It’s a Dream, Not a Race.

Guest Post by Chris the Husband

Lake Martin was my first 27 mile race in 2016.
My first 50 in 2017.
My first 27 with Rachel in 2018.
I wanted it to be my first trail 100.

I planned it for over a year. Before Rachel and I did the 27 together last year, I knew I wanted to go for 100 this year. That’s a lot of time to think and talk, to plan and train, to powwow with a handful of other like-minded people in Facebook groups, and to dream.

By the time we arrived at the lakeside rental cabin on the night before the race, “me” had turned into six people (me, Rachel, Christen, Kelly, Ashley, and Ali), four of them there for their first 27, including my 12-year-old daughter Ali (she wrote her race report here.) It’s fantastic that the magical community atmosphere and scenic adventure of this race is spreading to other people.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1476 s(Photo Credit: MRuns)

The trails are all on private property of the Russell Forest Trail System. The basic race is a 25 mile loop, with 4 sections. The 27 Mile Fun Run = 1 loop plus a 1 mile out & back with a turn-around point at mile 26. The 50 = 2 loops. The 100 = 4 loops.

There are two aid stations full of fluids, food, people, love, help, smiles, and festivity. All you could want. More than you need. These people really care and will care for you.

The race is directed by David and Marye Jo Tosch, the owners of the Southeastern Trail Series. It starts around sunrise on Saturday, and ends on Sunday afternoon. The technical cutoff is 32 hours. The actual, real, final cutoff is clarified by the race manual. (Yes, there’s a manual.) The manual states that “You must be off of the trails before dark. This rule is enforced. The trails are patrolled. You may NOT be on the trails after dark on Sunday.”

Pre-Race Training & Prep:

I had not trained with long distance or speed, but with time on my feet. Morning runs were frequently followed by afternoon hikes with the family. I also did a lot of mental preparation, listening to podcasts, reading race reports, and reading books by ultrarunners to prepare me for the mental fight against quitting. My plan was to maintain a steady-state, focused on physical efficiency, conservation, recovery, and mental tranquility, knowing that the heart of finishing a 100 is in the unknown, in the ability to solve problems that arise that you don’t anticipate, when you are at your weakest and it’s hard to think clearly.

I also tried to improve my odds of survival by taking advantage of the medical knowledge around me. As training wound down, I had some plantar fasciitis in my right foot, and a friend, Kristen Zeanah, a PT who makes house calls as 10X Physiotherapy, gave me some helpful treatment and solid recommendations. House calls! The wisdom Rachel has acquired in her fight against dysautonomia has had ripple effects to helping many people, including me. Before the race, I got a vitamin-loaded IV bag, a month of red light therapy, and fancy electrolyte powders to drink.

Several people asked me before the race: Are you ready? Susan Donnelly, a guest with Suman Silwal on his MRuns podcast, gave my favorite answer: “A new distance, a new challenge, is always a leap of faith. You don’t know if your body can endure it, but you believe it and try.” Suman is a Birmingham running icon, and the only now 6-time finisher of the Lake Martin 100. Friday night we enjoyed the pre-race dinner and Suman’s traditional speech. This year the slogan was: “Give your body a chance to finish.” I hoped I had done enough to give my body that chance.

Race Day:

Saturday morning I was up at 3:30, having water, coffee, and my traditional brown sugar and cinnamon Pop Tart.

We arrived about 20 minutes before the race started, and I staked out my personal aid station with the Paloma Blancas, some friends who graciously invited me to join them for the weekend. I laid out my chair and box full of supplies in a corner of their tent near the start/finish line and cabin aid station to use for my numerous resupply stops, gear swaps, and wardrobe changes.

The first 26 miles was mostly spent with Rachel and Ali. It was a fun, festive, beautiful day, and I was happy to be with my family in a place I’ve grown to love.

I try to take care of my feet. (Remember in Forrest Gump in Vietnam where Lieutenant Dan tells them to keep their feet dry?) I put Bodyglide and diaper cream all over my feet. About four miles into the race, I slipped on a tiny log crossing, and planted both feet (kerplunk!) completely underwater. It took me a few silent minutes (other than the squishing of water in my toes) to settle down the fury in my head. This race generally does not require you to get your feet wet at all. The creek crossings are easy.

