Wednesday, December 15, 2010

RACE REPORT: The Bartram Forest 100 Mile Trail Race

The "Bartram 100s" is a 100 Mile and 100K race run simultaneously on some amazingly well-manicured trails in Milledgeville, GA. After dropping at mile 65 at Pinhoti last month, Charles and I were viewing this inaugural race as a "last chance" attempt at completing the 100-mile distance this year.

A little about the Bartram Forest course. Awesome RD Mike Howdell and Chris (last name?) set up a 5.56 mile loop that you had to run 18 times. The course was well marked and, compared to a lot of trail races, had minimal elevation (about 200-300 feet per loop).

There was a lot of variation in terrain, and you never felt like you were running in circles. However, there was a section or two that I knew I was going to really get a hate-on for when I encountered them on the first loop. One of these was a long hill at the beginning of mile 3. After you finally crested this beast, you had to run on this flat grassy stretch of flatland that had terrible footing. There were spiny ridges and pot holes with overgrown grass covering them everywhere you stepped. Did I mention it was flat and grassy with terrible footing?

Each loop started & finished at a pavilion where there was a fully stocked aid station. When I say fully stocked, I am not kidding. This was an AS to make Scott Hodukavich proud. It seemed the food choices changed each time I came through. During the morning there were donuts and pastries. At lunch, an assortment of sandwiches, and at night there were cheeseburgers, soups, cocoa, and coffee. At one point, I think they had pizza delivered. The volunteers were great and the AS had a really nice, family feeling.
Photo courtesy of Perry Sebastion

Pre-Race Break Down...Break Through

The week going in to this race was tough, and by Friday I was really looking forward to leaving my cares behind. However, as I hit the road Friday I was feeling the effects of not sleeping well on Thursday. Taking the 441 south was a little tricky, and I think I wasted some time taking the "business loop" here. By the time I arrived in Milledgeville to meet Charles, it was nearing dusk and I was feelingpretty stressed. Since we were losing the light, we headed over to the campground first to set the tents up for the next day. On the way there, we were treated to a very awesome sunset:

On the way to the Bartram Forest camp ground.

We were rewarded with beautiful sunsets Friday and Saturday

It was nearly dark as we pulled in to the camp ground to set up the tents and pick up our race packets. I was tired and hungry, and I just felt generally overwhelmed, which was quickly distressing me. I was resisting feeling any of these "negative" things because I really wanted to make the most out of the little time Charles and I get to spend together under the current circumstances.

I didn't have my headlamp handy, and setting up the tent started to completely overwhelm me. I actually had a little meltdown, and ended up just standing there crying and feeling enraged with myself for allowing things to get to that point. Charles lovingly comforted me, reminding me that it's OK to cry and that anything that could ever happen would be OK if we could handle it together from a place of love.

So, we finished up and went and got some food. Back at the room, I got some much-needed sleep for a couple of hours while Charles worked. This whole incident would not have even be worth mentioning if it weren't such a perfect foreshadowing of what was in store for me in the race.

The Race
Recounting this race will be somewhat difficult because so much can (and does) happen in a race in which one is lapped by the sun. I will tell you that it is somewhat intimidating putting on running clothes at 5 AM and knowing that those clothes won't come off for a day and a half.

At around 5:45 AM Charles and I headed down to the free breakfast buffet for a good prerace breakfast, which was in turn followed by a short ride over to the camp ground about 6:00 AM. Immediately upon pulling in, we were greeted by Beth McCurdy (who would go on to take 2nd female in the 100K), Jason Sullivan (Big Easy), and Thomas Armbruster. Thomas was our pacer at Pinhoti, and he was coming out to pace us once again. This time he would actually get to see some miles! I was looking forward to it.

We hung out with friends and made our final preparations as we waited for the 8:00AM start.

Big Easy is chillaxin' before the race

Would Thomas srill be smiling if he knew what was in store for him? I think he would be.

Chris gives the racers some final instructions.

The pavillion, pre-race.

I love this last-minute goofy pic Thomas took right before we were off and running

And we're off....

