Chris leans over me, “is anything broken?” I groan, not yet able to verbalize the throbbing pain radiating from my gut. I writhe in the dirt, trying to find the air to speak. I’ve fallen, and while nothing is broken, in the descent, I somehow managed to elbow myself in my gut. I have winded myself. But I can’t lay here forever. Chris reaches down to help me up, “Can you run? Because we only have five left miles to the finish.” I nod. This is the Long Hunter 50K and I’m not going to let a little fall keep me from finishing my first ultra-marathon.
Long Hunter 50K & State Park
The Long Hunter 50K is one of several trail races hosted at Long Hunter State Park southeast of Nashville, Tennessee. While most attendees have signed up for the half or full marathon, we have already run one marathon and are looking for a new challenge. And ultra challenge. So we are signed up for the 50K distance.
For a trail race, the route is relatively level, winding along the forested shore of Percy Priest Lake. Some of it is paved. Most of it is dirt. And with that shady forest comes knobby roots and uneven rocks scattered along the path. It’s not a steep trail, but it is a technical trail. But most important of all, it is not a loop trail.
There were two things I was looking for in our first ultra marathon: convenience and an entertaining course. I am surprised by how many ultras are loop courses. It can take many times around the same route to rack up enough distance to exceed the 26.2 miles that define a marathon and cross over into qualifying as an ultra. In the case of a 50K, that’s 31.07 miles. But those extra 5 miles can add up. And we are grateful to find a race that offers new views throughout most of its length.
Long Hunter 50K Route
The route can be broken down into four main blocks: Couchville Lake, Bryant Grove Trail, Jones Mill Multi-Use Trail, and the Upper Bluff & Shoreline Area. The route begins in a large field near the ranger station and follows the main park road to the Couchville Lake Loop, a beautifully scenic, wide paved trail around the small Couchville Lake. The loop ends near the trailhead for Bryant Grove Trail. This trail is a relatively flat single-track dirt trail with occasional stretches of roots and rocks. At the trail’s terminus, we pick up a short (uphill) stretch of paved road to reach the Jones Mill Multi-Use Trail. This is the most technical section: an undulating heavily rooted and rocky dirt single track for hikers and mountain bikers. This 8-mile loop is bound to be the slowest miles of the race, but, at its completion, runners are also halfway through the race. What is left is a run back up Bryant Grove Trail to traverse a mostly paved road loop along the Upper Bluff & Shoreline. Then, it’s the one notable bit of torture: we have to run the Bryant Grove Trail again, as an in-out, this time, no Jones Mill. But, with that complete, we run back up to the field where we started for an enthusiastic finish.
Looking at past race finishing times and our experience, we aim to finish the route in under five hours. To that end, we’ve been training throughout the summer, gradually increasing our distances as we build up the endurance to run 50K. With each long run, we have been dialing in our gear, testing our nutrition, and preparing for the technical terrain that distinguishes trail races from road races. By the time race day arrives, we are eager to start running.
I wake up at 4:30 AM after a miserable night’s sleep of tossing and turning. So much could go wrong, and my mind won’t stop dwelling on it. But now, it’s time to stop worrying and start doing. First: caffine. Not only should the caffeine help perk me up but it also gets the bowels moving so I can start the race with a reasonably clear gut. Next, I warm up the breakfast of oatmeal and fresh fruit that I had prepared the night before. Between spoonfuls, I dress and arrange my gear that isn’t already packed in the truck.
By 6 AM we are on the road and headed to Long Hunter State Park. We pick up our race packages with our bibs and surrender our drop bags, which we will have access to along the route.
There are three races running today: a half marathon (13.1 miles), marathon (26.2 miles), and the 50K (31.1 miles). The half marathon and marathon start together at 7:30 and cover portions of the 50K route. The 50K starts 15 minutes alter at 7:45.
Did I mention that we are filming the race? Well, we will be taking video of it with a set of GoPros. Chris has one strapped to his chest and I have one on a long stick. I am setting up said camera when the countdown starts and the herd surges forward. Whoops! It takes me a minute of running before I have my watch tracking the race. But at least I capture the beginning of our first ultra.
I have spent the preceding weeks repeating that we should not start off too hot. Many runners burn out by running too fast at the beginning. But the chilly fall weather has us surging ahead to warm up and attach ourselves to the tail end of the leading pack. The first couple miles cover paved road and the Couchville Loop, where runners gradually shuffled into order of speed and seasoned pros established their lead.
Bryant Grove Trail
By the time we hit Bryant Grove Trail, we have settled into a steady pace and are passing the half and full-marathon runners. We are all wearing the same style of bibs, so it’s hard to discern who is running which race, though the leaders of the half marathon are evident as we encounter some runners sprinter towards us, already on the return route of their race.
