Like most big races, this one started weeks before while watching the weather forecasts quite religiously. Over the course of the weeks and days before race day the forecast changed quite drastically and with each slight change I got either excited or dismayed. Up until a few days out when it pretty much settled on a chance of rain during the day and thunderstorms all night. At least I knew what to prepare for …. and that was being quite wet.
I began the packing process with the weather forecast in mind and felt it was better to be safe than sorry. I packed every pair of road shoes I owned with the justification being that IF it stopped raining for a bit I would have fresh shoes and socks to slip into. I was planning on doing the majority of the run in my Altra Intuitions but brought my Altra Torins for a change of pace during the run if I needed it. I also had my Altra Olympus in case my feet got REALLY bad. And then to round things out, I brought my Merrell Bare Access and Saucony Kinvaras as backup “just in case shoes”. I also packed about 7 pairs of Injinji socks to make sure I had dry socks if needed. Moving on past the feet, I packed several pairs of tights, capris and skirts, multiple long sleeve t-shirts, a couple tank tops, multiple hats, beanies and gloves, arm warmers and even a face mask, just in case. On top of this I added in my light Arc’Teryx running jacket as well as my new Helly Hansen rain jacket. As far as gear, I was planning on running with just a single handheld but in traditional Kelly fashion, I wanted to be prepared so I brought 2 handhelds and my Ultimate Direction PB vest in case I decided during the race that my single Ultraspire handheld was not enough. I even brought my trekking poles despite the fact that this was a relatively flat road race because in a hundred mile race you never know WHAT you are going to encounter. I wanted to be ready for anything.
So the Friday before the race came and I drove up to pick up my training partner and friend, Cecilia. We made the 3 hour trip up to Alcoa, TN and arrived quite early so that we could check into the hotel and get situated before heading over to packet pickup. Having a good friend along on this entire trip made everything so much better. We drove the 3 miles from the hotel to the Alcoa Middle School which served many roles for this race. The gymnasium which was nicknamed “The Pistol Corral” served as the packet pickup location, the pre-race meeting location, and the race commencement location. Right outside the Gymnasium was the large archway with timing mats and finisher chutes that served as the start/finish line as well as housed the main aid station.
The morning of the race came early but not unprepared for. Cecilia and I both went to bed quite early and got a very good night’s sleep by the time the alarms starting going off. We got dressed, packed the car, checked out of the hotel and headed over to the school to get a good parking spot. Since the hundred miler parking lot was right along the finish line chute, we could use the car as a self supported aid station during the race and have access to dry clothes and food whenever we needed it. We just needed to get a spot close enough to not be out of the way when running and we actually found a REALLY good spot about 30 feet off the course to serve as our own personal base camp. After parking we headed inside to mingle with the other runners for a bit before starting.
Inside the gymnasium, there was hot coffee and bagels and of course LOTS of runners. Over 400 runners had signed up between all the various races going on. There was of course the 100 milers, but there were also 100k runners, as well as 50k runners and then the various relay teams as well. For many people in there, this was their first ultra. So after using the restroom a few times and listening to the National Anthem, it got very close to race time. We started shedding some of our pre-race clothes and headed out into the cold. I dropped my layers off at the car and waited near the start for the 50k’ers to take off. They got a 5 minute head start before the 100k’ers and 100 milers took off. When the gun finally went off for the 100 milers, Cecilia and I took off.