I had extra shoes, socks, and diaper cream in both of my drop bags, but the more I thought about it, the less I wanted to focus on maintaining perfect foot conditions. That was a good call, because I clumsily got my feet wet half a dozen times throughout the race (I didn’t try to cross that log again.) I went with “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” I wore the same socks/shoes untouched the whole race.

I hugged Ali at the out/back turn-around at mile 26 – it was such a proud dad moment. I was sorry I couldn’t be there to see her finish, and said goodbye to my wife and daughter. I’m so proud of Ali for finishing strong and happy and so thankful to Rachel for training, supporting, and pacing her.

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I would be alone from mile 26 to 78+.

As good as the weather was, the hot afternoon was more of a struggle in the sun than I had hoped. But I felt strong, and moved conservatively and consistently, trying to focus and enjoy the moment, and not worry about the giant task ahead.

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Then, after a beautiful sunset, the cold night became a much deeper struggle as the temperature felt much, much lower than the forecast 49. I have no idea what it was. My short sleeves were no match for the thick, damp cold that settled on my body and crept deeper and deeper into it. My breath was visibly thick in the light of my headlamp. My knees and sore legs ached in the chill, and stiffened, slowing my pace. It was frustrating. My legs just wouldn’t go as fast as I wanted.

I tried to get warm at the aid station heaters, drinking hot broth and potato/rice soup, but that only lasts for a few minutes. So the logic became: just keep moving until dawn.

The sun will be up in 8 hours. Keep moving.
The sun will be up in 6 hours. Keep moving.
4.
2.
1.

As the first light began to creep over the horizon, I began to have math problems. I wasn’t using my GPS watch to track my pace. I was running on perceived effort, aid station to aid station, watching the cutoff paces on a folded chart in my pocket, and trying to conserve my body and use all the time I was given.

But the cold night had slowed me too much.

At this pace, I couldn’t be finished before dark. In my foggy brain, I tried to add it up again and again, but coming into the Cabin Aid Station at mile 68 I faced the death of a dream. I’d continue on at least to 75, maybe 83 – I had all day, but I had to tell David and Marye Jo that I wasn’t going to make it. I tried to keep things in perspective – I have a lot of wonderful things in my life, but in that moment, tired and hurting, I was devastated.

I finished loop 3 section 3 (63-68), and found David and Marye Jo. The sun was wide awake, shining brightly. I told them my math, and tried to hide my sadness.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1495 sFaking a smile for the camera at mile 68. (Photo Credit: Callie Cole)

But the Tosches were so encouraging!

“Yes, you technically have to be off the trails by dark, but “dark” is much later than sunset, and the last few parts of the course are on gravel roads and dirt roads, so you’re not technically on the trails at that point.”

They just quietly smiled at my stunned face.

Are you serious?? Okay then!!

A warm smile began to grow deep inside me. I refilled my bottles, and headed out for loop 3 section 4 (68-75).

I ran like I hadn’t planned or trained to do at all in this race. I flew through the woods, careening down hills and leaping rocks. I couldn’t believe I was capable of this effort level after the night before, but I was so invigorated by the possibility that I could still have my dream. This was at high risk of falling, getting injured, and blowing my energy reserves (see you later race plan!), but it sure was fun!

The fast running warmed and loosened my cold stiff legs and knees. I was back! I finished that section in 1.5 hours with a huge smile on my face, and left myself just enough time to reasonably do the 4th 25 mile loop before dark.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1494 sGenuinely smiling for the camera at mile 75. (Photo Credit: Gordon Harvey)

I backed off my frantic pace but kept pushing myself as I felt I could, pushing hard up the climbs with my trekking poles and letting gravity scoot me down as fast as it liked.

Rachel paced most of section 1 (75-83) and all of section 2(83-88), and tolerated my groans and frequent stops to lean on my poles and get my breath. She kept me entertained with stories of their post-race celebrations and recovery from the night before.

I noticed on section 2 that I was really hot and my mouth was pasty dry. I had been drinking fancy electrolyte drinks, but I decided not near enough water. I was CRAVING ice water. I filled up my 1.5 liter bladder at Heaven Hill, and dumped ice in my hat.

