Sultan 50k

It’s a full two days since the third annual Sultan 50k took place and I am still loafing around on the sofa reticent to move but perversely loving every aching reminder of Saturday’s run through the South Mountains State Park in celebration of Mohammed “Sultan” Idlibi’s birthday. Chasing the kids around and maintaining daily routine has been torture, but I grin stupidly at every recollection of that day’s run, even though it was a test of sheer resolve at the time.

For some reason many runners like to go out and run on their birthdays and my friend Mohammed “Sultan” Idlibi is no exception. An ultrarunner with an appetite for experiencing life’s adventures and living vivaciously on the trails, Mohammed likes to push the boat out and run long, and with panache, on his. The 2011 Sultan 50k was the third running of his celebratory birthday shindig held along 33 miles of hilly trail in the South Mountains State Park, NC. I was beyond excited when I was extended an invitation to join the party and earn the Sultan 50k yellow felt crown provided to participants.

So two days ago, early Saturday morning, with nervous anticipation I drove to the Cracker Barrel meeting point and scanned the surprisingly busy car park for tell tale signs of insanity combined with athleticism. One lone car pulled to the side looked promising and so I sidled up to join him. Bingo! Moments after my engine choked to a halt and started to cool, runner Keith Mrochek was introducing himself to me. Shortly thereafter a small clutch of other Charlotte long distance runners descended and stood shivering in the chill air. Introductions taken care of we reduced the number of vehicles in our party and the diminished convoy continued onwards to the start. While we made a little detour to the trail’s halfway point to drop aid and a car with which those not doing the full 50k could be shuttled back to the start, I was content to sit and eat my Weetabix, watch NC go by, and listen to the others catching up.

We were the first arrivals at Roper Hollow Road but didn’t have to wait long before a caravan of headlamps could be spotted winding their way up the hill to join us in our spot perched at the side of this not oft traveled road. It was quite an amusing and impressive sight. About forty motley runners were soon launching themselves from the cars, preparing themselves for the assault on the South Mountains and proudly donning the unmissable iconic headwear. Each jolly crown came with the stipulation that it must be worn for the duration of the run. Of course, the crown is so awesome that I can’t imagine what would compel anyone to want take it off, but should that happen, if it detaches from the wearer’s bonce, “boner” minutes are incurred and added to your hard won finishing time. You don’t want that.

Jonathan Savage was handing the crowns out to new runners and as I eagerly accepted mine I took my chance to say hi and introduce myself to the local celebrity Englishman runner I am constantly being asked if I know by dint of our shared birth country.

Rule Britannia
Rule Britannia – The three Brits on trail: Jonathan Savage, John Lewis and me.

In previous years Mohammed “Sultan” Idlibi had also thoughtfully bestowed his own prized race bibs from on each gathered runner for use on the 50k. This year however the run had grown beyond his expectation and the bibs were left at home.

Soon enough a race briefing was held, group photo opportunity taken, and a synchronised coyote howl marked the start of the race. The pack charged off up the hill. I lingered towards the back as a herd of jaunty vibrant crowns fled up the road ahead of me.

“Don’t take off running! It’s two immediate miles of grinding uphill. Don’t charge off but instead start with a nice walk and powerhike to the top. You’ll soon be back and catching up with the folks who try to run it”

I was good and followed David Petroski’s sage Sultan trail advice, gained over a pint of Highland Gaelic at the Philosopher’s Stone, religiously. Indeed, I was soon making headway and doing some passing until I found myself running in the company of Sultan himself, Jeff McGonnell and a couple of other blokes who would catch pace then move on or fall back once more. Deciding to stay in sight of someone who knew where he was going and the challenges we were going to face, I eased my race determination a touch and we easily chatted our way along, striding up the hills and letting loose on the flats and downs.

It’s about an eight mile run before we hit the South Mountains State Park proper and the track gave fantastic views out across to snow peaked mountains on our right. I was clueless but Sultan decided that they must be the Black Mountains. It was a really pretty morning with the surrounding vegetation seeming to be in sharp focus and crisp golden shades of washed out tans. A stark contrast to the bleak and soggy grey gloom of an English winter day in the Westcountry.

Concentrating on the ground at my feet I noticed that the gravel track was scattered with shell casings. I inwardly cursed as I realized that although, expecting the possibility of hunters, I’d initially dressed to be colorful in a bright purple top, I’d peeled off the layers within the first mile and was now merrily running along in a camouflage skirt and green top. Oops!

