This was my third SunMart, and only my second ultra since last year's SunMart. Winter was hard on my training (serious case of the flu, two deaths in the family, extremely busy at work) and I had decided for a time to give up ultras. But eventually those thoughts faded and I realized how much I enjoyed the distance, the trails and the camaraderie of ultras. I completed my third Rockledge Rumble 50k in November, then geared up for SunMart.
I had to attend my company holiday party the night before the race (I'm not a big fan of office parties and was dreading the event). I had hoped to leave Dallas around 9:00 PM for the three hour drive to Huntsville. Unfortunately that was unrealistic and I didn't leave town until about 10:45, arriving in Huntsville around 1:45.
On the way I was bored and didn't feel like listening to any music so I scanned the AM frequency looking for interesting or weird talk radio. I found it: Coast to Coast. I picked it up during a call-in segment, and here was a typical quote from a caller:
I know you've always said that you wouldn't use the collective mind-power of your audience to influence the weather, but....And more of the same! Looks like I missed a great show Saturday night:
In a special 5-hour show, Art Bell conducted a 4-hour interview with Jim Sparks, who discussed his eighteen years as an alien abductee.I was rooming with TO, a member of the North Texas Trail Runners; in November TO completed three marathons and one 50k on two back to back weekends, qualifying him for a Rutehnium Level membership to Marathon Maniacs! TO finished the SunMart 50 miler on Saturday, then finished the White Rock marathon on Sunday! He's a running machine!
Another NTTR member, Don, had picked up my packet for me and dropped it at the hotel. So after getting my room key and my packet, I chatted with TO for a couple of minutes and then fell fast asleep.
But only for three hours. The alarms went off at 5:00 AM. I got dressed and threw on my race clothes and gear, threw my stuff in my bag and headed for the car. I arrived at Starbucks at about 5:45 for a coffee and donut, then to the gas station for Gatorade and water, then drove the five miles to the race headquarters at Huntsville State Park. It was 32 degrees at this point, a little too cold to stand around, but perfect weather for racing.
I met up with some friends and ultrawalkers from my first SunMart, Becky, Vicki and Patty (Patty is a local DFW racewalker and a racewalking coach). I chatted with them and dropped my bag with their gear, then chatted briefly with TO and another NTTR member, Bill, then the race started and we were off.
Interestingly I encountered two other walkers at the beginning of the race. They said they were from Idaho and had walked the American River ultra in 12 hours and were hoping to do SunMart in 11 hours. This was too fast for me so I didn't make any effort to stay with them. We passed each other a few times in the beginning, then I pulled slightly ahead and would see them on the two long out and back sections (one at about 2.5 miles into the 12.5 mile loop, and one entering and exiting the Start/Finish area). This out and back is one of my favorite parts of SunMart. I love seeing my friends several times during the race, and I also enjoy seeing the front runners and greeting the other racers. I made a real effort to shout out an encouraging greeting to almost everyone I met on the trail.
The first loop was uneventful and I was ahead of my race plan the whole way. I gained three minutes over my goal time of 2:39 and didn't feel like I was pushing too hard. I saw TO and Bill and they both looked strong.
The second loop turned out to be a good loop, but it felt labored. I felt like I was pushing myself, and I worried that I was going to use up everything I had and not leave anything for the second half of the race. I purposefully slowed down (I planned for the second loop to be 45 seconds slower per mile than the first loop) but I still gained three minutes, so at the end of the second loop I was six minutes ahead of plan but a little bit concerned. TO and Bill still looked good, but Bill had passed TO, who appeared to be struggling a little bit.
I promised myself that I would take a little Advil at the halfway point, so after I crossed the timing mat and stopped at the aid station, I popped two Advil. I noticed my hands and wrists were a little swollen. This usually means too much or too little electrolytes, and since I hadn't taken any electrolytes caps I assumed it was too little so I popped two. During the first two loops I took a few Clif Shots, and I ate small handfuls of snacks at each aid station and drank soda or water (for some reason some of the aid stations had diet Pepsi - Yuck! What's the point??? I wanted the sugar). Someone had the brilliant idea of spreading peanut butter on Oreo's, then topping the whole thing off with M&Ms; I started referring to it as Redneck Gu!
Loop three felt good, but it turned out to be my slowest loop and far below my goal. I had planned loops two and three to be at the same pace, but loop three was nine minutes slower than loop two; I lost all of the six minutes I had gained, plus an additional three minutes. I wasn't worried because I was still well within the cutoffs, but I was a little discouraged, and I wondered how bad loop four was going to be. What was really weird was that loop three felt pretty good and felt fast. But at least I was only three minutes behind my race plan, and I had more than enough time before the cutoff.
