(All photos credited to Gregg Gelmis of We Run Huntsville)
I can pretty much sum up this race in just a few points:
- Abdominal pain
- Foot pain
- Probably should have eaten more
- STILL HAD FUN 🙂
That was the short version. Ready for the long one?
It was surprisingly chilly for it being the last weekend in March. When I arrived at the state park it was 25 degrees– ACK! It was a struggle trying to relocate all my winter gear while getting ready that morning. Luckily the pavilion where most of the racers had gathered had two big fireplaces with roaring fires going. I tried my hardest to avoid the temptation of standing super close to it until just before race start. I can imagine that the sudden transition from hot to could would have been quite a shock to my muscles! After a while, it was time to gather near the overlook for the race start. The day before at packet pick up, my friend Kim and I decided that we would run together and simply aim to have fun. We positioned ourselves in the middle of the pack, trying to make sure we would avoid the traffic jams that tend to occur when hundreds of runners all converge on the narrow trails at once.
After a few words from the race director reminding us of trail markers and other important information, we were off! The race starts off with about a mile or so on the road winding through the state park. I was stiff all over and my body did NOT feel ready to run. “Wake up legs,” I told myself out loud, and several others around me agreed. Even just a week of weather in the 70s was enough for our bodies to forget what it feels like to run in cold weather, ha! My fingers and toes were completely numb and achy, and I had the sleeves of my Nike half zip pulled up around my hands for extra warmth.
We finished up the road section and dipped down onto Sinks trail. Kim and I talked about how we were worried about getting down this trail in the crowded conditions. We have had quite a bit of rain lately and we knew the descent into the hollow might be muddy and slick. Surprisingly, the trail was quite dry, at least it was on the way down 🙂 We got down Sinks without much of a traffic jam and headed towards the Panther Knob. Kim commented on how dry Sinks was and a guy running behind us predicted that the whole course would be that way…. oh how wrong he was! A few minutes later we hit our first mud puddles. They were wet and sloppy, filled with the kind of sludge that tried to suck your shoes straight off your feet!
After a little hill we made it to the Panther Knob. Getting through this part involves cutting through the middle of a large rock formation, sliding through a small gap in the rock, climbing up the side, and finally emerging out of the top. As Kim and I rose back to our feet she cried, “WE HAVE BEEN BORN FROM THE PANTHER KNOB!” Ha! I giggled and we started back on the trail. Soon we were on Mountain Mist trail, one of my favorites to run. Greenery was just starting to sprout from the ground, and water was trickling down from the tall rocks that run parallel to the trail. Sun filtered through the trees and I was starting to warm up nicely. At this point I started to experience some abdominal pain– I stopped, took a few deep breaths, walked it off, and then went back on my way. The morning turned out to be perfect for a run through the forest, and I was determined not to fall into the dumps.
The abdominal pain seemed to come in waves, but I found that if I stopped and took a short walk break when I first felt it coming on, it wouldn’t get too painful. Kim and I were trotting through the woods, talking and laughing like usual, and before I knew it were were approaching the first big climb, Warpath Ridge. I realized this meant we were about 5 miles in to the race, and I needed to probably eat a Gu soon. We huffed and puffed up Warpath uneventfully, and made it to the first aid station. I asked a volunteer to open my Gu since my fingers were still frozen solid, shot back a small cup of Coke, and we were back on our way. Now it was time for one of my favorite descents, Rest Shelter!
We dipped off the plateau and into the hollow on the rocky trail. We were about to enter what is referred to as the Slush Mile. It’s a section between Rest Shelter and the next trail section that always seems to be covered in thick, deep puddles of water and mud. And it didn’t disappoint!! We splashed through the puddles and tried not to lose our shoes to the mud. I considered stopping to re-tie my laces, but knew I probably wouldn’t be able to get to them underneath my mud-caked gaiters.
After sloshing through the Slush Mile, it was time for our next big climb up Natural Well trail. This climb upwards always seems to take forever. It’s very gradual, so you don’t feel like you’re terribly out of breath while ascending, but it is VERY technical in some places, cris-crossing over a waterfall several times, up and around a washed out section in the ground, and over lots of big rocks that require some hand and foot climbing. When we made it to the top, a guy running in front of Kim and I commented that it “only” took 20 minutes to do that mile. I have a feeling he was joking– but Kim and I actually felt like it was pretty good time for that section! Ha
Now that we were at the top of Natural Well, we were well on our way to the second and final aid station. I was getting a little bit fatigued and not picking my feet up as high, and I kept stubbing my toes on rocks and roots. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem, but every time I hit my toenail-less toe into something it shot pain up my entire leg. OUCH! Toenails are important, y’all… On top of that, my abdominal pain was getting a little worse, but Kim was happy to take her time and didn’t leave me behind. I was so thankful for her company– despite the discomfort I was feeling, my mood couldn’t have been better. I was just happy to be out playing in the woods on a beautiful day!
