Monday, October 6, 2014

Arkansas Traveller 100 - October 4-5, 2014

100 Mile finish number 15 is in the books.  I completed the AT100 in 21:43:13, good enough for 10th place out of 106 finishers (and I am guessing 145 starters).    With 9 FURs (Florida Ultrarunners) toeing the line, we had a great time as a group. 

I love the number 10.  Having made a career in finance, I live in a "base-10" world every day.  Four years ago, I got married on 10-10-10.  The week before the wedding, I ran the AT100 as my bachelor party and had a blast with Andy Mathews, Andrea Risi & June Leland.  Going back this year, I had a lot of fond memories from the previous trip, including stopping at this cross street on the way to the race site.  I am not a believer in numerology, but enjoy any time I can work "10" into the conversation.

I did not feel well prepared for this race.  Following Western States in June, I had a summer of leisure where I put on 15 lbs. and lost the best of my conditioning.  I trained decently the month leading up to the race, but did not go in with high expectations.  My Good/Better/Best goals for this race were Finish/Sub 24 hours/Sub 22 hours.  I knew I would need a near perfect day to challenge 22, and 24 would take some real work.  I thought about starting slow, but instead committed to pacing Luis Barrios through the first 20 or so miles.  Luis came to Arkansas in tremendous shape and was poised to post a great time if his stomach held out, and he didn't fall prone to a jack-rabbit start.

The weather forecast couldn't have been much better.  45 degrees at the start, sunny and 70 in the afternoon, dropping back into the 40s the following night.  The FURs were generally jubilant to run in these conditions after a summer of training in Florida's heat and humidity.

Luis and I planned to hold to a 12-13 minute pace through those first 20 miles, and we stayed very close to that throughout.   We came though the first crewed aid station at Lake Sylvia (mile 16.4) in good spirits and on track.  As usual, George Buffington was doing an amazing job of coordinating support for multiple runners along with Eric Shelton, Dave Bracken & Vinnie who were awaiting their chance to pace Andy Mathews and Patrick Bene later.   Luis and I finally separated around mile 24.  Not because I slowed down, my pace stayed right about the same.  Luis just sped up, and looked good doing it.  I assumed that would be the last I saw of him other than the turnaround.  

I passed the 25 mile marker in 5:01 and knew I was going a little too fast.  I put my headphones on, slowed the pace just slightly and just tried to stay steadily going forward.  I ran the next 60 miles largely  alone and had very few conversations.  I did exchange pleasantries with a couple of young guys who kept passing me on downhills, and I would catch them on uphills or at aid stations where I did not dawdle.  At the second crewed aid station, Lake Winona (mile 31.9), Dave told me that all the other FURs looked good, and Luis had pulled a good 15 minutes ahead of me.  He had much the same feedback at Powerline (mile 48.0).   I completed the second 25 mile section in 5:17, just about the slow down I had anticipated.

I looked forward to approaching the turnaround (mile 57.9) because I knew I would get to see all the leaders on the way out, and then see my friends on the way back in.  But I was shocked when I saw the leader come through 18 miles ahead of me on his way to a 15:59 finish.  I saw Luis near the base of the hill approaching the turnaround and knew he was still about 15 minutes ahead of me.  I made the turn knowing I was in 27th place (my unofficial count).   I made it a goal to make it into the top 20 by the end of the race and resolved to hold pace as best I could.  Coming back the other way, I saw in quick succession all of the FURs, all looking on track to finish.  Not that Patrick and I are ever competitive with each other (that is a straight lie), but when I saw I had a 45 minute lead on him at the turn, that became a second goal.  I knew he has the running talent to catch me, but I was not going to make it easy.

When I came through Powerline the second time (mile 67.9), George & Vinnie told me Luis had just left and I was closing the gap.  I charged towards Smith Mountain with renewed energy, but was soon frustrated with the choppy footing on the jeep road up there.  By the time I came down off the mountain I figured I had bled too much time to hit 22 hours overall.  I finished the third 25 mile section in 5:39, against a goal of 5:30.  On tiring legs, I just did not see holding on for a 22 hour finish.  I had not run anything longer than 34 miles since Western States, I knew the last quarter of the race would be a real challenge. 

I saw Luis for the first time as I came into the Pigtrail aid station at mile 79.7, but he took off quickly.  I saw him again at Lake Winona (mile 83.9) and we began to run together again here.  Kind of.   Any time I got shoulder to shoulder with Luis, he would accelerate and pull 10-50 yards ahead of me.  I would catch him as I trotted and he walked the next uphill, and as soon as I pulled abreast, he would pull away again.   I was working harder than I wanted to, but I realized we were both benefitting from the back and forth flow of our running so I kept pushing him.  Finally, Luis's stomach gave up on him and he pulled back a little just shy of mile 90.   Food had started looking and tasting bad to me as well, and I only took in 2 gels over the final 12 miles.  I was fortunate to finish before completely bonking.

Once Luis was behind me, I started talking to myself.  22 hours was still within reach if I could stay steady.  But I didn't stay steady, I actually picked up the pace.  I caught the two young guys on an uphill for about the 5th time, and this time pulled ahead to stay.   I knew they were waiting for the next downhill to catch me again, so when I crested the hill, I ran down as hard and as fast as my quads would allow.  I was still 8 miles from the finish, but decided to empty the tank now and see what happened.  I came to the last aid station, Pumpkin Patch (mile 93.7) feeling great about how I was running.  A volunteer reminded me the next 4.5 miles was choppy jeep road, downhill at first and then uphill the second half.  I decided I would continue to run the downhill as hard as I could and then walk some of the uphill if I had to.  

The mind does funny tricks late in race when it is exhausted.  My head was lost in the music as I tried to pound every step harder than the one before.  I had no thought other than FASTER.  I didn't care of I collapsed 2 miles from the finish, I just wanted to see how far I could run this hard.  Suddenly I looked up and realized I was at the top of the hill and onto the final downhill stretch, 2.4 miles from the finish.  So I ran harder still.  This was another one of those precious moments that only comes every so often when running and I was making everything I could of it.  I caught another runner as I stomped down the hill, and quickly pulled away from him.  With 0.5 miles to go, I saw the headlights of another runner and his pacer just ahead.  He was limping and walking slowly as I went by.   But I didn't let up then either, I ran all the way through to the finish.

21:43:13.  I ran the final 25.3 miles in 5:46, far stronger than I should have given my lack of training.  When the RD told me I had finished in 10th place, I was shocked.   I summoned my full vocabulary and exclaimed, "Holy Shit!"  I had moved from 27th place to 10th pace over the final 42 miles.   Another top 10 finish in an ultra, my 24th overall (it helps to enter smaller races).  I was (and am) elated.  I love the number 10.  It has been and always will be my friend.

Luis came in just a few minutes behind me, and the rest of the FURS came in over the next few hours, Sean Connolly, first-timer Danielle Zemola, Andy & Patrick together, Tim and Stephanie just a bit later.   We had a 100% finishing rate for Floridians where the overall race had at least a 30% drop rate.  We finished 4th in the team competition, our best showing yet.  I won't gush about it here, but having that large a Florida crew together (13 of us including crew and pacers), really made this a lot of fun.  There is definitely something to be said for getting a large contingent of us to a destination race.