One tree lined hairpin with steep central drops to a valley brought me great joy to run through as once on the far side you could look across to see the line of yellow crowns following us along the trail. That induced energetic glee, as did the moments of crunching our path through the last vestiges of a snowy day up in the mountains.

Snow on the trail

Just the higher parts of the mountain trail were still encrusted with crispy snowfall and I enjoyed carefully picking my way through and appreciating the extra variety Winter provided. Occasionally the trail would get a little more rocky and require more foot co-ordination. I love this extra challenge and found myself almost skipping along hurdling rocks, roots and brush sweeping across the path.

The run was going well. A glance at my Garmin indicated that my goal of a sub 3 hour split was indeed within reach. Sultan had dropped back at this point and the other guys had also thinned out. With renewed confidence I carried on along the trail running solo. With my track record, I should have known better. Pretty soon the front runners appeared head on, Mad A and the Grand Kirk leading the pack. I let out a howl and a cheer, and gave high fives to these speedsters as they came winding along the path on the homeward journey. My excitement mounted as belief that the aid station and awaiting birthday cake was surely imminent became well founded. I’m completely going to lay blame at Jonathan Savage, Keith Mrochek and their running compadres for what then transpired! In the distraction I must have missed a turn somewhere. Joyful emotion soon turned to apprehension as I ran down the trail and came across a river. No one mentioned a river crossing? I wasn’t alone though. I had caught up with another crown topped head and he contradicted that thought. I really need to start believing in myself at times like this! But okay, I hadn’t noticed any alternative route so we pushed on through. My companion gingerly step stoned across while I plunged on into the icy waters and enjoyed the swirling cold refreshment on my toes.

Stepping back onto dry land I was instantly struck by a curious change in my shoes. My New Balance WT101s had hit the chilly water and become rock solid with no give whatsoever! They felt like coffins on my feet. It was interesting. It took a little tender running for the foam to soften and revert back to normal, but otherwise they were great, drying out quickly.

Next came a long ascent up another grueling hill. But this one was the worst as my mind was questioning and my Garmin ticked off more miles than I cared to think about. So close, but where was this aid station? A family ambling up with toddlers in tow and the mother strolling with a baby in a carrier added to the certainty that this must surely be the route to the car park? Actually no. Faced with a choice of direction at the top I fumbled around in my pack to pull out my map and be confronted with the awful truth that somewhere I had gone horribly wrong again. Oh god I wanted to suddenly pee so badly right then. Panic struck I tried to make sense of what was happening as Brandon Thrower and his girlfriend came running up to join the route confusion. They were only running the second half of the 50k, but we conferred and concluded that a wrong turn had been taken by all. Crap! With no graces, and no time to waste I threw myself back down that cursed hill, plunged back through the river crossing and back tracked as fast as I could trying to find true trail. I am such an idiot!

Fellow Englishman, John Lewis found me as I blindly dithered at one possible junction and kindly led me down through the waterfall section of the trail and down to the aid station. I’m sure that waterfall with its frozen tendrils was absolutely amazing but I was still in mental panic.


I’m still smiling, but my brain is going crazy inside! We were actually now running the lollipop part of the course the wrong way and although John was assuring me that all was well I was feeling pretty sick, especially as more and more 50kers passed us on their homeward leg. Mohammed was also on his way back out as we homed in on the aid station and as we had run together for much of the way, he was my primary yardstick for how far behind I had now lagged. Not good!

I hit the 16.5 mile aid station with a split of 3.32 and my Garmin reading 19 miles covered.

I didn’t hang around. Suddenly I was in danger of missing the advised cut off time for getting back off the trails before dark and despite a brief self questioning as to the wiseness of even continuing when surrounded by laid back 25kers, I was determined to complete my run. I slipped my toes out of my soggy socks and into some nice fresh ones and grabbed an egg sandwich and oat bar to eat on the run. A quick dash to the loo, and then it was straight back to it. Thankfully after my bonus double water crossing the change of socks I’d stowed in my drop bag didn’t seem so ridiculous anymore. The headlamp I’d also packed in my cooler would have been really cunning too, if it wasn’t for the fact that after running about a mile or so outbound I hadn’t realized that it was still exactly where I had thoughtfully left it. Wonderful. Mohammed’s warning about taking a headlamp back onto the trail started ringing in my ears and I eyed the setting sun nervously for the rest of the run.

