by Ryan Triffitt
Eighteen weeks of training later, the Gator Trail 50k finally happened. It felt like it would never come. Great synergy to this race as during the first week of the training cycle, D and I had the chance to scope out the trails at Lake Waccamaw State Park. That run was during a Thanksgiving visit to her parents, and, now, in March, it was time to cash in on those eighteen weeks. I withdrew them in full running a better race than I believed I could. Ever since I researched this race, my “A” goal, which I believe I only said aloud to two people, was to win it. Looking at past results, I knew that I needed to get close to 4 hours, 7:45 per mile, to have a shot. I knew this was a lofty goal, and maybe even a bit unrealistic. But, that’s what I pointed my training towards, and, in reality, I never really came up with a “B” or “C” goal.
After a relatively uneventful travel day (even with an energetic 18-month-old) to North Carolina on Wednesday and two subsequent days spent relaxing, D and I were up in the dark and driving southwest to the race. The sun had risen, just barely, when we arrived at the park, but the sky was cloud covered, which was a pleasant sight for the northerners. Another pleasant sight was the reading on the thermometer: 48°. My biggest fear for this race was temperatures rising into the 80’s, but we lucked out with the weather as the skies remained cloudy throughout and the mercury never rose above 60°. Perfect racing conditions, and I joked that I wouldn’t be able to use the weather as an excuse.
Southern hospitality was in full effect as we chatted with the race director, Grant, before the race at this small, Fat Ass-style event: low-key, no frills and welcoming smiles all around. The 50-kilometer course consisted of 5, 10-kilometer laps, which included a 1.2-mile out-and-back section about halfway through. In a unique twist, during each lap at the end of the out-and-back, each runner would take a sticker from their number and place it on the board to ensure no one skipped this section. Grant went through this procedure and other pre-race instructions as the group of thirty-or-so runners milled around the start area. Then, almost without warning, Grant said, “Well, OK. Ready, set, go.” We were off.
At the sort-of command, I found myself at the front of the race only a few strides in. D yelled up to me, “I hope you know where you’re going,” which got a chuckle out of myself and everyone else. I expected a few others to come up and run alongside, but I clicked through the first mile alone in 7:57 and turned to see second and third place 10 and 15 seconds back, respectively. It was at this point that I resolved myself to running the race alone and at my pace. 7:45 was the target pace, and that’s what I got the reading on my Garmin down to over the next few miles.
At the end of the out-and-back, which was almost exactly 5k, it only took a second or so to tack my sticker to the board. Pre-race, I was a bit worried this process would be cumbersome and slow, but it was quick and easy. The out-and-back was great because I had the opportunity to see everyone behind me. I determined that I had about 1:30 on second place with 3rd, 4th and 5th not that far behind him. Plenty of motivation for me. The section of trail following the out-and-back was right along Lake Waccamaw and really nice singletrack—narrow, twisty goodness. This was my favorite part of the loop, and I was really enjoying the first few miles.
Coming into the race, I wasn’t certain how my target pace was going to feel, and I was very please at how easy the first few miles went by. I finished the first lap in 47:41 (7:41 per mile) feeling very relaxed and comfortable, although my Garmin was reading a bit short due to the twists of the trail.
Unfortunately, “I Will Survive” was blaring from the speakers as I picked up my lap-two sticker at the start/finish line, and I was stuck with one of my least favorite songs of all time in my head for the next couple miles. The beginning of the each loop wound through pine forest with the trail alternating between firm and sandy sections. The sand wasn’t deep, but it was soft enough to slow you down. On each lap, I did my best to avoid the soft portions by running alongside the established trail. The footing was rougher, but firmer, so I considered it a good trade off. The other “interesting” feature at the start of each lap was the lingering effects of the controlled burns recently held by the park staff. For the first two miles of each lap, the ground was black on either side of the trail and still smoking in a few locations. The smell of smoke was evident but never bothered me or hampered my breathing. However, it was still a bit unsettling to see the blackened, smoldering earth all around you.
