I would start in a rainy downpour, I would finish in a thunderstorm…but I finished.
We arrived at Wintergreen resort in the dark early morning and I couldn’t make out the mountains just yet. I could tell this was going to be a long day of climbing and descending judging by the steep drive up to the resort. The only strategy I had going in to this was: Treat this as 2 long runs of 20 miles, then…go for broke on the last 10. Spend as little time in the aid stations as possible; “Grab and go” strategy. This officially marked the start of my race season and I was determined to make it a positive one.
Gil and Francesca(Race Directors) sent us off on our way a little later than 7:30 in what was only the start of heavy rain that would last all morning. My spirits were high and I felt like all the training so far had been on point, including a preview of the second 20 mile section with the race directors a few weeks prior. My first miles included a 1 mile out and back down a road with a slight grade which I decided to run at a slow pace instead of walk. The next few miles of road until we reached the first aid stations were spent getting a comfortable breathing pattern and good pace, and enjoying the gloomy but beautiful Blue Ridge parkway. After having gone over last years mistakes and lessons learned, I opened my bottles quickly, refilled and off I was thinking of myself as a race car going thru the pit stops(I swear I don’t watch that much Formula 1 or NASCAR). Finally hit the trail head…this is when a big smile came out. Our first real climb of the day was to the top of a ridge line and this can be a blessing or treacherous depending on how you land or how well you manage the loose rocky trail. An interesting conversation I had with our friend Tom(also ran this race) was how your body immediately shifts it’s weight to opposite side when it feels your ankle give out…this is crucial to surviving a race like this, body awareness/foot landing x 100. I felt good for this first half, a lot of the course looked familiar from last year and I kicked up my speed a notch as I let my legs get taken by the pull of downhill momentum. I hit Turkey Pen and briefly stopped to look at my watch to see that I was making great time and still no aches or signs of burning out. In Ultras you’ll often hear “If you got it, go for it”; being on a high note becomes more scarce as the miles go by so I went for it. Following another out and back on fire road, I hit Turkey Pen again and ran in to Jen and Don who were in good spirits but complaining about their GPS watches being off. Little did I know that this would become a topic of discussion and disgruntlement for many runners later in the race, the course ended up being 3.6 miles longer with an average of most runners reading 53.8 miles at the end, weird coincidental glitch? or longer course than posted? …either way I was thankful I just wore my Suunto on timer and gazed at it from time to time to make sure I was making cut-offs. This next section of the course is a ever slightly rising valley to which you end up on the infamous Bald Mountain switch backs. Feeling 110% more mentally and physically prepared than last year, I attacked it with confidence and hunger to conquer it instead of the brutal beat down I received last year. The valley was also a flashback of how badly I bonked in this section, unable to eat or drink anything, reduced my slow running to nothing more than a lazy zombie-like walking pace and missing a cut off by 3 minutes in my 1st attempt at Bel Monte 50. I power hiked the whole thing, Tom caught up to me half way up and we exchanged words of encouragement “Looking great man!”, “You look strong, nice work”. Bald Mountain aid station at the top of the mountain was such a beautiful sight, I immediately felt a boost of confidence and motivation as I knew what the next 20 miles looked like. A quick change of socks, half a sandwich, refilled bottles and off I happily marched to a 5 mile down hill section. I have to say; I’m a bit of a downhill freak, read as anything “Quad-centric” is game for these thunder thighs. Some people are extremely good climbers a.k.a. they run or walk as fast as their flat speed, some people are really good flat section runners and make up tons of time there, but I’m of the “let go of the brakes, loosen arms, and fly down the mountain” crowd. I must admit it probably looks like the worst train wreck is unfolding under your eyes as I pick up speed and take quick short uncontrolled steps gaining speed but I assure you it’s the fastest way down the mountain 😉
At the bottom, Mile 25…halfway done! It was actually quite funny to hear one of the guys come in behind and comment on how he had no idea if a mountain biker or runner had just passed him. I met Tom again at this aid station, we fist bumped and off he went. I refilled my bottles, gave some insight as to what the course would look like up ahead to a few fellow racers and off we went down a 3 mile jeep road(p.s. I hate roads and flat sections, you can view my excitement in this video: Courtesy of Bad to the Bone media). The next section back onto the trails was a mostly uphill but “runnable” 8 mile section. Thanks to Francesca for pushing me to keep running on the training run, I had a well planned game plan for attacking this section. I can proudly say I ran about 80% of this portion after having run 28.9 miles, so I felt pretty happy. One glance at my watch as I came in to Bald Mountain
resort aid station for the last time after this “fun” 20 mile loop and I was still very comfortably making good time. At this point in the race the sun had come out and my decision to double up on scoops of Heed (electrolyte drink) was no longer sounding like a great idea…the heat + uber sweet drink = not wanting to eat or drink anymore. No need to panic I thought, I’ve been here before so let’s fix this. Greatest changes from last year? going to real foods versus sugary crap gels, I forced a Hammer bar down and washed it down with H2O + ice cubes, and a gulp of flat coke. The boost of caffeine/whatever-crap-is-in-soda and food was just enough to get me out of Baldy and feeling confident that I had about a hour and a half to do 3.8 miles….