Despite the fact that Cecilia and I train together and are good friends, we agreed before the race that we each had our own race to run. There was nothing personal about leaving the other behind. We were running a quick but comfortable sub 10:00/mile pace. We ran together for a few miles before she had to use the restroom and encouraged me to keep going. Within another couple miles she had caught back up and by this time, it was I who needed to use the restroom and that was the last I ran with her for the entire race. I continued on at roughly the same pace thinking that I will do my first 11 mile loop relatively quick and then slow down a bit and settle into my “forever pace”. The problem with this strategy is that I honestly don’t know what my “forever pace” on the road actually is. Running on the roads has been done more out of necessity than out of enjoyment for most of the past year. All of my long runs have been done on trails and in the mountains so this process of “settling in” was more of a “try to figure it out”. So I finished out the first loop moving along pretty good and in fact felt good enough to keep moving along at the same pace. Periodically I would check my pace against the trail markers on the side by noting the time I pass them and doing the math in my head as I passed the next one. Despite the fact that I thought I had made the decision to slow down a “little bit”, according to the trail marker paces, I wasn’t really slowing down at all …. my effort level was just reducing. Basically the first lap warmed me up and now that I was cruising, I felt like I had slowed down but in reality I hadn’t really. I continued on for another 11 mile lap.
Now before I get too far into my run, I want to describe the course a bit. The course is 11 miles long and shaped almost like a double lollipop with a loop on each end and a long belly section in the middle. On the belly section, there are runners going each direction whereas on the loops the runners always run counterclockwise. From the start of the race, you run down the long belly for a little over 3 miles before you start into the loop around the pond. The trail briefly merges back with the other side of the loop for a little less than 1/2 mile, at which point there is Woody’s Aid Station, before breaking apart again and making a loop around the creek and back to Woody’s Aid Station again. The trail then breaks apart again going around the other side of the pond before merging back into the belly section again where you run a little over 3 miles to get back to the start finish area where you run through and into yet another loop section around the park before coming back to the finish line and the Main Aid Station. There was also a temporary aid station set up about 2 miles into the belly section that was kept up mainly for the 50k’ers and was taken down before evening. So for the majority of the day on Saturday, you had an aid station at 2 miles, 4 miles, 5ish miles, 7 miles. 9 miles, and then 11 miles. I never used the the temporary aid station and used the two main ones only on the second time around to them. So basically, I considered it as having an aid station at 5 miles and at 11 miles, except for one time which I will cover later. The majority of the course follows Pistol Creek and it is usually off to one side or the other of the trail with several bridges over it and many underpasses where the trail goes under some of the more main roads while following the creek. As for the surface, it is mostly asphalt pavement with a couple sections of concrete sidewalk thrown in. The entire route was lit with streetlights making headlamps unnecessary.
So back to the run …. After cruising through the first lap, I started stripping clothing as it warmed up. Where it was low 40’s at the start I was quickly down to a tank top and my skirt after the first lap. Second lap was spent cruising as well. I largely stopped at the aid stations only to refill my handheld with Tailwind and maybe grab a slice of banana bread or something quick. Tailwind was my go-to at the aid stations. I always made sure it stayed half full and it kept me going through the race. After the second lap, I decided to change out my shoes and give me feet a bit of a break so I switched out from my Intuitions to my Torins. While I was at it, I took the time to lube up my feet really well with A/D Cream. Despite the trail being nice and dry, I could feel some hotspots developing from all the road miles and wanted to nip it in the bud before it became an issue. About halfway through my third lap the realization hit me that I was on track to beat my 50k PR so I continued on at my decently quick pace and when I crossed the line that marks the 31.6 mile mark I had a new 50K PR of 5:27:02.
