Sarah Woerner reports from the Big Butts 100k

Big Butts: 100k or Die

The Big Butts trail race is held at the end of July at Butts Park in Clinton, Mississippi. Obviously the heat is a major factor for all of the runners, who have the option of doing a 50k or the seemingly impossible 100k. I say this because no one had finished the 100k in the previous two years that the race had been held. The course consists of a 6-mile mountain bike loop that is done 5 times for the 50k or 10 times for the 100k.

After the loops, you have to do a cruel section of totally exposed road in order to complete the distance. I referred to it as the “highway to hell.” Last year was my first attempt at the 100k, but after 5 laps, I was cramping so bad from dehydration, that my diaphragm would not even relax enough to allow me to breathe properly. Needless to say, I dropped to the 50k but was determined to get revenge this time around.

Conditions for the 2012 Big Butts were similar to 2011, with a heat index projected to be 105. It had rained quite a bit the day before, so the air was extremely humid and so thick it felt like you were breathing butter. My dad and I arrived on race day and set up my own mini aid station. Because the course is multiple loops, racers come back to the start after each lap, so crew access is very easy. We brought a cooler full of cold drinks as well as a garden sprayer to cool me off after each lap.

After learning from my mistakes last year, my plan was to not go out as hard, drink as much as I could force myself to, and have cold water dumped over me between laps once it got really hot. I knew that I had to stay cool and hydrated if I was to have even a prayer at finishing the full 100k. Race director John Brower added some extra incentive by offering a cash prize to the first person who finished.

At a few minutes before 8a.m., John and his amazing wife Beverly gathered the 70 or so runners for some final pre-race instructions and then said “Go!” Because we all started together, I was not sure who was attempting the 100k, but I knew there were around 20 of us stupid enough to sign up. I went out quite a bit slower than last year, trying to stay totally comfortable and not worry about position since we all had a long way to go.

The first mile of trail has several really short steep sections I call “whoop de doos” because you run straight up then have a steep descent shortly after. These got pretty muddy from all the rain, so it was a bit slippery in the beginning. After a short shaded section, the course pops out on an old road for maybe 1/2 mile (it seemed to get longer with each lap). This part was exposed to direct sun, so it got HOT later in the day. We then turned back into the woods where the trail is gently rolling and fairly well shaded.

There was an aid station with fluid only at the half way point, but I still had enough in my handheld on this first loop, so I didn’t stop. Just after mile 4, the trail goes across a powerline, back to the woods, and then right back out across the powerline. This part was also very exposed to the sun. The last mile, however, was probably my favorite, as it was very well shaded and ended with a slight downhill back to the starting area where the official aid station/check-in and all the crew were set up.

I ran over to my dad who promptly yelled that I had not drank enough, and after seeing that my handheld still had some fluid in it, I knew this was true. He refilled my bottle, and I set off on the second loop with the intention of drinking considerably more. It is so crucial to not get dehydrated early on in this race because, once the sun really comes out, it is nearly impossible to catch back up on hydration.

Laps 2-4 were fairly uneventful. I managed to drink nearly 2 full bottles per lap but could definitely tell that the temperature was rising quickly. The one positive that I took from this was that it dried up some of the muddy sections, making them less slippery and preventing the mud from sticking to my shoes which makes it feel like you are running with weights on your feet.

Each time I finished a lap, my dad would dump cold water over me and refill my water bottle. Up to this point, I had been drinking red or blue Gatorade diluted with lots of ice, and this seemed to be working well, so I stuck with it. On the 5th lap, I asked my dad to run with me to have some company. He said that there were 3 guys in front of me, 2 of which had signed up for the 100k, but that the leader decided to switch to the 50k. This meant that I had only one 100k runner in front of me. With half the race still to go, I just tried to run comfortably and let the race play out.

About midway through lap 5, I caught up to the leader, a really nice guy named Chris. I ran the 6th lap by myself, and it was about this point when I started to get significantly fatigued and could feel the miles taking their toll on my legs. Those whoop de doos got pretty painful, especially the downhill sections.

