Saturday, April 11, 2009

Race Report: SEAL Extreme Challenge

Cosby, TN


Well, I finally joined the Georgia Ultramarathon and Trailrunning Society (GUTS) and this is my first race report as a member. My Step-Son Tommy needed track shoes, so his mother took him to BPRC in Kennesaw where he gets very interested in running the SEAL Extreme challenge. The race is on his birthday (14 years old!), so hey, why not. Tommy talks his brother (Zachary, 16) and I into running it as well.
We checked it out on line and there is a 2.2k and a 5.6k. Neither of the boys had run a trail run and they saw the “Extreme” mentioned explicitly in the name, so they want to run the shorter race. I fall in line and don't make a fuss. I mailed in the forms and sent along a note that if the race fills up, please let us know since we are coming from a distance. I get an email back and it is all set.
So we leave Cartersville on Friday after school (and work). It is about 3 hours 25 minutes to Newport, TN. We opted for a hotel with the intention of camping in Cataloochee the following night. The next morning we eat, pack into the family truckster and head for the race which was not far.
Now you all probably know east Tennessee pretty well. You have the Appalachians, the ridges and the narrow valleys between. The race start was set up in one of these narrow valleys, apparently on the Race Director's own land. We get a sign of what is in store when the minivan will not climb to the parking lot and we have to invent a parking spot. Even the valley was not level.
We sign in, put on our war faces and get ready. The race director (RD) called everyone together for the pre-race briefing and went to great lengths to explain how much time and effort he had put into marking to course. Whenever someone tells me that you cannot mess this up, I see little red flags. Of course, I have been spoiled by the Twisted Ankle half, MMM half and Red Top Rumble which are marked very well. So the RD assures us that there are medical folks nearby and that course marshals will keep an eye on us as well. We get called to the start line and it is then that I notice the only people running the 2.2k are little kids (except for my two teenagers and me). I asked the RD is that was really it and he assured me that it was. Not an 'extreme' level of intensity in this group! The race starts and we bolt down the valley and immediately are corralled into a four-wheeler trail. Zach is first, I am second and Tommy is pulling up the rear. All our competitors are close behind.
A little background. Zach plays soccer. They run him up and down the field (a very level field) five days a week. Tommy wrestled in the winter and thinks he is officially a bad a$$. There have been intense err...conversations between the two to see who is faster/stronger. To them this race is a big grudge match. I have been running regularly for about five years and mix and match roads with trails (plus a little cycling).
We hit the first climb and start to bunch up again. The climb leads us to the entrance where we drove in. There are no markings, so I opt to turn right and head for the last place I saw a person. We get to blacktop and stop, no marshal, no markings. I hold up and tell the boys we went the wrong way. As we start back, the rest of the field has followed us and are now heading wrong too. We get back to the entrance just as the RD shows up on a four wheeler and starts to apologize. I start asking which way (maybe a little rudely) and he points us on our way. We turned of the road and start to follow a path down. We had been promised a pond and there it was. Zachary had pulled away again and never wavered. He plunged straight into the water. The photographer was standing there and I knew Zach would be the poster child for next year's race. This was my thought as I gingerly by-passed the cold water and jumped the feeder creek. Tommy saw my move and followed suit. Did I mention the water was cold? (We later found out that we caught the photographer before he was ready and had not taken a single shot) After the pond, there were three or four small bridges over a creek, but eventually, you had no choice but to get in the creek itself. Since we were the first to go through the mud, it had not gotten sloppy but I was sure it would get worse after every runner. The course jumped out of the creek and turned in on another small valley. This is where the obstacles had been set up. There were walls that got progressively taller, multiple rope bridges, hurdles and wooden balance beams. Zachary was in front of me and Tommy was just far enough behind that I had to wait for a couple of counts before he came into view. The obstacles were not that tough and if you by-passed them (I did them all) there was no one penalizing you. After this followed a tough climb, but short, that took you to the top of a ridge. The ridge had been taped off so you had to run around the edge of the ridge to get to the next trail down. This became a recurring theme (more on this later) but I think the RD was really pushed to get the distances with the space he had. After a little more down, there was another climb that took you back to the valley where the start. One last climb and you dropped into the valley with a clear shot at the finish line. Zachary had pulled way ahead and I had slowed my pace to let Tommy catch up. I wasn't in the race for me, I wanted him to