The next lap was pretty uneventful except for the fact that I did not really slow down appreciably like I kept telling myself I should do. By the time I made it back around to Woody’s Aid Station I began realizing I was going to be getting one hell of a 50 mile PR. While I was there I began asking if they knew the exact 50 mile point but they didn’t so I started doing all the math in my head trying to figure it out and I finally came to a very close approximation of where that point was (after the fact, I realized it was about 1/4 to 1/2 mile too far so my time was actually faster). After making the little loop and stopping off at the Man Aid Station I decided to ask if they happened to know the exact 50 mile location (which they didn’t) and if they happened to be paying attention to the weather reports and knew when the rain was going to hit (which they hadn’t been) I decided to risk it and go without rain gear for one more loop. After a couple miles into this loop, I began to get a bit nauseous. I tried to throw up a couple of times but nothing worked. My pace slowed down just a little bit but my eyes were set on that new 50 mile PR. Cecilia had picked up her pacer by this point and asked how I was doing as she passed going the other way. I mentioned the nausea and they suggested the ginger beer back at the car so I resigned myself a little discomfort for the rest of the lap and kept running. I knew the point I had calculated and the last half mile I began to fly. Without a GPS on, it is hard to know for sure, but from previous experience, I would have put my pace in the low 8:00/mile range. I crossed the mile marker I had determined at about 8:59:30ish. This beat my previous 50 mile PR by close to 3 FULL HOURS! I allowed myself a half mile walk break from there before resuming my steady pace. By this point the nausea was getting worse and to make matters worse, my foot began to throb across the top of my arch. Cecilia and Kristopher came back around after their loop and dropped off a couple ginger chews for me to tide me over until I could get back to the car and they helped a little but my stomach was really throwing a fit.
I made it back to the car and could tell that my foot was swelling up on me. I opened a ginger beer and used it to wash down a couple of ibuprofen and extinguish tablets in hopes that it would take some swelling down. Meanwhile, I adjusted my laces so as to not put pressure across my instep. I sat in my car for a minute and while waiting on the ginger beer and medicine to do their magic, I decided to take advantage of this time to catch a 10 minute nap. I set my alarm and laid back and was out before I knew it. It felt like as soon as I closed my eyes, that alarm was going off and I was back up. But instead of feeling better and refreshed with less foot pain, it was actually throbbing more. I decided to give the medicine more time to work and set the alarm for another 15 minutes. Again more pain. I went through this cycle for a full hour before Cecilia came up to the car and asked if everything was ok. I told her what was happening and that I would be back out there as soon as I could. Meanwhile the rain began to fall in earnest. First a little, then a lot, then the thunder, lightning and wind. I finally decided I just had to get up and move or else I would be stuck there forever. So I quickly donned my rain gear. Long sleeve shirt, capri tights under my skirt, rain jacket, cap, and long wind pants. I hopped out of the car threw my hood on and tried to take a few steps down the hill to complete the park loop. I made it about 50 feet before every single muscle in my legs screamed at me to stop. Sitting for so long had caused all of my muscles to lock up on me and they REFUSED to work. I hobbled my way back up the hill past the car where my muscle roller was and headed toward the gym. Once inside, I set up on the bleachers and methodically began rolling out my legs. Starting with my quads then my IT bands, then my hamstrings, groin and glutes and finally my calves. I spent a LONG time rolling before they felt loose enough to even walk on. While I was in there, I talked with a couple of people who had already finished their races or had dropped down in distance. Once they were a little looser, I got up walked back into the rain dropped off the roller at the car and walked my way down the hill. Everything still felt tight and I kept telling myself that just moving will loosen them up a bit and eventually I will be running again. I walked the entire park loop before making my way back up to the start/finish line and the Main Aid Station. I grabbed a couple handfuls of food and ate on the go as I started my next loop.
I would run a little bit but it hurt so bad that I resigned myself to walking far more than running. I finally made the realization that despite my shoes being re-laced with the new pattern, the laces were still too tight. Once I loosened them a bit, the pain in my foot began to dissipate almost immediately. That is ONE problem down. Now just to take care of my dead legs. I began taking my ibuprofen/Extinguish cocktail every lap. I stopped to roll out my legs every time I passed the car but nothing seemed to help. They were simply dead.
