Mountain Mist 50k—my first ultra of 2016 is in the bag! And boy, was it one hell of a race! The weekend turned out to be epic, and that’s no exaggeration. Northern Alabama got the sloppy seconds of Winter Storm Jonas, dumping a whopping inch an a half of ice and snow all over our parade. Which is laughable for the majority of the U.S., but brings Alabama to a grinding halt. The roads became an ice rink, forcing the city to postpone the race a day.
This is where I have to pause my upcoming rambles and give a huge thanks to Dink, the race director, and all the volunteers who fought to keep the race from being cancelled and braved the impassable roads and cold to aid the runners. That is a first-class race, folks. Run this race next year and show your support!
I had heard that Mountain Mist was the toughest 50K in Alabama, and it certainly lived up to expectations. The snow and ice took a typically challenging course and transformed it into a sadistic wintery slip-n-slide lined with sharp rocks. In fact, Dink said that this year’s race was the hardest in its 22-year history. I’m not sure I’ll ever again get the chance to say that I raced a 50K in Alabama in the snow. So I chose a good year to finally give this one a try!
I registered for the race with some friendly peer pressure from Sally. Since I don’t really have a schedule until I pick my fall 100, I’m essentially mimicking her entire training plan for Vermont 100 to keep myself in shape. I’m like her shadow. Or a creepy stalker. But I digress.
Sunday morning dawned frigid, but miraculously lacked the biting winds from the day before. Pokey the Prius made it up the icy mountain without incident, and we got to watch the sun rise over the mountains, which is always a great start to my day.
The first part of the race was a complete ice rink. We would have fared better in skates and hockey pads. Instead, we looked like a drunken mob of Wayne Gretzkys and Tara Lipinskis slipping and sliding and more often than not falling on our asses. It was counterintuitive—the “runnable” parts of the course turned into a hesitant tiptoe, and the technical sections became an “I’m glad I have life insurance!” strugglefest.
It was also breathtakingly beautiful. The trails had transformed into a winter wonderland, with snow clinging to the branches and large icicles hanging from the rocks. Sally and I kept screaming, “This is so pretty!” Which, in hindsight, may have dislodged the aforementioned icicles and killed someone.
I made the common winter running mistake of not drinking enough water in my early miles, which left me both dehydrated and in a calorie deficit since I use Tailwind as fuel. So I was pretty damn cranky from about miles 6-11, which intensified as we hit a long-ass hill at mile 9 and I had an encounter with a sexist runner that left me feeling pretty stabby. But we reached the aid station at mile 11 where I refueled and changed my attitude, and I was fine from that moment on.
A lot of the middle miles of the race blended together in a mix of climbs, descents, slipping, and mudhole swimming. Which sounds like a dirty innuendo. My apologies. As the day warmed, the trails became a sloppy, muddy mess. It was straight out of the Forrest Gump shrimp scene—there was ice, melted ice, icy mud, muddy ice, pretty ice, killer ice, and rocky ice. The woods echoed the entire day with shouts of “Whoops!” and thuds as runners crashed to the ground.
About halfway through the race, our friend Vanessa caught up with Sally and me, turning it into a Lady BUTS party! We even got to experience her famous second wind where she turns on her rocket boosters and takes off like a shot, leaving everyone else in her dust. Which came in very handy when we pulled into the aid station at mile 20 and learned we were approaching cutoff times. We were all like, “What the what?!” and put more pep in our step. That was a crazy and somewhat unnerving feeling for me—I knew I wasn’t running fast, but I was moving my frozen ass as quickly as I could given the conditions and my lack of training.
One of the highlights of Mountain Mist is going up the Waterline Trail—a steep, rocky, scenic climb that’s not for those who are faint of heart or have a fear of heights. Throw in the fact that the waterfalls and rocks were completely iced over, and it became a death-defying spectacle that proves trail running is the toughest sport around (#sorrynotsorry, Sport-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named).
It was so treacherous that Huntsville EMTs were positioned strategically along the climb to quickly aid any runners who fell. And one supposedly did and hit his head. Yikes!
While Waterline is the part of the course that everyone talks about, I had heard that the following descent was even tougher. And holy hell was that accurate. A steep drop into a baby canyon was made that much harder by the fact that the trail was entirely mud-covered rocks. The good thing about being at the back of the pack was that I could see the skid marks of all the runners who had fallen, so I knew where not to step. Thanks, faster folks! Even so, I slid a few times and made good use of the trees to catch myself from falling to my death.
The final climb up the Death Trail was made more tolerable by the fact that the finish line was only 2.5 miles away. And the final aid station at the top of the hill had beer! If you think I’m going to choose a faster finish time over stopping and chugging a cold beer, then you’re sorely mistaken.
Sally, Vanessa, and I took off as fast as the soul-sucking mud would allow us. We navigated slippery bridges, turned a few corners, and crossed the finish line at exactly 8 hours. We were greeted with beautiful hand-painted finisher awards, roaring fires, mountains of pizza, and cookie cake—Sally’s favorite!
All in all, it was a hell of a day. While 8 hours is my slowest 50k finish, I will proudly own it. A few years ago I trained my ass off for my 50k. This time, I did minimal training and felt the effects. You get out what you put in, eh? But my body still carried me 31+ miles and I had a wonderful weekend with my friends in the woods. That’s a win in my book.