finish and do well. So at the end it was Zachary, Tommy and next me. The other kids did very well too. It was a tough course and all of them finished the race. Hats off to them as well.
My wife congratulated the boys and told them she was proud of them. They were smiling but both had put in a serious effort and it showed on their faces. My wife took one look at me and said, “I guess you are warmed up for the next race now!” My own wife was telling me that I needed to HTFU!
Well, the second race was a much more serious crowd. The race supports the local High School football team and there were a lot of high school kids in the race. Many of these kids were telling each other just who would be greeting who at the finish line. Of course there were a bunch of guys who wanted to be in anything associated with SEALs too. Much more serious crowd that earlier.
The course re-used parts from the 2.2.k but added in two big climbs that really ended up being one big climb (500+ feet). The good news was that it was right at the beginning and you did not have to wonder when it was going to happen. The bad news was that you went right back down the other side. I try to go downhill as fast as I can, but this downhill was purely survival mode.
The big climb at the beginning really stretched out the field. The race included teams and I passed some guys standing looking back with hands on their hips waiting on team mates. The soil was loose and sandy and some of the racers were clambering up using their hands. The downhill was the same soil.
The obstacles were the same as earlier, but a little less fun the second time. I guess the novelty had worn off. I also realized on the way over one of the walls that this was a great way to really damage some of the more sensitive areas. Fortunately, I managed to avoid this part of the challenge. As earlier, I did all of the obstacles and skipped the pond.
The small bridges leading to the creek bed was next. The creek had gotten nice and sloppy with all of the runners. For this race, the course turned the other way and led into a feeder creek that went into a blind ravine. The feeder creek had no mud and had a slight flow. You had no choice but to use your hands as it got steeper. When the creek ended, there was a rope. Each racer had to pull them selves up to the top of the ridge. There were about three marshals at the top with concerned looks as each racer approached.
Once back on the ridge top, the course followed the ups and downs of the ridge and went past a few houses. At one point you followed yellow caution tape down to the end of a ridge and turned and came back on the other side of the same tape. Again, making the most of the space. At the end of this, you were by the race marshals watching the runners come up the rope and you turned and did another short tough climb. Next was down a dusty road that was a little loose and steep for my taste. Two more climbs (the last being the worst) and you suddenly dropped in on the finish line!!
After the last racers came in, the awards kicked off. The RD was awarded a plaque by the local National Guard NCO for putting on the SEAL challenge. The RD was caught off guard and got a little emotional. Zach and Tommy shifted from one leg to the other as they watched. They were both excited and nervous. The RD composed himself and announced that he had decided that the there would only be 2.2k awards for the twelve and under kids. Whoa! We all looked at each other in shock. I looked later and the website had stated standard age groups...ouch, I hated it for Tommy on his birthday. The RD went on and gave awards to the younger kids (like I said, they all did great). All I could do was apologize to the boys. To add that touch of irony, I won my age group in the 5.6k...first time ever...
I help put on a local charity race and we go to great pains to deliver what we promise. If the RD had given us any reason to encourage the boys to the longer race, we would have done it. Truthfully, neither boy was ready for the long race. Anyway, I don't really understand why the RD changed the plan on the 2.2k awards. Underpromise and overdeliver are much easier to explain.
So anyway, would I recommend it? Well, the distance is short for most GUTS members. Most 5k runners would not be ready for this race. So, take it for what you see. Truthfully, any excuse to go to the Smokies goes over well at my house. Are there better races closer to home? Probably. I will say that I am more sore than after RTR (11.5 miles) or Mystery Mountain Half Marathon. I guess I got my money's worth.

John Cremers

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