If you have been browsing though these posts and wondering to yourself, “Why does she not get around to writing up race reports until more than two years later,” the answer is Sweetwater. As I write this, I’ve finished 31 marathons or ultras. Sweetwater is a top contender for most challenging. I can no longer remember how I found it or what was appealing about this race (not that it is an unappealing race – I just no longer remember why it stood out to me at the time). I do remember there was not much information online about the course other than what was on the website, including a link to the 2014 course map. I apparently found enough information to convince myself to register for it only a week after finishing LBL. It remains a cheap race – only $55 before August and only $75 until race day.
I never did find anything specific on elevation and I had some concerns about the strictly enforced 9 hour cutoff. My growing obsession with the elevation and whether I would make the cutoff provided an interesting background for a change in relationship status. The friendly stranger had not only become my Companion on Southwest flights but had also moved halfway across the country and in with me less than a month before this race. In an effort to help alleviate my growing anxiety, we sat down one afternoon and tried to determine the route using trail maps from the park website, various reports from past races, and Strava’s heat map feature. Among other things, we found that the course had to be rerouted around Tyler Perry’s estate. At the time, the mansion was visible on Google maps but has since been replaced with a grassy field. We also discovered that I don’t do so well giving up control of the computer to someone else even if he has clearly superior map reading, or land nav skills as he calls them. In my defense, this was one of the few pictures I had seen of the course and had been losing sleep as a result:
By the time we boarded our flight to Atlanta at the end of April, I knew I would be running two slightly different loops that included maintained state park trails, some serious climbs on gas lines, and a water crossing that included ropes and a lifeguard as a precaution. I’d spent weeks climbing our powerline equivalent of the gas lines and figuring out which of my shoes drained water best.
We arrived in Atlanta and picked up the rental car – a Yaris. On our first race trip together to Stone Cat, I reserved the “dealer’s choice” and ended up with some form of SUV. On our second race trip to LBL, the friendly stranger drove his full size and fast car. He was not prepared for my budget travel selection, but was later pleasantly surprised at the Yaris’ off-road capabilities. Unlike past trips, we were unable to drive into the park the day before the race to check the trails. The park was closed for a movie production rumored to include The Rock. I have watched a lot of movies since then starring Dwayne Johnson and still don’t know which one it could have been.
We focused on finding the non-park trails and ended up first trespassing on Tyler Perry’s property, then driving around what seemed to be a half abandoned new subdivision. Perry’s guard helpfully pointed us in the direction of the third aid station and shared with us the details of the route in that area. After some off-road driving, we found the second aid station and course flagging. It seemed that the park trail turned into a surprisingly long trail to the deserted subdivision. The course then followed a block in the subdivision (with no houses), and cut back into the woods. It wasn’t the best prepared I’d been for a race in terms of knowing the course, but it was nice to see what the terrain would look like around miles 5.2 and 9.5 for loop 1.
Race report: We stayed in a nearby hotel and had an easy 10 minute drive to the race start. We were excited to see a fox crossing the road near the park entrance. In 2017, there was only a 50k option and I think 90 runners had registered. Packet pickup was the morning of the race, at the start line, and went smoothly. There was plenty of parking and indoor toilets with a longer line for the men than for the women. Packet pickup was indoors also and there was a small but friendly crowd hanging out inside. My anxiety about being able to finished increased greatly when I realized that this was easily the fittest group of trail runners I’d ever seen at a race. My Companion noticed this as well, and wondered aloud whether this group was so fond of aid station cookies, pancakes, and bacon as the runners he’d seen at previous races.
The RD gathered us at the start and outlined the directions for the first loop. Based on my read of the map above and previous reports, the start was set up differently than previous years. When he explained we would have a police escort for the first mile or so on the road, I was very confused. Why would an escort be necessary on park roads, which the red line on the map so clearly showed? The Companion took a quick selfie of us before the start and my expression was less a smile and more a terrified grimace.
With a quick countdown from 10, we were off. I like to take the early miles slow and either maintain that slow pace or slow further down. I generally start at the back and don’t worry about being DFL. I’ve learned I will pass others in later miles and passing others/hunting rabbits tends to give me more energy. However, when you are DFL with a large gap between yourself and the next runner AND there is a police escort moving very slowly after you, the last runner, that kind of relaxed pacing strategy will not work. I think my first mile that day was just over 10 minutes, all on pavement in peregrine 5s. And the road didn’t turn on to trail for another quarter of a mile or so.