I entered the AT as a chance to go away with a bunch of friends, and as motivation to train in the summer months.  Running 100 miles in crisp, cool weather reminded be of how much more fun this can be when the humiture isn't through the roof.  I am really looking forward to the winter race schedule.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Western States 100, June 28-29, 2014

26 hours, 38 minutes, 44 seconds.  I finished.  With a time nearly 5 hours worse than my "best" goal, and almost 3 away from silver buckle pace, I would normally be crushed. But I am strangely elated and satisfied with this time because I FINISHED!  And how I did it.  I am going to stay away from a blow by blow account of the course and my progression through the race.  Hundreds of people have written detailed reports on running WS100, I don't need to rehash all that here.  But I do want to touch on a number of vignettes from within the race.


 OK, so you can believe the hype.  Squaw Valley and everything in and around it is a beautiful as they say.  Patrick, Andy and I stayed in Scott's wonderful house, we had our own suite in the basement from which to launch our running endeavor.  
The entire 1960 Winter Olympics took place here and the residual facilities are still self evident.  The valley is beautiful with mountains and ski lifts rising on all sides.  The village has several good restaurants and bars which we took advantage of.
The pre-race organization is immense.   There were various race-related events and meetings scheduled all day Wednesday, Thursday & Friday.  The three of us submitted to EKG exams on Thursday, I wore a heart monitor during the race (it fell off after 20 miles) and I had another EKG within minutes of finishing the race as part of running research WS supports.  Friday, they crowded over 1,000 runners and crew into a conference room for instructions, discussions on trail maintenance after last year's huge fire, and to introduce the pre-race favorites.  As they brought the top 10 men to the front, Andy leaned into me and whispered, "You are going to beat at least one of these guys."  I gave him a quizzical look and he went on, "At least one of them will race hard and drop, you will beat that one."  We chuckled over that together.  I laughed again two days later when he told me the legendary Karl Metzler was a DNF, and I had indeed finished ahead of one of the favorites, and in the case of Karl, one of the greatest ultrarunners ever.

Maybe the best part of the pre-race routine is just the camaraderie of runner, crew, and pacers during the journey.  For two days, we three joked around, toured the area (Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay in particular are drop dead gorgeous),
 and ate.  And we lounged around.  A lot.  Back home, real life would never allow me that measure of relaxation.  I napped, we watched the World Cup, I napped in the sun, I read everything I could about the area, I watched the race flyover on Google Earth repeatedly, and I squeezed in more nap time.  I did everything I could to remain calm and relaxed.  The closer the race start approached, the more it consumed my thoughts, especially as well wishes came pouring in through Facebook, email & texts.  I was overwhelmed by the volume and was pretty keyed up by Friday night.

 The Race

I felt like I did everything right coming into Western States.  I dieted for months, trying to keep my weight down.  I did plenty of miles of training, but didn't overdo it. I got in my mountain training by spending time at our place in the NC mountains, as well as running the first 65 miles of Cruel Jewel in May.  I did tire pulls, pulling a miserably heavy tire up and over the Gunn Hwy overpass repeatedly every Monday.  Each Wednesday, I went to the gym and did deep squats, calf raises and leg raises for strength.  I did heat training with at least one mid-day run in the sun every week wearing multiple shirts, long sleeves and a thermal cap in 90 degree heat.  My last two 15 milers at Hole In The Fence I wore a long sleeve the whole way round, determined to acclimate to the heat I would face in the canyons. 

The one thing I neglected was altitude training.  I knew the first half of the race was at higher elevations.  But I've run and hiked out west on a number of occasions, never having a breathing issue, even going as high as 13,000 feet.  I knew there was little I could do on the east coast anyway, but in retrospect wished I had worked something out.  Doing 10-15 miles on a training run is much different than racing between 5,000 and 8,500 feet for 38 miles, and then still having a 100K to go once the race dropped below 5,000 feet.  I wasn't 5 minutes into the race before my labored breathing began.  The first 3.5 miles is a 2,500 foot climb to Emmigrant Pass and I struggled the whole way up. 

I spent those first 38 miles just bleeding time against my goal pace.  No matter how hard I pressed, I couldn't keep the pace I needed.  My legs felt strong, on downhills and uphills.  I just couldn't suck in enough oxygen.  I was light headed that entire first 8 hours.  If I ran too fast, I was downright dizzy.  I had trouble remembering things, especially keeping track of salt pills.  Once the race dropped below 5,000 feet just past Dusty Corners, my head cleared up.  But the damage was done, I had built up a big oxygen deficit in my blood stream that would not correct itself without hours, if anot a full day of rest.  Every uphill was agony, my breathing would be out of control within 100 feet of climbing.  I love to climb.  I have taken great pride in building that as a running strength and passing people on uphills.  But it wasn't to be so for WS.  I bent over and kissed my knees about 500 times, losing precious time throughout. The difference between a sub-24 hour silver buckle and 26:38:44 can be explained right there.  I need altitude acclimation before I come back to WS or try a Leadville or Wasatch Front.

Outside of the breathing thing, I had fun!  I was sorely disappointed when I knew sub-24 wasn't going to happen.  Patrick began pacing me from Forresthill and we pushed the pace hard to catch up.  But it only took a few miles for him to see my breathing wasn't going to le tit happen.  I apologized to him and Any repeatedly.   But my head never went south, which has happened in other races.  No temper tantrums, no sour outlook.  I joked at every aid station, and tried to compliment every volunteer I saw all day.  Even when I felt terrible, I tried to smile at everyone around me.  I genuinely enjoyed the experience.  Several of the views  were breathtaking.   The views from the top of Emmigrant Pass and later looking west towards Auburn from the ridgeline just pass Michigan Bluff were spectacular.  Those panoramas alone made the race worth the effort.  And I was very pleased that the heat (we had good weather, it never got super hot) never bothered me, and my legs felt strong all day.

The organization of the race is amazing.  It may be an expensive entry fee, but they spend the money well.  Every aid station was well stocked and well run.  They checked your number coming in and going out of every station (I took great delight in announcing myself as "upside down 69" all day).  I was met by a greeter at every aid station who followed me all the way through making sure I had everything I needed and everything was OK before I left.  There were medical checks and weigh-ins at 8 different aid stations.  But they were never looking to pull you, it was always about making sure you had what you needed to keep going.  They WANTED everyone to finish.  At Rucky Chuck Far when I lingered a few moments too long talking to Andy, the aid station captain came over to say I looked way too good to be sitting and told me get the hell out of his aid station.  Now. 
I did have one really low point at Auburn Lake Trails at mile 85.  I was feeling low on sugar coming into the aid station and told Patrick I needed to sit and eat for a few minutes.  The moment I sat down I began to feel woozy, my head was swimming.  I tried to signal to Patrick I needed extra time without letting the aid station volunteer know I was struggling.  Patrick distracted her and I stuffed my face with chicken soup for 10+ minutes.  200 yards into the woods I had a coughing fit that turned into explosive vomiting.  For the next 60 seconds I convulsed and emptied everything in my stomach.  I looked at Patrick knowing I'd had a nasty little stretch.  The aid station was so close behind us I could still hear it.  Instead, I turned and bolted down the trail.  I ran almost continuously the next 4 miles to Brown's Bar, putting distance between myself and a moment of weakness.  After that, we just progressed steadily towards the finish.