By this point, I was last, and everyone knew it. The last two Heaven Hill aid station workers drove away right after I left for the last time, smiling and waving as they went. They were there just for me.

Kelly paced section 3 (88-94), and listened patiently to my teary devastation/rebirth story from the night before. I had another burst of energy for this “easier” section and powered through it quickly. I drained the first 1.5 liters of water and refilled it again before section 4.

Did I mention I was last? When I finished 94, David and Marye Jo needed to leave, so he gave me the buckle, we took pictures, I got a few congratulatory hugs from the last couple of folks there, and then, unwilling to let it out of my possession, I put the buckle in my pack and carried it the final 6.3 miles.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1446 2 s

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1458 s(Photo Credits: MRuns)

David gave Rachel his cell number to let him know what time I finished, and off we went on the last section. I expected the finish line would need to be taken down by the time we came back.

Rachel paced section 4 (94-100) and quietly followed me as I started to fade, really fade. She was struggling herself at this point, having run 27 the day before and then pacing me almost 18 grindingly slow miles. This wasn’t her first time for end-of-100 pacing at great cost to her own body.

I had several Sunday afternoon hallucinations, mostly on red dirt roads:

  • A man on a bike (a tree branch),
  • A man in red shirt (a fence post),
  • An ice cream truck (just nothing there),
  • And the “nest”. 

I sat down on a log and thought I’d kicked over an old wasp nest or something similar. Rachel says there was literally nothing there. I still say it was there.

The waves of exhaustion started to wash over me and I struggled to will my body to keep moving. In my excitement of actually doing loop 4, I hadn’t taken in nearly enough calories, but I was soooo close. 

2019 Lake Martin IMG_6498 s

Rachel began regularly offering me a few spicy gummy bears and pretzel goldfish to try to get me there. She says the gummy bears weren’t spicy, but I know what I tasted! I was still struggling with the heat, and I felt a strange sensation. A bead of moisture on my left temple. After consuming 2.5 liters of ice water rather quickly, I started sweating.

Oops. I had no idea how long I had stopped sweating.

Kelly and Ali met us near the end at a lovely creek crossing with an inviting bench, appropriately named Rock Bottom. I passed up this last chance to rest, focused on the finish, and pushed toward the end. My ultramarathoner wife and new ultramarathoner daughter were beside me, while new ultramarathoner Kelly took the video and pictures.

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Finish Time: 6:53.
Sunset Time: 6:58.
Dark Time: Who cares? I was off the trail!

The finish line was not gone, but was still waiting patiently when I jogged up Tucker Road for the last time, just as I had imagined it. We had the finish line and the cabin all to ourselves. Me, Rachel, Ali, and Kelly. It was surreal, my tired crew alone there in the glorious sunset, like a dream. As if it was all there just for me.

Because it was.

They left it up for me. 

IMG_1505

And in decent weather, they would leave it up for you. Or anyone. Because these people are the kindest and best of humans.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1295 s

Epilogue:

I settled into a chair with a groan, and Rachel graciously took off my shoes and socks. I think she was curious about the carnage, but it wasn’t terrible. The sun was setting slowly behind the cabin porch. I thought to myself, as I hear many others say, “That was amazing. I will never do that again.”  A few days to reflect have softened my stance.

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My overall time was 36:00:05 – the second slowest on record, and I couldn’t be happier. Ali and Kelly presented me with special custom awards they made while they waited on me to finish.

2019 Lake Martin IMG_1500 s

I know that doing 100 miles takes a toll on your body. I already knew I had a few blisters and some thigh chafing. I’m pretty sure I may lose a toenail or two. Of course everything from the waist down ached. That had been true for much of the race.

The nearly immediate impacts of stopping and resting for 15 minutes were chills, shivering, chattering teeth, and hiccups when I started trying to eat/drink. I showered and could barely eat anything before crawling into bed. (The ravenous hunger is known to come later.) I slept well, but not longer than a normal night. (The fatigue is also known to last for days, not cured by a single huge chunk of sleep.)

