Early December offers up a ton of great marathon choices, and the second weekend of the month is always a hard decision for me. There's Honolulu, Rocket City in Huntsville, Alabama, and Dallas White Rock. I've done these three... they are very different races, and I like them all. There are other races that I have not tried yet, like Charlotte's NASCAR-themed Thunder Road Marathon. I also learned about an ultra that's held this weekend every year: the Sunmart Endurance Run - a 50k and 50 miler held outside of Huntsville, Texas. I guess if your town is named Huntsville, you are supposed to have a race in December.
Because this is the year of doubles, I waffled between a possible Rocket City/Dallas selection, and the Sunmart/Dallas pairing. The logistics were about the same for both, but Rocket City would require extra flights... so it would be more expensive. Sunmart and Dallas made a drivable double, although Sunmart is weird because the packet pickup is in Houston, which isn't really near the race site in Huntsville. So the drive would be even longer, and Friday afternoon in Houston rush hour (which lasts much longer than an hour) isn't that appealing.
I've done Rocket City. I have not done Sunmart, but have heard glowing reviews of it... so I went with Sunmart. Specifically, the 50k. Now, the logistics didn't seem too terrible, but I did notice that neither Sunmart nor Dallas allow day-of-race number pickup AND I wasn't sure I could make it to the Dallas expo after Sunmart on Saturday. So I had to pack a lot into Friday: fly to Dallas, get to the Dallas expo right when it opened and grab my stuff, drive to Houston, pickup my Sunmart stuff before that expo closed, drive to Huntsville, and sleep. Lots of steps, and they'd only work out if everything was on time, the weather was good, etc.
It worked out. I could write a long section about Friday's travels, but they weren't that interesting. They happened. It was quite warm on Friday... in the 70s both in Dallas and Houston. As I drove into Houston, I saw a major accident on the other side of the road that had the freeway closed. This boded poorly for Houston rush hour, and getting back to Huntsville was going to be ugly. I decided to hang out longer at packet pickup and the free dinner.
When I got to packet pickup, I quickly learned the first reason why people gush about Sunmart: the stuff. Here's what the runner gets at packet pickup: a very large duffel bag, a technical running shirt, a polo shirt, a hat, gloves, sunglasses, bandana, notebook portfolio thingy, a little travel kit with TSA-unfriendly scissors, and a teddy bear. No, I don't understand the logic behind this set of goodies, but it was definitely cool.
But that's not all! After the race, finishers also would get a medal and a choice between a blanket or a tyvek jacket.
This is an ultra. Usually they don't even have medals.
But wait, there's more! The race also had a free pasta dinner with tons of yummy choices, a hot pre-race breakfast, AND a post-race feast with hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken.
Don't say that there's even more! Yes! Chip timing. At an ultra. A well-marked course. And aid stations with all the standard ultra junk food.
It turns out that Sunmart is a very big deal. While Western States is considered the Boston of ultras, I think Sunmart deserves consideration too. Let's call it the NYC Marathon of ultras. It is large as ultras go, and it attracts elite runners from all over the world. Apparently, Sunmart is (or at least was this year) the world championship for the IAU - the International Association of Ultra Runners. The best part of Sunmart was seeing this group... I've never seen so many people run six hour 50 milers. Wow. And they were all in country-specific singlets. It was kind of like being at the Olympics.
Alas, this group was also the worst part of Sunmart. At a high level, the Sunmart 50k course is easy to describe: a 6 mile out-and-back on single track trail, and a 12.5 mile loop (with a few miles of out-and-back in the middle and at the end/beginning) done twice. This loop is partly single track, and partly wide dirt road. However, the course is actually much more complicated. The 50 mile's course utilized a 12.5 mile loop done four times... but it wasn't exactly the same as the loop in the 50k. About halfway through the shared loop, the 50 mile course veered off God knows where... and then merged back in. It was that out-and-back section at the end/beginning of the loop that was dicey. Lots of runners negotiating a very tight single track space in both directions during the first wave of 50k runners. Unfortunately, this was also when the fastest 50 mile folks were trying to come through as well. And the elites? They did not give right-of-way. They passed when they wanted to pass without regard for people... say me... hauling ass in the opposite direction. In 5 minutes, I almost got nailed twice. Thanks Poland. Thanks Canada. Luckily it was only high stress and dangerous during the first hour or so of the race. After that, everyone was pretty spread out. Final verdict: it was really fun being so close to all the truly fast folks.
The course was well marked, and the trails were very well maintained. The road sections had been recently cleared and graded. Roots were a continual tripping hazard, but no worse than the Louisiana 50k that I ran a month ago. No ankle busting rocks on this course, thankfully. The course was roly poly with a few switchback sections... but not as hilly as the Louisiana race, and not in the same ballpark (or even the same city as that ballpark) as the Mid-Mountain Marathon in Park City. Overall, while Sunmart is certainly a more challenging course than, say, Autumn Leaves, it probably rates as a less demanding ultra. Especially with great aid stations every 3ish miles.
