This was my third straight year to run the Oak Mountain 50k in Pelham, AL. I consider it my home course, since I do most of my trail training at Oak Mountain State Park, and this race has a total elevation gain of about 3900 feet. I was coming off a less-than-ideal performance at the Way Too Cool 50k the weekend before in California, and hoping to redeem myself in this local event.
The list of runners was comprised mainly of AL runners and others from surrounding states. There were a few Colorado natives, which always scares me. I toed the line among several friends, including John Cobbs of Birmingham. The course started on half a mile of pavement, which I blazed through so I could be in the lead as the yellow trail started. At that point, I settled into a comfortable pace and tried not run too hard since the yellow trail is very up and down.
By twenty minutes into the race I had company… Vince Molesky, from FL, had caught me. I let him pass since he seemed to be nipping right at my heels of my Brooks Cascadias. I tried to keep him in sight, but he moved ahead. Around the waterfall section of the lake, I figured I would see him again due to the large range of sight, but I did not. Next thing I knew, Vince was behind me again; he had missed a turn! He passed me again and had a minute lead on me at the first aid station, 8 miles into the race.
The blue trail is the next section of the course, and it has some tough hills. I often run this trail, so I was on familiar territory. I eased my way up the climbs to the plateau section. I was feeling good about my pace, and then it happened. One hour and eighteen minutes into the run, I took a wrong step and severely twisted my right ankle… the one I was not wearing a brace on (since I thought it was my good ankle)! I let a few choice words out and took the next eight minutes to walk, take in a GU, and recover enough to jog/limp along.
After about twenty minutes, Brian Costilow from Colorado caught up to me. We ran together to the next aid station and several miles past it. By this time, Vince had a thirteen-minute lead on us. I started to feel better, and increased my pace slightly a few miles or so after the aid station (on the white trail). I knew if I could just make it to the next aid station, at approximately mile 21, my buddy Andrew was going to jump in and pace me.
It was already getting hot, and was going to be up to the mid-80s by afternoon. I was keeping a close watch on my electrolyte balance with Endurolyte capsules. Much to my surprise, my pacer was no where to be found.
I mentally prepared myself for the gradual two-plus mile climb which was my next challenge on the red trail. Brian was entering the aid station as I was leaving. I learned that Vince had an eighteen-minute lead on me now. Wow, this guy was moving! I ran pretty solidly back to the Peavine Falls aid station, with only a few walk breaks, where my crew chief Hannah Pate was situated. At this point, I was somewhat discouraged; with approximately 26 miles completed my time was 4:07, and I was still 17 minutes behind the leader.
It is worthy to mention that this course is not certified, and is based on approximate distance measurements. Many people say it is 33 miles, not 31. At this point, I just wanted to try and finish steadily on these last, mostly-downhill miles. I was hoping to break five hours.
I trudged on, with the occasional walk break on the technical rocky sections to protect my hurt ankle. I made it to the last three miles of the course, which traverses around Johnson’s Mountain. By this time of day, the trails are being used by several mountain bikers. Todd Henderson, the race director for Mt Cheaha 50k and Pinhoti 100, was on a bike with his son. He alerted me that the leader only had two minutes on me. I assumed he was just estimating and it did not matter since the heat had zapped most of my energy. I tried to keep Todd and the other mountain bikers in my sights as I jogged.
I crossed a road with 1.25 miles to go and walked up a hill. A female bystander said if I ran the rest of the course, I could catch the leader, thus validating Todd’s time gap. I dug deep and found a few ounces of energy to try and run somewhere around an eight minute pace. Todd and company had ridden ahead and found the leader, and timed it until I passed that same spot. The lead was down to 40 seconds. I knew I had to defend my home course. I took a few more turns and there was Vince… walking.
This was like giving me jet fuel; I increased my pace and flew by him, hoping he could not answer. He started to jog again but I was quickly out of sight. By this time, I was into a near tempo run pace, since there is less then half of a mile to go. Emotions were riding high. I rounded one last bend and I could see parking lot.
I continued full steam ahead, and crossed the finish for the victory at 5:01:37, slightly outside of my time goal. But that did not matter, I had just pulled a great come-from-behind win. I can honestly say that I have never been so excited during the last part of a race.
Vince was not too far behind, at 5:02:32. The heat had gotten to Vince, and he said he took a quick recovery dip in a creek before I caught him. It was a classic battle of the tortoise and the hare. My steady pace pulled me through. John Cobbs finished third overall with a time of 5:11:22, and the 50k race had 90 finishers. This will be a race finish I will remember for a long, long time.