Iron Mountain Trail Run 50 Mile Race Report

The Short Story.

This was my first 50 miler, and it was hard. Kevin says repeatedly in his emails that this is a tough course to complete in 12 hours. He is absolutely right, especially if you’re not a regular in the long-ass run category.  I expected that, and I like hard races. But from the start I didn’t have a really great day out there, which I would have liked to have had for my first 50 miler. And many things in this report do not put me in a good light.

But the thing is, you cannot always predict or entirely control what happens to you or around you during something like this. The nice thing is, if you’re going to be running for 12 hours, you have plenty of time for a bad day to turn around and still have hours of awesome. I finished in 11:21 hours, and I’m happy with that. That pretty much sums up my race.

The Long Story.

In 2013 I did the 30 mile version of this race. It was insanely tough. I remember being so incredibly sore and beat up. But I also remember getting to the Skulls Gap turn-around and wondering what I was missing with the extra 20 miles. In 2014, I wasn’t feeling the really long stuff, so I chose the 16 mile IMTR. I had a fantastic race, running speedily and even bouncing down the last 2 miles of trail without falling, finishing 5th overall. I was also in really good shape last year, not carrying an extra 10 pounds of beer gut and sleep deprivation like I am now….

Anyhoo, having done the 30 & 16 mile version of this race, naturally I wanted to complete the set. It was time to do the 50. So on June 1, I registered.

I didn’t thoughtfully train for this. I do work 10 hour shifts on my feet in an 85 degree kitchen 4-5 days a week, and I go run or ride immediately after. I truly think this helped with my durability.  I did the 20 mile training run that Kevin hosted on the Skulls Gap/Hurricane Gap loop. That was my longest run by about 10 miles since Mt. Mitchell in February. This training run certainly helped; not only was I able to have a long day out on the trail to see if I even wanted to run 50 miles, but I was able to meet many more experienced runners and get their take on doing the whole enchilada.

I didn’t have a great couple of weeks heading  into the race. Just 2 weeks out I took a super hard fall running downhill, landing bang on my right knee, which swelled up so that it looked like a baseball-sized alien was trying to burst out of it. That was painful; the bruising was so deep that every step felt like I was bashing my knee and shin with a hammer. Then, work got nutso preparing for Labor Day (I work in a restaurant in Asheville). That meant long, hot days with little sleep and a huge struggle to stay hydrated. I went to bed the night before the race wishing the race would happen another weekend. I just wanted to sleep!

Figure 1. My knee after a bad fall prior to race day.

I had to go to the race by myself, waking at 4:30 to drive from Erwin to Damascus. (That’s why there’s no pictures in this report). I made coffee, packed my Camelbak and a change of clothes, and got a late start after searching 30 minutes for my car key, which turned out to be sitting in the passenger side door all night.

I drove too fast, but arrived at the Damascus park at 6:30, giving my a half-hour to check in, change my shoes, and poop. I should have been getting nervous, but I was mostly just really glad to have arrived on time.

Start to Straight Branch (Mile 0-5)

This section is flattish running on the Creeper Trail. As in past IMTR’s, I started in the very back of the field and jogged, keeping a slowish pace. Unexpectedly, this section felt long and endless, and my legs felt like poo. There were lots of groups of people chit-chatting about this race or that, what their seasons were like, etc. Usually I enjoy catching a bit of this conversation, but today for some reason it annoyed me. Why was I in such a foul mood? I love trail running, I love Iron Mountain, and I am usually able to savor the experience. This wasn’t a good sign.

I told myself that once we were on the trail and spaced out a bit better, I would probably relax. I chugged some gatorade at the aid station and headed up the trail.

Straight Branch to FS 90 (Mile 5-9)

This section is technical singletrack that goes mostly uphill (yay!). I’ve always found this bit pretty fun, but all the same I’m glad to get it out of the way early. As we got on the trail, I felt only marginally better. I should’ve taken in a gel at this point, but they were zipped up in my pack and I didn’t feel like taking my camelbak off. I felt okay, but not great. The trail seemed crowded, and I passed a lot of people going up the hill. I am good at the uphills, and horrid at the downhills. Opposite of every single other trail runner on the planet. This observation only made me feel worse.