Passing on this single-track can be a little difficult in places. Bryant Grove Trail winds along the banks of Percy Priest Lake, an artifact of the Tennessee Valley Authority, fed by the ___ with a hydroelectric dam at its northern end. This shoreline used to be hills overlooking a valley, but now the waterfront supports a young forest of _____. The shade is welcome, though the tree roots are a constant challenge while picking our way along the trail. At points where the trail closely follows the shoreline thin trees and an abundance of water support dense outcroppings of high grasses that hem in the trail and brush our ankles. As the trail winds away from the waterfront, the forest also thins, with rocky clearings where the exposed sunbaked stone radiates the mid-day heat, later in the race. This rotating terrain of grass, forest, and clearing makes passing other runners a matter of timing, waiting for a moment when the terrain opens up to redirect our focus from our footing to passing other runners.
Jones Mill Multi-Use Trail
We are still running strong as we exit Bryant Grove Trail, refill our water bladders, and charge up to Jones Mill Multi-Use Trailhead (I also grab a Snickers). Here, we leave behind the half-marathon runners and even pass a few more marathon and 50K runners as we progress through this rocky and hilly section of the trail.
Here, the forest is thicker, the hills are steeper, and the rocks are bigger. While the early sections of the trail include a few grassy clearings with juniper and a surprising amount of agave plants, we quickly plunge deep into the forest. As a mountain biking trail, the rough terrain is a feature. This is a less maintained route where the trail is discerned by slightly more trampled leaves and trimmed brush but we still encounter fallen trees and branches in the trail and hop between large boulders.
This is a stretch with multiple splits, and while many are marked, runners often get lost here. It doesn’t help that the marathon and 50K routes split in an unmanned stretch of forest. Even neon yellow signs and orange reflective markers can be easy to overlook when distracted by rocks, roots, and leaf-covered trails. We have several close calls, nearly tripping on rocks and trees, but we make a reasonable overall time. Much of which we squander at our next aid station while filling our water, snacking on bananas, and waiting for some Tylenol from one of the volunteers.
Bryant Grove Trail
The temperatures are rising as we head back up Bryant Grove Trail. While most of the trail is forested, occasional clearings feel like they are baking in the direct sun as the thermostat rises into a the fiery low 60s. Yes, the weather was pretty good but there were moments we still felt hot. After all, the slightly more level stretches of Bryant Grove Trail are an opportunity to make up for lost time on the more technical sections of Jones Mill Multi-Use Trail. Even so, the terrain is already becoming tedious. It’s the same route in reverse, all the more troublesome with the knowledge that we have to do it all over again soon.
Upper Bluff & Shoreline Area
We reach the Couchville Aid Station at mile 20.2 and the fatigue is kicking in. We’ve made reasonably good time up to this point, but the warmer weather and 20 miles under our legs are making its effects known. Fortunately, the next 2.2-mile loop around the Upper Bluff & Shoreline Area is a welcome refresher, mostly along paved park roads with a short stretch of gravel trail along the shoreline. There is one notable hill, but I’m simply grateful for a break from roots and rocks.
Bryant Grove Trail (Again)
When considering our race strategy ahead of time, I had thought of Bryant Grove Trail as the most pleasant feature of the race. It’s relatively level with trees and lake views. But on our section in-and-back, every rock and root is an annoyance. I simply grit my teeth and am ready for the race to be over. Worse still, my stomach is upset. After a couple of aid stations where I eat solid food, and then a couple where I step down to gels. Now my stomach is revolted by anything substantial. I only take liquid nutrition and a Tylenol at the mile 26.4 Bryant Grove Aid Station.
We have run over a marathon. It’s the furthest either of us has run. As we return to the final stretch of Bryant Grove Trail, I can smell the barn. And maybe that is my mistake. We have been taking turns running the lead throughout the race. At this point, Chris is running in front, so he only hears the scream, thump, and moan as I fall. He turns around to see me in the fetal position in the dirt. His first thought: broken arm or wrist. It’s painful, but not that bad. I still don’t know how I managed to connect my gut with my elbow with the force of my fall. I don’t even see a bruise. But days later, I still feel my tender abdomen. But, once I catch my breath, it seems everything else is just…dirty. I’ve fallen in some fortunately soft dirt and, while shaken, I can still run. And we do.
