What: Mill Stone 50k
When: February 10th 2018
Where: Fort Mill, SC
|Finish without completely embarrassing myself||Yes|
|Set a new PR||Yes|
Just about every Friday a group of friends and acquaintances go for lunch at a favorite local Thai restaurant. Just about every Friday I join them. Among the regulars is my friend Devin who, among other things, is an ultrarunner and one of the people I credit most with my interest in the sport. Just about every Friday the conversation veers onto the topic of running for at least a few minutes.
It wasn’t too terribly long after I ran the Steep Canyon 50k that I started looking for more races. I brought this up to Devin at lunch one Friday and he pretty much immediately started throwing around some ideas. Among his suggestions was the Mill Stone 50k, a race which he had run last year, albeit unsuccessfully, and he spoke highly of the course and of the race director. I looked it up and saw that it was only $40 to register. That was all I needed to know.
Over the course of the next month or so I began making some other plans and registering for some other races. One in particular that caught my eye was a 50 miler called Fontandango which carries quite a reputation (only four finishers in two years). The only issue being that Fontandango happens to fall three weeks after Mill Stone on the calendar. After mulling it over for a couple of weeks, I pulled the trigger and registered anyway.
As it turns out, I ended up going a little crazy with race scheduling anyway so I said “screw it” and decided that Mill Stone would be a tune up race for Fontandango. If you’re unfamiliar, tune up races are basically a way to train for a goal race (or an “A” race as they’re often referred) by adding the nerves and atmosphere of an actual race.
Training for Mill Stone was kind of a halfway mish-mash of training for the Charleston Marathon combined with training for Fontandango. Or if I’m being perfectly honest, I did no training at all that was specific to Mill Stone. Rather Mill Stone (at least on paper) appeared to be about halfway between a road marathon and a gnarly 50 mile trail run, so with any luck the transition from training for a road marathon to training fo a gnarly 50 mile trail run would land me in about the right place come February 10th.
One thing I had going for me was that I was able to recover from Charleston rather quickly and get right back on the wagon. Two days after Charleston and I was on the trail. The Tsali Frosty Foot 30k was the next weekend and though I wasn’t able to give it 100%, I still managed to take 5th place overall.
Of the three weeks between Frosty Foot and Mill Stone, the first two I logged in excess of 70 miles, each with a full marathon long run at the end to cap them off. The third week was a half-hearted taper with about 20 miles early in the week before taking off the Thursday and Friday immediately before the race.
I tend to be a little overprepared for short runs and a lot overprepared for long runs. You don’t need to be a mathematician to extrapolate from this how I tend to prepare for races. I had an almost comical amount of stuff laid out and I ended up packing four shirts (thin short sleeve, thick short sleeve, thin long sleeve, thick long sleeve), about a half dozen pairs of socks, a couple of pairs of shorts, tights, pants, a couple of hat options, etc, etc, etc.
Better to have it and not need it I suppose. I really should work on this in the future.
Anyway, my biggest preparation concern was whether or not I should wake up ealy on race morning and drive down or if I should drive down the night before and stay in a cheap hotel. I spent probably two weeks trying to come to some sort of a decision before the weather forecast basically made up my mind for me. It was supposed to be moderate to heavy rain for pretty much the entire day. If there’s one thing I hate more than driving in the rain, it’s driving in the rain on the interstate at five in the morning. And it turns out hotels are surprisingly inexpensive in Fort Mill.
The drive down was completely uneventful. Basically it was an uninterrupted two hours and fifteen minutes of me blasting my favorite synthwave tracks. The hotel was a Holiday Inn Express which appeared to have been built last week. Literally everything in it looked completely brand new. Once settled, I wandered across the street to the gas station to grab a couple of ludicrously overpriced things then proceeded back to the hotel to browse Reddit and Strava for an hour or two before going to sleep.
My nutrition strategy this time around was a bit different than usual. Normally I heavily rely on Tailwind and GU with a couple of Larabars in my vest for when I want something more substantial. I had done a few training runs with just water, Larabars, and electrolyte tablets and things seemed to work well so that was what I was going to carry.
The race venue is a private nature preserve called the Anne Springs Close Greenway, and it seems to be quite a nice place. Lots of trails, a lake, at least one covered picnic pavillion, etc. Everyone there seemed to be in a pretty good mood, packet pickup was fast and efficient, and there was a large fire going in the pavilion where a few people were keeping warm. It was just a pleasant morning overall, even if it was a bit rainy.