Near the second aid station my stomach lurched and I hoped and prayed there would be a porta potty there. I had to GO. BADLY. AND SOON. I pack toilet paper in my first aid kit that I keep in my hydration pack for this purpose, but honestly, who really wants to poop in the woods? No one. Who wants to poop in the woods when there’s a race going on which means a high probability of someone SEEING you? NO ONE. But that’s exactly what I ended up having to do when we arrived at aid station #2 and there was no bathroom facility to be seen. Dang it. I ducked off trail into the woods and walked for several minutes to try and find a secluded spot. Once I was certain I would be concealed, I did my business… No big deal right? Wrong. I reached into my pack and was dismayed to find exactly two squares of TP. What the heck? I must not have tucked as much in there as I thought… It was then that I remembered that I had two pairs of gloves with me… A cheaper pair from Target that was a gift from my sister last Christmas, and an expensive pair from Mizuno that I bought 3 years ago. I sacrificed the Target gloves to the forest (sorry Roo). Right as I was struggling to pull my pants back up, a park ranger dude appeared out of no where. A strangled cry of “AJKLFJKSLA!!!!” came out of my mouth and I scurried away. If I had any dignity left post woods poo, it was now gone.
Despite the heavy cloud of shame that was now following me, I felt a lot better and rejoined Kim on the race course, she helped me laugh about the horrifying poop situation and we settled back into a good rhythm. We were now over halfway done and heading back towards the finish line– only a few big obstacles left! First we hit what is lovingly referred to as S.O.B. Ditch, a washed out section that is nothing but downed trees and prickly bushes.
After getting through the ditch, it was time for a nice long downhill on Arrowhead trail. We caught up with our friends Lori and Tracy and stayed with them for a while and chatted. Arrowhead was a nice break to just turn my brain off and run– it isn’t too technical and the downhill made it easy to go into auto pilot. All too soon it was time for another climb– Big Cat hill! I didn’t mind it too much, however, because I knew that meant we were almost done. We were back on Natural Well and were greeted with SO MUCH MUD!!! We all decided that the new Slush Mile should be this area, because almost all of it was a sloppy mess. I nearly lost my shoes several times and kept almost falling down when my foot landed in a particularly deep mud puddle.
It was on this section that Kim, Lori and I had a bit of group therapy. We talked about marriage, body image, self confidence… it was awesome. That’s one of the funny things about running long distances with someone else by your side. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know that person before the run started, by the end of it, you’re bonded. We all basically declared our love for each other, and the good conversation made the final miles fly by. Soon enough we were ALMOST DONE! Only two more things to tackle, first was Cry Baby Hill. I moaned and groaned and thought about how appropriately the hill was named. A group in front of us called out, “Is this Death Trail?” I laughed and said, “No, it isn’t, you’ll know Death Trail when you see it!”
About midway up Cry Baby I suddenly realized how hungry I was. I began to feel slightly dizzy and started falling behind Kim because I had to stop and hold on to something to steady myself every couple of minutes. I wondered if I should eat a Gu, but knew that we were almost done and doubted it would get into my system in enough time to help anything. Thankfully Cry Baby Hill was soon over, and it was time to tackle the infamous Death Trail…
It’s hard to describe Death Trail to anyone who hasn’t ever seen it– but basically it is a freakin’ ridiculous climb out of the hollow. It’s long, it’s brutal, and it will reduce you to your rawest form. It’s maybe half of a mile long, and can take someone at my pace anywhere from 20 – 30 minutes to finally make it to the top. I felt horrible at the bottom, and knew it was going to be rough going to the finish. Up and up we climbed, Kim getting further and further ahead of me as I continued to pause every once in a while. Each time I hoisted myself over a big rock, I felt like I was going to either vomit or pass out, or maybe both. It felt like I had been ascending for eternity, and I was feeling very foggy and my hands were shaking. That’s when I heard a voice cutting through the woods. One of Lori’s friends saw her coming and was calling her name so loudly you could probably hear it all the way to Florida. You know you’re getting near the top when you start to hear the water fall that the end of the trail runs alongside of– I rounded the corner and heard both the water and my family calling my name. Tears started streaming down my face and I had no idea why– this race was all about fun, why was I crying??
I reached the final switch back and could now see the finish line. I heard people calling my name and started sobbing. I realized that Kim waited to cross the finish line with me as well, and that brought even more tears. I WAS SO TIRED. AND SO HUNGRY. AND SO CONFUSED ABOUT WHY I WAS SO EMOTIONAL. I crossed over the finish line and fell straight into Scott’s and my mom’s arms, my limbs felt clunky and awkward. I heard someone say, “Chelsea doesn’t look too good…” and I called out, “I AM CRYING AND I DON’T KNOW WHY!”
Look at that face. I guess that’s what I look like when I’m sobbing, ha! Mom and Scotty walked me away from the finish line and over to a table so I could sit down. I was shaky and a little disoriented, but at least had enough presence of mind to ask for a Coke or something sugary. After sitting for a while and eating and drinking a little bit, the fog started to lift and I felt much better. Come to find out, crying for no reason is a symptom of a blood sugar crash. Now I don’t feel so bad about my goofy emotional outburst 😉
Despite the struggle to the finish, I had a blast at this year’s McKay Hollow 25k. This race has everything a trail runner could ever dream of, and it will always be one of my favorites. Of course, I could have never survived without my awesome friend Kim! We had so much fun together and I am so grateful that she patiently hung with me and my slow butt. My final finish time was somewhere in the neighborhood of 4:45 (official results are not posted yet), so I was about 15 minutes slower than last year. No real shocker there– what with the poop stop and all my pauses to make sure I didn’t fall off the side of the mountain!
Final verdict: 10/10, love this race, love my running buddies, love the woods, love my body for carrying me through all this craziness.