The last few miles were the high point of my running career.  I've boasted recently that I have been lucky enough to win 4 ultra races, two just in the last 6 months.  But this mediocre finish in the middle of the pack beat all of those wins.  I was finishing the Superbowl of ultrarunning.  The only thing that had gone wrong was largely out of my control and I had already reconciled myself to it.  Andy met us at Robie Point and I was finishing the last mile with my best friends flanking me.  I told them I was not going to sprint the finish, but when Placer High School swung into view, I could not help myself.   I hit the track in full stride (or my best fascimile thereof with 100 hard miles already completed) and quickly remembered I couldn't breath at that pace.  But by now, I could hear the announcer calling my name and people beginning to clap, there was no way I could slow down now.  I had tunnel vision coming down the last straightaway and the world was going gray as I crossed the finish line.  I accepted the medal and immediately looked for a chair to recover.

Three days later, I am still euphoric.  I didn't get the coveted silver buckle, but I have worn my bronze buckle everywhere since.  And I will go back.  There are other races to run, other distances to conquer.  But my name will go into the lottery this fall, and every year until I get back in.  I will break 24 hours.


Monday, June 9, 2014

Lake To Ocean 100K - June 7, 2014

I am not an elite ultrarunner (I think by definition, ALL ultrarunners are elite runners).  I've been at races where I was privileged to see Mike Morton and Karl Metzler compete.  I know what super elite looks like and I don't belong in that conversation.  I have running friends who I consider elites; Sung Ho-Choi, Brad Lombardi, Amy Costa, and others.  I am not in that picture either.  But I just won my fourth ultra and am feeling pretty damn good about it.   The first 2 wins were at 50 milers several years ago and under less clear circumstances.  When I won Ancient Oaks last December, I was elated, knowing that was likely the one, only, and last real victory of my running career.  To do it again less than 6 months later has me on Cloud 9.

3 weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending a long weekend with Justin Radley running (and not finishing) the Cruel Jewel 100M.   Justin has an enormous wealth of running information, and one of the dozens of topics he mentioned was he was running the upcoming Lake to Ocean (L2O) 100K that runs on the eponymous trail from the eastern shore of Lake Okeechobee to the Atlantic Ocean at Hobe Sound.   Everything I've done this year has been geared towards toeing the line in Squaw Valley June 28 and being prepared to post a good Western States finish.  Part of that preparation has been heat training to be ready for the canyons out there.  Once per a week, I have been going out at mid-day dressed in multiple layers of long sleeve shirts, jackets and knit hats for a 1-hour run in the full sun.  Sheer misery.  I thought L2O would be a nice test of my heat training, and a good last, long training run before the WS taper begins.  I emailed the race director Jeff Stephens and was fortunate someone else had just dropped out.

This race was special before it ever even started.  This is the inaugural year for the race, which always increases both the novelty and adventure factor as the RD figures out what works and what doesn't.   It was contained to a very small field of 24 runners, over half of whom I know fairly well.  We had a big group dinner in Indiantown the night before the race where the excellent camaraderie of the Florida Ultra Runners was self-evident to the other unfortunates dining around us.  Although several runners were upset when Andy Mathews predicted only 5-8 runners would finish the race.  Saturday morning, it was pretty cool to stand for Jeff's pre-race briefing and know nearly every face around the circle. 

We started off at 6:30 AM and tried to set a reasonable pace from the beginning.  It was already in the high 70s with 97% humidity, my shirt was soaked 2 miles into the race.  Andy (A1), Renee Tavokoli, and I ran together from the beginning; and chatted with a new ultrarunner, Mark Cudak who ran with us for a few miles.  He told us this was his first ultra ever.  I wished him luck even as I privately chuckled that he had picked an awfully difficult race to cut his teeth on.  The course was challenging to follow, we had to pay extreme care to stay on track.  The course is well marked, but being fairly new and little used, there wasn't a starkly defined single track of bare ground to follow for much of the race.  I felt like I was having a good day staying focused on the markings, A1 & Renee let me lead most of this section.


We came into the first aid station 14 miles in, already a little washed out from the heat & humidity.  Because of the length of the leg, I had started the race with a 100 oz Camelbak which I was happy to shed in favor of a cooler Nathan belt for the shorter legs forthcoming.  A1 was a little slow through the aid station and I rushed him out by departing into the woods with Renee.  But after a couple minutes, I held up and waited for him, knowing we wanted to run much if not all of the race together.  I also knew A1 would be a good governor for me, he would not let me over-extend myself just 3 weeks out from WS.  When he caught me, it was clear he was already suffering in the heat.  I suggested salt or sugar, and he broke back down to a walk to eat and drink.  I decided to catch back up to Renee thinking A1 would catch us easy if he was feeling good.

I had my only 2 falls of the race on this next stretch.  It was really getting hot (still only 10AM in the morning) and my head was beginning to swim.  I didn't see a big root, hooked it and went down hard.  I broke the fall with my right hand on the ground, but managed to hit a spiky piece of wood that cut my palm open.   I broke back into a trot, examining my palm for the extent of the injury (minor) and immediately went down again.  Idiot.  I worked hard the next few miles to keep myself in focus.   Renee and I passed Chris Knight somewhere in here (still gassed from Wickham) and trotted into the Grade Road aid station at mile 20.8 with only Christian Stewart and the new guy, Mark ahead of us.  Christian was already having trouble with the heat and took an extended break to cool off (Christian was eventually admitted to the hospital overnight as a precaution, last I heard, he will be fine).   

Renee and I started leg 3 together.  I noted to her we were running second & third in the race and we needed to keep it that way.  By now we were deep into JW Corbett Park and sloshing our way through the swamps.  We trudged through water that varied from ankle-deep to mid thigh.  I never saw any alligators, but heard from others later they did. This part of the park was beautiful with bromeliads growing profusely from the trunks of trees with wildflowers colored lavender and white growing in the more open areas.  Renee vacillated between being between 3 steps and 30 yards behind me.  Somewhere around mile 24 I looked back and she was gone.  I ran the race alone from there.

I came into the third aid station around mile 30 feeling ragged again.  Here there was a 1 mile lollipop loop to be run which led back to the aid station, so I elected to do it first before refueling.  I dropped the belt and ran with a single hand-held feeling much cooler.  Mark Cudak took an extended break here to cool off before his lollipop loop so I was briefly in the lead.  I came back to the aid station and hunkered down for food, fluids, and a shoe change before proceeding.
Jeff set this race up as crewed-only, no aid station support would be provided.  Joining the race late, I did not have a lot of crew options, and was enormously lucky that Susan Anger agreed to crew A1 and I both, in the presumption we would be together or near each other most of the race.  Susan leaves nothing to chance whether coordinating aid stations or crewing individual runners.   Despite us telling her we would bring what we needed, she came prepared with gatorade, water, ice towels, chairs (with an umbrella or something over it), towels, wraps (turkey, avocado & cheese), everything.  Over the course of the race, I used all of it.  She laid ice towels over my shoulders, neck & head as I performed a full sock & shoe change to get the accumulated mud off my feet. 


