The conversation went something like this:
Dink: You made your travel plans for Sylamore yet?
Me: Not yet, are you coming?
Dink: Yeah, I told you I would.
Me: Yeah, but I know you had to find someone to volunteer for you at Black Warrior 50k so I wasn't sure.
Dink: It's taken care of.
Me: You registered for the race yet?
Dink: Registered? I'm not running. I'm coming to crew for you.
Me: What? Are you serious? When I asked if you wanted to come, I expected you would race as well.
So let me get this straight. Dink Taylor, the man who set the course record at the Sylamore 50k 11 years ago, was going to spend a weekend away from his family, drive 8 hours to the middle of nowhere Arkansas, solely for the purpose of crewing for a guy that was trying to break his course record and pocket the $2000 prize for doing so. Yeah, he's just that kinda guy.
The conversation really started over a year ago. Dink told me about his 3:40:37 course record at Sylamore that he ran in 2000. Now the race director was putting up $2000 for someone who could break that mark. Dink figured somebody would eventually break the record, so why not have it be me? At least that's the story I heard. I was running pretty well last year, coming off a 2:26 marathon at Rocket City and building my 50k trail resume, so I thought sure, I'd give it a shot. Dink really talked the course down as well. He made it seem as if it would be no problem for me. When I thought about Dink's 2:40 road marathon PR compared to my 2:26, I figured that even on a tough course I'd have enough speed cushion to break his mark.
I was wrong. I ran 3:48 last year after being reduced to walking a substantial portion of the last 6 miles. Even though I still was able to win the race, I was demoralized. I still feel today like I was capable of running faster than his mark last year, but I just made several errors that ultimately led to my implosion.
The day before last year's race, I ran to the infamous creek crossing just a mile into the race. I crossed the creek to check out the trail on the other side and quickly realized that this was anything but the easy course that Dink and the pictures on the race website made it out to be. This year I knew what I was getting into.
After moving to Cincinnati last summer, I didn't really plan on racing Sylamore in 2011 just for logistical reasons. But the race haunted me. And the closer we got to 2011 the more I started to think about it. It wasn't really about the money or the course record anymore. It was more me vs Sylamore. It defeated me last year, and I wanted my revenge. With some new-found confidence from my great race a Mtn Mist a few weeks ago, it was decided. I was ready to battle.
I wish I had an interesting story about the actual race itself to share - but I really don't. I took the lead after watching eventual 2nd place finisher Ben Creehan end up in the creek with water up to his neck. I hit the trail and never looked back. The first 6 mile section is surprisingly technical. It's just too rocky to go very fast. The next five miles is more runable but there's also a decent amount of climb to make things tough. It's an out-and-back style course and I hit the turnaround in 1:48. Pretty close to what I did last year and two minutes under CR pace. But what I did next was very different than last year. As opposed to trying to bury my competition at mile 16, I was patient and focused on running relaxed. Pretty soon I started encountering the other runners on their way to the turnaround point. They all seemed to know that I was chasing the course record and virtually everyone shouted words of encouragement. At the next aid station my split indicated that I was another minute ahead of CR pace. If it ain't broke don't fix it. So I kept running relaxed and tried not to push. I started encountering more groups of runners now and most of them were very considerate and moved aside to let me pass. I only ran into one girl. She stepped out of line suddenly to pass some folks and I was coming quick in the other lane. I caught her shoulder pretty good, but I don't think she fell down. Sorry about that and I hope you're ok.
Despite my efforts to run relaxed, passing people and hearing more words of encouragement caused me to continue easing down on the accelerator. Soon, I was passing participants in the 25k race that started an hour after the 50k. I don't care if you're passing people running 12 min pace in a completely different race, it's a mental boost to pass someone. Well, at least this year it was. Last year these people were annoying obstacles. This year they were cheering fans. It's amazing what a powerful effect your mindset has on your physical performance.
I cleared the final aid station confident that I'd be able to hold it together. In 2010, right on CR pace at this point, I made the fatal error of skipping the last aid station. My water bottle nearly empty, body dehydrated and my legs out of fuel, I quickly bonked and struggled through the last 6 miles. This year, I got my pacing right. I got my nutrition right. The trail was uncharacteristically dry and fast. The weather was nothing to complain about. It all came together. With a little more than a mile to go, I crashed back into the creek crossing like I was sprinting from the beach into the ocean. A group of spectators cheered as I ran through the water and exited on the far bank. I killed the last bit of dirt and paved roads to the finish. 3:31:44. A sub 1:44 return trip negative split.
It wasn't magical like Mtn Mist 3 weeks ago. Despite my efforts to run controlled for most of the race, it hurt. That course is tough. I requires a unique combination of speed for the flat sections, strength for the numerous climbs and the ability to run technical trails very well. It just never quits. It doesn't have the show-stopping climbs of the Mist or the brief sections of extremely technical trail, so you have to be able to run everything - and fast if you want the course record. I realize Garmin's don't do elevation very well, but mine recorded 4,500' of climb - 1,000' more than Mtn Mist.
When people look at Dink's 3:40 from 11 years ago, they usually overlook what he did immediately following that race. The May 2000 issue of UltraRunning magazine reported:
Of course, Dink didn't tell me about his unbelievable hot streak until after the race last year. Dink considers that string of races some of the strongest racing of his career.
I am hugely in debt to Dink for unselfishly suggesting the race and then coming out and crewing for me this year. That was a crucial piece of the puzzle that I missed last year and allowed me to get my nutrition without stopping at the aid stations.
Yeah, he's just that kinda guy. But you probably knew that already.
I always like to reflect on lessons learned after my races. Sitting in O'Hare airport at 9pm Sunday night, with terrible weather in Chicago, waiting for my delayed flight and looking at a 1AM arrival into Cincinnati, the biggest lesson I learned this weekend was this: Don't wait too long to purchase your airline tickets and, if possible, get a direct flight. I failed miserably on both accounts this trip. I made it home at 3AM - 12 hours after Dink dropped me off at the Memphis airport.
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