I was pleasantly surprised to find out that my father and one of my brothers, who happened to be in nearby Charlotte, NC, had the morning free and were coming down to spectate. This simplified logistics as I could just leave my jacket and rain shell with them instead of having to run back out to the car. Plus I knew I’d benefit from some on-course motivation.
There was a mandatory pre-race briefing about 15 minutes prior to the start that covered the usual topics: aid station distances, how turns were marked, anything to watch out for, etc. And that was basically it. The whole endeavor seemed to be going very smooth.
Loop 1: A little too easy
I should note at this point that the Mill Stone course is a 10.5 mile loop through the Greenway’s trails run three times. I particularly like this setup as you know what to expect later in the race and the loops are long enough to where it doesn’t get boring. There is an aid station at the start/finish and another one that the course passes around mile 3.5 and again somewhere around mile 7 thus creating a nicely even distribution.
I started off toward the back of the front runners. My thought was to push a little on loop one to put some distance between me and the majority of the runners and then maybe reel back a bit for loops two and three. This was a tune up race so I didn’t need to give it 100% and I wasn’t going to try.
I ran the first couple of miles with a guy named Matt Hammersmith who ended up being pretty entertaining to talk to. My pace felt a little too easy, but I knew it wasn’t maintainable so I relaxed a bit and the leaders started pulling away. At this point I didn’t know what position I was in, but I knew I was running in the top 10. Ultrasignup had me seeded somewhere between 15th and 20th and I was expecting a finish outside of the top 10 anyway, so trying to stay with the leaders was a likely a recipe for disaster.
At the first aid station I passed one runner who was taking his time and about a mile later I caught and passed another who was more familiar with the trail and was purposefully slowing down due to some gradual uphill that he didn’t want to hit too aggressively. I had probably 30 seconds on that runner when I came to an intersection with some obscure markings on it where I had to ponder the direction. He came up on me, pointed straight and we both carried on. I gained some time on him as we hit the aid station the second time.
It was at this point that I noticed we had a lull in the rain. Up until this point the course had been quite nice. There was some mud here and there, but mostly it was pretty well drained singletrack with a few iffy spots here and there, the majority of which could be avoided pretty easily (note that I’m all about slogging through some mud, but on a rainy day in the woods it’s both easier and faster to run on “not mud”). That was until I got to the back third of the loop. Probably 2 of the 3.5 miles of this section consisted of “unavoidable mud” while 1 mile could easily be classified as “kind of avoidable mud”. I had but one choice: embrace the mud.
Loop 2: Tim
The volunteers told me I was in 6th place before I started loop 2 and I did so with confidence. My larger concern was trying to keep myself from pushing hard to compete for position in a tune up race. I was comfortably in the top 10 at this point. All I had to do was not screw up.
But that runner was striking distance behind me. And he was more consistent than me. And it certainly looked like he was gaining on me. So I did what I shouldn’t have done and pushed a little too hard. Now it was a little too hard, not a big too hard so nothing that was going to wreck a race, but certainly something that stood the chance of coming back to haunt me by the time it was all said and done. At the first river crossing he plowed through it whereas I took the extra few seconds to take the bridge. I overtook him shortly thereafter and didn’t get more than 15 or 20 seconds on him for the first half of the loop.
All the while that I’m fighting to keep ahead of this other runner, I’m noticing the conditions on the course have taken a turn for the worse. Well it turns out that reasonably solid singletrack deteriorates pretty quickly once you run a hundred or so people over it. Inclines that were easily traversible had devolved into Slip ‘N Slides. The extra bit of run off room on mud holes had now collapsed inward. There would be two winners today: the eventual race champion and the mud.
About halfway through the second section of the second loop (basically the 3.5 miles between the aid station and the aid station again) I came upon another runner who pysically could not have been at that place on the course unless he was either the slowest runner in human history or one of the leaders who pushed too hard early and needed to fall behind. As I and the other runner almost immediately behind me now passed, we then found out he had been the 5th place runner.
Not 20 seconds after that I was passed by the runner behind me, thus moving me from 6th place, to 5th place, and back to 6th place in a span of less than a minute. So I decided to strike up a conversation.
The gentleman who had been on my heels all this time and had now overtaken me was named Tim and is a super nice guy. Really great to talk with. We chatted largely about running, specifically our near term goals and I had an absolute blast. The thought occurred to me that I probably should have spent a lot less time competing with Tim and a lot more time conversing, but too late for that now.