I saw Mark head out on the next leg as I finished up, he was back in the lead.  But I knew I was leaving the aid station just a few minutes behind him.  I was in full race mode now and badly wanted to catch him.  But every straightaway I came to, he was not in sight.  Which meant he had more than a couple minutes lead on me.  I wanted to press hard, but the heat was really beating me up.  By now the temperature was in the 90s, there were very few clouds, and the trail was wide open.  I was over-cooking like an overdone pot roast.  I finally came out of the woods and headed down the Beeline Highway towards the 4th aid station at roughly mile 37.    

As I approached, I could just make out Mark departing on his next leg.  I was crushed.  I knew this meant he had a solid 10 minutes on me, he had actually widened the gap.   Susan's car was not there.  I knew with A1 lagging back, we had all agreed pre-race she would always wait for the slower runner, the lead runner would have to wait at the next aid station until she got there.  I plopped down on the ground next to the highway in front of Mario's car.  I tore off my race shirt.  Screw it, A1 told me I shouldn't push too hard today.  I'll just wait here until Susan arrives.  The next leg is 11 miles long in the hottest part of the afternoon, I can't go on without my Camelbak anyway.   37 miles and almost 7 hours into it, I was ready to cede the race until fate intervened.

Mario called Susan to see her whereabouts.  As I sat there, defeated, another runner began talking to me.   I had never met him before, he was Rich White from Tacoma, Washington.   He started the race amongst the leaders but made a wrong turn in the first section.  He wound up back at the start line after 28 miles, dehydrated and done.  But rather than pack it in, he stayed to watch the rest of the race.  He asked me what I needed, to which I initially said "Nothing", I was just going to wait for Susan.   But his wife and son filled my water bottles and he opened up his entire running kit for me.  It was like having a running store suddenly appear next to the highway.  By this time Mario had determined A1 had dropped out of the race and Susan was no her way, but 15 minutes out.  Rich's encouragement had been enough to start my engine again. No way was I waiting 15 minutes, I was only 10 minutes back. I took some gel blocks from him and trudged out.

For a few miles I felt fairly foolhardy.  I was attempting to nurse 70 oz of fluid through 2 1/2 hours of running on a day my sweat rate was extraordinarily high.  But I told myself that Mark and the other runners were all experiencing the same conditions.  If they can do it, I can do it.  I managed to run 4-8 minutes at a stretch with only 60-90 second walk breaks to cool down just a little.  There were times I literally felt like I was cooking, and that is when I would walk.  I had been taking Endurolytes every 30 minutes from the start, I accelerated that to 20-25 here.  I rationed water to myself hoping to make it 11 miles without running out. And then fate intervened in my favor again.

A wicked looking south Florida thunderstorm began to move in.  I heard the lightning strikes approaching and actually picked up speed knowing the cooling rain was coming.  I didn't skip a beat when lightning struck 100 yards or so to my left.  Two minutes later, I felt a buzz in the air, and BAM, I watched lightning strike the ground not 100 feet to my right.  I was thrilled, rain was coming.  It started as a drizzle, then steady rain, and then a heavy downpour.  I love running in the rain.  We may not have the thrill of running in the mountains in Florida, but there is a special joy in flying through puddles with lightning striking around you during a summer thunderstorm.   It rained for nearly an hour and I only stopped to walk twice, long enough to grab a salt pill and get it down.  Running through the Loxahatchee Slough was the best I felt the entire race. 

Just as the rain ended, I came out of the woods and up onto a levee.  I looked ahead, and thought I could just make out Mark in the distance as the trail paralleled a canal.  As the rain stopped and the sun returned, it was suddenly like running in a steam room, it got real hot.  I tried to temper my newfound enthusiasm enough to not overheat prematurely.  I soon passed the spot where I had seen Mark, checked my watch, and calculated that  I had closed the gap to 7 minutes.  I used the energy from that knowledge to plow through Riverbend Park, through the underpass on Route 706 and over a couple ladders to the next aid station. 

Susan and A1 were there waiting on me, as were others, including Rich and his family.  So was Mark.  He was seated in a chair, shoes off with his crew treating blisters.  He looked tired and worn out from the heat, but probably no worse than me.  With 15 miles left in the race, I acted better than I felt.   I sat in a chain the shade and chatted with everyone as A1 & Susan shuttled supplies from the nearby car and Rich handed them over.  I had multiple ice towels wrapped around my shoulders, neck & head.  I drank a coconut water and a Starbuck's espresso double-shot (I took in at least 2 small bottles of fluid at every aid station that day).  A1 gave me updates on other runners and basically told me to go finish strong.  I gobbled some more wraps from Susan, put on my Camelbak filled with 100 oz of water and carried another 25 oz of gatorade in a handheld bottle.  The next leg was almost 13 miles and I would need as much as I could carry.

The last long leg of the race goes under I-95 and then through Jonathan Dickinson State Park.  Growing up father north, I think of a park as a nice place with lots of trees.  Not so much in southern Florida.  It was mile after mile of open fields, darting around and over palmetto roots; all the while with the late afternoon sun blazing me from the left.  Every time I thought the trail approached the woods and shade, it would veer back into the open.  It was awesomely cruel.  I ran this section in a really weird state of mind.  On one hand, I knew I was in the lead, I could win the race if I stayed steady, and I kept telling giving myself a pep talk, saying I was a bad ass for getting this far, this fast.   On the other hand, I had seen Mark run earlier, he was much faster than me.  If he even caught sight of me, he would be able to pass me.   Maybe other runners had gotten a second wind and were closing the gap.   Previous failures, not just in running started to creep into my head.  I spent those 3 hours in an odd state of panic; redlining my legs and my head with everything I had left.

Before the race, Jeff had given everyone a laminated half-sheet of paper with detailed instructions on how to navigate certain sections and turns.  I had read it and re-read it throughout the race.  It was an invaluable tool for me, I was never in serious jeopardy of going far off course on a trail had never seen before.  It said at mile 56.5 "You will cross over South Florida's largest ancient sand dunes."   Well that sounded nice.  I've run across sand dunes before.  Running in deep sand is not much fun, it makes your legs work that much harder.  But sand dunes are 50-100 feet across, rarely longer, no big deal.  I hope I don't miss them not paying enough attention.   No such chance.

