On February 15th, I ran the Rogue/Yeti Heartbreaker Marathon in Lithia Springs, GA. This was a trail race in Sweetwater Creek State Park, which was co-sponsored by the Rogue Runners and the Yeti Trail Runners. I think the name Heartbreaker was related to the race being held on the weekend of Valentine’s Day. There was also a Sweetheart Half Marathon on Saturday.
I got busy with other things toward the end of 2014, so I waited longer than usual before planning my race schedule for February and March. When I started looking for races I could do this weekend, I kept finding that the airfares were too expensive. Then I discovered this race. Lithia Springs is in the greater Atlanta area, and I was able to get a reasonable airfare on a flight to Atlanta.
I stayed at the Hampton Inn in Lithia Springs. By chance, I’ve stayed in Lithia Springs before. Two years ago, I stayed there when I ran the Silver Comet Marathon in nearby Mableton. I already knew where some of the hotels and restaurants were, and I knew how to get there from the airport.
I had dinner at Cracker Barrel. While I was in line to pay my bill, the guy behind me asked me if I was doing the Yeti Marathon. That surprised me since it’s a small race, I’m from out of town, and we had never met. He must have noticed my Marathon Maniacs jacket. He’s also a Marathon Maniac. Then I found out he’s from Huntsville, AL, and we both did the Rocket City Marathon in December. It’s a small world.
Earlier in the week, as I was making my packing list, I checked the weather forecast and saw that it was going to get down to 22 degrees on the morning of the race. I’m glad I checked, because that’s unusually cold for Atlanta. With 15 MPH winds, it was going to feel like 5 degrees at the start of the race. I didn’t know how much the forecast might change, so I packed a variety of warm clothes.
I didn’t get much sleep Friday night, so I got to bed as early as I could on Saturday. The race started at 8:00, but packet pickup started at 7:00. I wanted to get there on the early side, because I didn’t know if the parking lot would fill. Saturday night was another rough night. It took me hours to get to sleep. Then I slept in dribs and drabs, seldom sleeping for more than 10 minutes at a time.
When I got up, it was 31 degrees. That’s warmer than I expected, but the temperature was still dropping. I made a few last minute adjustments to my race clothes, but I still dressed in layers. I had two layers on my legs and three on my upper body. My outermost layer was a lightweight disposable jacket that I could tie around my waist if I got too warm. To keep my hands warm enough, I wore two pairs of gloves.
When I got to the park, it was 27 degrees, but it felt much colder when I got out of the car. The wind seemed to go right through me. We had use of the park’s group shelter. It was a large building with tables and chairs, a kitchen, bathrooms and a fireplace. It was nice to be able to wait indoors for the race to start.
In addition to a T-shirt, we all got hats. I thought that was pretty good for a small race. While I was waiting, I bumped into Graham, the Marathon Maniac that I met at Cracker Barrel. He also did the Sweetwater Half Marathon on Saturday.
The course was out-and-back with a fully stocked aid station at the turnaround and a smaller self-service aid station that we would pass twice. The smaller aid station doesn’t have cups, so I needed to bring a bottle. I didn’t know how well I could carry a hand-held bottle wearing two pairs of gloves, so I opted to use a belt.
I didn’t know if water or sports drinks would freeze, so I filled my bottle with hot cocoa before leaving the hotel. By the time the race started, it was no longer hot, but it was still warm. I didn’t need to drink a lot on such a cold day, so I planned to ration my 22 oz. of hot cocoa over the first half of the race, and then refill with sports drink at the halfway mark.
I regret that I don’t have any pictures of the trails. I considered carrying a camera, but it would have been difficult to use it wearing two pairs of gloves. I was also afraid that I might break it if I fell. I’ll do my best to describe the course.
The race started on a road that was down a hill from the group shelter. After a little over half a mile, we got onto the trails. The first mile had a downhill trend. I got off to a fast start, running that mile in 8:20.
Before long, we were on a trail that followed the shore of Sweetwater Creek. Then we turned onto another trail that took us through the middle of the park. The early miles reminded me of the trails I ran on last weekend at the Rocky 50. There were frequent undulations but no steep hills. I had to watch for roots, but I was able to step over them.
Now that we were on trails, my pace gradually slowed. There weren’t any mile markers, so I wore a Garmin watch. Aside from checking my pace, that let me know how far I had run. Every two miles, I drank a few squirts of hot cocoa. It felt good to drink something warm.
After about four miles, the trail descended toward the river. A few of the roots formed steps, and I had to slow down so I wouldn’t trip. Near the river, there was a rocky patch. We had to step up and over a few boulders. That section forced me to slow to a walk. Next there was a boardwalk that included steps. At first it was just a few steps. After a short landing, there was a whole flight of steps leading down to the water’s edge.
