It’s a lot easier to quit a 50 mile race when you have to run by your car four times during the race. Torture really, that builds with each passing. At the 2014 Mississippi 50 Trail Run, the course consisted of three 12.5 mile loops and two 6.1 mile loops (just shy of 50 miles). This race also includes a 20k and 50k race options and they also allow you to drop down or move up in distance during the race. For 50 milers, you have to decide after that second loop whether or not to start the third 12.5 mile loop or take the turn at the 6.1 mile loop and finish at 50k. If you start the third loop your options are: (1) did not finish (dnf) or (2) get a belt buckle at the finish line. Things had not gone well for me on the second 12.5 mile loop. I was feeling too fatigued for the 10 minute mile pace I had been averaging. It was boggy in low spots and creek crossings and at one point I slipped and nearly ran straight in to a tree. In the acrobatics to avoid the tree I felt my calf muscles complain crampily about the awkward, jerky movement. For the last couple of miles of that second loop I had periodically thought about my car and how it meant a quicker end to the discomfort in my legs. Just drop down to 50k, and be done in an hour. The other option; start the third loop and run another 25 miles in what I thought would take five more hours. I would have to make a decision soon.
Training for my first 50 mile trail race included running The Mississippi Blues Marathon in Jackson, MS in January seven weeks prior. The Blues was followed by the Mississippi River Marathon from Arkansas to Greenville, MS just three weeks prior. I’m a newbie at ultras though. I ran a 50k last year but that’s it for ultras. I’ve also read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run and Running Through the Wall by Neil Jamison, so I did have quite a bit of head knowledge. Over the last couple of months I have had some tendinitis in my right foot/ankle, or “fankle” as I call it. It had limited my running in recent weeks but I ran my last marathon three weeks prior in 3:26 (7:53 pace) so a 10:00 minute mile pace seemed safe. Not sure I could have been more ready except for maybe getting in a long slow run of up to 35 miles. With the marathons so close together and fankle issues it was not to be.
The pre-race dinner and packet pickup was in Laurel, MS the night before the race. I arrived only about 15 minutes after the scheduled start and almost everyone had already gone through the buffet line and was seated. It was cold outside with temps in the 40′s and it felt like there was no heat on in the building. Brrr. It’s a bare bones event; check in, pick up your packet, get your food and listen to announcements. They had pasta with your choice of meat or veggie sauce, salad, bread, cookies and brownies. I have the world’s least discriminating pallet so you should never take taste recommendations from me, but the spaghetti reminded me of my Mom’s and the brownies had chunks of chocolate in them so the food was fine in my book and there was plenty of it. The sound system was inadequate so you could not really hear the announcements and awards given to those who had run a lot of Mississippi 50 Mile races. By the time I was done eating I was uncomfortably cold so I chatted for a couple of minutes with someone I knew and headed back to the hotel to get some rest.
Sleep was hard to come by as it always seems to be for me the night before a long race. From my hotel in Laurel, it was a thirty minute drive to the race start in De Soto National Forest so I had to be up early to get there for the scheduled 6AM start. I was up at 3:45AM, about a half hour earlier than planned. Meh, sleep issues. I left the hotel about 5:00AM and arrived uneventfully at the start/finish about 5:35AM. This was the first time I have started a race this early in the morning and in the woods, so it was a different experience seeing people walking around with headlamps, folding up tents and just running through pre-race routines. After checking in at the race tent I joined the others at the start and just tried to remain calm. The temps were moving up already from the previous night and I was almost comfortable in a tank top which I took as a bad sign. The forecast high was 70F. I knew I would need to be liberal with the fluids but the 10 minute pace still seemed appropriate.
The race started about 5 minutes after the hour and the field stretched out quickly with the fast 50 milers and the 50k runners moving out at a quicker pace. The 20k start would not happen until 8AM, but parking was pretty crowded at 5:30AM. I wonder where all those 20k’ers parked? The course is a mix of forest service roads and single track horse trails. It’s hilly as you can see in the elevation profile I made from my Garmin data.
The hills were not all that steep, but they were long with miles 7 to 9 being mostly a steady uphill grind that was difficult on the second 12.5 mile loop and excruciating on the third. There were a half dozen creeks to cross and many boggy spots that were wet and muddy. My feet were soaked within a couple of miles of the start and stayed that way all day. Wet feet does not bother me but I don’t particularly care for the mud. In some flat sections the mud was pock marked by horse hooves and made for tricky footing.
