- Distance: 50 miles
- Elevation gain: 10,000 feet
- Where: Fontana Village Resort & Marina
- When: March 3rd, 2018
- Race Direction: Aaron Saft, MR Running Pains
- Layout: 10 mile loop run 5 times
- YES: Complete the race
- YES: Podium finish
- YES: Finish faster than the previous course record (10:25)
- NO: Win
Fontandango has three distance options: 10mi, 50k, and 50mi, amounting to 1, 3, and 5 laps around the same course. Runners opting to bow out of either the 50k or 50mi races have the option of taking a finish at a completed lesser distance if they did not complete the distance they initially signed up for. For example a 50mi registrant could opt to take a 10mi finish if that runner did not complete 3 loops or a 50k finish if they completed 3 but not 5. The stipulation being that the finishing time is recorded as the time the runner elected not to continue rather than the time he/she completed the lesser distance.
The result of the ability to drop down in distance (along with a few other factors) led to a situation where there were a total of 4 finishers at the 50mi distance during the first two years of the race, and thus the race developed a bit of a reputation, at least according to the people I spoke with.
Also the race has two aid stations: one at the start/finish where 50k/50mi runners can store a drop bag to be accessed between each lap; and a second that is positioned on the course so that it is passed twice, bringing the total number of aid stops to three.
The course has approximately 2,000 feet of elevation gain per lap. The front half of the course having more long, gradual climbs with the odd steep spot here and there. The back half of the course having more short, steep climbs and descents along more technical terrain including rocks, streams and creeks, and washed out paths.
Registration for Fontandango was already open last year well before I started throwing together a race schedule for the winter and spring. At first glance I immediately concluded that it wasn’t for me and I pushed it out of my mind looking instead for faster paced 50k races. At the time I was fresh off of a decent performance at the Steep Canyon 50k and I had not yet run my first road marathon. The concept of running a gnarly 50 miler with an abysmally low finisher rate was not exactly appealing.
And yet I would come back to Fontandango at least once every other day while doing my race research as it would inevitably show up in my searches due to it having a 50k option. After some amount of avoiding the subject (and some goading from my friend Devin) I decided to pull the trigger. Besides, I could always just run three laps and take a 50k finish if I wasn’t feeling up to the full 50 mile distance.
A couple of months later during training for the Charleston Marathon, I had most of the rest of my winter/spring schedule put together. I was feeling strong and decided that I could make a fair attempt at Fontandango. At the very least, I knew I had it in my to finish 50 miles. Fontandango then became my A race with Charleston being the only major training hurdle.
Two days after Charleston I was on the trail out in Dupont Forest training with poles. There were two races on my calendar between Charleston and Fontandango, along with an extremely small amount of time (only 7 weeks) so I knew I had to get cracking.
The first race was the Frosty Foot 30k and it went better than expected given that I was still a bit fatigued from Charleston the week before. I ran better than I thought I would (taking 5th overall) but Frosty Foot was basically just a high effort training run for the Mill Stone 50k, which in turn was my tune-up race for Fontandango.
Between Frosty Foot and Fontandango I managed at least a marathon every weekend for my long run. Most of these were outside on trails with some having considerable elevation and/or unfavorable weather. My final training run a week out from the race was a 50k with about 7,000 feet of gain.
I was trying to hit 70+ miles per week on non-race weeks and as a result I usually had a long-ish treadmill run of about 20 miles mid-week. I was doing no speedwork at this point as it was too late in the training block for me to see considerable improvement from it. Most of my speedwork had been weeks out from Charleston, which was appropriate for Fontandango given the abbreviated timelines associated with each race.
Getting out to Fontana Village was very much one of those “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” sort of circumstances. When I was about halfway done with the 2.5 hour drive, my car started overheating. I quickly turned on the heater at full blast and, much to the annoyance of those driving behind me, reduced my speed quite a bit. The overheating indicator turned off before I got to the next exit so I decided to risk hanging on for a few more miles before checking it out.
Not 100 yards beyond the exit and the indicator came on again and this time it quickly went to red and put the car in limp mode. I was now driving 15 under the speed limit on account of the fact that the car simply would not let me accelerate any more. The next exit has no facilities, but the one beyond it did. After about 10 minutes of limp mode driving I was finally able to come to a stop at a gas station to let the car cool off.