It’s 5 miles to go and that fortunately timed Tylenol must be kicking in because I’m able to run like any odd novice ultramarathoner at the end of their first race: weary, unsteady, but determined. Frankly, I’m proud of that final mile at 9:41 minutes. And, while we didn’t manage our sub-5-hour goal, 5:19:32 is nothing to sneeze at. (Particularly because I’m far too dehydrated to sneeze.). Most important of all, we finish the final .17 miles holding hands, lifting our arms as we cross the finish line.
We just finished our first 50K. And it was…exhausting.
Long Hunter 50k Wrap Up
Fortunately, one of the volunteers at the end of the race has medical training and ushers me into the event tent to gently dab away the dirt from my eye, arm, and knee to reveal shockingly minor abrasions. Because of my self-inflicted gut punch, she also pulls out a stethoscope to check my breathing. All clear. This is my second “lucky” fall this season and I’ll take it.
While I attempt to eat a banana, I have one final surprise as Emily, one of the race organizers, hands me a clay arrowhead which the race distributes in lieu of medals. With the dark brownish-grey finish, I can’t quite read the engraving, but I’ve seen pictures, so I know it commemorates something about the LHTR 50K.
But that’s not quite it.
She explains: “You’re the first female.” I’m confused (the knock on my head from the fall certainly doesn’t help). But we are sure there are quite a few people in front of us. But, as noted before, the repeated laps in and out of Bryant Grove Trail and the similar tags between all the runners make it hard to distinguish between 50K runners and marathoners still on the course. “First?” I wheeze, still confused.
I return to my focus: eat the banana and drink water. Chris comes over, after speaking with Emily, “Congratulations!” He knows better than to hug me, I’m sore everywhere. “I got first?” I whisper, incredulously. “You got first!” He confirms. But it’s all still so confusing and there’s still a banana and water that needs finishing.
I finish it.
But I still have more tasks in my post-race autopilot queue to execute: I need warm dry clothes. I know it’s just a matter of time before my body calms down from the run and I will be cold. The 60-degree temperature that was starting to feel hot while running will quickly be the opposite. Fortunately, I brought wet wipes and a warm set of clothes to change into. I wipe away some of the salty sweat crystals from my skin, change into warm sweats and a fuzzy sweater, discard my damp visor, and don flip-flops. The costume of champions.
Now I’m ready to process everything else. I look up to Chris, “I got first!” And now the other shoe drops when he shows me his award: 3rd place. Only two men in the 50K had crossed the finish line before us. So, while Chris took men’s 3rd place, technically, we took 3rd overall.
Due to some bookkeeping errors, my official finish time is 5:19:32 while Chris’s finish time is 5:19:35. But, for the record, we crossed that line together. And between the two of us, I’m pretty sure Chris could have sprinted to the finish line before me if he had the mind to. But he didn’t because we are a unit and we do everything—build a camper, explore the country, and run a foot race—together.
I suppose this story is complete. But for those curious, we did have some lessons learned:
- I need to do more strength training. My glutes and hamstrings were already feeling fatigued by the middle of the race. A regular regimen of weighted squats and other positions should greatly improve my strength.
- Work on balance. This is the second time I’ve fallen while running these trails. As much as I love trail running, I can’t afford to let this be a common practice.
- Run more trails. Roots, rocks, and other impediments are rare distractions while on a road race but demand a whole different set of skills when on a trail.
- Know the trail. Several people got lost along the route. I know there were a lot of strong runners, and some may well have beaten us if they hadn’t taken a wrong turn along the way. But, knowing the route is just as much of the challenge as running it is. We had run/walked/biked different sections of the route as part of our preparation for race day.
- Know when to skip an Aid Station. We stopped at all but two aid stations. Often, that just meant topping off our water and grabbing some snacks. We could have saved time with more careful consumption of water bladders (so as only to fill one bladder at a given stop rather than topping off two. Or better planning which stops we needed and which we did not. That said, the stops were welcome opportunities to regroup before the next stage.
- Practice filming. Filming the race certainly isn’t necessary. But if we are going to do it, we should include it as part of our long runs so that we can practice turning on and off the cameras, replacing batteries, and setting up filming angles. Chris’s chest mount is angled down to a point that it mostly shoots the trail and the lower half of nearby runners. It’s handy for some shots but I don’t need that many video clips of my butt. Meanwhile, I didn’t have a convenient place to stow my camera when I was not shooting. So I wound up carrying the camera in my hand through the entire race. It’s not too heavy, but it did alter my running form.
But who am I to complain? We finished. Better yet, we finished together. At the end of the day, that was our goal. I can’t help but be aware that there were plenty of other skilled and seasoned runners on the course who, under other circumstances, could have bumped us from our podium positions. But I am grateful that today was our day. And who knows? Maybe we will have a similar fortune next time…