It was 2.5 miles of sand dunes with climbs and descents of 20-30 feet each.  Jeff told me later there were 14 hills.  I cursed the course on every climb and then pounded down the far side as fast as my feet would move.  At that moment, I hated those dunes with every ounce of my soul and I was not going to let them slow me down.  I wanted to get to the beach before dark.   At the very end, I plowed through some brush and out onto Route 1.  Looking down, I had burrs not just on my socks & shoes, but stuck directly into my leg.   As I crossed Route 1, much to the delight of A1, Susan, and others at the last aid station, I was treated to a drive-by yell of "Get-out of the road mother-f****".  With great joy, I dropped the camelbak for the last time.  A1 picked the burrs off my legs and Susan gave me a fresh hand-held bottle of ice-water.  I learned from them no one was close behind.  I could walk the last 2.5 mile section and win.  But I heard Susan bragging to a passing driver what was going on and I felt compelled to run. 


Once I started running, the pavement felt shockingly good.  I took a couple real short walk breaks but made great time.  Not much can match the sense of elation I felt coming over the drawbridge over the Intercoastal and seeing the beach pavilion came into sight.   Success!  I had envisioned for hours the plunge into the ocean.  I was worried though about sharks in the water at dusk.  I've never been afraid of swimming in the ocean day or night, but wouldn't it be something to get bit after surviving 62 miles and 13+ hours of hell on land that day?  I dropped my water bottle and watch as I approached the beach and headed down the sand as fast as I could still manage. I scanned the beach and saw at least a dozen fishermen setting up to do a little night shark fishing.  With that knowledge I took 3 steps into the water and dove head first before it was 2 feet deep.


Jeff, Rich, Susan & A1 were right there to tell me. Jeff told me I had finished in 13:36, new course-record (a gratuitous bonus of winning the inaugural race).  Mark finished in second in 14:50 a really impressive effort for anyone, much less a first time ultrarunner.  Renee was third overall and first-place female in 15:43, she is scary tough out there.  Only 7 of the 24 starters finished the race under the cutoff of 18 hours (3 more finished after the cutoff).  The post-race beer at the finish was fabulous, and took the last bit of energy I had left.


There are too many friends to thank individually, I've tried to acknowledge the support I got throughout this report.  I will call out Jeff Stephens for putting together an outstanding and challenging race.  I hated the heat, but hope he will have me back.  The sense of openness and being away from civilization on this course is unmatched in Florida races.  Susan Anger's attentiveness and aforethought as crew is unmatched.  I had heard stories, but never seen it this up close and personal.   I will seek her out every time I can.  Andy Mathews I treasure.  I reckon we have run several thousand miles together the last 7 years.  He knows just the right things to say to me at just the right time to keep my head on straight at a race, I will be counting on him in 3 weeks.   As I said in the beginning of this race report, I am not an elite ultrarunner.  But I will savor this feeling for as long as I can.   It is with particular pride that both races I have won recently were overly-hot, sweat-soaked bloodbaths.  It feels good to know I have excelled under ugly conditions.   I may never win again, I didn't expect to after Ancient Oaks and don't expect it will happen again after this.  But I head out to Western States in a couple weeks feeling really good about my preparation. 


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Cruel Jewel 100 - May 16-17, 2014

DNF.  The 3 worst letters in ultrarunning.  Did Not Finish.  Depending on which end of the spectrum I am feeling at the moment I see it as: Did Not have the Fortitude or Did Nothing Foolish. Either way, this race report does not recount an epic journey nor overcoming odds.  I am forcing myself to capture it so I don't forget the mistakes made.

I was extremely fortunate that at the 11th hour, Justin Radley agreed to be my crew and pacer.  For a race of 108 miles that includes 31,000 feet of climbing and 31,000 feet of descent, I needed support. I could spend several paragraphs describing how good he is, but suffice it to say, he was everything I could ask for.   We had a good ride up to Blue Ridge, GA, and everything was good with our race preparations up until the race briefing.  The RD, Willy Syndram noted the Benton Mackaye Trail Association was still not fond of us running on their trail, and close to half this race covers the BMT. 

The local forest ranger came in and said that due to the rain forecast, there was a potential they would divert us off the trail and onto dirt and gravel forest roads after the turnaround point so we did not damage the trail while wet and muddy.  It was clear as he spoke, the BMTA had used their influence to limit our use of the trail.  That meant a 100 mile race instead of 108 miles, and only once through the BMT & Dragon's Spine.  Still a great race, just not as epic as originally planned.  I decided not to fret it and just focus on running the planned course until told otherwise.

I thought I was taking it easy early in the race.  But I kept arriving at the next aid station farther and farther ahead of my planned schedule.  I told myself to hold back, but found myself passing several people on the first long 1,300 foot climb out of the Weaver Creek aid station.  At mile 19.5 I passed through the Stanley Creek aid station and was on pretty flat gravel and paved road for the next 5 miles.  I was sure I was really taking it easy until I heard my Garmin beep and saw that I had done the last mile in 8:51.  What?  I wasn't breathing hard, and barely sweating.   It was coming easy so far, and I was gaining confidence in how the race would turn out.  Too much confidence.

I saw Justin for the first time at mile 25.5 at the Old Dial Road aid station.  He was never hard to find, he had my jeep parked with 10 feet of every aid station.  He told me the bad news here:  the ranger had invoked the rain route, we would not make the full trail return to the start.  My reaction was self evident as I scarfed pizza on my way back out.


I was pretty down the next 2 miles.  Damn it, it wasn't fair.  I wanted the epic 108 mile journey.  But I kept talking to myself and decided to make the best of it.  It was still a gorgeous race, I'd still cover 100 miles, and still have to pass the test of the Dragon once.  And then I made my critical mistake of the race.  The way the ranger had described it, the last 44 miles of the race would be on dirt & gravel forest roads.  That still meant some ups and downs, but none of the wicked climbs and descents of the trail that followed the ridgeline.  I could probably average sub-15 minute miles over the last 44, maybe even approach 12 minute miles.  With an easy second half, why hold back until the turn?  I approached the Dragon's Spine deciding to let it all hang out.
The Dragon's Spine on the Duncan Ridge Trail is 13+ miles of the best trail running I have seen.  The trail largely follows the ridgeline of the mountains.  No switchbacks, just straight up followed by straight down, and repeat.
What a mistake.  I pressed hard up every climb and flew down every descent.  I ran well all the way to White Oak Stomp and mile 48.  Justin said I made it as high as 6th place in the race.  But I had drained the tank dry.  After that, the 700 foot climb over less than a mile to the peak of Coosa Bald left me washed out and I struggled during the long and difficult 2,300 foot descent over the next 3 miles.  By the time I got to the turnaround point at Poor Decisions I was not feeling good.  I sat in a chair inside for close to 20 minutes, chatting with Justin, determined not to stop.  I had to go back out.   Here is where I got my just rewards for the earlier bad decision.  I was not immediately headed onto the forest roads.  No, the next 16 miles would be a return to Fish Gap on the trail including the climb up Coosa Bald and the Dragon's Spine.  Then the last 28 miles would be on forest roads.  Ooph.