The First 4 Loops - 22 miles

The first loops were uneventful, and were basically about getting to know the course. We were running a pretty decent pace, which I knew would slow way down later. We completed the first loop in just under an hour, got a quick bite & got right back out on trail. By design, this course had an unattended AS about halfway through the loop- a little water & mini clif bar stop. Throughout the day, at about a 1/2 mile before the AS, we would see Thomas at the end of a downhill in a chair, cheering us on and offering all the runners encouragement.

Running towards Thomas who was parked in a chair at the bottom of the hill

I hadn't run in a week and a half, and my legs felt fresh in that sense. However, right off the bat I was having some pain in my right achilles and both hip flexors felt tight and over-worked. It dawned on me that both of these issues could be the result of the Seven Sisters run I did 10 days earlier. That trail's huge ascents and descents really wore me out.

Loops 5 & 6 - 33 miles

As fast as the achilles pain had started, it suddenly disappeared going in to loop #5. This kind of thing always amazes me. I was able to find somewhat of a groove here, and we were running strong, even though our loop times had slowed. I think it was about this time we heard that Big Easy (Jason sullivan) had dropped a little before 30 miles in because he was sick. We were both greatly saddened by this news.

Loops 7 thru 10 - 56 Miles

We passed the 50 mile point in a little over 11 hours. Our numbers were staying somewhat consistent, but we were a little off pace for our hopes of a sub-24 hour finish. At about the 50 mile point, it began to be very clear that Charles was getting stronger while I was steadily declining. At this point, I wasn't too worried about it because I knew things could still change a lot. We were still moving strong, but my achilles pain was back, and the hip flexor issue was steadily worsening. I was doing whatever little thing I could to get some relief when I could.

Loops 11 & 12 - 67 Miles

It was now a suffer fest with my hip flexor. All the muscles surrounding it were tightening up in an effort to immobilize it. The pain was changing my gait and really forcing me to slow down. I was still able to hold on to 4 mile per hour pace here, but it was just a matter of time before the wheels fell completely off. At this point, I began to feel bad because I knew Charles was feeling really good, and he would want to take off if he were able to. I was looking forward to Thomas joining us so Charles could get moving.

I think it was the last 1.5 miles of Loop #11 that Charles and I fell into a really good talk, and we chose to just walk the rest of the way in just so we could continue talking comfortably. This stretch of trail at night was one of the best memories of the race, and totally worth any time we lost.

Loop 13 - 72.3 Miles

Thomas went out with us beginning at Loop 13, and I was glad to see Charles take off. Later, I learned he ran that loop and Loop 17 in about 81 minutes. He was really feeling strong. Thomas and I motored along at a slightly faster pace than I was doing on the previous loop, and I was encouraged. It was great to have Thomas' company! He made the time fly as he entertained me with stories...I felt like our friendship was deepening as we covered the miles, even though I was not participating in the conversation all that much. We finished the loop in 93 minutes and I was looking forward to the next.

Loop 14 - 78 Miles

I felt much worse starting Loop 14, and halfway through loop the snow flurries started. We were coming up on Lane Vogel and his pacer and Lane yelled back that he would rather have snow than rain and we agreed. Not longer after that the "snow" switched to rain. It was light and not too bad to deal with except suddenly my body would just not cooperate with running anymore. All I could get from it was a power walk. My hip flexor was screaming, and any attempt to bring my right knee up was painful. I was slowed to a straight-legged walk. So, we power walked and it brought us down to 17 minute pace. As much pain as I was in, my spirits were still good and I still hoped this would pass. I even imagined it could still get completely better, like at Pinhoti when I suddenly started feeling good at mile 60.

All hell broke lose around mile 4 of that loop (mile 76). The rain turned freezing and began to pummel us. We were in an open section with nothing to break the 20 mph winds. I really needed to get out of that cold rain. Thomas took the lead and was such a hero here. He may not have known it, but he did the exact thing that worked for me. He just took charge and kept a continual diatribe of encouraging statements like, "you're doing great", "just pick it up a little through here", "we're almost there", etc. I just focused on following Thomas's foot steps and listening to his voice and staying completely in the moment. I knew I was dead if I had even one thought about how much further we had, or how much longer I could hold out. We pushed as fast as we could to cover the last mile and a half, one step at a time.