It wasn’t long before Tim started to pull ahead. There for a minute we were definitely pushing each other a little too hard, but I think we both came to that realization quickly and backed off a bit, but not before Tim had put a solid 15 seconds on me. My last direct interaction with Tim during the race was as I went through the second aid station where I was coming in right as he was going out. Heck of a good run, Tim.
As was predictable by the amount of trail deterioration during the first two legs of the loop, the third leg was an absolute nightmare. We’re talking giant shoe-eating mud holes, borderline unclimable inclines, and enough general purpose mud that everything went more slowly.
Loop 3: ALL the mud
I could be fogiven for thinking that the mud on loop 2 was about as bad as it was going to get because it was pretty seriously bad. Turns out the mud on loop 2 was mere child’s play; a bit of a warmup if you will. Pardon the language but shit was about to get real.
The gravel road down to the first crossing was notably deteriorated at this point. Now anybody actually running this thing would have already been sufficiently coated with mud by this point (at least from the knees down), but already being muddy doesn’t keep the mud from slowing you down unless you’re either well trained for it, or simply don’t care and have enough stamina to fuel the extra effort without (or withouth regard for) negative repurcussions.
On account of Tim, I had run loop 2 harder than planned so I knew to reel back and relax a bit. I was still 6th and that was WAY better than anticipated. I wasn’t supposed to finish in the top ten, remember?
Anyway, the singletrack leading up to the aid station for the first pass wasn’t that bad. I slowed for water and calories on a couple of the inclines but didn’t really give up any substantial time until past the aid station.
The second leg was pretty rough. There was still a fair amount of well drained singletrack, but none that one could simply autopilot themselves through without considerable experience or reckless abandon dealing with mud. I got comfortable running at about a 9:00 pace with walks during the iffy parts which ended up putting my average at a little over an 11:00 pace for the loop.
In spite of being minutes behind 5th place and an unknown-but-probably-considerable distance ahead of 7th, the trail was far from lonely. At this point there were a fair number of people still on their second loop, virtually all of whom offered words of encouragement as I passed.
I was going through water pretty quickly during this stage and I took a bit of extra time at the aid station to fill one of my flasks and put down some additional calories that I knew I needed. There were only 3.5 miles left, but that was 3.5 miles of muddy hell to contend with.
Well, the race director probably could have covered the entire last section of the race with dish soap and I don’t think anyone would have been able to notice. The mud at this point had progressed beyond annoying to downright hateful. Things that physics demanded could not be slippery were somehow slippery. The handful of people on loop 2 that I passed during this span seemed to be having quite a time simply walking this part of the course.
While I’m not entirely certain what was going through my mind at the time, I do know that I was beyond caring and simply wanted to finish. I did have a nice, albeit brief, conversation with another runner on loop 2 with about three quarters of a mile to go, but during the last climb I pulled ahead to try and have as strong a finish as I could muster. I crossed the line in 5:03:51 to take 6th overall, besting my previous PR by 59 minutes and change.
I’m sure I crossed the line looking pretty wrecked. No seriously, I’m sure of it. I have photographic evidence. Turns out my father and brother took a fair number of pictures while spectating, including a couple of choice ones right as I was crossing the line. Fortunately it was short lived and I bounced back as soon as I was able to put down a few calories.
I chilled for 10 or 15 minutes requesting a couple of beverage refills before getting up to get some soup (seriously they had like 15 kinds of soup, including some particularly delicious vegan chili). I noticed my legs felt particularly good but my glutes were basically on fire. My father offered to drive my car home and I graciously accepted. I cleaned up a bit, changed clothes, and we left shortly thereafter.
I did better than I thought I would do, but I still could have run a better, smarter race. In hindsight, I need to rethink my nutrition strategy for the 50k distance. Larabars are good sources of calories, but they’re slow to chew and swallow. As a result, I didn’t eat as much as I should have and ran a fair bit of the third loop dangerously close to being depleted. I’ve gone ahead and ordered a couple more boxes of gels and I need to figure out some way of adding Tailwind to my flasks in a quick and efficient manner. I think the Larabar strategy might work better at longer distances where I could afford a little more time, but as it stands I need calories that are quicker and easier to injest.
Another thought is that I really need to work on maintaining my own pace and not letting myself get pushed or pulled based on the activity of other runners. At Frosty Foot I didn’t have this problem as I was running completely by myself for the overwhelming majority of the race and in Charleston I didn’t have this problem as there were simply enough people running to drown it out.
Overall I think it was an excellent training run for Fontandango. Sure it could have used quite a bit more elevation gain, but the tough conditions presented by the rain and mud are the sorts of things I need to be fully prepared for when I toe the line in 3 weeks.