Except for one thing. The weather. It was 60ish degrees at the start of the race, and in the 70s for most of it. Island Boy kind of dug that. However, it was 100% humidity and there wasn't much breeze. Ugh. Outside of Honolulu and January's freakish conditions at Disney, I don't generally go with singlet-and-shorts in the middle of winter. I did at Sunmart... and my clothes were loaded down with sweat by M5. Ugh.
So... my race. I almost missed the start. The 50 mile race started at 7a, and our packet said that the 50k would start at 7:45. I arrived at the race location (Huntsville State Park) very early to get reasonable parking, and then I took a nap. I vaguely remember the 50 milers chugging past my car at 7. Around 7:25, I woke up and leisurely headed towards the potty and the start. I heard a race announcement. It sounded like the guy said "we start in 3 minutes". Sure enough, the packet was wrong. The 50k was starting at 7:30 *and* the official time was 2 minutes faster than my watch. Uh oh. I still went to the potty, sprinted to the start, and got there right at the gun. Phew.
I had been coached by a long-time participant that one really needed to blow through the first out-and-back or risk getting stuck behind a very long line of walkers. My goals for the race were a simple "don't get hurt" and "compare the course to the Louisiana race". I had run a 5:28 in Louisiana, and I wanted to match that time... but without knowing anything about the course beforehand, I didn't know if that was reasonable. If the course was close in difficulty (it would actually turn out to be *easier*), I figured that my extra month of training would balance against the oppressive humidity and maybe, just maybe, I could run 5:30ish. But even given this, I knew that getting trapped would frustrate me... so I made the conscious decision to go out fast.
That was a mistake, of course. But... as always... it sure was fun while it lasted.
Off we went. Through the out-and-back and then back towards the start/finish. As we started our first loop, this was where I encountered my brushes with both fame and potential pain as the elite 50 milers blew by me.
I made it through the 6 mile out-and-back in 52 minutes. For a trail run, that's cooking for me. The first loop went fairly well too, until I got to somewhere around M14. It was very clear and very abrupt when my body decided to downshift from 4th gear into 2nd. It skipped 3rd entirely. I tried to keep up with the folks I had been running with, but they lost me within a few minutes. I also noticed that my stomach was really sloshing. Uh oh. I had probably lost 5 pounds in sweat, but my stomach wasn't processing incoming fluids. I knew I couldn't switch from gatorade to water because straight water for 5 hours given the temperature and humidity meant risking hyponatremia. But it was an ultra, and they had pepsi and sprite. I tried those.
I hit the end of the first loop, M18.5 at 3:08. Not bad. Factoring out the 52 minute out-and-back, the first loop had taken 2:16. If I could match that for another loop, I was looking at a nice 5:24. But there was no way... that 2:16 had included 8ish miles of faster running. This wasn't going to happen. Still though, aside from "don't get hurt", I just wanted to do the best I could. Unfortunately, my legs were mummified by this point and I was having trouble lifting my feet very high off the ground. I started tripping over roots I hadn't noticed at all during the first loop.
Somewhere around M25, I lodged my big toe under a root going full speed. I kept going, but my foot... then ankle... then leg did not. WHAM. I launched into an f-word tirade. That really hurt.
Sigh. I kept going. By this point, I was lapping the 50k folks who had been mostly walking. It was really weird trying to finish my second 12.5 mile loop knowing that this group hadn't finished their first. I reeeeaaaaalllly felt for them. It meant they would be on their feet for 10 or 11 hours. And the end of that would be in the dark. A person who can run a six hour 50 miler is hard core. But a person who guts out 11 hours on the trail, some in the dark, well, that's pretty hard core too!
Where was the turn? Where was the turn? I had remembered from the first loop that the course turned onto the out-and-back section which led to the finish. But I couldn't remember where it was. I kept thinking it would be around the next bend. Then the next one. And so on.
Finally. I made the turn. Up, around, over a hill, across a street, more trail, another crossing, up, left turn, and.... woohoo... Sunmart actually had a nice crowd of spectators at the start/finish. And I was there.
5:41. Didn't make 5:30, but I was wiped. Just WIPED OUT. That second loop had taken 2:33. Which was a bit quicker than I thought it was going to take. I remember considering the six hour mark several times during the second loop. I was ok with my 5:41.
I ate two chicken sandwiches, got my tyvek jacket, cleaned up, and started the 3 hour drive back to Dallas. I was completely dehydrated and my stomach was wonky.
Sunday couldn't have been more different... and not just because it was a big city road marathon.
I'll be back with that story soon!