Finally we pulled into the AS and Thomas led me to the fire so I could warm up. I was shaking so hard I thought I would never stop. I just sat there with tears streaming down my face, my head down, trying to get warm. Thomas brought me my bag so I could get dry clothes and sent me to get changed.

Trying to change my clothes in the bathroom is a scene that will forever be etched into my brain. I went in to the big stall and dumped all my clothes on the ground. It was easy to get out of my wet shirt, but there was no way I could wrestle with a wet sports bra in my condition. As I reached for my dry shirt(s), I realized I was in a world of trouble. I couldn't bend down to get my clothes. I let out a scream as I tried to lower myself down on to the toilet in order to get to my clothes, and I was making all kinds of weird noises because my body was still shaking violently. The first shirt I tried to put on became all twisted when I tried to put my arms and head through. I had to start over, which made me begin to cry. I was completely out of my head, and this was becoming such an ordeal! I was seriously melting down. Finally, I was dressed, but I could not bend down to scoop up all the wet clothes. I simply could not take it any longer. I decided to yell for Thomas to come and help me. He was awesome, but I think just seeing him sent me over the edge somehow. I swear, we exchanged a look in that bathroom that said we both knew I was seconds away from completely losing my shit. About then, I also caught a glance of myself in the mirror. It was so strange, because I'm always surprised that when I feel so bad, I never actually look that bad. Tonight, I looked as bad as I felt. I had dark circles under red, wild eyes. The full embodiment of, "Drinking binge in Tijuana... or Ultra Runner?"

Almost an hour had passed since we had come in, and after much soup & fire, I started to come around. I told Thomas, "I'm feeling much better, I'm ready to go back out." But as we headed out I realized that I couldn't even walk. Every step I took made me wince in unbelievable pain. My hip flexor was just locked solidly up. It felt more like an injury than just normal pain, but I couldn't relaly be sure. I couldn't really be sure of anything, which seriously messed with my head. After talking it over we agreed to go back to camp and rest, see if we could work it out, and Thomas said we had a lot of time on our side.

Charles had finished another loop and ran into us on our way back. I told Charles I was thinking I had to drop, but even as I said it , it was so unreal. It seemed like I went from a state of absolute conviction of finishing to knowing I was going to quit in a matter of seconds. I didn't know how to evaluate whether I was truly injured or if it would change, and so I decided to drop. I know I could have pushed through the last 22 miles, but I didn't even know if I would make the cut off , and the bottom line was I didn't know if I was actually injured or not. Continuing on would have turned an injury into a serious injury with a huge layoff.

I told Thomas he should go run Charles in and I went back to the fire. I eventually went to the tent and slept some. I was awake when I saw Thomas coming running in ahead to make sure I was awake to see Charles finish. I heard about how Thomas had picked up Charles with about 30 minutes of daylight left with two loops to go. At 22 hours in to the race, out of nowhere, Charles started running, running like the devil himself was behind him with a cattle prod. Not just on the downhills, the uphills too! 88 miles in and he was trying to drop his pacer! They knocked out 9's for about 2 miles and then Charles finally slowed down. They ran when they could and hiked the hills. Lap 17 done in 81 minutes.

I heard the last lap was tough, but Charles pulled through like a champ. 26 hours and 17 minutes after it began, Charles crossed the finish line, completing a 100 mile trail race for the 1st time.

Finishing time: 26:17

Post Race Thoughts
Over the last couple of days, I've had a hard time trusting that I made the right decision to drop. I mean, it came at mile 78 where lots of people have told me that right around there is really nasty and you just have to push through. The thing is, I COULD have pushed through. I know that I could have, but I decided not to.

I later read Christian's report about Ashley, and I know that I gave up an experience similar to what Ashley went through. It would have been brutally bad to continue, and I would have suffered, but I believe I would have done it. I will always wonder what I would have faced out there...what my new limit would have become. What I would have learned. So on one level I feel disappointment because a part of me is always looking for the experience of the Abyss.