Despite feeling crummy, the FS 90 Aid Station appeared really quickly. Actually, it’d taken me 1:50 to get there, but those hours went by fast. Lisa Hazlett and Tammy Gray were there, and cheered me and the others on. I appreciated this very much and tried really hard to smile but only managed a mumbled “thanks.” I grabbed some Cheezits (thanks, Tammy!!), a fig newton, and a banana piece, more Cheezits, drank 2-3 cups of Gatorade, and went on.

FS 90 to Skulls Gap (Mile 9-16)

This section is probably the toughest of the whole race. It’s wide to narrow track, rocky and rooty, with loads of steep hills. Still, it’s mostly runnable. I would enjoy it, except for that this section has it out for me. Just like in the 30 miler a couple years ago, my quads cramped up with a vengeance on the first steep downhill, only about 10 miles into the race. Already having a tough time mentally, this was extremely frustrating. I cried. Many times. I never cramp during training runs, I almost always cramp during races. As about 30 people flew right past me going down the hills like it was easy. I shouted to no one “F&*K THIS SH!T.” (What was I doing out here? I could never be an ultra runner…you have to be able to run downhill to do these things.) Yeah, I was in bad sorts, and I hated that.

By now, the thought of running 50 miles, driving straight home, and waking up at 4:30 to work again seemed not only ridiculous but downright offensive to me. I started to resent work (I like my job) and felt totally alone amongst these happy runner people who can run 300 miles every day without a care.

After my 4th or 10th hissy fit, I said out loud to myself, “Kit, you’ve got to get this under control.” I know from experience that if you bail during a long race, it’s 99% due to what’s going on in your head. (For all of you who think that it’s easy to just up and change your attitude because it’s the right thing to do, it ain’t. You can take it in stride and not be an asshole to everyone else, but sometimes it takes time and crying and shouting a bit first. I remembered reading Jennifer Pharr Davis’ book “Called Again,” and how her husband wouldn’t let her quit when she was having a meltdown. It’s good advice. I resolved not to make a decision until I had calmed down, so I’d drop out for the right reasons. Eventually, if you really want your outlook to change, it will. )

Then the bite valve came off my Camelbak and water started spewing everywhere. I quickly shut off the lever, but I really didn’t need that.

About a mile before the Skulls Gap Aid Station, a guy from the training run, Michael, caught up to me (on a downhill, of course ;). He was very cheerful, and asked me several questions and tried to be encouraging. It was nothing personal; I just couldn’t talk right then to anybody. I was emotionally drained, cramping, and resenting my inability to enjoy this race, so I said “Enjoy your run” and he scampered on.

After the one particularly gnarly downhill where the trail is scattered with the petrified heads of cabbage patch dolls, I started to recognize that we were getting close to Skulls Gap. Once again, this felt really quick, despite my crappy disposition. I had arrived there in 3 hours and 15 minutes from the start, well within the time limit. Finally, a good thing!

I had been taking some Sports Legs (salt tablets) that I’ve had around the house for 3 years, but my cramps and grumpiness made me wonder if these things expire. I started taking S-Caps salts that were available at the aid stations hoping they still had the desired potency. Here I also ate a ton of P-nut M&M’s, a couple more Cheezits and a cup of Coke. I refilled my Camelbak and ran on, knowing I had a nice, well-groomed uphill for awhile.

Until this point, I’d seriously considered dropping to the 30 miler. Not just because I was in a bad mood, but also because this would allow me to go home and get some sleep before having to wake up and drive to work in the kitchen Sunday morning. But once I got to Skulls Gap, it seemed obvious that I had to go on.

Skulls Gap to Hurricane Gap (Mile 16-22)

This was a relatively tame section of the race course. First, you go up a long gravel road, then down it for a bit, then you’re on an overgrown, abandoned, mostly flat forest service road for a few miles. Going up the hill, I ran-walked and ended up passing back a few peeps. Michael shouted some encouragement, and I was feeling a wee bit better mentally.

There was something about being on the 50-miler only route that calmed me down a bit. Here I was able to think back to the training run that was so much fun and channel a bit of that feely-goodiness.

At Hurricane Gap, there were many very kind volunteers, and I went first straight to the Gatorade. I tried to eat a Peppermint Patty, but I couldn’t open the wrapper. Someone offered to help, but I’d bitten the wrapper and my hands and face were disgusting so I wouldn’t let them for their own sake.

