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Sunmart 50-mile Trail Run
Huntsville State Park, Huntsville, TX
December 9, 2006
Report by Bill (The Trailgeeze) Rumbaugh
Saturday was a return to the familiar venue of Huntsville State Park for the 17th annual running of the Sunmart Texas Trails Endurance Runs, more commonly referred to as "The Sunmart." I had run two 50k events here previously and so it was like putting on an old shoe, quite comfortable without the minor anxieties and unanswered questions of a new location.
Staying with relatives in the Houston area, as we drove by the state park location on I-45 Friday, sun reflecting off of standing water could clearly be seen off in the trees by the road. Gonna be a messy one, I thought to massef. I noted with further dismay the approaching precipitation and cold temperatures on the evening news. Sleet was forming out to the West in the San Antonio area, and it was headed here. All part of the fun, I sez. Though I've run in sub-freezing temperatures before, numerous times, I have managed somehow to avoid really messy runs, such as the infamous "Mudlands." I did not relish the thought of combining the two experiences.
Race Day was chilly and the temperatures were in the mid-30's with little wind, but there were no signs of precipitation as I headed for the Sheraton to take advantage of the Race's Shuttle Service. (I figured the less driving I have to do after a 50-miler, the better – and safer.) Waiting in the lobby for the busses to arrive, I chatted with several of the other runners. One was from Alaska, another had driven 1,000 miles from Kentucky. In the van on the way to the race, there were was a guy from Vermont. Apparently people come from all over to run the fast, fairly flat course in quest of PR's, or maybe it's the legendary swag given out at packet pickup. In that department, the bag was slightly larger than last year's and the cap is an embroidered running cap rather than a denim non-running type, a good thing. The polo shirts were available in a new maroon color and there was an addition of a new long sleeve running shirt of a technical fabric (nowhere as nice as the Rockledge Rumble shirts, but acceptable and welcome in my drawer at home). There was some other stuff, rain poncho, bandana, etc. pretty much the usual fare.
The bus arrived at the park, I stashed my drop bag where I could get to it during the race and sought sustenance from the kitchen tent. (I decided against putting the drop bag in an outer trash bag, may not be needed, the stuff that needed to be dry was in plastic bags inside anyway, and I could always do that later.) There was a lot of food to choose from, one could certainly make the mistake of pigging out before the race. The jovial servers would have given you a heaping plate of food with little provocation. I took half of a scrambled egg round (protein and a little fat), a cheese kolache (sugar and carbs) and coffee (caffeine). Sat across from a guy with a heavy accent, and wondered if he was one of the highly-touted Russians who were supposed to be at this race. In the pre-race gathering at the starting line, I chatted briefly with T.O., Marshall King, Ryan Loehding, and Scott Eppelman. I'm sure there were other NTTR'ers there, those were the folks I recognized, there were probably others, this being a popular race. I noticed that the person with the microphone organizing the runners before the start of the race as the same gal who was ramrodding the loading of the vans in the lobby at the hotel. Anyway, we were off on time and headed up the hill on the park road. I fell in beside a gal that I heard T.O. introduce to someone as a new club member. I asked her about it and she said she had just joined, her name is Gina Sheets. [Update: I do not see her name among the latest members on the posted roster on the 'members only' website and do not see a welcoming email to her from Lynn Ballard, so perhaps there was some miscommunication in all this.] We ended up running most of the first of the four 12.5 mile loops together. Very pleasant person and it makes running more enjoyable getting to know a new person, or getting caught up with what's been going on with someone you know. Usually it does not last more than a mile or two during a race, as people's paces tend to differ.
The precipitation stayed away the whole day, thankfully, and the anticipated boggy course conditions also did not materialize. That course seems to have good drainage, due to the sandy soil, and the few messy parts had makeshift bridges and/or straw put down to aid the runners. Very considerate, this well-established (and well-funded) race has many such details honed to near-perfection. The temperatures were chilly, ideal for running. I would guesstimate the temperatures at the start and end to be mid-30's, reaching into the 40's mid-day. Overcast skies for the most part, though the sun did peek out a few times, but not enough to warm things up very much.