That section slowed me down. I was no longer close to the runners ahead of me. As I reached a more runnable section of the trail, I tried to catch up. The trail was well-marked, but it was easier to see my way if I could follow the runners ahead of me.
More runnable is a relative term. There were still a few roots. As I tried to keep sight of the runners up ahead, I took my eyes off the trail. I tripped on a root and fell. I didn’t get hurt, but it took the wind out of my sails. When I got up, I wasn’t running as fast. I lost sight of the runners ahead of me.
Now I had to pay close attention to the trail markers. Within the park, we were on a blazed trail, but we would soon be crossing private land, where the path was less obvious. The trail was marked with pink flagging that had black polka dots. Where the trail was straight, the markers were sparse. At the pre-race briefing, we were advised that if we see two of those markers close together if means, “shit’s about to happen.” For example, we might be making a sharp turn onto another trail.
Most of the time, it was obvious where the trail was, but I didn’t want to risk getting lost. I didn’t have a map or my phone, and it was cold.
At one point, the trail looked like it was going to reach a dead end at a river. There was no way to get across, and the trail didn’t seem to turn to follow the river. Then I looked back and saw a trail marker I had missed. The trail turned and ran parallel to the river.
At another point, there was a fork in the trail. I could see pink flagging leading to the left, but there was also pink flagging straight ahead. Another runner who caught up to me observed that only the flagging to our left had the black polka dots.
A few times I got close enough to a group of runners ahead of me to see them in the distance. Usually that meant they reached some obstacle that briefly slowed them down.
One such obstacle was a stream crossing. I could see the other runners as they reached the other side. When I got to the same spot, I saw why it slowed them down. There was no bridge, log or obvious way across. The stream had a narrow spot, but it was still too wide to step across. I tried to step across to a rock, but my legs weren’t quite long enough. I had to put one foot in the water. I held onto a branch, so I wouldn’t fall in. I pulled myself up the bank and picked up the trail on the other side.
As we approached the self-service aid station, there was a section where we ran through a clearing where there were gas lines. There was a series of steep hills. Some of them were too steep to run. The aid station was at a corner where we turned right. I still had enough hot cocoa to make it to the halfway mark, so I didn’t need to stop and refill. The aid station was still helpful, because it caused me to notice the turn.
The next time I saw the group of runners ahead of me, I was running alongside a small ravine. I saw runners on the opposite side running parallel to me. Did I miss a turn? No. I saw the next trail marker ahead of me. The trail went around the ravine and did a few switchbacks.
A short time later, I tripped and fell again. This part of the trails was covered with leaves, so you couldn’t see every rock or root. I tumbled as I fell and was quickly on my feet again. I couldn’t tell which direction I was facing. I looked around until I spotted some trail markers. Then I continued running.
One of my shoes felt loose, so I stopped to retie it. I had to take off both pairs of gloves. As long as I was stopping, I tightened both shoes. I was warming up, so I put one pair of gloves in my fanny pack. I pulled on the other pair of gloves as I resumed running.
I didn’t get far before I saw a runner coming from the opposite direction. I was only seven miles into the race, so it was too soon for it to be one of the leaders coming back. As he got closer, he confirmed that I was going the wrong way. I didn’t realize it because we were deep in the woods and I lost my sense of direction when I fell. The trail looked different in this direction, so I didn’t recognize anything.
I’m not sure how far I ran in the wrong direction, but it was probably no more than a quarter mile. After that, I didn’t bother checking my pace. This run wasn’t going to be fast.
For miles, I had been mostly running by myself. Now I was slowing down and a few other runners passed me. The trail wasn’t well-defined here. You had to follow the trail markers to know which way to go.
We eventually came out of the woods and ran alongside a highway. I could see one of the runners who passed me. He occasionally looked back. We went a fair distance before seeing any trail markers, so he probably wanted to know if he was the only one running that way. Eventually, I saw a trail marker and knew we were going the right way.
After about a mile, we left the highway and turned onto an unpaved road which eventually took us through a heron habitat. At first, we were running across grass. Then we reached a long section with deep ruts. Evidently it had been muddy recently, and the mud had since dried. The surface was uneven. I had to lift my feet high with each step. I found this section tiring.
Alongside the trail, there were branches with sharp twigs. Some of them caught my sleeves. At one point my left sleeve ripped. I was glad I was wearing something cheap for my outer layer, so I didn’t tear the shirt underneath. When my Garmin read 12 miles, I finished the last of my hot cocoa.
