it.
This is when I started to feel majorly tired. We were about 7 miles in, and my legs and arms were throbbing and my mind felt fuzzy. I knew I was probably electrolyte depleted and underfueled, but the thought of eating a gel made my stomach turn. After running another short section, we came to the first new addition. Thank GOODNESS for the red flags marking the course, because we would have never thought to go that way otherwise. It was another steep, rocky, straight up climb; Scott and I looked at each other and said, “Uhh… seriously??” We, started to make our way up, and it did not seem like we were even ON a trail, but the flags don’t lie, so up we continued, hand over foot. Scott made his way in front of me, helping me up some of the more precarious sections, and we made it to the top slowly. We marked our bibs with the sharpies (provided to ensure that all racers took the correct route), and then continued on our way. I felt extremely weak and dizzy, and knew the rest of the race was probably going to be a struggle. Thank goodness I had Scott with me– he helped me so much during the race, physically assisting me on tough parts and providing gentle encouragement when my mental state started to slip. I am 100% sure I wouldn’t have been able to do it without him. He was my rock.
(This photo is credited to David Collins)
After the sharpie station, we hit a bit of a downhill and we began running again. We were now on Arrowhead trail, and winded through some more rock formations with some pretty rocky and root-filled footing. Scott could tell I was fading, and began talking to distract my mind. First, he told me the entire story of the Iliad, quoting word for word some of the more exciting sections (my husband– engineer and ancient literature buff), and then he gave me the layman’s version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Soon we made it to the second and final aid station at mile 10. My legs felt TERRIBLE, and they were throbbing and cramping up badly. Thankfully my friend, Linda, who was working the aid station, had a bottle of salt pills with her and so generously gave me one, and with it I drank some gatorade. Scott knew I probably needed to eat something, so he encouraged me to open up my peanut butter and jelly uncrustable that I had stashed in my pack. I was able to stomach about half of the sandwich before tossing the rest and heading back onto the trail.
Now we were headed towards the second course change– the bushwhack. Instead of running through the old washed out section, the course took us off-trail and up and around the washout. It was difficult to run here, as it was pretty much a rock garden, so we power hiked through, marked our bibs at the second sharpie station, and continued on. We made it back onto Arrowhead trail for another rocky descent. I was running slowly, and just tried to keep my mind off the pain in my legs. We passed an old cistern full of water, carefully climbed over some mossy rocks, and ran down Big Cat trail. After a short but steep climb up Big Cat Hill, we were back on Arrowhead. For about a mile and a half we were on blessedly FLAT ground. This section was one of the only ones that was truly slushy– it was covered in sections of completely mud covered ground that had already been trampled by hundreds of feet before me. We plowed straight through me mud and I found it hard to run on the slick ground with my wobbly legs. I tuned out the aching in my body and listened to Scott’s continual pep talk, alternating between running on the dry parts and walking over the slippery sections.
We made it back to Natural Well and crossed back and forth over a stream, using all fours to get in and out of the creek bed, and slowly power hiking our way back uphill. Finally we made it back to McKay Hollow trail. Scott took my pack from me so I could complete the final climb unencumbered. It was time for the grand finale!
The race ends on Death Trail. In a detailed description of the course, the race director refers to Death as a “hellacious climb,” and says, “This is a very tough climb, very technical with several areas of exposed, shear drops so take your time (you’ll probably be pretty tired by this point so taking your time goes without saying) as you would hate to fall off” Yikes! We began our ascent of death trail, and I could feel myself fading fast. My vision was going slightly blurry around the edges, and my legs were more tired than they had ever been. The worlds Relentless Forward Motion repeated themselves over and over again in my mind. After maybe a half mile of intense climbing (it feels more like a thousand miles), we made it to a level section. I looked up to see folks standing on the bluff above the waterfall cheering us on.
We navigated the last few switchbacks, and FINALLY, FINALLY made it to the top. We emerged from the trail and trotted toward the finish line, being careful no to slip on the slick rocks.
(This photo was taken by Carol Eaton)
We crossed the finish line hand in hand, with a time of 4:34:18. Immediately after crossing, I plopped to the ground and tried to catch my breath. My legs were cramping so badly that I could not stand anymore, but I still had a giant smile on my face– I DID IT. WE DID IT. We finished the Madness!
To give an indicator of just how difficult this race is, the distance is only ~2 miles longer than a half marathon, and my time is almost DOUBLE my half PR. I now know why all of the runners who finish this race love it so passionately and come back year after year. It is truly one of the the most challenging things I’ve ever done, but man, is it amazing. I can’t wait to do it again. Most of all, I am so deeply thankful and full of gratitude towards my husband. Without him, this race would have been a complete disaster. He anticipated my needs better than I could myself, and having him by my side the entire way was such a blessing.
I am so happy to be among the crowd that has taken on this challenge and survived. I can’t wait to run it again next year.