The mystique of the Sunmart Trail Race has been captivating since I started running in Austin back in 2000. My Austin Fit Marathon Coaches would speak of this “50k Trail Race” where you receive more goodies than a six-year-old on Christmas morning. They spoke of the rest stop food that includes Oreos, Vanilla Wafers, gumdrops, M&Ms, bananas, boiled potatoes, salt and other sweet enticements, giving me a Hansel and Gretel-esque vision of this event. They also spoke of the friendly and compassionate trail racing culture.
I ran my first Sunmart 50K in 2007, as a virtual trail running novice. I showed up in my regular running shoes with my four gels and proceeded to run my way to 8th overall female and 2nd in my age group. Most importantly, I had a legitimate blast. Wait. How is this possible? How can you have fun in an ultra-marathon and still finish with a respectable time? Trail running isn’t necessarily a race. It’s an experience; and Sunmart is the epitome of this experience.
Needless to say, I’ve been excited for a while to come back to Sunmart for round two. Like last year, I had done no specific trail training. I had, however, spent 2008 training for and completing my first Full Ironman in April and training hard all summer to run a Marathon PR in October at Marine Corps. My body and mind were slightly fatigued from the intensity of the year and Sunmart provided the cure…and a great way to finish a monumental year as an average Joe (or Jane) athlete.
In case you got lost on the way
Race morning this year was the antithesis of 2007. Last year was hot and humid. This year, the air was a dry, crisp 30 degrees. Chilly, no doubt, but perfect for a long morning of running in a gorgeous state park. If there’s one way to describe the scene, I’d say “casual.” The kitchen crew cooks up biscuits, gravy, bacon, kolaches, eggs, hot cider, hot cocoa and coffee. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say we were all at a family picnic instead of a race! Athletes weren’t necessarily chugging their last sips of Gatorade or choking down the last bit of their bagel. They were sitting in the warm heated tent (thank you!) drinking OJ, eating some biscuits and gravy and chatting about whether it was a shorts or a tights day.
When we were called to the start line by the Race Announcer, I made a conscious effort to line up a little closer to the front knowing that the out and back of the first six miles allows little room to make passes without annoying other runners. My goal this year was the same as last year. Start slow and gradually build throughout the 31+ miles. I lined up with my running partners, Amy and Shellie, and we made our “start slow” pact together. Our first mile was a brisk sub 9:00. We reined it in over the next couple of miles when we hit the picturesque trail. Still, though, I was running a little faster than last year and wondering if this would haunt me later. The beauty of hovering around a 9:15 pace is that I could still converse with my friends and other runners who were on the course. Conversing is exactly what we were doing during the fifth mile when my friend Amy hit her foot on a root and went down in intense pain.
“I think it’s broken,” she grimaced. Shellie and I stopped immediately to tend to her, even though there wasn’t much I could do besides assure her that she was going to be o.k. As seconds turned into minutes, dozens of concerned runners came by, stopped, and took several moments out of their own day to express their concern. A nurse and her friend stopped to check the swelling and other friends hovered while we assessed the damage. Practically every runner gave a word or two of encouragement as they ran by. Finally, a local Huntsville firefighter came upon us and tended to her injuries. Fortunately, there was no break, but she definitely couldn’t proceed. We removed her chip and shoe while we waited for medical personnel to arrive. In true runner fashion, Amy insisted that we all continue. At this point, there truly was nothing we could do. She was in a tremendous amount of pain, but ultimately she would be fine. The gracious firefighter (I later learned his name is Norman) said he would wait with her. After several, “Are you sures?,” Shellie and I proceeded on…now much closer to the back of the pack than the front where we originated.
I suspect we lost about 8-10 minutes when all was said and done. Humorously, when she went down, I stopped my watch as if we were on a training run. It was a few minutes later that I realized, “You’re in a race, Carrie! You can’t stop your watch just because you’ve stopped running!” Needless to say, I really didn’t know where I was in the pack or what my time/pace truly was.
I did consciously pick it up over the next several miles. My comfortable 9:15 pace gave way to a few 8:15s as I began to climb through the pack on the first of two 12.15 mile loops. Dare I say the competitive spirit started to kick in just a tad at this point? Still though, the spirit and atmosphere were relaxed and casual. I can’t count the number of people who asked how my friend was doing as I made a pass. This type of fellowship and camaraderie is rare in a typical competitive road marathon. That support and encouragement only bolstered my efforts to race and finish strong.
Shellie and I ran and chatted together for the first 20 miles until recurring tummy issues forced her to hold back. Admittedly, I started counting the female competitors on a few of the “out and back” sections of the course. I remember suspecting that I was somewhere near the top 15. In another jewel of wisdom from my previous year, I just tried to remain focused and let those competitors come to me. Lo and behold, they started to and little by little I inched my way through the field with some sub-8:30 minute miles. Also, even though it pained me, I refrained as much as possible from overdosing at the wonderful rest stops. I stayed true to my gel consumption and complemented that with “fuel friendly” bananas, peanut butter, potatoes and salt at the stops. The last five miles were tough. My early surge to catch up was now catching up with me. My legs started to stiffen…not cramp…just seize slightly. I struggled on the uphills, but still felt strong on the flats and downhills. At the last count, I suspected that I was in third place and was darn close to the two in front of me. Part of my mind told me to relax and enjoy the moment. I could finish comfortably and not lose my place. Of course, the other part told me to push it to the end in hopes of making a final pass.
As fate would have it, I took a pretty rough tumble with a half-mile to go, which all but knocked the wind out of my sails. Still though, I finished with a huge smile and a solid 4th place overall (1st in my 35-39 year old age group). I thought I was in 3rd, but it turns out that the perennial winner, Wendy Terris, was so far ahead of the field that I never actually saw her on the course!
With new friend and fellow blogger Kathleen from Houston!
I was greeted at the Finish Line by my now-hobbling friend Amy and a multitude of congratulations from the volunteers. I picked up my wonderful Finisher’s jacket and chugged some chocolate milk (Nascar-style). I was still beaming when they had the Sunmart awards ceremony and I was able to pick up my Age Group trophy and $100 prize money.
Special thanks, again, to Roger Soler and his crew for another outstanding race display that keeps people coming back year after year. Also, special thanks go out to the wonderful volunteers, spectators and runners that make this such a unique and fulfilling event.
I can’t wait for 2009…and possibly a foray into the 50-mile club!
My bronze horse trophy and prize money! yee haw!