All of this combined with the now rain swollen creek which was getting dangerously high. There were portions of the trail that were over ankle deep that I simply trudged my way on through. There were parts where you had to pay attention to where the street lights were aiming to know where the path underneath should be. It wasn’t until meeting fellow runners coming the other way that warned my that the next underpass was too deep to go under and that I should probably go up and over the road, that I realized these were pretty bad conditions for a road run. Yet I trudged on. my pants, while doing a great job of keeping me dry from the rain were wicking all the water up from the creek crossings into the lining and keeping me wet and cold. Several overpasses and many puddle jumps later I mad it back to the car where I again changed clothes, this time into long tights that wouldn’t hold the water as much but would hopefully keep me warm. My jacket had also gotten wet inside from leaving the armpit zippers open too long so I took the time to change all of my layers and dry out the inside before taking off again. It was slow work trudging along on dead legs in the rain in the middle of the night. This was my first hundred miler without a pacer and the overnight hours is when that becomes quite difficult. The water crossings were taking their toll on me. I was getting cold. VERY cold. The wind started to pick up. I began shivering. I was tired, I was exhausted, and I felt myself on more than one occasion almost doze off on my feet. I began to get scared not knowing if this was due to being so cold or so sleepy. I knew Woody’s Aid Station was less than a mile ahead and it became my new goal. Make it there before I die. I finally stumbled my way in and the only thing I could ask for was a heater. After wrapping me in a space blanket and removing some of my soaked clothing, I began to perk back to life a bit. I took a cup of coffee and some lentil soup. I talked with some of the other runners and pacers while there and the quite accurate joke was made that I was hurting so bad now because I was so stupid the first half. My eyes saw those PR’s and I just went for them ignoring the consequences. Well, finally I heated back up and was getting set to head back out when a fellow runner generously offered me his poncho to help me stay warm and dry. After he insisted I take it, I put it on and set back out. Halfway back, the sun started to work its way back up and life began to return to the trail. The rain had stopped and many of the flooded sections began to drain off. I made it back to the start/finish only having to climb over one overpass and trudge through a handful of water crossings. Getting back to the car, I had warmed up significantly and dropped off the poncho and set back out on my final loop. Cecilia was there. She had finished and ended up with third female and 10th overall. She had an AMAZING race and I was so proud of her
I was now energized by the light of the new day. Local runners and walkers were out on the trail. Dog walkers were walking their dogs. Families were riding their bikes. The bitter overnight cold was gone. It was still chilly but not the cold wet of the previous nights thunderstorms. I began fueling with egg and cheese sandwiches and they were GOOOOOODD. Up until this point I had pretty much just made the commitment to keep going. I knew I was going slow but as long as I was moving, I would be alright. On this final lap, I began to realize that there actually was a time cutoff. I tried to pick up my pace a bit. I would run more sections until I had to quit from sheer exhaustion at which point I would walk a bit to recover and then run some more. I began figuring my pace every 1/2 mile and with every half mile, my pace would quicken a bit. After going through Woody’s Aid Station one last time, I got a grilled cheese sandwich with egg on it and took off once again. I hurt everywhere. I made the realization that every step hurt, whether walking or running. Walking just hurt less. But I kept pushing on. This final half of the final lap the water had finally drained out from all the underpasses and it was safe to run/walk/hobble my way along the trail without any acrobatic work climbing guard rails. I hobbled across the start/finish line on my way to my last 1.7 mile lap around the park. There was no running at this point. My body was depleted. My only thought was how much I simply wanted to just stop moving. I finally made it to the bottom of the hill with the finish line at the top. I began to run. I have a rule that I HAVE to run across the finish line no matter how badly hurt or injured. So I ran. Up the hill and across the line. I had finished in 28:46:31.
I slumped over onto the curb just past the finish and simply enjoyed the stillness of not moving. Other than my legs being beyond exhausted, I could tell I had some foot issues going on as well. I peeled my shoes off to reveal some pretty substantial blisters. I put my sandals on and proceeded over to the awards area to receive my buckle and finisher’s hat. The buckle truly is special but after the last half of that grueling race I was a little bit disappointed that it didn’t work and could not put me out of my misery 😛
Overall, the Pistol was a VERY well run race and the race staff and volunteers were absolutely top notch. There was nothing they would not do for you and it showed in everything that they DID do for you. I am very glad to have started off the new year with such a special experience.