This section I can now gladly say was my only frustration in the whole race. Let’s just say it didn’t start off as good as I’d hoped. I ran right past the trail junction and made it onto a dead end with a beautfiul over look and fire pit…but no orange trail markers…crap! I turned around to see that another runner had followed me, we laughed and back tracked to find that we completely had missed about 4-6 orange flags marking the turn for a trail…oh THAT’S where it was. Onto my 2nd “favorite” part, ridge line running 2.0, did I mention this was the picture I posted on Instagram last year(for those who follow me)? If not, here it is again:
After navigating this, what felt like an eternity, and probably my slowest miles of the race, I finally hit White rock gap aid station mile 40! So stoked that up until then it felt like the day had been flying, I BARELY noticed the miles go by..ha…ha. Ironically, I helped a fellow runner by offering some Tums or suggesting ginger ale for his upset stomach…not even 10 minutes later I ran into the same problem he was going through. From mile 40.9 and on I would not be able to consume any food or liquid until the end. At this point in the race, I regained confidence by devising a plan: I had 2 hours and 30 minutes to run 10 miles, a 4.7 mile section on the parkway until Reeds gap(those familiar with hiking 3 Ridges know this parking lot very well) and a 4.8 mile last (uphill)stretch. I knocked out the road portion in a little over an hour, leaving myself exactly 1hr 26min before the clock struck 13! If anybody remembers the Boy scout motto, “Always prepared”, it’s something I think everyone should live by. I had stashed a Petzl headlamp in my last drop bag and was so glad I did. As night fell and I marched through my last aid station to the finish, I grabbed 3 saltine crackers(hardly a meal for a 195 pound runner haha) and shuffled down a 15% grade road. At this point I dry heaved a couple times, of course nothing came up but it felt great. In comes Matt, I vaguely remember playing a game of “ultra-running tag”(an unofficial game where one passes a fellow runner, only to be passed again miles later, and so on until the finish). Matt was stopped, looking at a sign that read “<= Run, Bike =>”…we were both dumb founded. Tired, not thinking straight we began to search for a trail head without realizing the sign was pointing straight up that nasty road I mentioned at the beginning….you have to be kidding me? is this the “surprise”? We marched on as it got darker and the rain came down harder, except this time it was accompanied by a big lightning storm. My nerdy side told me to look down at the barometer on my watch, yeah…the pressure had dropped drastically, Science is FUN!(except when it’s been coming down on you for 10+ hours). The road finally led us to what would be our final climb through slippery practically invisible rocks, we clicked our lights on and began to climb on tired legs. For some reason this final 2 mile stretch feels like eternity, I remember not being able to see a thing and then lightning would strike so close the whole sky lit up like an illumination flare! There was a older gentleman who was ahead of us but quickly fell back as he had no light, I offered my headlamp, after not accepting it the first time, I later heard him a ways back and yell out “I’ll take you up on that headlamp offer if it still stands”, “of course!” I replied. I placed it lit on a tree trunk and kept climbing on with Matt using the path he was illuminating in front of him to see what would come under my feet. At this point in the race, it’s quite unexplainable, a mix of adrenaline from being so close yet not knowing how far out you are, endorphins, mental tenacity and just blocking out pain receptors, I felt like I was literally floating to the finish. The old man had caught up to us and a friend was waiting for him with a flash light, he kindly returned my head lamp and I parted ways with all of them as I felt a
2nd 4th wind coming on to race and beat the clock, 15 minutes to go and the ski slope(the real surprise) came into sight….of course! why wouldn’t it have snow??? I let me legs loose and ran/slid through packed snow as I heard the familiar cry of “Runners!”. I’ll tell you what; the New Belgium Brewing logo’ed finish line was the warmest sight to see after 12:50:00 of mountain trail running, heavy rain, relentless course. Yet again, another epic adventure. I’ll let this one soak in, but it has only been 2 days and my legs are feeling quite good considering the beating I imposed on them and I’m already thinking of the next episode! Happy Trails everyone, until next time 😉
By the way: The Creedence Clearwater Revival reference was in honor of that particular song coming on at exactly the perfect times I needed a little boost.
“There’s a place up ahead and I’m goin’ just as fast as my feet can fly.”