Annihilator 50K: An honest effort

This summer has proven to be eventful. June kicked off with a mission trip in Haiti and onward to spending the rest of June with eMi in Calgary, AB. I even had a taste of Big Horn, which resulted in agonizing headache and a DNF. July was marked with adjusting back to normal, but pierced with excitements like the Grandfather Mountain marathon and family visiting & a road trip. Comes August, the first event was the Annihilator 50K at South Mountain.

The Annihilator 50K was put on by Mark Connolly and Tim Woden from Bigfoot Trail Runners. On its Facebook event site, there's only one description: "If quads could cry this course will draw many tears." The race boasts its 9000+' gain and equal amount of loss, plus the heat and humidity of Carolina summer. Despite knowing how hard it was going to be, I was looking forward to a day - like an eight-hour work day - in the woods and mountains. The past two months of travelling and extroverted activities had their toll on me and I craved for a prolonged solitude. Not much of a racer, I set my two goals of this race to be (1) to put in an honest effort; (2) to enjoy solitude and find company in God alone.

In an overcast and muggy morning and at the sound of an air horn which caught me off guard, we were off. I was happy to find myself in the middle of the crowd because I didn't want to be sucked/tempted into a faster pace. The climb started right away and as people passed me by, I reminded myself that I wanted to "put in an honest effort," not "run the race faster than the next person," or "run at other people's paces." Around two miles in, the race crowd had thinned out where only one or two runners were in sight.

The course is carefully designed to feature the most elevation gain, as well as the beauty of trails and the park. It's divided into five sections: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, and Echo. Each section, except for Bravo, is about 5-6 miles. According to Mark, Bravo, which is a 8.47-mile stretch, will "make or break your race." That section alone has 3000' gain. While a lot of the race is on horse trails, there are also some technical downhill sections that I'm not skilled at. I leap-frogged Carin, the eventual 3rd place female, and Paul Geist from Charlotte, getting passed by them as they fly down the steep and technical downhill and catching up to them at the climbs. The diversity of trails and terrain is another reason to love this race. More than speed alone, it tests your various skills as a runner.

I kept a decent running effort through the first two sections, but my legs started to hurt after a long, steep downhill during the second half of Bravo. I slowed down a little running down in hopes of saving my legs. As I looked at my watch to see 15.xx miles, I knew it was going to hurt for the rest of the race. "An honest effort," I repeated to myself. I could be slow as a snail and crawl as needed, as long as it was an honest effort where I gave what I could/should, that'd be fine.

Leaving the Bravo aid station, section Charlie began with trails and rock formations that led to sets of stairs up a waterfall. To focus on the positive, the sight and sound were unmatched by other trails (so was the difficulty). It was also later in this section where I caught glimpses of big blue sky and mountain ranges, which gave me a boost of energy and steered my focus away from pain. The Raven Rock aid station marked the 21 mile point of the race, and RD Tim was there waiting for us. He told me Val, the first female, was not too far ahead. "Blah blah blah," I plugged my ear as I laughed, "I don't want to know!"

The fourth section, Delta, started with a mile of road. It must be around noon at that point and the heat was building up. I kept wishing for the orange survey flags that would direct us back to the trail. Unlike other sections, Delta has a couple miles of downhill. It could deceitfully sound like a relief, but I knew I'd be in a world of hurt. All adventure has ups and downs, right? As I stiffen up and as pain increased, I was reminded not to lose sight of the beauty and joy while in trials.

"Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing." (James 1:2-4)

At the end of Saddleback trail was a sign that directed us to the Equestrian Aid Station. It's a 0.3 mile stretch to which we'd return as we began the final section, Echo. I was expecting to see Carin here after that long stretch of downhill; to my surprise, I didn't. Six miles, six miles to go in the race. Oh, and two more climbs, as the nice lady at the aid station pointed out. If holding myself to an honest effort pulled me back from running too fast in the beginning, the same promise had kept me running - not walking - at the end. Up to this point, I had been enjoying the race, though my body had been begging me to stop since mile 20. I found out later that the original course design capped the elevation gain at 7500'. Mark, somehow, managed to squeeze in another huge climb which added the gain to 9000'. I felt every 1500' of it. At the final minutes of my suffering, no sight was sweeter than the sign that pointed to "Finish. 1 mile." I reached the end of the trail (which, of course, was an ankle-twisting, rocky, rooty, and slippery final mile), ran across the parking lot, touched Knobby, and concluded the most difficult 50k...yet.

My finish time was 6:21. Val finished 13 minutes ahead of me - there's no way I could catch her even if I tried. Thank you Mark and Tim for putting on such a wonderful race. And Brandon Thrower who helped designed the course and volunteered race day. Thank you, Anji, fellow runner and carpool buddy who shared this experience with me. This is a race that will not only inspire you to become a better runner, but a better person. And I'm truly thankful for that.

** All photos of trails belong to Bigfoot Trail Runners. The last photo of Carin and I belongs to Chad Randolph.

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