Mountain Mist 50K Race Report | Taking on the Bama Hills

January 28, 2017
Finish 4:44 | 1st female | 6th OA

My racing go-to’s: Nathan, MilestonePod and Saucony! (and a birthday beer 🙂 )

 

50Ks have never been my forte. With 4-5 hours of hard fast intensity, it’s like the “5K” of ultramarathons. To me, it feels like I am practically redlining my system from the starting line, a concept that has always seemed counterintuitive to an ultramarathon. It’s a slippery slope, but I have had success with racing like this in the past when I am fit. At this point I had only 7 weeks of training under my belt building up to my key Spring event: Georgia Death Race. Though I was far from the best shape of my life, I felt the training I had was pretty solid. I viewed Mountain Mist as a good test of my current fitness level and a fantastic way to spend my 29th birthday!

The Plan

I had broken the race down into 3 sections:

  • Miles 0-9: Pretty flat and downhill. Stay relaxed but take advantage of the downhill until hitting the big K2 climb.
  • Miles 9-17: Hike the K2 climb. But quickly. Get through the rollers of this section fast but save a few gears for final two climbs.
  • Miles 17-finish: Adjust my goal time as needed based on this “halfway split.” Tackle the last two monster climbs with whatever I had left.

MMTRElevation

The elevation profile of this race didn’t look horrible, but I had heard about the technicality and steep climbs loaded in the back half of the race. The horror stories about good runners who had suffered miserably there over the 23 year history of the race kept me cautious about any time goal. A woman had not broken the 5 hour mark in 8 years! Still, I figured that given the good trail conditions predicted for this year (i.e. no ice, snow, relatively dry), it would be pretty reasonable for me to dip under the 5 hour mark if I could hold everything together on race day.

The Race

It was a ‘happy birthday’ 5am wake-up on Saturday morning! I had my usual oatmeal, banana, almond butter, and cup of black coffee and we were off to the 7:30 a.m. race start. It was a bit chilly at 32 degrees F, but I never regretted my decision to start in light mini capris with a tank and arm warmers. My general rule: if you don’t have goosebumps at the starting line, you’re overdressed!

When the start cannon fired I took off with the pack of about 500 runners at what I considered a pretty quick pace for an ultra, hovering somewhere in the low 7 min/mile range on the road. Within a few minutes I had settled into a group of about 7 dudes and what appeared to be the chase pack behind the lead guys that included Dave Riddle. The course soon turned onto a flat dirt jeep road where we held the pace. Though it seemed bit quick, it felt doable so I decided not to limit myself. I’ve learned that I tend to go out a bit too conservatively in 50Ks, which usually lands me in a position at the end of the race with too few miles left to close a narrowing gap. I figured today I would roll the dice and see how things played out.

The jeep road soon turned into double track with more large rocks to negotiate and then eventually funneled into a nice downhill single track. Our pack splintered here, and I hung back a bit not wanting to push my luck. I got into a rhythm cruising through the next few miles of rolling and mildly rocky single track.

The trail bombed down a fun descent before opening up to a mile of powerline trail that was somewhat overgrown with some mud and tricky footing in spots. When we hit that first steep K2 climb around mile 9, I resisted the urge to chase the guys who passed me and tried not to kill myself getting up the first of the 3 monster climbs I was expecting in the race. Using effort level as a guide, I hiked a couple portions of the climb keeping things under control.

The next few miles were pretty fun, consisting of rolling, twisty, somewhat rocky single track with a couple of small climbs. I felt pretty good on this section and tried to finish all the calories I had on me coming into the mile 17 “halfway” point. I had started with three 12 ounce bottles in my pack, two of them super concentrated with 3-4 scoops of tailwind. This worked out pretty well for me and I sucked down most of the concoction by this time, supplementing with water when I rolled through the aid stations. I started to eat a LaraBar at one point, but the pace was a bit quick for something like that to go down easily.