When I got back to the aid station at the end of lap 6, I saw that they had Chick Fil A chicken nuggets! I had never seen this at a race before, and they looked really good. They tasted even better, and I think I ate at least 6, something I would regret in a very short time. My dad dumped some icy cold water over me which felt amazing and said that he was ready to run another lap if I wanted. This was welcome news, so we set off to knock out the 7th loop.

Another thing that I started doing to stay cool was stick ice cubes in my sports bra, and it worked wonders. Sorry guys, you’re out of luck on this one, unless of course you would like to wear a bra in which case I say, go for it.

Less than a mile into this lap, my stomach started rebelling. Although the chicken tasted good at the time, it definitely was not easily digestible, and my stomach was letting me know it. I was pretty nauseous and could only drink water the entire loop and most of lap 8 as well. Thankfully, it settled down for the start of lap 9. It was about this point when I began to let myself believe that finishing the 100k was a legitimate possibility. My lap splits had slowed from about 50 minutes to somewhere around an hour, and I was spending a little more time wetting myself down after each loop, but I still felt decent. Also, runners were fortunate enough to get some cloud cover for a couple hours in the afternoon, which helped tremendously to cool things off. I set off on lap 9 with the thought that after this, I would only have one more plus a short road section to go.

By this point, I think I knew the course so well I could have run it in my sleep. I had memorized where the mile markers were and just took it mile by mile. I also started to dread the road and powerline sections because they were so hot. Each time you left the shade of the woods it felt like the temperature went up 20 degrees. I could feel that my face was sunburned already. Coming down that last downhill into the aid station area to start my last lap felt great, but the thought that I still had 8 miles left was a bit depressing.

Once again, however, my dad lifted my spirits by offering to run with me, although by now it was a combination of walking the first few steep uphills and running the rest. In the short time I stopped to refill my water and cool off, I stiffened up considerably, and it took a while to loosen up once I began running. The downhills were just plain torture on my knees, and I felt totally uncoordinated on all of the technical sections because I was so stiff. When we go to the powerlines, my dad told me that he was going to shortcut this section and would meet me back in the woods. He had done this on each of the 3 loops he ran with me which goes to show just how hot it was. After catching back up to him, I had less than a mile of trail left followed by the road section before this thing would be over. Unfortunately, when I popped out of the woods and headed out on the road, that last 2 miles of scorching pavement seemed pretty daunting.

John Brower, the RD, surprised me just before the turn around by riding up on his mountain bike and keeping me company for several minutes before going ahead to wait at the finish. As I came around the last corner and could see the finish line, it all started sinking in that the race was almost over. John, Beverly, my dad, and several volunteers and family members of other runners were there to meet me. I am so thankful for all of these people who worked incredibly hard in super hot conditions with a smile on their face. I could not have done it without their efforts and encouragement. I thank God for giving me the opportunity to do the race, meet some awesome people, and enjoy my first ever 100k finish!

Below are some thought I took from the race as well as lessons I learned from doing an ultra in extremely hot/humid conditions (the heat index was 105).

  • having at least one crew person is essential to help keep you cooled off, hydrated, and fueling.
  • the best way to cool off is to dump icy cold water over you as often as you can
  • you MUST drink something containing electrolytes, not just water even if you supplement with endurolytes, salt tabs, etc
  • a cold towel/bandana with ice cubes in it helps a lot if worn around the neck, in your hat, or in my case, in your sports bra
  • going out too hard can ruin your race. it is important to save some for the later parts of the race and not get dehydrated early on because you cannot recover when the sun come out in the heat of the day
  • if your shoes get wet from dumping water over yourself, it is worth the time to change them. I did after lap 7 and felt a million times better

  • don’t sit down, at least not for more than a minute or two because it makes it that much harder to get back up and running

Huge thanks to John and Beverly for putting on one of the toughest races I have ever done! It is a first class event, well organized, and the trail was marked perfectly.

Race results: http://ultrasignup.com/results_event.aspx?did=15979