It’s been several days, and I feel good physically. I took five days off of exercise, and then went for an easy run. I’ll limit my effort level for a few weeks to make sure I give my body the chance to fully recover. Fun fact: I dreamed about being in an eternal race for several nights in a row after the non-eternal race.

I am so thankful to everyone involved. The race volunteers took wonderful care of me for two days. My friends sent tons of encouraging messages throughout the week and the race. Rachel went above and beyond as usual to keep me alive. Ali cheered and hugged me along on both days. Kelly was up for anything to help. And I still get a little misty when I think about the kindness and compassion of David and Marye Jo.

12, going on 27.1.

Guest Post by my daughter, Ali Callahan.

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-reading-before-Lake-Martin-IMG_1507 s

So I decided to become an ultra marathoner.

An ultra marathon is anything over 26.2 miles. I don’t remember why I wanted to do it originally, but I have been training for a year. The first race I wanted to do was the Lake Martin 27.1 mile “fun run”, a trail race which my mom has done once and my dad has done a few times. So this year, Mom, a few of her friends, and I were signed up for the 27.1 mile fun run, and Dad was signed up for the 100 mile serious run. Nobody under 16 had ever done any of the distances at Lake Martin, and since I am 12, I was feeling kind of nervous about it (and a little impatient to get it over with,) until it got there and I felt -mostly- better. We were all staying together in a rental house on the night before the race and I went to bed really early.

2019 Lake Martin Team 2019-Lake-Martin-Team-IMG_1540 s

In the morning, we woke up at 5:30, filled our packs, tied our shoes, encouraged each other, and drove to the start/finish line. It was very cold so it was nice to find that the bathrooms were heated. We all got in a huddle in front of the start/finish line, then Mr. David, the race director, fired his gun in the air, and we all started running.

The race was divided into four sections, with an aid station between each one, and then a final 2 miles after the last aid station. It was easier to think about it as four separate trail runs than 27.1 miles as a whole.

First Eight Miles (0-8.2):

There were lots of water crossings and hills, and it was very fun because Dad, Mom, and I were together. However, there was a creek crossing and you had the choice of crossing on rocks or on a log. Mom wanted to cross on the rocks, but Dad and I wanted to go across the log. I stumbled and barely made it across and was about to tell Dad that he really shouldn’t do that because it would be worse if he fell in since he had like 95 miles left, but he was already halfway across. He stumbled in the same place I did, except his foot slipped, both his legs went into the water up to his calves, and he was okay but was frustrated at himself and went ahead for a bit – “to blow off steam”, according to him. At the first aid station I used the restroom, grabbed some pretzels and pickles, and we kept going.

2019 Lake Martin Team Heaven-Hill-IMG_6300 s

Next Five Miles (8.2-13.6):

I was happily skipping, singing, and talking to Mom and Dad. This was probably my favorite loop because we went through/over: a forest where there had been a controlled burn and had lots of burnt pinecones, a wide red road, a trail through tall reeds, and by a lake.

2019 Lake Martin Team ali-heaven-hill-DD731ED5-92CA-4BE6-8CE6-AAD4DD0D9C0B s

When we came back around to the aid station and I did exactly what I did last time: used the restroom, grabbed some pickles and pretzels, oh! And stretched – it feels so good to do a backbend when you have been on your feet for four hours!

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-backbend-heaven-hill-IMG_6315 s

Next Five Miles (13.6-19):

I was still very happy but tired. Dad was ahead of Mom and I now, because he left the aid station before us. There were way less water crossings. We didn’t think we would catch up to Dad, but we saw him at the top of a hill and I screamed “Dad!!”, and ran ahead until I caught up with him. When we got to the aid station, I got some Mountain Dew and a banana slice.

Next Six Miles (19-25.1):

The first couple miles were okay, but very hilly. Around mile 21, after an especially high hill, I got so tired that I was crying and I couldn’t think. It was so hard. So Mom pulled out her phone and played all my favorite songs, like “High Hopes”, “Hall of Fame”, and “Havana.”

2019 Lake Martin Team under-the-log-IMG_6327 s

I barely made it back to the aid station where I got more Mountain Dew, the volunteers filled up my pack with water, and we left.