As I mentioned the 20k started at 8AM. I ran the first 12.5 miles in a little over 2 hours which put me back at the start not long after the 20k’ers started. This seemed like a nuisance to me at the time because the course was a little congested when it narrowed to single track and some of the slower runners were not yielding. This was completely uncalled for on my part because I was not competing to win. I probably could have conserved some energy and run with some of the slower 20k groups for a bit instead of feeling anxious. Lesson learned.
The aid stations stocked heed, water, endurolyte pills, gels and a generous assortment of salty snack foods, PB&J, candy, bananas and oranges. The longest gap between aid stations was 4.4 miles and that was the first one after the start/finish on the long loop. I was worried about cramping at this distance and in the heat so I ate and drank well throughout the day. I have a stomach that can take anything and I literally tried everything on the table at least once during the day. I know the experts say you are not supposed to do that, but I don’t have to worry about eating something that will upset my stomach and I wanted to keep putting calories in. At the end of the day my Garmin said I burned over 5000 calories, so eating was something I had to focus on. There was one funny moment when an aid worker handed me a cup of “water” that turned out to be Sprite. He was so sorry when I just about gagged from surprise when I was expecting cold water and got sugary fizz. I told him it was no big deal. I like Sprite anyway. There was one aid station that had a couple of younger kids working there that I found a little off putting. They were cute and bless them for spending the day in the woods helping complete strangers, but they are kids and they need more supervision than was provided. I think adult volunteers should have been more responsible for that aid station.
After 25 miles it was hard for me to imagine running another 25 miles. But I had come to this race for one reason, to run 50 miles. I also felt like my family, friends and coworkers were expecting me to finish. It’s not that I see myself as anything special or an inspiration to others. I just did not want to see the surprised expressions and have to relive telling the story of why I couldn’t make it. After a brief stop at the aid station, I set off for my third loop. There are not many spectators there, but the ones that are seemed to be paying attention. As I ran past some would yell out encouragement and some would even say, “Third loop? You’re gonna run 50!” That was fun.
I ran most of the last 25 miles alone, occasionally I would find myself with someone else and we would talk for a bit, but conversation grew increasingly difficult and I grew more terse and mean spirited. Some people passed me. I passed some others. It is just so hard to push yourself when the fatigue sets in so deep. There was a constant dull pain in my hamstrings and anything that caused my right ankle to roll slightly in or out caused sharp pains from my “fankle” tendinitis. On a trail like this there was a lot of ankle rolling.
After 43 miles I had one more chance to just call it a day as I rolled in to the aid station. The race director, Dennis Bisnette, was meeting every runner and asking them how they felt and whether or not they were going to keep going. I had been running for 9 hours, nearly 4 hours longer than I had ever run before and I was spent. I knew I had 3 hours before the time cut off and only 6.1 miles to go. At about 30 minutes per mile I could stroll the rest of the way and make the cut off. The last 6 miles I had averaged about a 16 minute pace when you throw in uphill walking and stopping at aid stations. I told Dennis I was hurting but I could keep on. I was going to finish.
As the last lap wore on I began visualizing crossing the finish line, being done and making the pain stop. Three more people passed me on that loop which I’m not happy about but there was nothing I could do. On this course, there is a point close to the end where you make a turn and the two loops join together. From there it’s only a half mile to the finish. I hit that point and before long I could hear people cheering at the finish line as those in front of me finished. Their cheering urged me on and I started checking off the mental cues of things I had passed five times already knowing each point was nearing the destination. I saw the clock and the finishing tent through the pine trees first and moments later I was crossing the line, stepping on the timing mat and stopping. I just stood there as people were cheering and complimenting me. Someone to my right called me over to a table where I got the belt buckle in the photo at the top of this post and a seat saver seat cover.
A local restaurant had been at the race serving red beans and rice, but unfortunately by the time I finished they were long gone. Bummer. I got a couple of cups of water and the hand towels I had brought and scrubbed my feet and the dried mud off my legs. I did this as I sat by my car and watched others finish the race; my car which had been haunting me throughout the day. After slipping my jeans on over my shorts and changing shirts I got in the car and started the two hour drive home but not without stopping in Laurel for a burger and two Red Bulls for the drive.
Overall, with only a few minor exceptions, this is a great race, one that does the state of Mississippi and ultra runners proud. It is organized, the volunteers are friendly and well prepared and the course is in great shape. I’ve learned a new respect for those who can run this distance and beyond. Not sure what distance the future holds for me, but this experience will make whatever I do in running better.