Hurricane Gap to Rowland Creek (Mile 22-29)

This section starts going down a gravel road for a mile or two before turning left onto a flattish singletrack. I remember it really hurting to start running again after the aid station, but after about 10 minutes I got used to shuffling along. By now it was about 11:30 or noon, but I hadn’t noticed any real increase in the air temperature. We were having a sunny day, humid, but at no point did I feel too hot.

After the singletrack, you go back on a gravel road for what feels like an hour or so. It goes mostly downhill but there’s some up here and there. I remember having to stop and walk a time or two because I felt like I was going to poop my pants. Unfortunately, there was no place to pop a squat except in the middle of the road, and I didn’t think that would be appreciated, so I held onto it.

With just a few minutes until the Rowland Creek Aid Station, I started to feel really crappy again (non-poo related). I was tired, and knowing I was only about half done was a bummer. My legs had cramped up on every single downhill since FS90, forcing me to hobble, and it hurt. I ran past two ladies packing up an SUV and at first thought they were involved in the aid station. But they looked really hungover and had mostly beer cans and garbage, so I hoped they weren’t part of the race.

I got to Rowland Creek in poor spirits. I wasn’t hungry, but knew I needed something. Nothing looked good. Luckily, Beth Minnick was there to the rescue with a frozen Otter Pop. Perfect. I think she picked up on the fact that I looked and felt miserable, and she was very kind. I was able to secure some ibuprofen from an innocent bystander, and Michael showed up again right behind me.

It took every fibre of my being to start up the Rowland Creek trail, which was cheerfully decorated with colorful balloons.

Roland Creek to Hurricane Gap (Mile 29-32)

This is a lovely trail, and hardly runnable at all expect in short stretches. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I had convinced myself that I was done running, so I walked along. Michael quickly passed me, and I actually said out loud “I’m done. I’m just going to walk. If they need to pull me from the course, so be it. But I’m not going to drop out. Just walk.” He said he knew that I was having a bad day, and acknowledged (without being preachy)  that no one else can make you come out of a funk but yourself, that’s just the way it is. He also said thought I could still finish even if I walked the whole rest of the way. This was in reality impossible, but it helped so much just to have “permission” to walk. Sometimes, it helps to hear “suck it up, keep going,” but sometimes, you just need that “permission” to not achieve, and that ironically makes you better equipped to suck it up and keep going. So Michael, you’re the shiznit.

We passed the waterfall and lamented the lack of time to just sit in it for awhile, and then kept going. The trail was cool, shaded, and nice and muddy in spots. There are several places to walk through the creek and cool your tired feet.

Much to my own surprise, once we reached the biggest uphill slog on this trail, I started jogging again! And I was really, truly, enjoying trail running like I enjoy trail running. It was about here that I realized that a big reason why I felt so grumpy was that I was so mad that I had to finish this race, then drive home, then get up to work at 4:30AM, which seemed so stupid. I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this at all! I decided that I was just going to call in, which my boss had encouraged me to do in the first place, but I was too stupid to agree to.

Hurricane Gap to Skulls Gap (Mile 32-37)

Back at the Hurricane Gap aid station, I felt like a different person. I ate pretzels, got some S Caps, drank lots of cold Gatorade, and successfully ate a Peppermint Patty. The guys there hooked me up with some ice in my camelbak so I’d have cool water. It was just before 2PM, and I had 5 hours to do 18 miles. I thought that was pretty feasible.

Out of Hurricane Gap, there’s a long, gradual uphill on a gravel road followed by a long, gradual downhill. I mostly ran up the hill, and ran all the way down without cramping. I figured, if this was the only cramp-free downhill I was going to get, I’d take it. (It was). Then, the course turns back onto a mostly downhill singletrack with many many roots. I pranced carefully down it, desperately not wanting to fall on my bruised up knee again, and the cramps returned. I stopped many times to press out my quad, but at this point, I was able to deal with it well.

Skulls Gap to FS 90 (Mile 37-43)

Arriving back at the Skulls Gap aid station, which had been relocated a bit up the road from last time, my watch said 2:52 PM. Yay! This time I stuck to gels, because once again food sounded gross. I drank a bit more and jogged on. I like this section much more on the inbound because it’s mostly uphill and the downhills aren’t so steep. I ran where I could and took advantage of my second wind. I fast-hiked up the steepest stuff, and tried to stay relaxed down the hills, but I was still cramping.

Then suddenly, I had to go. There’s not much privacy out there without going way off trail, but I found a fallen tree to squat behind and figured that if someone saw my butt there are worse things.

