This was the first running of the Blue Ridge Mountain Masters 50k Trail Run, the only ultramarathon in the mountains of North Georgia, which are home to many excellent trails, including the Appalachian and Benton Mackaye Trails. As the name implies, the race is open only to runners aged 40 or over, and it was a low-key operation this year, with only 27 entrants, including some hard-core Atlanta trailrunners. The course is an out-and-back which starts at 2000 ft and peaks at 3300 ft, with 9800 ft total elevation gain. The course slowly climbs along gravel forest roads for about 10 miles, then along the Benton Mackaye trail for 6 miles to the turnaround (total 12 miles both ways). The trail section consists of plenty of steep climbs and descents and lots of rocks and roots which were covered with a layer of leaves so you could not see what hazards you were stepping on, and it was drizzling so the trail was very slippery in places.
I had not planned on running a 50k until next Spring, but I heard about this one right in my backyard, and decided to go for it, after having run the Marine Corps Marathon two weeks earlier. Since it was to be my first run longer than 26.2 miles, and a technical trail run, I was planning to be conservative until the halfway point then play it by ear. I had a handheld water bottle, since there were only five aid stations along the route. It was overcast and 50 degrees, and rain was forecast. 27 runners lined up at the start, shuffling for position—in the back. Nobody wanted to be up front. The shotgun fired (it started at a shooting club, so no worries) and we were off.
A group of runners took off like rabbits, and it was immediately apparent to me that I had exactly zero chance of placing, even in such a small field. We crossed a small stream into which the Race Director had tossed a couple of big rocks so that we could cross without soaking our shoes, and turned onto a gravel/rock road which was rolling hills but overall climbing, with no hills steep enough to have to walk at that point. So I just jogged up the steeper hills and ran the flats and the brief downhills. I was in a group of 4 runners at first, but it quickly broke up as two went ahead and one dropped back. From that point I was just running through the woods all alone with not another runner in sight. Occasionally I waved to bemused campers sitting by their campfires. Quite a contrast from the Marine Corps Marathon!
At mile 6 we hit the first aid station, which was just one guy with a Jeep and a table. He had water, Gatorade, Coke (regular and diet), and pretzels. I grabbed some pretzels, washed them down with coke, chatted with him for a minute or two and took off up the road. Another 4+ miles of somewhat steeper uphill on the gravel road was the next aid station and there I refilled my water bottle and grabbed some more pretzels and coke. The course got steeper after that, up an abandoned road where it turned onto the Benton Mackaye Trail. The “easy” part of the run was over, for the time being.
I had caught up with a runner in a bright orange vest at the aid station and we would play tag for the next 16 miles. As mentioned above, this section was pretty difficult, with lots of slippery wet rocks and roots under the fallen leaves on steep climbs and descents. It was also in the clouds so the trail was foggy and wet, with big drops of water falling on us from the trees above.
We passed the occasional backpacker on the trail, one of them even took my picture and gave me his email address so he could send it to me! A couple of others were rather surly, apparently some hikers hate trail runners. I tried to be very polite and gave them the right of way and said thanks when they moved aside. Orange Guy and I ran along this trail, which seemed to go on forever. We jogged where we could, and walked the steep sections, both up and down, of which there were plenty. We traded leads a number of times, remarking to each other that we should have seen the leaders by on their return leg by now, as we figured we must be close to the turnaround. At long last we crossed paths with the leader, who looked really beat, and finally got to the turnaround point aid station. They had Oreos! That looked really good to me at the time and I ate a few while the volunteer refilled my water bottle. Orange Guy started back up the trail before me and once again I was running alone in the woods, although I could occasionally see his bright orange vest up the trail as I got close to him. I realized then that his choice of attire was probably a good idea since if one of us was to be mistaken for a deer by a hunter, it would probably be me. I decided to try to keep up the pace I had been running, although my legs were starting to tire.
The trail seemed to go on forever as I navigated the ups and downs of the trail. Finally I rejoined the gravel road, which was a big relief. Soon I was at the 10/22-mile aid station where I caught up with Orange Guy and another guy who I called Red Shorts Guy. Here they had GU gels, bananas, and boiled potatoes with a dish of salt to dip them in. The potatoes looked really good to me, while the thought of eating sweet gels was nauseating, so I took some potatoes and coated them with a generous coating of salt, and I have to say it is the most I have enjoyed a meal in a long time. Those salty potatoes really hit the spot!
I left the aid station knowing that the remainder of the course was mostly downhill, and that was a very good thing, as I was really getting tired by then and my legs and feet were hurting. For the next few miles I played tag with Red Shorts Guy and Orange Guy, Orange Guy would catch me and then drop back, and I would catch Red Shorts Guy and then he would pull ahead. Finally we reached the last aid station, which was coincidentally mile 26.2. Anything from then on was uncharted territory for me and I really wished that this was the finish. Orange Guy arrived at the last aid station as Red Shorts Guy and I were leaving and I never saw him again until the finish.
Red Shorts Guy and I left the aid station at the same time and after chasing him for the last few miles I knew I couldn’t pass him. Every time he took a walk break on the uphills I got close to him, then he took off and left me far behind, he was a lot faster than me when he wanted to run. At this point I wasn’t really trying to pass him anyway. The extra miles and short recovery time since my last marathon (for me, anyway) were taking their toll and my legs were so tired and sore that I just tried to keep pace. With about 3 miles to go we passed a runner who had gotten lost and run about 6 miles up the Appalachian Trail in the wrong direction. That would likely not happen at a big road race!
I finally finished just as the rain began and it started getting cold, about 10 seconds behind Red Shorts Guy. Orange Guy came in about 10 minutes later. The three of us had pushed each other hard for the last 10 miles and I finished at 6:55:22. That’s pretty slow, but given the difficulty of the course and the fact that I finished mid-pack I feel like it was a good effort on this course. The winning time was about 5 1/2 hours. BTW my Polar running watch said it was 32.8 miles. Horton miles? Whatever, I’m happy. I got a cool long-sleeved T-shirt, a finisher mug, a hot bowl of chili and my first ultra finish. The guy who had gotten lost on the route strolled in about a half hour later. The chili was delicious.