In the second mile, we climbed backwards down a kind of culvert assisted by rope, picked our way through a field of baby head sized rocks, then made it onto a rooty, rocky, not at all flat trail. The second mile took me over 16 minutes. Not only was the second mile slower than my carefully determined pace that would allow me to make the cutoffs, but there had also been no aid station, despite one clearly noted in the map above at mile 1.4. I didn’t care about the aid at that early point, but I did care that my mileage was apparently off by more than half a mile barely 2 miles into the race. When I finally arrived at the aid station, my Companion was waiting and told me, “everyone’s GPS is off, it’s ok!” Mine read 2.8. This was not a good start.
My goal en route to AS 2, supposedly at mile 5ish, was to calm the $&@# down, stop obsessing over pace and cutoffs, and just run until I was pulled from the course. Although I was never able to really relax, I was able to enjoy the ruins of the Civil War era textile mill that the park is known for. It was also very cool to see the production equipment for the movie being taken down along the trail that followed Sweetwater Creek. This was one of the prettiest sections of the race and it was not yet too hot (by south Texas standards), but was already humid. We eventually left the park and were on the neighborhood trail that my Companion and I had found the day before. I recognized the wood borders along parts of the trail. The course was not as well marked in this section but I was watching out for the wooden borders that seemed to mark the trail I knew would take us to AS 2. I was confident until I caught up to a couple of runners who had decided they were off course. I realized it had been a while since I’d seen flags and started back-tracking with them to the last one. After about 10 minutes of doing this, I went back to the trail I’d been on initially and explained to the others that my reasoning was based on yesterday’s scouting. They joined me and soon after another couple of runners caught up to us. They reassured us we were on course, but I was confused because they wore no bibs…oh, no. Why would these clearly faster women be running this course without bibs unless…they were the sweepers? My nightmare had come true before mile 7.
We soon reached a point along the trail that I’d run the previous day and knew was about half a mile from AS 2. The race director was running the opposite way with a fistful of flags. He apologized for the poor course markings and explained that the front runners had gotten quite lost so he was fixing that problem before we returned for the second loop. While this was potentially good news (poor marking might lead to longer cutoffs, right? Right???), the better news was that he asked the excessively fast sweepers to help him mark the course. I was elated and sped up to beat them to the aid station.
Good news was waiting for me at AS 2 (mile almost 8, not that anyone is really paying attention to the mileage anymore because it is so obviously a LIE). My Companion was waiting with ice, cold coke, and the news that yes, the course was quite long. Apparently several people had complained in previous years that the course was a little short. In response, the RD added “a couple of miles” to address those complaints. I knew I would not be able to make the 9 hour cutoff for a 50k that was really a 55k. My Companion’s response to this was that I would just have to keep going until they pulled me from the course. So I did.
My goal in the miles to the next AS, and for the rest of the race, was merely to beat the sweepers. The next section contained all of the hills. It was gas lines, off trail slides down ravines, climbs up the other side of those ravines, a nice little section on leaf covered trail, and a sunny, exposed, miserable, joy sucking march up a path next to a fence that I decided must belong to that guy who did who did not want us on his property. At least the map was accurate about this section being around 4 miles long. The Companion was waiting at AS 3 and provided encouragement that I was still beating the sweepers and catching up to others. I’d seen several runners just leaving the aid station on my way in and was hopeful that they wouldn’t pull half a dozen of us from the course.
The next section was shorter and not quite so bad. By then, I was doing race math and realizing there was no way I would be back to AS 1 by 12:30, the cutoff for crossing the river and starting the rest of loop 2. The volunteers at AS 4 were encouraging and shared their instructions had a 12:45 cutoff listed. By then, I’d caught up with a few younger guys running. We all worried together about making the cutoffs and pushing too hard in the heat.
At some point in the next section, I started to recognize landmarks from loop 1 and knew I was close to AS 1 and the water crossing. I knew I was past the cutoff as I came into the beach, but people were still being allowed to cross. My Companion was waiting with the water bottle we’d planned for me to grab and carry across the river for the short 3 mile loop section that ended with the return water crossing. He would keep my camelbak and refill everything while I was doing the short loop.
