I normally don't look for races in Florida or Louisiana because there aren't any mountains down that way. I love to climb. I say the steeper, more technical and rugged... the better. However... The Wild Azalea Challenge is one of those "semi-supported, old school, low key, take your cell phone, here's a list of emergency contacts" kinds of races... the ones that I freaking LOVE. And it's the longest trail in Louisiana... yea... it needed to be explored.
To be honest... I almost bailed on this one. It had only been two weeks after a hard run ultra, and after a 13hr work day on the Thursday before the Wild Azalea Challenge, I wasn't too keen on driving 8hrs. I just wanted to stay home and have a nice relaxing weekend on the local trails. Thursday night I came home and half packed a travel bag and my running shoes. I said I'd make the final decision Friday morning.
Me - "Are you extremely busy at work?"
Kati - "No... why?"
Me - "Can you book me the cheapest room you can find in Alexandria?"
And just like that... I set off for Louisiana.
8hrs later I'm throwing bags down in a Super 8, and heading off to a pre race meeting.
After the meeting I opted out of finding a local pub for a few drinks (navigating Alexandria just wasn't appealing) and decided to head into Target. Only Target on the planet that doesn't sell alcohol. It had me worried that it may be a dry city. NOOO! My two beer pre race ritual!? What shall I ever do?! Well... no worries... it wasn't dry. The no name grocery store saved the day. I could have opted for the gas station through the crawl hole in the fence outside of my window...
Upon first observations of the room one will notice the connecting door.
I couldn't tell if it was locked or not so I took extreme precaution and placed a chair in front of it. At least this way if someone did try to get in... it gave me a few seconds to grab the knife from my nightstand. After a few brews, 4 too many episodes of a tree house building show being broadcasted on the rainbow tube tv, and the packing of my race pack... I fell asleep.
The start of the Wild Azalea Challenge was a chilling 27 degrees. The first mile or so wasn't actually on the trail itself, so Lane (local ultra/trail runner) volunteered to lead the pack until we hit the trail. With a few words from the RD, we silently set off into the cold morning.
Not knowing the trail in the least bit, I blindly followed Lane as we ran through what seemed like pathless woods. I finally started noticing the yellow blazes that had been talked about during the pre race meeting. He assured the group that it would be much easier to follow that first section back to the finish during the day light hours. The trail was primarily covered in leaves... thus hiding the roots. I hit an invisible root (one of many falls throughout the day) and fell pretty hard around mile 3. It wasn't anything serious, but it did tweak my hip flexor a little, which continued to bother me for the remainder of the day.
I stopped at the first aid station to tighten my shoes. The aid stations were 3-4m apart and consisted of water/Gatorade/bananas/GU/snickers etc. in a plastic container on the ground. I fell behind a few runners, but quickly caught back up. We all chit chatted for a little while and then I pushed ahead of the pack. I felt strong, but knew I was pushing it too hard.
For me, being the leader of a race can be a curse. It gets me out of my rhythm. My mind starts to wander, I constantly look back... it almost takes the enjoyment out of it. I tried my best not to think of it that way... but my pace kept picking up.
I crossed over a road and was already talking to myself, "I could have sworn an aid station was supposed to be there." Oh well... I had plenty of water to get me 4 miles to the next one. Being the middle of winter, I couldn't help but to think of how beautiful this trail is when everything is in bloom. The morning sun was shining through the trees, and it was in this moment... I knew I had made the right decision to come down. It felt good to be in Louisiana cruising through a National Forrest. Usually the only cruising I do in Louisiana is when it's down the clean streets of New Orleans...
Humph. No aid station here either?!? Given that there were only 4 volunteers putting on this race, I came to the assumption that the lead group was running faster than they could put out aid. No worries. This was definitely turning into the old school/self supported type of race that I was hoping for! I knew there had to be supplies at the next aid station since the 27 mile mountain bike race and foot race started on the opposite end at 8am. I started to meet head on with some of the MTB racers. Everyone was so polite! The trail etiquette was outstanding. Even when I was hiking some of the climbs (yes... there are climbs in LA), bikers were throwing on their brakes to let me have the right of way.
I finally got to an aid station around mile 18ish and refueled my bone dry bottle. Back on the trail the weather was turning... PERFECT. Sunny, breezy, and in the 50s... you couldn't plan a more pleasant day for racing. I continued pushing harder than I wanted because I was still leading at this point. I was in a stretch of trail where I was completely alone when I heard something rustling out in the middle of the woods. I glanced over and then had to steal another glance to ensure I was really seeing what I thought I was seeing. Wild horses. Three brown and white wild horses were standing in the middle of the woods. Never in my life would I have thought to see wild horses... especially not in the middle of Louisiana! I'm still kicking myself for not snapping a picture of them (again... leader curse...). The curse wouldn't last for too much longer...
I got passed around mile 21ish by the overall winner. He looked strong. He had a good pace and still had a lot of bounce in his stride. After he passed, I picked up the pace in pursuit but came to the conclusion that he wasn't going to be caught.
I finally got to the turnaround at mile 25. The volunteer heated up some chicken broth on a portable stove and poured it into a mini Gatorade bottle I had just emptied. I took a look around for our drop bags. Another volunteer took the truck to the store to get more supplies to replenish the aid stations... want to take a guess where the drop bags were? Ding ding ding! In the back of the truck. The volunteer apologized and told us he'd have them at the next aid station. It didn't bother me at all... I wouldn't have minded a fresh pair of dry socks (clean socks can do wonders for your mental state), but what I really wanted was to lose my buff and throw on my trucker hat. I mean if that's all I really wanted from my drop bag... I have no complaints about 4 volunteers busting their butts to make sure the runners have aid.
I set out of the turnaround with two runners in front of me. Unless they blew up somewhere in the next 25 miles, I knew I wasn't going to catch them. So instead of trying to wreck myself attempting to catch them, I settled into a pleasant pace. I wanted to really enjoy the second half of the race since I spent most of the first half cursed.
Since it was an out and back course, there's really not much left to describe. It just felt wonderful to be throwing down some distance on my legs in a new environment. I did come across a mutilated bird...
Around mile 42/43 I got passed by Elena Makovskaya, who had flown down from New York to visit New Orleans and was using the Wild Azalea Challenge as a training run for an upcoming 100 mile race in Vegas.
I knew I was nearing the end when I passed the fire tower and old couch...
The yellow blazes ended and were replaced by yellow caution tape. As I came upon the lake, I could see the finish tent in the distance. I rounded the corner to the cheering of a small group. There was no huge banner, no loud speaker calling out your name... just a group of proud, smiling faces wanting to congratulate you. These are my favorite types of events. Nothing beats the down home feeling of races like these. I finished with a new 50 mile PR of 9:34. After talking with the RD about the race, one of the volunteer's sons handed me a finishers shirt, bandana, hat, a cold beer and pointed me in the direction of the pizza.
After a quick change of clothes, a few slices of pizza, a beer, and some great conversations with the other racers and volunteers... I hit the road. I didn't want to stay in another hotel. I just wanted to wake up in my bed and not have to travel on Sunday. After a many Red Bull and a few stops to stretch out my tight legs... 8hrs passed and I pulled into my garage.
I would like to thank a few special ladies in my life for helping me through the 8hr drive...
1) my mother dearest - for offering to pay for a hotel room if I would simply pull over
2) my wife Kati - for texting me every 30mins to check in
4) Katy Perry
5) Miley Cyrus
Go ahead. Judge me. I have no shame. Deep down... you have a guilty pleasure too... you may just be afraid to admit it...