Turns out it takes a lot longer for a car to cool off when it has been operating in excess of the recommended temperature. Physics can be a cruel mistress at times. After close to an hour I finally feel comfortable opening the coolant reservoir to take a look (if you’re unfamiliar, vehicle cooling systems are kept pressurized and opening it while the engine is hot will spray hot coolant all over everything) and the reservoir was essentially empty. The station had a gallon of overpriced coolant to sell me, but even after filling the reservoir I was extremely cautious and drove both slowly and deliberately from that point on.
Also it turns out the road to Fontana Village was closed necessitating a 45 minute detour. The RD had sent an email indicating as much, but had later sent another saying the road should have one lane open. It wasn’t until I was already at Fontana Village that I discovered a third email he sent saying to disregard the message about the one lane being open. I have to take the blame on that one for not thinking to check my personal email before leaving.
5 hours after leaving on my 2.5 hour road trip, I finally pull into Fontana Village and get checked in. While doing so I meet an interesting fellow from Tennessee name Dave and we head down the hill to packet pickup together. I elect to skip a proper dinner in favor of a bag of cold pasta and some fruit I brought from the house. I get as many things ready for the morning as possible try to settle in for as much sleep as one can reasonably expect before an A race.
In the morning everything goes off without a hitch. Everything is laid out and ready to go so I’m dressed and having my coffee almost immediately. I was up at 5:30 and by 6:00 I’m chomping at the bit to get started. I make myself sit down for another few minutes and end up showing up to the starting line at about 6:20 where I set up my drop bag, get out my poles, and join some others around a fire before the mandatory briefing a few minutes before the start of the race.
I led the pack off the line and was keeping to myself through the first rolling hills until a gentleman named Ed joined me. Ed is from the UK and is both a super nice guy and a heck of an athlete. We talked for maybe a mile before noting another runner, Bill, who was also in our general vicinity. I immediately recognized Bill as being the gentleman who intentionally showed up in road shoes to run a mostly single-track 50 miler with 10k of elevation gain. Bill is also a nice guy.
Our little trio kept within spitting distance of each other through about the first half of the lap, after which it became apparent that the only way I was going to beat Ed was if he fell and broke his leg. About two-thirds of the way through the lap Bill and I came up on the first steep, technical climb. Due to me having poles and trail shoes I was much better equipped to handle the climb and that was the last I saw of Bill.
I finished the lap in a little over 1.5 hours. I had run a bit harder than I had initially expected due to having company for a sizable portion of the lap. I was comfortably in second, but not so comfortable that I could slack off. My aid stop was literally nothing more than me grabbing two gels while volunteers refilled my softflasks with Tailwind. I was back on the course in under a minute.
This started the most isolated period of the race. With Ed well in front of me and the rest of the pack (and now 50k runners) well behind me, I didn’t see another person except for aid station workers for the duration.
I had my hydration and nutrition pretty much down so the biggest hurdle during this period of the race was simply trying to maintain pace. It was easy to go too fast and it was easy to go too slow, but the Goldilocks zone in the middle where I needed to be was a bit troublesome.
My lap time was more what I expected: about 1:45, give or take. At my drop bag the increasing temperature necessitated a change of shirt and hat, and I made it a point to put down some solid calories as well.
During this lap I was starting to see signs of life again. I had eyed a couple of other runners on the second half of the course where the two trails ran close together. I also passed a couple of runners on my way up to the aid station. Among the people I passed on the way up was Ed who was on his way back down…already, meaning he had put at least a 20 minute gap between the two of us at that point, possibly more.
In the back half of the course, during one particularly long and steep ascent, I noticed my calves were starting to feel more fatigued than I was comfortable with. I pressed on had to walk out about 100 yards or so after I reached the top to prevent what felt like the beginnings of a cramp from taking root.
My lap time was about 1:55 this time, give or take a few minutes. Not that I could have known it at the time, and not that I would do it if I could have known it, but had I dropped out of the race and taken a 50k finish at that point, I would have won the 50k outright.