I was in such a hurry I didn’t realize until I’d gotten to the other side of the waist deep river that I’d forgotten to eat or grab any food to go. Soon after crossing, I had to correct course and take the loop in the counterclockwise rather than clockwise direction I’d started in. I passed another guy going slowly the opposite way and he explained he’d missed the signs showing the correct turn that I’d initially missed too. I passed another guy and asked if he’d done the same – no, he was turning back because he couldn’t stop cramping. I felt bad because I had nothing to offer him to help. I trudged up another of the never ending hills in this section and looked forward to dunking myself in the river on the return crossing and then eating something, anything.
Upon my return to the beach, my wonderful Companion/crew had my refilled pack ready, dry shoes and socks ready if I wanted to change, and the bittersweet news that the next set of sweepers was at least half an hour behind me because they’d had to stop and help get the guy with the nonstop cramps off the course. I took advantage of the extra time and changed into dry shoes and socks then kept moving forward.
By now, it was a hot, humid, sunny day in Georgia. The section to AS 2 included a couple of miles on one of the most popular trails in the park, so there were plenty of supportive spectators. I responded as politely as I could, but the internal dialogue was along these lines:
The closer I got to the next aid station, set in the deserted subdivision and along a now very well marked trail, the more fervently I hoped that I would be swept so I could JUST STOP SWEATING. Alas, no sweepers.
As miserable as I may have felt, I know it had to be worse for the volunteers waiting at the aid station on the asphalt street. I thanked them, walked along the road with my Companion and, I am not ashamed to admit this, begged him to let me stop. The best and worst thing about a loop course is that you know exactly what’s coming after that first loop. I know it doesn’t look like much on the elevation chart, but miles 7ish to 11ish were no fun the first time and promised to be less fun as the day grew hotter. Apparently my subconscious agreed. I’d stopped running with music years before but this was the first time I noticed my brain picking a song to be played on auto-repeat. Off and on for the rest of the race I heard Danzig’s Mother in my head.
I finally made it through the gas lines and ravines back to AS 3, where my wonderful Companion/crew/boyfriend was waiting, along with the security guard we’d met the day before, and several fantastic volunteers who should have been preparing to leave but instead were staying to help the impressive number of runners parked in chairs under the shade tent. I was told the sweepers were at least 45 minutes behind and I would be allowed to finish as long as I stayed ahead of them. This was all the incentive I needed to get out of there.
The first couple of miles from AS 3 to AS 4 were part of an out and back. I found a speed I didn’t know I possessed there, trying to not see the sweepers. As I crossed the open section of the gas lines, I looked for them, but saw no one. I moved as fast as I could though the next section, knowing as I slammed my wet toes against my shoes on every downhill that I might be earning one of those black toenails I’d heard about. I did not care – I had been given a reprieve!
I made it to AS 4, and tried to pick up the pace even more on the last section to the finish. The fear in the back of my mind the whole time was that the finish line would be closed after all when I finally reached it. This loop ended differently than the first, so I had no sense of how much further I had to go. As I hit the 10 hour mark according to my phone with no finish in sight, I was trying not to cry. Then the trail ran into a road. I saw the course markers going up a hill, around a bend, saw my boyfriend waiting, cheering for me. I turned left and back on to the trail towards the finally visible finish line that was still open, at the top of the, are you kidding me, really, STAIRS.
I had never before been so happy to cross a finish line or so worried about a DNF. I finished, and not even DFL. The course ended up staying open 11 hours that day. My boyfriend was crushed that we were given hats instead of medals, but I didn’t care. I was just happy to never have seen these ladies:
Although this race stands out as a challenge for me, I would still recommend it to others. The aid stations were well-stocked, the volunteers went above and beyond to support the runners, and the post race party was very nice. The incredibly fit runners were also very friendly and this race had more of a community feel partly because most were local, and likely also because there weren’t many of us. I think 54 finished that day.
Off-trail: Although the Yaris held its own, this was the first race trip where my budget conscious decisions were questioned. Unfortunately, I didn’t redeem myself on the next trip.
I learned that I shouldn’t use standard distance estimates when determining the worst possible pace I could run and still beat cutoffs. Always, ALWAYS round up a few miles.