Shortly into this lap, I came upon two runners heading in the opposite direction. I hated to be the bearer of bad news, but I had to tell them that they were headed in the wrong direction. I did hesitate for a moment thinking I may have had gone wrong, but from our recon trip in November, I was certain I was going the correct way. Since part of trail racing is finding your way, I kept going, but it was a good reminder that I needed to remain focused.
At around 9 miles, I did a double-take at my Garmin because I could hardly believe I’d already run 9 miles. I felt like I’d barely run a step and knew it was going to be a good day. In fact, I thought to myself, “I refuse to have a bad day.” On the out-and-back, I once again had the chance to check in on the competition, and I estimated my lead had stretched to four minutes. My second lap split was 1:34:20 for a 46:40 lap (7:31 per mile), and the miles were still coming very easily.
With the Garmin coming up a bit short, I knew that I had run a more than it was reading and that my average pace was also a touch faster. Throughout the second lap, I’d kept the “Average Pace” reading at a steady 7:45 and hoped to do the same through the third lap. The tough, tough music choices continued as I was serenaded with “La Bamba” from the sound system as I started the third lap, ready to have things start feeling a bit like work. Around 14 miles, I made the transition from running easily to feeling it a bit. This was a big shift mentally. I knew going into the race that it was going to hurt. There was no way to avoid it. I was prepared for it. The only questions now were how much was it going to hurt and how long could I keep pushing this pace? However, as this lap progressed I was feeling worse but actually getting faster as my average pace dipped to 7:44…on the Garmin at least.
The out-and-back was another confidence booster as my lead had stretched to eight minutes, and second place was the only other racer I saw in this section aside from runners I was lapping. One runner joked: “If you keep this up, we won’t invite you back.” So much for Southern hospitality. When I picked up my sticker to close out lap #3, I checked the clock, which read 2:20:47. That lap would turn out to be my fastest of the day: 46:27 (7:29 per mile). I knew that if I could run two 50-minute laps and be right at 4 hours. Honestly, I had my doubts. From looking at past results, I knew that despite being a flat course, most people had the tendency to slow down quite a bit in the final laps/miles. Obviously, I didn’t want to suffer the same fate, turning the race into a death march, and I was concerned I’d overcooked that third lap.
Heading out to “Anyway You Want It,” one of the great volunteers yelled, “Have fun!” I replied, “Hard not to on a day like this! Thanks for ordering up this great weather for the guy from Maine!” And, in truth, I was having fun. It was work, but it was still fun. The trails were very pretty, and I appreciated them more and more. From the pile of ping pong balls…errr, turtle eggs, to the cactus, to the mangrove trees, I was running in a place unfamiliar to me and really enjoying it. The trails were fun, twisty and just plain great for running. That being said, I needed to go to work. The sand seemed deeper and softer, and I could no longer find the best lines. I maintained my pace through the first half of the fourth lap, but the second half was a struggle. The average pace on my Garmin kept creeping up…7:45…7:46…7:47…7:48…
I began to worry about second place thinking that if he had taken it easy the first few laps, he could really be making up some ground on me. I was relieved when I finished the out-and-back without seeing him, but I did catch a glimpse of his neon green shirt through the trees and guessed I was now up by nearly 11 minutes. Even though that was more than a mile lead, a lot can happen in an ultra, and I felt confident I could win it but didn’t take it for granted. Plus, with my Garmin telling me what I already knew—that I was slowing down—I was no longer really enjoying the day. In fact, at one point near the end of the fourth lap I said out loud, “This sucks.” In the closing miles of this lap, I wanted to be done. I had no idea how I was going to not only maintain my pace or even complete another lap. It seemed an insurmountable task. Indeed, the fourth lap was slower: 48:01 (7:44 per mile).