On another level, and I think this one is a little more "correct", this race seems to be a perfect reflection of my life right now. It's hard for me to let others see the more vulnerable part of myself- to let them in when I'm feeling something really emotionally difficult.

So, in terms of that, this race was huge. I spent a lot of miles in a lot of pain with my good friend Thomas. Then, he was witness to me very nearly completely losing my shit. And nothing horrible happened. He didn't say he didn't want to be my friend anymore. No look of horror. We had a good laugh about it, actually, which is just amazing!!! That dude saw me just.completely. freak.out!!

THEN, right after that is when I decided to drop. Just as I realized I was going to drop, and it was REAL to me it was over, I started to go into this mode of not allowing myself to feel the disappointment. I was about to intellectualize it and deal with it that way, when suddenly Charles was right there, just finishing his loop. He hugged me as we talked, and in that moment I really felt the full depth of my disappointment and was able to share it with him. And it was OK.

So...yeah, I could have gone on. But now I can see how it's totally perfect that I didn't. My experience was perfect. I've been to the Abyss before and I'll be there again when the time is right.

I feel like the universe brought me the perfect situation in which to grow. I learned that I only hold my own growth at bay if I'm unwilling to fully experience and share whatever comes into my life. The easy way out is to just analyze it with your mind and not filter it through your heart. As my good friend Big Easy says, "Let's just keep trying to be honest with ourselves and I think everything else will work out one way or another."


  1. That long stop at 78 is a rookie mistake - unless, of course, it kept you from dying from exposure. It's a good idea to have crew that forces you back out quickly. Also, I'm guessing that you stopped between 2 and 4 AM, when your body will do anything to make you stop and sleep; sunrise might make you run like Charles did - "it's always darkest before the dawn."

    It took me four tries to get to 100. If you're like me, all you need is the right day and the right place; a course with as many loops as Bartram just invites stopping early.

  2. Psyche: I feel ya.

    I've been there. I think a lot of people have been there.

    I don't have any advice, 'cuz I don't really know a damn thing, but I enjoyed the story and personal expression.

    Rock on...

  3. I had a meltdown at 2009 Pine Mountain 40, a much shorter race, so I know how easy it is to lose composure when you're physically broken down. Even so, I still can't imagine making it as far as you did at Bartram, especially when you and Charles have been tearing apart the long races every weekend. I'm full of awe and respect for what you're doing out there, Psyche.

  4. Psyche, I have not done one-hundred miles, but you were out there and you gave it a shot. The conditions and you hip flexor got you...this shame in that. You know you have huge support. You are going to do it...I know you will! John

  5. Congrats to both of you! Awesome accomplishment. Sounds like you made the right call.

  6. Hello, that was a really, really great write-up. Really.

    78 miles!! Super. clearly you'll hit a 100 very soon.

    Along with Charles. Great race, man.

    I was there running the 100K. We spoke briefly throughout the whole day and evening as we passed each other going about the same pace. Short stacco exchanges that gave me little pick-me-ups as I didn't know anyone there. It was my first trek beyond 50K. You 2 both had cheered me on as I finished my little reverse portion on the first part of the trail about 11pm to finish off my 100K.

    You had told me about Pinhoti and I wondered how you two had faired. I was pulling for you both in my restless sleep in a cheap motel in town, stinking and too tired to shower, if my body would even have let me maneuver for such a thing. When I awoke and the ground was wet I shivered again, wondering about everyone still out there. So I've been wondering about you two and didn't know your names.

    I had a similar experience with the cold and a too long 30 minute break with soup (but not close to the fire) after 10 laps; shivering/shaking, sitting in the dark alone, thinking the smart thing to do would be to DNF. But I was able to warm up from the inside and felt OK heading out for my last lap.

    My last mile was the fastest of the day! (or at least felt that way:)

    Hope to see you guys there next year, or maybe somewher else.

  7. Sounds like your non-finish afforded you great growth. That's awesome. Congratulations to Charles and his great finish line Frankenstein impersonation.