or How I spent Mother’s Day
This was a very hard race. It was also the longest half marathon I have ever done. It may have been 13.1 miles (the race director could only guarantee that distances were somewhat accurate) but it felt like it was an ultra. Yup, it was that hard.
I had real doubts about whether I should drive all the way to northwest Georgia by myself just to do a half marathon. So far the half marathons I’ve done were mostly local or else they were part of a challenge (and the challenge included a full as well as a half). The only exception was when I dropped down to the half in Tucson last December because I was ill. So this was a new concept for me and I was having trouble wrapping my head around it. Turns out the trip was definitely worth it – the Twisted Ankle Half was challenge enough for me and very worthwhile.
My adventure began early on Friday morning when I left home to drive north on I-75 through Atlanta and on to the small town of Rome in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had made arrangements to stay at the Claremont House, a bed & breakfast right near downtown Rome. It was kind of pricey but I decided to splurge since this was to be my only race in the month of May and I knew I would be saving money on food and there was no airfare involved.
The races were held in Sloppy Floyd State Park in Summerville, GA, a 35 minute drive north of Rome. In the last few weeks the course unexpectedly had to be changed because of an injunction against a federal judge which kept us from running on federal lands. These political shenanigans meant that Becky, the race director, had to do some fancy footwork to keep the race alive. The result was that both half and full runners now had to do a blue loop and a red loop, with the marathoners repeating the blue and red sequence, all within the state park. The blue loop included a one mile fire break and the red loop included the infamous Becky’s bluff (not sure if this was named after the race director – if not, it should be!).
There was a pasta dinner in Summerville on Friday evening but as is my custom I didn’t attend. We could pick up our race packets early on Saturday morning so I drove out around 7:15 am and was one of the first to arrive. I was given my bib (with chip on back), a green backpack with some goodies inside, and a yellow short sleeve cotton tee shirt. After pinning my bib onto my mesh vest and putting my shirt and stuff into my car, I moseyed around observing and talking to people and just chilling out. The weather was perfect – in the 60’s, overcast and cloudy but no rain (THANK GOODNESS), and it stayed that way throughout the day. I have found that trail runs are very different from road races. There is a casualness about trail races, an attitude of let’s just relax and have a good time and enjoy being outside, that is not present in the average road race. Trail runners don’t worry about qualifying for Boston (at least not in THIS race) and they are not hung up on equipment and gadgets and PRs. Of course, everyone wants to do his or her best but that overarching feeling of anxiety that is almost palpable in road races is just not present in trail runs.
I saw quite a few familiar faces: Cheryl Murdock from Pensacola, Keith from GA who had done the 6 hour version of Operation Endurance, Keyalus who had also been at Operation Endurance, and Scott and his daughter Jen from Macon. Scott wrote up a great report on his blog Walking to Retirement (he plans to retire after he completes 100 races – Twisted Ankle was #20 for him)
He managed to get a great photo of me which I ‘borrowed’ here. Thanks, Scott. Now if I can ever figure out how to upload photos from my Iphone to my computer, I will publish the photo I took of Scott and Jen.
The race was supposed to begin at 9 am but it wasn’t until 9:10 or so that Becky climbed up on a picnic table and began to address the crowd, giving us some last minute pointers and details. We were to follow the blue loop first, then the red; marathoners did each loop twice following the blue/red sequence once more. Color coded ribbons were hung at appropriate spots and we were to always keep the color we wanted to follow on our right. Sounded easy and straightforward and indeed it was. I didn’t get lost, even when I was by myself, and there were volunteers at every possible turn. Considering how Becky and her troupe had to scramble to get these last minute details taken care of, it was amazing to me that the race turned out so seamless and well-done. At 9:21, Becky said ‘GO’ and we all took off, around a beautiful lake, along an asphalt section (all too brief) and then into the trees and up – and down and up and down and so forth again and again.
The first 4-6 miles of trail (the blue loop) were not too bad; I knew that it would be technical single track with roots and rocks so I was prepared to go slowly and not fall if I could help it. It’s one thing to fall on a trail covered with pine needles like at the Croom; it is quite another thing to fall and land on sharp rocks or roll down a precipice. My goal was to finish the race without breaking anything and I really did not care about my finishing time. I wanted to enjoy the scenery (it was a beautiful park) and have fun. So I took my time, watched my step, and did great until —— the fire break. Intellectually I knew what a fire break was but I had never actually seen or walked over one. This mile long torture track was difficult for me – I had to really work at clambering up (and down) the edges of the rocks and ridges. I have to admit that it was HELL! My only consolation was that once I was through with it, I never had to see it again (unlike the marathoners who had to do it twice). I was SO happy that I had signed up for the half and not the full.
Whew! once the fire break was over, I was relieved, and for a while just had to watch out for the usual rocks and roots. Some of the downhills were almost as hard to deal with as the uphills. I had thought several times about sitting on the ground and just sliding on my butt downhill, but there were too many rocks to tear my pants (not to mention my skin). I couldn’t do my usual running at the downhills because there were far too many changes to kill myself, so I ended up walking sideways down the steepest sections (that’s probably why the front section of my upper left thigh is so sore – I tended to lead with that leg).
I was very glad to finish the blue loop and begin the red loop UNTIL I came to Becky’s Bluff, the steep winding narrow vertical ascent up to the bluff. This gives you an idea of what it looks like:
If anything, this does not do the bluff justice. It was more difficult than this looks.
I managed to get up the bluff by moving as quickly as I could (which believe me was NOT very quick at all) and by grasping at low hanging tree limbs and bushes to pull me up and keep me from falling backwards. But what a sense of relief and exuberance once I reached the top! The view was breathtaking and I could see into Alabama. I also saw a huge plastic monkey with a bunch of bananas for us hardy runners and walkers. All along the trail there were smaller plastic monkeys hanging from trees (I would give them a little pat as I walked by) – but here at the top of Becky’s bluff was a big monkey. Not sure of the significance but they were fun to see (and I knew I was still on the course). After the bluff, it was 2-3 miles on relatively easy trail (everything in this race is relative – this last part seemed like a piece of cake after the earlier tough sections), across the bridge over the lake, and through the finish line. Hurrah! I finished in 3:50, didn’t fall once, and managed to live and now have some bragging rights! I even won my age group and received a handmade ceramic medalion.
A word about logistics – aid stations were every 3-4 miles and had several volunteers at each cheering us on. There was food, real food like at an ultra, pb & j, pretzels, gummy bears, and so forth, but I don’t usually eat much during a half and besides it was hard to eat and keep my balance. I did grab a quarter sandwich at one point and I managed to eat my Pringles during a relatively level portion of trail, but mostly I just drank some water and pushed on. The volunteers were wonderful and very encouraging. The course was well-marked and I never had to worry about getting lost.
I so admired those runners who ran smoothly along the trail, across the fire break, up the bluff, and across all the ridges and crevices. They made it look so easy. It was a hard slog for me but I was grateful I had the stamina to walk the course and make it through.
Twisted Ankle was a tough race, perhaps the toughest half I’ve ever done, but definitely worthwhile. I probably won’t do this one again, but I am sure glad I did it at least once. I slept very soundly that evening!