As well as I ran the first 48 miles of the race, I performed that badly on the 8 back to White Oak Stomp.  The climb up Coosa Bald was torture.  I stopped every 100 yards or so to kiss my knees and get my breath back.  I really lost my head in here. I stopped taking salt pills, I stopped taking in sugar.  During that 3 hour stretch I took in less than 4 ounces of fluid (compared to 20+ per hour up until then).  I took my headphones off, frustrated I couldn't keep my legs moving in cadence with the music. My last mile took me nearly 34 minutes.  I staggered into White Oak Stomp and told Justin I needed to rest in the warmth of the jeep.  I ate soup.  I ate skittles.  I ate more soup and then more skittles.  But after 90 minutes, I felt no better.

 In the weeks approaching the Cruel Jewel I thought multiple times about dropping to the 50 mile (really 56) distance to ensure I didn't push too hard with just 6 weeks left before Western States.  I may only get into WS once, I made it on a sponsor's exemption; everything I have done with running this year was geared towards a strong WS performance.  I could have death-marched the rest of the Cruel Jewel and finished in 32-35 hours.  But I knew the damage had already been done, and everything I did from here would be at the expense of WS.  No, this was it, I dropped 65 miles (67 on my watch) in.

I've agonized over the decision for several days since, waffling between "good decision" and "no fortitude".  I often tell people, completing a 100 mile race gives me the confidence to push through tough, long days at work, tough days at home.  It is very hard to come to grips with what that means when you can't or don't finish the race.   But just like work, even if I hate the failure, I can learn from it.  I had excellent performances at Pinhoti and then Ancient Oaks because I planned a good race and then stuck with the plan.  Changing plans to be more aggressive early in the race was a foolhardy, and rookie mistake.   Maybe this will be a good thing for me to have fresh in my head going out to WS next month. 

 As for the Cruel Jewel?  I will be back next year and take a run at it again.  Whether we get to run the full course, or the "rain course", it is a wickedly tough test.  I've never seen anything on a race course that compares to the Dragon's Spine.  Right now I am 1-1-0 against the race, I plan to improve that to a winning record in 2015.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Rocky Racoon 2013

My experiences at the Rocky Raccoon 100 this year led me to write a race report much less about the race itself and more about the events around it.

Flash back to circa March 2013.  My good friend and weightlifting buddy, Ken Burnham, approached me about running a half-marathon. His brother-in-law from Atlanta was running the Disney marathon the following January. We hadn't been weightlifting as consistently recently, muscles were quickly turning to fat; this would be a good way to stop that.  I responded with an F-bomb. "Are you crazy? Who wants to run that far? Our weekly 3 mile jogs are plenty to stay in shape." It took him nearly a month to shame me into taking up the challenge. And soon after I began the journey into distance running.

Flash forward to 10 months later in Orlando. At mile 11 somewhere in the Magic Kingdom, Ken looked over at my labored breathing and decided to dust me then and there. I finished in 1:46, with Ken several minutes ahead. I was furious at losing and immediately asked for a rematch 2 weeks later at the Hops (now Gasparilla) Half. There, he pulled his calf around mile 4. Good-hearted friend that I am, I never broke stride, beating him by 10 minutes. And I was hooked (the running bug did not hold Ken as it did me).  4 weeks later I ran the Clearwater Marathon in 3:58 and an obsession was born.  While I give him grief about it occasionally; I owe Ken in a big way for pointing me down this path.  Without him I would not have had the amazing experiences of the last 10 years, nor meet the coterie of wonderful people.

Flash forward another 10 years later to the 2014 Rocky Raccoon 100. Never having attended an ultra before, Ken (he and wife Nancy now live in Dallas) agreed to be my crew. For a rookie crew, you could hardy ask for better support. I got repeated emails on the days leading up to the race as he checked and double-checked the packing list. The entire drive down to Huntsville Friday, he picked my brain on what to do and when. By the start of the race, he was comfortably set up at the finish with everything we needed.  He spent the day talking to other runner's families and rooting on his new friends.  While not currently an active runner, I knew the long time athlete and competitor in Ken would enjoy this environment and event.

I came to Huntsville trying to break 20 hours. I felt really good coming off Ancient Oaks and Croom Zoom, and had high hopes. Alas, the weather did not cooperate. The temperature started at 62 with high humidity, rose to 76, and never felt like it cooled off (until a cold front moved in an hour after I finished). I ran really well the first two 20 mile loops, completing them in 3:39 and 3:45 with quick turns after each. But the heat finally caught me in lap 3.

I fell hard twice (Andrea is right, it really should be called ROOTY Raccoon) early in lap 3; and then lost my head shortly after. I kept forcing salt, sugar, and fluids; but was bleeding time as I tried to pull it together.  Sweat poured off of me at every step, and my head felt like I had vertigo. At the end of third lap (4:05), I went straight into the aid tent and sat down. I just needed a few minutes to cool off and recover. But when the nurse heard me tell Ken I had only peed twice in nearly 12 hours of hot running; it was clear she was not letting me leave until she was sure I'd be OK.  I was served mashed potatoes and several cups of Pedialyte and asked to get them down before departing.  All the while, with Ken chirping in my ear, "Come on Andy, you have to get going."  Ken wanted 20 hours as much or more than I did.

I started lap 4 and got my stride back easier than I anticipated.  I re-gauged my goals and focused on beating 21 hours. I figured a 4:30 in lap 4 and a 4:45 in lap 5 would get me comfortably in.  Lap 4 came in right on plan at 4:29, and I felt really strong down the stretch with a final lap of 4:35 for a total time of 20:49:21. Ken and I celebrated with a couple post race beers and left quickly when the cold north wind finally started to blow. I wasn't disconsolate on not hitting 20 hours. As Andy Mathews texted me shortly before the start: "You can't control the weather, you can only control Andrew. " I feel good about my time.   I especially feel good about how I maintained in the conditions, moving up the leader board in each lap. After lap 1, I was in 144th place, and from there moved up to 92nd, 68th, and 54th in successive laps, finishing in 45th place. And the best was yet to come.

Flash forward to Monday morning.  After spending the Super Bowl with Ken and Nancy, I had to fly to New York City for work Monday morning. But prior to my departure, 8 inches of snow arrived in New York to further dampen departing Bronco fans' spirits. My flight out of Dallas was greatly delayed and I took up residence in the airport bar.  Ken had a later flight and joined me a little while later. We were recapping the race once again when he looked over at me and said "You know I watched everything at the race, and couldn't help thinking, I might be able to do that..."    Time will tell just how good this weekend turned out.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pinhoti100 - November 2-3, 2013

Pinhoti Race Report  - 11/2-3/2013 

I finished Pinhoti in 23:34:40, my 11th 100 mile finish.  I went to Sylacauga with the stretch goal of breaking 24 hours on a course that has beat me up twice before, and all the stars aligned for me.  My training went well, including a 10 day vacation of hiking and running in the canyons out west, and 4 days of running in the mountains of Virginia while visiting my parents.  I stuck to a diet for the first time in I don't remember how long.  Going to the race 10 lbs. lighter than my last race had to make a difference. 