About three miles before the end of loop three the two racewalking women from Idaho passed me. They looked good, and while one of them stopped at the aid station the other powered ahead and cruised up the hills like they were nothing. Then her friend passed me trying to catch up. As I entered the start/finish out-and-back I again saw TO and Bill. TO had passed Bill, but they both looked great. I also saw a few other NTTR members on this loop, plus some familiar faces from past SunMarts.
After I crossed the timing mat I said Goodbye to Becky (she wasn't racing due to an injury, and her friends were doing the 50k, so I wouldn't see them again), grabbed my flashlight and headlamp and moved out for the last loop. I always love starting this loop as a back-of-the-packer. People are always so encouraging (and a little sympathetic) since they know we are probably in for a darkness finish and some physical suffering. You can also cheer in the back-of-the-pack 50k racers that are less than half a mile from the finish.
Loop four is a strange mixture of suffering and excitement. There is a lot of physical pain, and there is usually a look of disappointment on some people's faces (I'm assuming their day did not go as well as expected). But there is also excitement because we all know that we are almost finished and that we won't be seeing each other again. There's a strong sense of camaraderie since the only people left on the course are the back-of-the-packers, who I refer to as the Flashlight Finishers since we will be finishing in the dark. It's a good way to finish the day.
I felt good on loop four. I took two more Advil just to keep everything moving smoothly. I watched my watch closely and saw that I was making great time. At each aid station I was moving ahead of my planned time for the loop. As I was walking into one of the aid stations I heard one of the volunteers yell at some racers that were departing, "Enjoy the dance tonight!" and I burst out laughing. It felt good to know that every step brought my closer to the finish.
At about four miles from the finish (at the long wooden bridges) I saw off in the distance the two racewalking women from Idaho. They were pretty far ahead so I didn't think I could catch them, and I was interested in trying. I just wanted to stick to my plan and finish feeling good. I was on track for a PR so "beating" someone didn't seem important.
At this point the 50k and 50 mile races merged, and I spent a couple of minutes talking to a 71 year old man in the 50k who was coming back from an injury and had recently completed the Vermont 100. He told me his goal was to finish in eight hours, and after a few quick calculations I told him I thought he would do it easily (looks like he finished in 7:54). He was a cool cat, decked out in black with an earring in his ear. His accomplishment was quite an inspiration!
Then I chatted briefly with two runners that I passed (one of whom seemed to be having some leg problems) and she said, "I just want you to know that I've really enjoyed your smile all day." I said back, "I figured if I kept smiling I wouldn't cry." She replied, "Yeah, but you were smiling the whole time." That made me feel good - I always try to enjoy the experience, otherwise why do it?
Right before the last aid station I passed Bill who was powerwalking but said he was fading fast. Then right at the last aid station I saw the two other walkers! They stopped at the station, but since it's only 2.79 miles from the finish I didn't see any need to stop; I waved at them and kept right on going. Since I was ahead of plan I hadn't had to turn on my lights yet, which also explains why I was ahead of schedule for the loop.
I cruised up the hill out of the aid station and passed one more racer. Then I turned on my lights and walked from glow stick to glow stick, and didn't see another soul until I heard the cheers, whistles and cowbells of complete strangers cheering for me at the finish. I crossed the line, gave up my chip, got my medal and my finisher's afghan, then headed straight to the car and straight to the nearest Mexican restaurant. I arrived home at about 10:45 PM, so the whole trip lasted about 24 hours and I was only in Huntsville for about 17.5 hours.
My official time was 11:12:55, a little over 14 minutes faster than last year, and about 35 minutes faster than 2004. I was faster than last year on three of the four loops, and walked my fastest loop ever (2:36, a 12:28 pace).
I really enjoy SunMart. Sometimes it is criticized because of the inconvenient Packet Pickup (which is about an hour away in Houston, and there is no early pickup or race day pickup), and sometimes it is looked down on because it is one of the biggest ultras and attracts people of all abilities. These things are both true. But it is a well supported race with lots of pre- and post-race food, awesome freebies (this year: large gym bag, race logo polo shirt, race logo technical shirt, race logo technical hat, race logo water bottle, two Hammer Gels, plus the following "cheap" freebies: nail care set, rain poncho, gloves, disposable camera, stuffed bear, sunglasses), a beautiful course, and the wonderful opportunity to see your fellow racers numerous times during the race, to receive and give encouragement, and to enjoy being outdoors and pushing yourself toward new accomplishments. The course is relatively flat but very rooty, sometimes muddy (not this year), portions of jeep road and portions of wonderfully twisty single track. I think SunMart is a great race, and would make a great first 50 miler. The aid stations are almost sumptuous, even at the end of the race, and the whole experience (excluding packet pickup) is positive. I look forward to doing it again in the future.