Last Two Miles (25.1-27.1):

I was better, but exhausted. It was more fun because Dad was with us again (he got ahead of us when I was crying, but we caught up to him at the aid station,) and the trail was super easy – it was just the first mile of the course again and back. At the one mile turnaround point, we had a group hug and we cheered and encouraged each other, and Dad kept going (since he was doing the 100), and Mom and I turned around.

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After one mile, we finished!

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We ate, drank, got our medals, and cheered our friends as they finished.

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The race took me eight hours, one minute, and 59 seconds. Afterwards, I was glad to be done, and sore. I was so tired the only thing that made sense to say was “ow.” It took a little while to feel satisfied – I had so many emotions I didn’t know what to feel.  The next day I felt better except for my shoulders, which felt like I had carried my cousin Andi for ten miles. But I was able to run/walk the last 1.5 miles with Dad Sunday evening as he finished his hundred miles.

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-Chris-Finish-100-IMG_6538 s

I think I’m glad I did it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for other kids. However, I might do it again – if other kids did it with me.

2019 Lake Martin Team Ali-Post-Race-Backbend-IMG_6374 s

Things You Don’t Want to See In The Woods.

190222 Christen in the Fog IMG_5638

“Because you don’t want to be alone in the woods and run into some random guy with an axe….”

These are the things girls say jokingly to each other when setting out for a trail run together. However, I run in the woods alone fairly regularly, and when I do, my mantra is more like “So I’m out here in the woods all alone and haven’t seen anyone for miles and am starting to feel creeped out BUT what are the chances that the one person I do see is an axe murderer?”

Axes apparently play a big part into the worst-case-scenario imaginings of woods and women. And that’s just where axes are supposed to stay. IN OUR IMAGINATIONS.

Except for this one time.

My friend Christen and I were out for a trail run. We were enjoying a very nice, normal, and safe loop around a well-trodden lake at a local state park. We hadn’t seen many people out that day yet, but there were a few. It had been a quiet mile or two when we saw a guy ahead of us with two dogs. It was a single track trail, so he pulled off to the side with the dogs well before we approached, as is how it usually goes for the oft-followed “the slower person pulls off the trail” rule. 

Except that he also felt the need to yell reassurances to us.

“Don’t worry!! They’re very friendly!! They won’t bother you!!”

I’m not a fan of dogs, but I’m also not usually worried about them. I found his warning…odd. He had just finished his reassurances when I reached his bend in the trail.

…And I noticed that he was leaning on a waist-length handle. My eyes followed the large handle down to the ground…where I saw a nicely sharpened, shiny axe blade.

Because split second unexpected situations in life sometimes can make one speak before thinking, I immediately shot back, “I’m more worried about your axe than I am the dogs!”

He nudged it lightheartedly.

“Oh, this? It’s just in case we see any snakes.”

I am a fan of snakes, however, and quickly shot back again. .

“What?? Why would you kill snakes?? You can’t kill snakes! You’re in a State Park!!”

(Not to mention that he was also carrying a VIOLENT and (not-yet-)BLOODY FREAKING WEAPON in a State Park and SURELY this was NOT okay.)

He jovially said, “Oh, don’t worry, we just kill the poisonous ones.”

By this time we were 100 feet down the trail from him and the reality of my rather rash and impudent conversation was starting to sink in. Had I just argued with the very first axe-wielding man-in-the-woods I’d ever run into on a trail run? 

Yes. Yes I had.

Obviously if I run into a real axe murderer, it’s gonna go so very well.

Meanwhile, Christen was having her own personal crisis. She pulled up beside me, panting, and said,

“Oh my goodness I didn’t even notice that he had an axe until you said something. THIS IS WHY I CAN NEVER RUN ALONE.”

We discussed axe man for the next mile, then pulled into a nearby bathroom. There was a State Park worker at the bathrooms, and I went back and forth, back and forth with myself as to whether I should report Axe Man. She seemed like such a nice State Park worker…I didn’t want her to die.

And then I heard him, not far off, whistling for one of his dogs…and I didn’t want to die for being a rat.

So I didn’t report him.

As we ran away from the bathrooms, he pulled alongside us in his truck.

Here it goes. Here we go.

“Y’all are making me just exhausted with all your running!!”

Yes, yes we are, sir. We’re clearly the problem here.