There is a long out and back section near the start of the course and then the trail into and out of the S/F area traverses the same ground, so it is essentially a second out and back. I used to not like out and back sections, after all, you are not "getting anyplace." I have evolved a bit in how I view them these days, it does give you a look at the leaders (at least on the first lap) and see how the big dogs do it (whew!). You are also able to gauge how you are doing among your peers as the race progresses. Since I had only run the 50k trail before, the inner loop, which includes the Lake Raven dam and its environs, was new to me. Something to look forward to. Several hundred yards before the dam (you are on a jeep road at that point) off to the left are dozens of very short palm trees, all seeming to be the same age. Don't know if they are a native species or part of a forestry experiment. They were present in other parts of the course in onesies and twosies, so maybe they are actually native. I remember from high school history the U.S. being referred to as a "Dominion reaching from Palm to Pine." Well, here we have both, the U.S. in microcosm, as it were. How many races offer that? There were no rocky sections but the rooty places made up for it. A significant percentage of the course is on jeep roads, so footing is not a significant issue there, but on the single track sections you do need to pay attention. I stubbed my toe in a couple of places and tweaked my ankles a bit, but nothing serious or out of the ordinary. Did not plant my face this time, nor did I see anyone who did, a bit unusual for a trail run, on both accounts. The 50k'ers share the trail over about half the course, but they start 30 minutes after the 'milers do. So it is quite some time before the fast guys start catching up and passing "on your left." The first two loops went pretty well, I felt good and the miles passed agreeably. By the third loop I was looking forward to the uphills, to give me an opportunity to ah, practice my powerwalking skills. My running muscles were protesting mightily long about then. Uphills are a relative term, by the way. As the race progressed, there seemed to be more of them, and they were more noticeable. In fact, I know I ran up many of them in the earlier loops. What wuz I thinkin'. For the third and fourth loop I noticed that the course tended to have some long downhills with a bridge or gully crossing at the bottom and then some long uphills. So I got into a rhythm of running the long downhills (more than I really wanted to, but I stuck with it) and then powerwalked the uphills. Early in the race I saw a runner emerging from the bushes and resuming the trail. Part of ultrarunning, taking care of what needs to be done. As he sped on down the trail, I noticed a flag stuck in his backpack. I recalled reading in the various NTTR/Yahoo mailings that Thorbjorn Pedersen (the Gr8 Dane) does this. So I hollered out, "Are you the Great Dane?" He gave me the fists in the air salute, so I knew that was him. He finished way before me, and so the times I encountered him later in the course were after he had lapped me. Always had an encouraging word for those meeting us on the out and backs. If there was a level spot during the climbs, I would run it. This got me by on the third loop and most of the fourth loop. There is a long stretch from the dam to the last aid station, a distance of about 4 miles. All single track, pretty much ideal trail running conditions with pleasant, sandy trail/pine straw footing, and some rooty sections as mentioned previously. In the latter stages this seems to go on forever. Finally, you get to the wooden bridge section and then it is not too far to the last aid station. On the first loop I took the opportunity to inform Gina of the rural legend of the 'gators which are said to inhabit this section of the lake. "You want to be careful not to fall in along here." (Ha!) From the last aid station to the S/F area, it is less than 3 miles. As noted in other reports by yer humble scribe, this seems like way more than 3 miles. When you finally do reach the park's 'interpretive center' and make the right turn, you still have what seems to be a long freaking way to go to the S/F area. Seems short and fairly easy the first loop or two, but gets way longer as the race progresses. At some point I had passed T.O. and he was not looking good. Knowing that he was going to run the White Rock Marathon the next day, I was thinking that he had a really short night ahead of him. Somewhere on the third loop, he had found his second wind and passed me, finishing with a really respectable time. (What's yer secret, coach? I'm interested!)
On the third loop after the aid station at the dam, I noticed the race staff had put out glowsticks along the course in anticipation of the late finishers. Had not yet been at a race where I had seen this, I'm still a newbie, remember. I guessed that staffers would come along and activate them later, at twilight. As mentioned before, the third loop began to get a bit tough. I soldiered, on during the fourth loop. I tried in vain at the completion of the third loop to find some ibuprofen in my drop bag and my fanny pack. I used to use 'vitamin I' regularly, but Rev. Gene Wilke's experience with them at the Arkansas Traveler 100 last year put me off on their use. Still, in moderation on a 50-miler I did not view as too much, and I was hurting pretty badly. Anyway, they are still distributed among my various stashes of running stuff, just none were here with me at that race, on that day. When I really could have used them. Oh, well, suck it up, Trailgeeze, and get on with it. Which is what I did during the 4th loop. At some point, there were two powerwalking ladies who overtook me. I had seen them in the out and backs previously. As they passed, very politely, I asked them if they were Centurions. One of them paused and said, "No." I told them that there was a Centurion in our club membership. No recognition of that significant ranking. Marshall King (the particular Centurion I had in mind) passed me soon thereafter, and I expect that he passed them in the last few miles.
Under the heading of oddball occurrences, I keep my electrolyte capsules in a small baggie. I had divided them into two baggies, 6 capsules each. My first baggie also contained 3-4 mint-flavored antacid tablets which I tend to need early in a race. Toward the midpoint of the race, it was time to take the last of the e-caps in the first baggie. I noticed that there was still one antacid tablet remaining. In the meantime, one or more of the e-caps had started leaking its powdery contents inside the small baggie. I decided an antacid would be welcome at that point, so I chewed it up. A salt-flavored mint antacid tablet was something pretty unusual. Yum.