The clock read 3:08:48. “This one is going to hurt,” was all I could say to the volunteer crew as I started lap #5 as “I Just Called to Say I Love You” played in the background. And, hurt it did. I forced myself to take one final gel as I started the lap. I’d been drinking HEED since the start but opted for Gatorade for the final circuit. My stomach had had enough of the HEED/Hammer Gel/Clif Shot Blok mixture I’d been downing for the first four laps but was thankfully still reasonably settled. The final lap was basically a blur. Throughout the rest of the race, I’d been exchanging words of encouragement with every runner I saw, and I felt badly that I could barely communicate now. The average pace on my Garmin was reading 7:49 and stayed right there for the entire final lap. I was too exhausted to do the math to determine my actual pace or how far I had to go. All I knew was that I was running a bit faster than it was reading and had actually run a bit farther. But, I also knew that 7:49 was not sub-4-hour pace, so I kept trying to get that number lower. I just hoped that I had a 52-minute lap in me. I wasn’t so sure. I really labored the first half of the fifth lap, and the out-and-back felt like it went on forever. However, like the rest of the laps, it was about a 10-minute round trip on the out-and-back. So, I was still moving, but it just hurt a lot more now. Thankfully, second place never appeared, so I was feeling better about taking it home. I actually dropped my handheld on this lap at the beginning of the out-and-back to run hands free for a stretch, which was a good mental boost. Picking it back up was a different story as my legs were not pleased with the change in motion. I’d been fighting off cramps since about mile 25, and I nearly fell over picking up the bottle.
As I ran along the lake, I crossed the first of two boardwalks and took note of the sign that read “Visitors Center – 2 Miles.” I never really figured out if this was correct, but I assume it was a touch longer because we didn’t run directly back to the Visitors Center. My watch read 3:43 and change at this point, and I knew I had a shot at breaking 4 hours. But, I also knew I had to hammer it. It was going to be close. I was in full-on grunt, froth and drool mode, and as I hit the long boardwalk that marked the very end of the lap I was even cursing at myself to keep moving. It wasn’t until I hit this point that I was confident that I had the race won. With a quarter mile to go, I dropped my handheld and pushed my final loop around the parking lot. I crossed the line in 3:56:29, which, in all honesty, feels strange to type. My final lap was 47:42 (7:41 per mile).
My Garmin gave me a distance of 30.26 miles, and with that time, the average per mile was, indeed, 7:49. For the full 31 miles, my average pace was 7:37, which also feels strange to type. I really thought 7:45 was a stretch, so I’m thrilled with the time. In the end, it wasn’t so much about winning, but breaking four hours. If ten guys had finished in front of me, I’d be just as happy. Well, OK, I’m pretty stoked to get the win.
D’s parents arrived just as I was finishing, so they got to see me hobble painfully as my legs seized up the moment I crossed the line. The cramps I’d been so worried about hit me as soon as I stopped running. Everything hurts less when you’re happy with your race, so I was able to laugh, at least a little, through my grimacing. Eventually, I was able to walk somewhat normally, give Sam a hug and change.
Not long after, D came off the boardwalk and onto the road to finish her race. I was elated to see she had a huge smile on her face as she ran past her Dad holding Sam and then past me. The only thing that was missing was an Ironman-esque announcer saying: “YOU’RE an ULTRARUNNER!” I was thrilled she finished her first 50k, and in impressive fashion: 4:47:10, second woman. I’m really proud of her ability to pull it all together as a mother, wife and athlete.
All in all, it was a great day on the trails. For the win, I got a custom picture frame with an alligator on it. (The race director will send us our photos later.) Really nice touch. Just one of many that made this a really fun event. I love the feel of small races. The course, while flat, was not boring nor really easy. It has enough twists and turns to keep you on your toes and plenty of roots to make the singletrack challenging. The sand I could certainly live without, but the trails are beautiful. I really didn’t mind running 5 laps, and I hope I have the opportunity to run at Lake Waccamaw again sometime.
One random fun fact: I don’t know my exact time because of the short readings on my Garmin, but en route I PRed in the marathon by around 20 minutes. I guess I’m in a wee bit better shape than when I ran my one and only road marathon in 2008.
Thanks to D’s parents who not only took care of Sam on race day, but also hosted us this week and put up with all my (our) pre-race neurosis and post-race hobbling. We could not have done this without them. A good support crew is key. THANKS!
So, what’s next? Walking normally is the first goal.