 Race day conditions were near perfect, with temps starting around 40, rising into the 50s mid-day and dropping down to the high 30s the following night.  I pushed the pace (for me) right from the start, trying to stay close to the 24 hour pace chart I had set.  I took one nasty fall at mile 9, toe-hooking a rock and managed to come down hard on my knee and elbow, cutting both.  I felt the knee for the rest of the race.  I was close enough behind Patrick Bene for the crew to still see me at the early aid stations.  Dave Bracken, Vinnie, and George Buffington (who runs the best crew stop ever) let me know that everyone else (Andy Matthews, Nick Bach, Sean Connolly & Amy Costa) were all looking good and that Patrick was pulling away. 

I had one brief down spot from miles 29-31 where it got real hot and I started to lose my head a little bit.  But I took some endurolytes and sugar and pulled it back together fairly quickly.  The only real downer of the day was coming into Adams Gap at mile 55 to see Patrick sitting in a chair, done for the race.   I tried to cajole him to rest an hour and start back up; but he had dug too deep, too early.  Fortuitously for me, his loss became my gain as I inherited his excellent crew and pacers who were jonesing to go.  Dave ran with me the next 30 miles over the hardest part of the course.  It is some very pretty, but wickedly difficult terrain, particularly going up and over Horn Mountain.   We ate up the miles by seeing who could tell the longest stories (it was a draw).  

Vinnie picked me up at mile 85 and brought me the rest of the way in.  By this time, a sub-24 hour finish was looking very doable and I just needed to finish steady.  Unfortunately for Vinny, I had put on headphones by this point and withdrew into my own head just trying to keep going.  We had one brief scare when we didn't see a race marker for nearly 10 minutes; but we fortunately didn't miss a turn.  We hit pavement with 3 miles to go and he induced me into dropping the hammer (what was left of it anyway) for the final stretch.  23:35:40 and 31st place.

Andy got his first 100 mile finish in 2 years, Nick got his first 100 ever, Sean finished only an hour behind me, and Amy got in for her, what was a long training run.  Even Patrick's first DNF could be looked at in a positive light (read his post).  As usual, the RV ride up and back was a blast (I may only enter races that are in driving distance).  Looking forward to recovering and then gearing back up for Ancient Oaks in 7 weeks.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Cruel Jewel 100 May 17-19, 2013

I’ve had a miserable run of losing race lotteries recently.  I’ve lost the Western States lottery 4 years in a row.  I was very excited about qualifying for the Ultra-Trail Mont Blanc in Switzerland, Italy & France, but I lost that entry lottery as well.  I wanted to take a third shot at breaking 28 hours at Massanutten this year, but failed to get my entry in on time and was so far down the waiting list, I never had a realistic chance of getting in.  But after having a successful time at the Georgia Death Race in March, I was all in for the inaugural Cruel Jewel which shared some of the same trail.  104.6 miles with 60,000 feet of elevation change and nearly all the race on single-track.  With a little prodding, I was able to get Patrick Bene to sign up as well.

Patrick was able to get George, George, Dave & Vinny to all join us as pacers & crew.  We loaded up the RV Thursday morning and headed north.  I have come to believe I do these races almost as much for the break from responsibility and routine, as I do for the event itself.  On the ride up, we watched movies, exchanged stories, and generally acted like we were 25 years younger with nothing more important in our lives than being ready for the next set of final exams (except we now discuss wives and children instead of girlfriends and professors).  We arrived at Vogel State Park about 2 hours north of Atlanta just before dusk and settled in for the evening.  Our camping spot was only a stone’s throw from a babbling brook.  Vinny built a small fire, and we spent a quiet evening enjoying the respite from civilization.

Because it has a 48 hour time limit, the race was scheduled to start at 2:00 PM on Friday.  Patrick and I slept in until 8:00 AM, and awoke to a breakfast of eggs, hash browns and bacon cooked up by Dave under the trees.  Vogel State Park is at the turnaround for this out and back race, so the group went for a short hike on this far end of the course.  After a good deal of nervous fidgeting and re-packing race supplies, we headed off in the minivan (we had towed behind the RV) to the start/finish at Camp Morganton near Blue Ridge.  We checked in, getting customized bowling shirts for entering the race and gawked at the outlandish finishing belt buckles which include a line representing the race elevation chart.  We HAD to finish to get one of these.  Willy Syndram ( Race Director), gave a pre-race briefing to our very small group an hour before the race started.  This was the inaugural running of this race, and with the course difficulty, he had a small group of 23 runners signed up, of whom 21 toed the line at 2:00 PM.
I started the race with my new Garmin Fenix watch on my left arm which is advertised to have a 50 hour battery life.  But because I had not had a chance to test it, I ran with my Garmin 310XT on the right arm to keep track of pace.  The first 2.7 miles of the race are on pavement leading to Deep Gap.  It was mostly uphill, with a 450 foot climb, so there was a lot of walking, even this early in the race.  Our crew of 4 pulled alongside with the minivan door open singing the Muppet’s ‘Mahna-Mahna’ song through a bullhorn to send us off.  We waived goodbye knowing we wouldn’t see them again until the first crewed aid station at 8:30, just before nightfall.  Patrick’s and my plan was to average 20 minute miles with would bring us in to a 34:52 finish.  Our goals were to finish (Good), break 36 hours (Better) and if we felt good, come in under 34 hours (Best).  We planned to run well within ourselves early knowing this long demanding course would take its toll over time.
The second leg of the course is Deep Gap, a 5.8 mile loop that started with a 300 foot descent, an 800 foot climb and then a 500 foot descent.  We tried to take it as easy as we could, but kept finding ourselves finishing miles in 13-17 minute splits.  Even the first major climb of the race (1,400 feet) on the Weaver Creek section was offset by the following 1,000 foot drop and we kept banking time.  I fell twice early in the race.  The first was a toe hook on a stump that resulted in a clumsy somersault and roll across my shoulders.  I managed to continue the roll back up onto my feet and keep running without Patrick having to stop behind me.  The second fall was uglier as my foot slipped, and I dropped down hard onto my hands giving a painful jolt to my hands, lower back and knees, all at once.  Fortunately, it was my last fall of the race.   We reached the Stanley Creek aid station 20 miles in over 2 hours ahead of pace.  But the crew was there, re-energized us and off we went.  The next 3 miles was pavement and we ran easy 10 minute miles, getting even further ahead of pace.

We crossed the Shallowford Bridge, ran alongside the Toccoa River for a half-mile, and then turned onto the Benton-Mackaye Trail and began climbing into what was the first tough section for me.  In quick succession, we climbed Free Knob, Garland Mountain, Brawley Mountain, Bald Top and finally Tipton Mountain with descents to the gaps between each.  It was late afternoon, the temperature was the hottest of the entire race, and this 7+ mile section really took it out of me.  We had caught Will Jorgenson at the last aid station and spent most of this section running and chatting with him.  I had met Will at several previous races, most recently finishing just behind him at the Georgia Death Race in March.  He runs with trekking poles, and used them well as he pulled away on the final descent to Wilscot Gap as Friday night darkness began.