I continued on, very consciously picking my feet up so as not to get clumsy and fall. Normally, I am okay with falling, but the thought of hitting that knee again made me want to barf. I knew we were nearing the FS 90 aid station when the trail kept going down, down, down.

FS90 to the Unmanned Aid Station with the Dog (Mile 43-47)

I got to FS90 and Tammy was there ready to assist. She asked what I needed, and I briefly grew sad as I saw that the Cheezits had been packed up. Then I saw the Chex party mix. MMMMMMMM. That’s what I needed! Salty, crunchy, awesomeness. Tammy offered me pickle juice for my cramps, but I’ve never drank pickle juice so let’s try that another time. She said my hands looked swollen so I was either low on salt or had too much. I had no idea. I’d been drinking crap tons of Gatorade at every aid station and sipping water in between. I’d eaten sugar or salt along the way. I told her I’d be okay, because I wasn’t sure how to respond. My hands had been swollen since the Creeper Trail that morning. I must have been convincing, because she let me go on 🙂

Once again, Michael caught up and passed me. I heard him hacking up the trail. It sounded like he’d swallowed a bug but he later told me he’d puked a bit, but felt better. He was looking very strong and running that way too. By now, I just wanted to jog as much as possible to get finished….while I was in a good mood now, I was definitely done. We ran together a bit and then suddenly I had to poop again. It was either pull over or go in my pants. I chose the former.

After what seemed like a long time, I saw the table (I have since been informed that this table was a hallucination 😉 maybe a hammock???) where Kevin and them leave jugs of water for us to top off our fluids over the last stretch. I should have stopped, as I’d run out of water, but I didn’t want to. I saw a puppy dog sitting under the non-table and said hi. I figured he was a volunteer’s dog. A guy in a blue shirt caught up to me at this point and we chatted a little until he ran on. He was very nice and looked super strong.

The Unmanned Aid Station with the Dog to the Finish (Mile 47-50)

I wanted to get to the start of the scary downhill by 6 PM to ensure I could walk the rest of the way if needed. I got there by 5:45. Woohoo!

With 3 miles to go, I wasn’t about to fall and screw up my finish, so I contentedly hiked down slalom-style to take pressure off my quads. I love-hate this section. It’s kind of like a grand finale before the finish, but it’s slow-going and really mean if you have bad quad cramps. After awhile, I saw a man and his son walking their mountain bikes up the trail. He said there was about 3/4 mile before the pavement. I had run out of water and was really really thirsty, so I shamelessly asked him for a swig of his water (I really should have stopped at the dog station…sorry).

I walked on and before I knew it, pavement! I’d hoped to start running again, but the downhill was so steep that I couldn’t stomach it. Besides, I had 45 minutes to go 1 mile. I saw 2 cats. When I got the flat road crossing, I started jogging again, and easy jogged the last stretch, just being happy to about finish.

Since there was no one to take pictures, here's one of me hiding behind a cake.
Since there was no one to take pictures, here’s one of me hiding behind a cake.

I got passed by 3 or 4 people in the last 200 yards of the race, but whatevs. I crossed under the banner, and that was it. This year was neat because I finished so late that there was a little festival and concert about to start up, so we had a captive audience. It sucked to not have any friends or family at the finish. I would have loved to have a hug and stay in Damascus for a celebratory beer. After a few minutes, John Alsteadt, whom I know from cycling, came up and congratulated me and we talked a bit. That was nice. I bought a t-shirt, ate some oreos and grapes, drank a bunch, and changed clothes. I immediately texted my boss and begged off work the next day.

Biggest Lessons Learned

  • 50 miles is a long way to run, but it goes by really fast.
  • Never try to squeeze in a 50 mile race between two long work shifts.
  • Chex Party Mix is my new favorite trail run food, so I expect it at every race from this day forward.
  • Iron Mountain is still one of the best runs ever, no matter what.
  • Sometimes, you’re just going to have a bad day. There’s nothing wrong with that.
  • Don’t quit if you’re crying, shouting, or hyperventilating. Wait for it to pass and let a sane person decide. Typically, the sane person won’t quit.
  • How the hell does anyone do this thing in 8 hours or less?
  • Yay for healthy options at aid stations, but I love the candy and junk food.
  • I think I’ll do the 30 miler again next year and see if I can sneak in under 6 hours.

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