I arrived at the mile 17 aid station with just under 2:27 on my watch and in 19th place overall. I had heard from several sources that this time was a good indicator of your halfway split of the race, as the back half was considerably slower. I was feeling very similar to the way you might feel at the halfway mark of a hard road marathon, so I thought it was probably a good place to be. I knew the sub 5-hour time would be attainable, but felt like I didn’t have much room for error. I quickly filled my 3 bottles with watered down Gatorade with the help of Luke Hough and the aid station volunteers and was off.

Two big downhills and two big climbs were now pretty much the only things between me and the finish line. That first downhill was fun. Things got a bit more rocky and technical and I had to be more cautious with my footing. If the rocks were wet or icy on any other year, I would have wiped out here for sure had I not slowed more. At one point the trail actually opened up to some smoother downhill double track. Of course, I proceeded to promptly tripped over a branch and fall HARD on my knee cap. I got up quickly but that one left me hobbling for a good 60 seconds before I was able to run smoothly again. It figures I would fall on the smoothest part of the entire section…

They weren’t joking when they said miles 23-24.5 were ALL UPHILL. This famous “waterline” climb was quite literally a wall that required some 4-point climbing, bouldering skills and upper body strength. The uphill grunt definitely spiked my heart rate and left my legs a bit wobbly when things leveled out at the top. I was also very happy with my decision to use a light hydration pack (Nathan VaporHowe 4L) over a handheld bottle here.

I was excited for the next and final big descent. This was the rockiest section of the course and it almost felt like I was back home on the trails of PA. I checked my watch, now in the 4th hour, and was unwilling to slow the pace to accommodate. I had passed a few guys since the halfway point and passed several more here as I somewhat recklessly bombed downhill over the rock gardens. This speed did come at a cost though, and at one point I tripped over a rock and BOOM. All my limbs were generally in-tact minus some cuts and scrapes, but the fall knocked the wind out of me for a good few seconds. I was pretty sure I had just set a record for the most times I had fallen in any race! I had to laugh out loud, wishing for a GoPro at that moment. I got up and kept rolling.

The Finish

That last climb hit hard. I was pretty tired and banged up at this point. Still, I pushed the best I could up the climb.  I had been watching my MilestonePod LEG SWING metrics in training and knew that I had the tendency to lean my trunk too far forward more and rely in my hamstrings to get uphill, a strategy that worsens my climbing efficiency when I get tired. Keeping this in mind, I focused on using my glutes and pushing through my butt, which I believe was pretty key to getting me up that climb in decent shape. In hindsight I probably also should have taken in more calories during those final 2 hours. By that climb I was out of Tailwind, solid food wasn’t happening, gels and I have a disastrous relationship, and that Gatorade from mile 17 just wasn’t enough. The nutrition strategy is always a work in progress….

I was very happy to see the aid station at the top of the mountain. I choked down a gulp of coke and blasted the last 1.5ish miles of flat(ish) double track with what I had left in my legs, which wasn’t much. The finish line came a bit sooner than expected and I crossed in 4:44 and change, 1st female, 6th overall, and running the 3rd or 4th fastest female time (depending on the source) in the history of the course. The time was better than I had expected, and about 5 minutes off the female course record. With proper conditions, there is definitely some time left on that course. I will be back to Mountain Mist again some year, next time with a little more time and specificity in training and improvements in the nutrition strategy!

Next up for me, Mount Mitchell 40 miler at the end of February and, ultimately, the Georgia Death Race on April 1st!

Happy Trails!

Author: Jackie Merritt

Jackie is an accomplished ultra-runner and an avid MilestonePod data fan. She has a Doctorate in Physical Therapy and a PhD in Biomechanics. She lives and trains in Atlanta with her husband Jeff and the Yeti Trail Runners. When not running, Jackie works as a PT and research scientist at Emory University School of Medicine. Jackie also runs for Hoka One One and NATHAN Sports.