Have you ever heard how loud a Turkey can be when you startle it?!
Greenery was a blur as I let my legs fly out in front of me down the rocky and steep descent. Mud would splash with each touchdown and my eyes would quickly dart to the next safe place to let my foot land as I flew down the mountainside nearly airborne in the misty mountain morning. I was 20 miles into the inaugural Dark Sky 50 held at Pickett State Park in the Big South Fork, TN. “Gobble! Gobble!” Flap! Flap! Flap! Making my way around a blind corner I startled a turkey and it took flight to avoid collision in a mess of guttural sounds and feathers flying. As my eyes moved to where my foot was about to land I noticed a tiny chick directly in the path of my front foot in mid-air stride. I somehow pulled that foot up defying gravity and did a jump step with the opposing foot and managed to miss the baby chick.
I drove down the night before the race after working a pretty crazy shift at the Urgent Care Center. Rain was patchy on the drive down and occasional rays of the setting sun would highlight the water vapor rising from the rolling lush green hills in southeastern Kentucky. The forecast for race day looked comfortable with a high in the 70’s and plenty of sunny blue skies after inches of rain fell the previous day.
The name “Dark Sky 50” comes from the recognition of the races location as a certified “Dark Sky” area meaning it’s so remote that it’s ideal for stargazing. There are only 37 certified Dark Sky locations in the world. Being so remote, this meant I had to break one of my pre-race rules of not confusing camping and racing… I always try to sleep in a hotel prior to a race, but this location was just too perfect as the campground was within minutes of the start, and there were no hotels nearby. There are cabins onsite for rental but I planned on packing up right after the race to get home to my 8 week old son. The skies were still clearing when I arrived so I wasn’t gifted the view of the stars that evening but… maybe next year.
I started training seriously again 12 weeks ago after taking off for nearly a year to regroup after a solid 10 years of pretty frequent racing. I still ran often during this time but didn’t put much focus on high mileage with the exception of running the Grindstone 100 in October just to get my Hardrock qualifier. The time off provided a lot of much needed clarity and the passion is back. When I started training again what really pushed and motivated me was the prospect of a road marathon PR as it’s a great indicator of aerobic strength. There is a marathon next weekend I was shooting for but 13 weeks just wasn’t enough time to get into sub 2:40 shape. So, a month ago I decided to race Dark Sky 50 in lieu of the road marathon as it was more in my wheelhouse and it would give me more time to get into marathon shape. While training for Dark Sky, I didn’t do any trail runs over 15 miles. All of my 20 mile runs were faster road runs. I didn’t do anything over 3 hours. Training resembled marathon training. I ran a long run each week of 20-22 miles and did mile repeats each week and tempo/threshold runs on the road of 7-16 miles. This was an interesting way to train for a surprisingly technical and long trail 50 miler, (er...52 mi.) but I knew I needed aerobic power more than anything. I had plenty of trail experience in the bank and needed to grow the aerobic engine back to where it was.
I’m going to get on my soapbox for a moment… When I take on a new client as a running coach they often say one thing they want to do is build their aerobic engine, burning more fat as fuel (to increase their lactate threshold.) Many runners want this and then get misled into believing philosophy over science and some buy into this keto adaptation fad. Speedwork and higher intensity workouts create the physiological stimulus to spur mitochondrial growth and development, it’s not about fat intake. This allows you to operate closer to maximum intensity for longer periods of time, and this is what forces your body to burn more fat as fuel, raising your lactate threshold. Sure, you can eat mostly fat and survive, but you’re probably not going to meet your potential. Alas, I’ll spare the novel on that for now and get back to the race…
The course circumnavigated the wild and scenic Sheltowee Trace and John Muir Trail, (not to be confused with the JMT in California.) This provided many good views as we danced along cliff lines and outcroppings high above the Cumberland River. We crossed under several impressive natural arches formed in Sandstone and darted around and under some magnificent overhanging rock shelters.
Aid stations were about every 4-8 miles and were well stocked with tons of standard ultra fare and plenty of Huma gels. I raced this race solo with no crew and although gels were available at Aid Stations, I stuck to my stinger products and my own nutrition for the most part just because that way I knew what calories were available and I wasn’t leaving anything to chance. I did try out a few Huma Gels along the way and they were pretty tasty and went down well.
My two week pre-race taper provided plenty of energy come race morning. Although the week leading up to the race was stressful outside of running, it all worked out on race morning. In the opening miles I was surprised to find myself leading from the first step. There were some solid runners there! The first 15 miles was spent chatting with Tommy Doias about the Pacific Crest Trail and various other running and life ongoings and it was nice to pass the miles with such an easy flow of conversation. Tommy and I chatted about directing races as he has experience with some 100 mile events, directing them and winning them too! (The marathon I direct, The Backside Trail Marathon, was two weeks and I’m just now decompressing from it!) He also told me about he and his daughter doing her first half marathon together. I thought about how awesome it would be to do a race with Denali someday! Fingers crossed… I think she’s going to be a runner. She told me last week after I asked her if she wanted to learn a musical instrument, ”Daddy, you know I’m not patient enough to learn a musical instrument! I’m going to run like you, (because I’m faster than you), and play ice hockey like Mommy.” She’s a nut.
Directly behind us was the highly respected Greg Armstrong. Greg is a beast at the 100 mile distance and routinely clocks 100 mile splits in the 15 hour range and also owns the course record at the Vol State 500k race across tennessee. Greg has too many 100 mile and 24 hour wins to list! His feat at Vol State is the stuff of legend.
I was really impressed that this was the inaugural event of the Dark Sky 50. The course was marked flawlessly and the aid stations were spot on. Beth and crew at Nashville Running deserve some accolades for putting together a top notch event.
You never know what to expect going into a new course. I thought on an easy mountain course I could’ve knocked out a 7:00 50 mile split. (This was based on the posted elevation and course descriptions compared to other 50’s I’ve done with similar posted elevations. My LBL 50 PR was a 6:25 with several other times close to that. Dark Sky was posted at 5k’ climbing compared to 4k’ at LBL. Winning times from the technical and rocky Iron Mtn 50 with 9k’ climbing where it’s usually 90 degrees are just under 7:30) Ha! This course was HARD! And Long. Much harder than anticipated. It’s not that the climbs were huge. The course just held a lot of blowdowns and creek crossings and really rocky/muddy double-track along with small little hitches to constantly eat the flow of speed and continuity. The storms from the previous day compounded this. It’s a great course and I recommend it highly… It’s just not a fast course, even by mountain standards. Perhaps less mud/standing water would make a huge difference.
My 8:56 was a far cry from what I thought I’d finish in, but I was still running the climbs and felt good at the end. At the Aid Station with 6.2 miles to go I heard I was opening up a lead on Tommy in second place and I knew I was pretty locked in for the win barring catastrophe. I chilled and rolled in, just trying to break 9:00 on the clock. Luckily there were plenty of fire roads in the closing 6 miles to finally get to run unobstructed. It was a great ending to a gorgeous day in the mountains! The finishers award was some sweet hardware I’d been dreaming about all day and I was stoked to be the proud owner of such a gorgeous piece of art!
The Dark Sky 50; The Race I Almost Killed A Turkey Chick.