We ran one last section through the woods before reaching the turnaround. As I was rounding a sharp corner, my feet slipped in some leaves, and I fell for a third time. I was at the base of a steep hill, and the runners ahead of me were walking the hill. As I got up, I started walking too.
We left the woods and I could see the aid station. I was curious to know how far I had actually gone, since I ran some “bonus mileage” when I was briefly going the wrong way. When I looked at my Garmin, the numbers didn’t make sense. On my most recent fall, I must have accidently changed the display. I was also wearing a simpler running watch that just displayed my time. That was a backup in case my Garmin didn’t have enough battery life.
I recognized my friend Jan, who was volunteering at the aid station. While Jan filled my bottle with Powerade, I ate some solid food. They also had tequila at this aid station. Before the race, I had joked that I should put some tequila in my bottle, so it wouldn’t freeze. It wasn’t actually THAT cold, but I did have a shot of tequila before heading back. They were keeping track of how many runners had tequila. I was the third, so far.
I ran the first half in 2:11. It surprised me that I was still on pace for 4:22, which is an average pace of 10 minutes per mile. Without know how far I had run, I had no way of knowing my pace. I decided to take a drink every 20 minutes as a way of approximating two miles.
After a brief foray through the woods, I was once again on the bumpy dirt and grass road through the heron rookery. I once again found this section tiring, but it was familiar. In general, it was nice having a good idea what to expect as I gradually made my way back to the start.
I didn’t get through that section without having a few more encounters with small branches. This time, I ripped the sleeve on my right arm.
When we returned to the section along the highway, I tried to get my Garmin to display the distance again. I cycled through various displays, but none of them looked right. Shortly after returning to the woods, I heard my watch beep. It was reading my split for the 16th mile. Somehow, I put it in a mode that displayed the distance, but the time display still didn’t make sense. I went back to drinking every two miles.
I would have two more falls before eventually making it back to the state park. One time, I tripped on a small rock that was covered with leaves.
Recognizing some of the terrain helped me to manage my effort. It also helped that there were more runners near me on the return trip. I didn’t need to worry about getting lost in the woods by myself.
There was a long steep climb to get to the self-service aid station. I was working up a sweat, so I took off the disposable jacket and tied it around my waist. I didn’t know if I had enough Powerade for the last six and a half miles, so I topped off my bottle with some water.
After another mile, I reached the stream crossing again. I saw a different way to get across. This time, my other foot got wet. I now had two wet shoes and two ripped sleeves. At least I was symmetrical.
Before long, we returned to the state park, where the trails were well-defined. I eagerly awaited the section with the steps and boulders. I didn’t actually like that section, but I knew it was the last major obstacle. After that, the last four miles would be runnable.
When I got to those last four miles, I did my best to push the pace. I was tired, but the trail became more and more runnable. Eventually, I reached the section of paved road that we had started on. Unfortunately, it was mostly uphill coming back. It had been a long time since I last checked my time. I was pretty sure I wouldn’t break 4:22, but I was curious to know if I could still break 4:30. I looked at my watch. It read 3:14:01. I looked again. It still read 3:14:01. I must have stopped it on one of my falls.
I finished as best as I could. When I reached the point where we started, I discovered that the finish was right outside the group shelter. I still had to run a short trail up a steep hill. I had to ask what my time was. They were recording times manually. They had a large digital clock at the timekeeper’s table that only displayed hours and minutes. I finished in 4:27. The finisher medals were made of wood, with twine in place of a ribbon.
It took a while to catch my breath after running up that hill. I had a seat inside the shelter. When I caught my breath, I got some post-race food. They had pizza, craft beer, hot soup and cupcakes. I think I enjoyed the soup more than the pizza.
I stayed at the shelter for about two hours, eating and talking with other runners. I saw my friends Halbert and Heather, who brought a cake for Loren Starr. Loren is also a Marathon Maniac. He reached the Titanium level at this race. It was his 52nd marathon in 52 weeks. When he finished, we had a group photo with a few of the other Marathon Maniacs who were at this race.
I chose this race because the travel costs were more affordable than the other races this weekend. It turned out to be a good opportunity to go out of my comfort zone and run on trails for the second straight week. I still suck at trail running, but there’s only one way to get better. This was good practice. It was also fun.
Last weekend, I scraped the outside of my knee on one of my falls. It didn’t hurt, but there was a small scab. After getting back to the hotel, I noticed the scab was missing. It got torn off during this race. Sure enough, there was a bloody spot on the inside of my tights. It’s good that I had two layers on my legs or I might have had some new scrapes.
I have another trail marathon next weekend. I need to get better at picking up my feet.