In my panicked haste and determination I also bypassed any of the “boner” and “bonus” minutes frivolity happening at the aid station, and pretty much all that was left of the cake was crumbs.

Naresh the out of stater in VFFs, and Gail Leedy and her dog Sadie, were my companions leaving the aid station. I was eager to get moving quickly again but soon we were slowed by realization that although I thought we headed back out on the correct trail, none of us were totally certain. My map got pulled out again and again. Ascertaining we definitely weren’t on the trail we were supposed to be on, at least we could navigate in the right direction, even if it meant even more bonus mileage. I tried to stay with the others but we kept stretching out along the track and eventually the urge to get back before dark and not keep my ride back to Charlotte waiting any longer than really necessary, beat the voice in my head telling me to stick with company on trail for safety. The next time I found myself dithering and looking back for confirmation of the other two I decided to be brave and keep running solo.

When I pressed on and then caught up with another runner it seemed like a mirage at first. I yelled and hooted and howled up the trail with no reaction from my running friend. Getting closer I realized it was Sultan. He was real and he was totally oblivious, his lugholes blocked with ear buds. I grabbed a stick, intending to sneak up and surprise him with a good prod. Sadly my crowned shadow looming over him was a dead give away and he caught me before I could act. Bummer.

Mohammed "Sultan" Idlibi on the homeward trail

Much of the rest of the trail was spent in Sultan’s company and together we crossed back out of the State Park. With my mind calmer I was back to seriously hiking the climbs and running the rest with enjoyment. Time passed well again. Knowing I was absolutely certainly not lost, and that I would make it off this mountain, I stopped vowing never to run anything with a zero after the 5 ever again. Mentally gaining strength my legs eventually gained pace too and wished Sultan Happy Birthday and waved him adieu, leaving him in peace again.

While climbing up those first hills I’d been looking forward to seeing them again for the downward journey. What was I thinking?! Well, I was remembering the sheer exhilaration of coming down the last leg of Crowders Mountain on the gravel road heading towards the Linwood Access and how awesome I always feel making that descent. This last leg, however, did not pan out like that at all. It was absolutely brutal.

Thirst was also an increasing issue on the return leg. I’d stowed enough water in my hydration bladder for two 16 mile runs. The problem was I hadn’t packed enough for two consecutive 16 mile runs, and a detour or two. I was desperately thirsty and gulping mouthfuls of Nuun through my hydration pack did not slake it one bit. Eventually I found I was sucking air from my tube and starting to inwardly curse again.

The road went on and on and on with no recognizable landmarks or end in sight. Thanks to my earlier extra credit bonus miles my Garmin was of no assistance in gauging how much of the 50k was left. I had no idea how much further the awaiting cars really were. It seemed like an absolute hopeless eternity (probably fairly similar to you reading this blog entry, congratulations on making it this far!) before I started to hear the very welcome sound of voices coming up from below. Brilliant!

I did make it back to the start before nightfall, with a time of 7:30 dead on, and a Garmin reading of 35.14 miles logged. I was absolutely gutted with myself for screwing up the run, but elated at completing the distance despite my failings. It was definitely also a good learning experience as I’ve realised that although I was determined and be stubborn enough to finish the distance (plus some! ha!), I did lack the drive to keep the bar high for myself while regaining my ground. I got the run done, but went into minimal mode, lowered my self expectations and stopped trusting myself. I know I can do better than that.

Elevation ProfileGarmin says “Elevation Gain: 9,304 ft \ Elevation Loss: 9,291 ft”

Route map.

The remaining waiting runners called for some gymnastic celebration so I happily obliged with some arab springs. Invigorated by finding the finish, I felt like I could just keep on running, and was immediately plotting what my next ultra adventure will be.

My Sultan 50k crown is absolutely my most treasured run memento thus far. It’s totally worthy of a trophy cabinet. If I had one!

My official finishing time, taking into account boner and bonus minutes (of which I have no idea how I accrued any of either) was 7:10. [ * List of Finishers * ]

Mohammed “Sultan” Idlibi, thankyou so very much for letting me join in the fun.

Big thanks also to the crew manning the volunteer aid station. Your support on this run was very much appreciated.

(Additional photos stolen from John Lewis and Charlie Roberts, thanks fellas.)

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