Now the race was starting to feel downright social. The 50mi and 50k runners were pretty well-distributed at this point so it was never more than a few minutes between interactions with other people. Almost all of the interactions were friendly with the exceptions being the times I came up on runners wearing ear buds who didn’t hear me. A couple of them were quite startled as I had to yell “Coming Up!” rather loudly, and in close proximity, for them to hear.
The aid station crew was also new faces. Instead of the gentleman who was manning it, there was now a crew of ladies who were a bit more enthusiastic and talkative.
Coming into the back half of the course I passed Dave from the night before. He looked like he was having a heck of a time about things and was moving rather slowly. I slowed to a walk for a minute to say hello but started moving quickly again very shortly after.
The particularly steep ascent was particularly rough this time and I was definitely developing leg cramps. At the top of the hill I stopped for 30 seconds or so to stretch before starting the descent.
Lap time was comparable to lap 3. At my drop bag I shed everything from my vest I didn’t need (hat, sunglasses, gloves, trash, etc), loaded up with Tailwind, and popped a couple of electrolyte tablets hoping they could help me stave off the cramps before stuffing a few more in my pocket.
After the aid station and a modestly paced start to lap 5, I was feeling like the risk of cramping was subsiding so I picked up the pace a bit. While I was ascending up to the aid station, I noticed another runner coming up the hill rather quickly. My gut reaction was to presume that it was the 3rd place runner making a lap 5 move to overtake me so I spent considerably less time in the aid station than I had been planning. I basically just got fluids refilled and threw down a couple of pretzels before moving forward again.
I was moving better than I expected and I didn’t have any evidence of cramping trying to creep back up on me. As I came back around to the aid station I asked them if they knew about how far back the 3rd place runner was and they didn’t know. I popped another electrolyte tablet and got going as fast as my legs could carry me. I really didn’t want to have to actually go toe to toe with anyone this late in the race but I didn’t know where 3rd place was, which essentially meant I was acting like he/she was one or two turns behind me for the entire thing. My 44th mile ended up being my third fastest of the day behind two on the first lap from when I was running with Ed.
Moving into the back half of the course was when I started feeling the cramps start to form again. I really had no other recourse other than to tell them “NO” and keep on trucking. I’m really not sure how but it seemed to work, at least until I got toward the top of the really steep climb. From there it was mostly downhill anyway so I said “screw it” and kept on. I was all adrenaline at this point.
I crossed the line in 9 hours, 11 minutes, and 22 seconds taking 2nd place and becoming the 6th person (and 2nd fastest) to ever finish the 50 mile distance at Fontandango. I didn’t get the win, but I did beat the old course record by well over an hour.
I felt good; surprisingly good, actually. With the cramping never having had the chance to take root, I felt considerably better than I did after completing Mill Stone and Charleston. In fact I could have easily turned out another lap or two and probably with fairly decent times as well.
As predicted, Ed completely dominated. Almost unbelievably he finished in under 8 hours, setting a new course record that everyone present was sure will stand for quite some time. I’m really happy he won. He’s a really nice guy and a fantastic athlete and he completely deserved the win.
I cleaned up a little bit, put down some aid station food, and decided to hang around to see the third place runner finish and offer my congratulations. I ended up being there for a while. Turns out my suppositions during my last lap were dead wrong and the third place runner finished close to an hour behind me. Fourth place was just a few minutes behind him.
I made my way back to my room, put down some more food, and took a long bath before heading back down to the starting line to watch other runners finish. I showed up at a good time as I got to see most of the pack finish. In fact there were 26 finishers this year and I stayed until 24 of them had crossed the line.
I’ve been recovering for a few days now and I’m starting to feel good again. Fontandango gave me a lot of confidence in my ability to perform in medium distance ultras and I’m quite stoked for the rest of my race season.
I ended up signing up for the Savage Gulf Marathon, a trail run in Tennessee with considerably elevation gain and a lot of technical terrain, to use it as one of my weekend long runs before I make an attempt at Pitchell, the 100k fun run on the North Carolina Mountains to Sea Trail from Mt. Pisgah to Mt. Mitchell. After that I have a 30k race a week out from the Knock on Wood 100 miler in May. From there I’ll probably break from racing for a couple of months and then I have the newly announced Jones Gap Marathon a few weeks before the Allison Woods 100 in October. Then it’s back to winter marathon training. I’m thinking maybe Jekyll Island this time around.