I continued with my strategy of running the downhills and level parts of the trail until the light started failing. At that point I was pretty well whacked, being at it from since before sunrise. With the dwindling visibility of the trail hazards and my slowed reaction times, I did not relish the thought of twisting an ankle or performing a face plant maneuver. So about 5 – 6 miles from the end, I decided it made sense to walk it in the rest of the way. There was ample time remaining before the cutoff, so that was not a significant issue (unlike my experience at Palo Duro). My main concern at that point was my ride back to the hotel. The shuttle bus concession seemed to be so loosely run that I was concerned about having a ride back to my car. Also thinking that the folks who would be flying in and using the race hotel (and therefore the shuttles) are probably competitive runners who would be long gone by the time yers truly finished. The drivers are not professional drivers, they are folks who themselves are running the race, recruited for the purpose. The driver on the trip out evidently spoke little English (a Russkie, perhaps?) and when they were done (probably earlier, rather than later) I'm sure they would want to get back, rather than wait for stragglers like me. I got to the penultimate aid station, took a last electrolyte capsule, washed it down with water, thanked the aid station folks for being there for us all day and headed up the trail. It was nearing full darkness at that point and I fished out my flashlight from my fanny pack for the last 2.59 miles to the finish. I really appreciated the glowsticks at that point, the trail seemed so obvious and clear in the daylight. At night it was much less so. My instincts for the trail were pretty accurate most of the time and I was able to find the trail when it turned, which was frequently. But the presence of the glowsticks provided additional security that I was not "lost." I really did not need "bonus miles" at that point. They were surprisingly dim, though. Watching the trail in the few feet ahead in the spot of my flashlight, I would see them in my peripheral vision and a few times I thought they might be other runners that I was overtaking. Hah. Like I would be overtaking anyone at this pace! A handful of runners passed me during this interval, good luck to them. The interminable last ~3 miles eventually passed and I turned the corner at the park's interpretive center and walked as quickly as I could past the park Ranger's house and the clearcut area for the power lines. Having to keep a steady hand on the flashlight kept me from establishing the upper body rhythm required for powerwalking, so I probably was a tad slower even than I might have been otherwise.
Anyway, after walking the last few miles I had planned to walk across the timing mat and accept whatever time my chip gave me, since I was certain no one at the finish line knew me at that point. But t'was not to be. As I got into the comparatively well-lit finish area, a guy told me to turn off my flashlight or I would mess up my finish line photo (which are inevitably bad). But I did so anyway, tightened the grip on my trusty UD handheld water bottle and managed a lope across the mat at the finish line. There were a couple dozen hardy souls with cowbells and police whistles and what-not, clapping and cheering the last finishers. How can you not at least fake a strong finish for such people, bless them. I'm sure I did not know a single one of them, but I appreciate them being out there in the cold, cheering on a fellow member of the ultrarunning community as they completed a tough race. At a finishing time of 11:25, I was sure that there were others still out on the course and that I was not DFL. I headed directly toward the finisher's prize area to collect my second Sunmart Tyvek jacket and then to the kitchen tent for some sustenance. As expected, they did not have any Shiner Bock, but I had to ask! Hearing the cheering for later finishers off in the distance, I collected my drop bag as I munched on a chicken breast sandwich and headed toward where I thought the shuttle busses should be parked. And there they both were. One of the two had a couple of people in them. One of them was Gina, who I had last seen early in my 4th loop. I took the opportunity to change clothes in the nearby rest-room and in the meantime, the van had filled. When I emerged from the rest-room in dry, better-smelling clothing, I was the last passenger. And we took off for the Sheraton. I called my Sweet Wife to let her know I did have a ride back to the hotel after all, and that I expected to be back in time to beat the closing of the freeway between the hotel and her sister's house. (If it had closed, there would be ded reckoning involved with getting to their house, a skill in which I do not excel.) I dozed the way back, as one of the occupants regaled the others with tales of derring-do with her two Badwater finishes.
So, all's well that endeth well. I finished under the cutoff, got a ride back to my car and have a second garishly-colored Tyvek jacket to wear at future events. I will retire my Dallas White Rock Marathon jacket that I ended up with, years ago as a member of my company's WRM relay team. I am, after all, an ultrarunner now, no longer a marathoner. It's appropriate that I wear more proper attire to future events. These things are da bomb.
Somewhere along the course of the race I had made the decision that the Bandera 100K which I thought I would run in early January did not make any sense whatever. I am not to the point in my running career where it makes sense to take that on. After all, if I'm toast at the end of a 50-miler on what is considered to be an easy course, it does not make sense to take on a really tough 100K course, even with the generous cutoff times. Also, I would be camping at that venue, which adds an additional dimension of complexity to the preparation (see my Palo Duro race report for more). So, it seems that I need to recalibrate my calendar of events for the Spring. I had planned to sign up Sunday to avoid the fee increase. So, I will save my scarce $ for other events.
Update on the Russkies: Oleg Kharitonov came in second behind Greg Crowther from Washington State, with a time of 6:00:07. Denis Zhalybin did not show. Howard Nippert, another highly-touted runner from Virginia also did not show.
Ryan Loehding took 3rd in his age group with a time of 7:15, good goin' Ryan. Scott Eppelman finished in 7:29, Thorbjorn Pedersen finished in 8:59, and T.O in 10:38. Good luck on Sunday, Thomas "The Animal" Okazaki!