The Tampa crew was here again, and we refueled with Boosts, solid food, and whatever else we could chow down quickly.  Willy had told everyone at race briefing that the first 30 miles to this point were easy compared to what was to come.  He did not lie.  I had run the remaining 25 miles to the turnaround at the Death Race in the opposite direction.  But that was the first section of that race, on fresh legs.  Now I had 30 hard miles already in, and had to do this section twice, once in each direction.  The next 50 miles is the hardest thing I have ever done. 

We were now on the notorious Duncan Ridge Trail and this section is called the Dragon’s Spine.  Look at an elevation chart for this trail and it is not hard to understand why.   Over the next 13 miles, we would climb Rhodes Mountain, Chinquapin Ridge, Gregory Knob, Payne Knob, High Top, Fish Knob, Clements Mountain, Akins Mountain, West Wildcat Knob, Buck Knob, and finally Buckeye Knob before descending to White Oak Stomp.  It was one wicked climb up over 3,000 feet, one after another, separated by knee shattering descents.  What makes it particularly hard is the lack of switchbacks.  Normally trails built on steep slopes wind their way back and forth up the mountain in a punishing, but doable climb. Not here.  The sadists who built this trail followed the ridgeline throughout, straight up and straight down.  It was hard in March, but that had been in daylight and temperatures were in the 40s.  Now it was dark, hotter and brutal.  And then the weather changed.

Sometime in the night (exact times are no longer clear in my head, nor were they then) it began to rain.  It was a light rain at first and pleasantly cooling.  But it soon began to come down in earnest.  The trail got wet and muddy, footing was difficult, and we began having trouble seeing the trail markings.  What we thought was fog, turned out be clouds when I realized we only saw it at higher elevations.  The wind was blowing, so we had misty fog blowing hard left to right, with heavy rain falling down from above.  At times I could barely see the trail at my feet.  The trail throughout the course was mostly runnable, but at the higher elevations became more rocky.  On one steep descent, Patrick slipped on a rock, and slid several feet downwards on his butt.  He stood, covered in mud from his heels to his back.  Another time, he tried to stop at the top of a large flat rock to pick his route down.  But he slipped, and skied 10 feet down the rock back to hard ground.  He was soon quoting a line from Armageddon, “Worst, scariest possible environment ever.”  We agreed, the solo runners would have a really hard time keeping their spirits up through the night in these conditions.  Remarkably, as hard as it was, our moods didn’t turn – yet.  To my disgust though, my new Fenix ran out of battery here, less than 16 hours into the race.  I had enjoyed being able to constantly monitor altitude on one watch and pace on the other.

After the White Oak Stomp aid station, it was only 7.5 miles to the turnaround at Vogel State Park.  There was a 750 foot climb to Coosa Bald, the highest point on the course, and then a long 2,000 foot descent to Wolf Creek.  Patrick had been having trouble all night with elevation sickness.  He had read in Runner’s World that lowlanders like us, could have trouble anytime we went over 2,500 feet.  I wasn’t affected as far as I could tell, but every time we approached 3,000 feet (which was a lot), he had trouble breathing, and got light-headed.  He handled it well until the descent off Coosa Bald.  At some point in the heavy fog I missed a turn.  We had to back track and search for the route, adding an extra mile to our run.  We made the long descent unsure we were on track, I choked back tears thinking our race could be over, and Patrick lagged behind just trying to stay on his feet.  After one last 800 foot climb into Vogel, we stumbled into the turnaround cabin exhausted.

Dave & George had cooked breakfast sandwiches and were waiting for us.  The aid station volunteers were great, and we were encouraged to find that we were 4th and 5th in the race overall.  The 2nd & 3rd place runners had taken a 90 minute nap at the turn and had left just ahead of us.  We had completed 58 miles (55 on the course info) and had 49+ left going back (the return lap skips one out & back section).  I gave Dave both watches to recharge, he gave them back to me at White Oak Stomp several hours later.  We took our time before heading back out just after daybreak and walked uphill for a while with Vinny joining us as our first pacer.  Patrick encouraged me to go ahead of him now that Vinny was with him, and I finally took the bait on the next downhill.  But the longest climb of the race back to Coosa Bald did me in.  I walked uphill for over an hour, feeling my tank bleed dry.  I shook my head when I saw the easy turn we had missed in the dark and fog just hours before.  I started the descent to White Oak Stomp and just couldn’t shake the cobwebs, making terrible time in a relatively easy section.  100 yards before the aid station, Patrick passed me, rejuvenated and ready to go.

Dave joined us as a second pacer from that point, and amazingly ran the last 43 miles of the course.  The steep ascents and descents on the Dragon’s Spine really took it out of us now.  Occasionally we would stop mid-ascent, bent over, trying to recover our breathing and heart rates.  Vinny really struggled with the altitude through here, and eventually fell back before we made it to Skeenah Gap.  When Patrick was feeling well, he ran much stronger than me.  He pulled away from me both descending and ascending and I had to work really hard to catch him again  Midway through the 5 miles to Wilscot Bridge, we caught the third place runner who was walking and struggling.  When Patrick saw the chance for a podium finish, he dropped the hammer and left me in the dust again. 

I managed to catch him not long before the aid station, and we sat down preparing for the 7.5 mile multi-climb section to Shallowford Bridge.  We took our time at this aid station and just as we were about to leave, Will Jorgenson surprised us by descending off the trail just behind us.  Patrick took off like he had been shot out of a cannon, he was not giving back his spot that easy.  It took me nearly half an hour to catch him and Dave again.  Patrick soon had another down period, and I took point for the first time in hours.  Not long after, we crested Brawley Mountain, passed the fire tower, and I started the next descent.  After a bit, I realized I had not heard Patrick or Dave speak for several minutes.  I slowed to a walk and called behind me a couple times.  When I did not hear a reply, I decided Patrick was still recovering, but I didn’t want to wait.  I trotted down the hill thinking they would catch up soon, if not on that section, on the 3 miles of pavement ahead where Patrick would be much faster than me.  But the longer I trotted, the better I felt. 

I made great time all the way to Toccoa River, Shallowford Bridge, and Willy was at the aid station telling me I looked great.  I hustled through the aid station and was able to run fairly solid all the way to Stanley Creek where our crew awaited.   George, George & Vinny made sure I had everything I needed, pumped me up with encouragement, and pushed me on my way telling me to hold onto third.  I had just over 13 miles to go, and this would be the last time I would see them.  As I headed into the woods, I looked back up the road, surprised not to see Patrick or Will approaching.  I found out later, Patrick had run out of water at one point, lost a bunch of time recovering, and fell over an hour behind.  Will came through about 20 minutes behind me. 

I was juiced now, even as the sun set on the race for the second time.  I wanted third place badly, I’d never finished that high in a hundred miler (I was 5th at the 2010 Arkansas Traveler for my bachelor party)  I ran the shallow uphills, strided the steep uphills as hard as I could, and pounded the downhills with everything I had left.  I tried using Patrick’s tricks of shunting thoughts of pain to the side.  The only thing that mattered was holding pace.  I got more than a little loopy down the stretch, repeatedly thinking I could hear Patrick, Dave and Will talking just behind me.  I looked over my shoulder dozens of times expecting to see them overtaking me.  I ran scared, and I ran as fast as I could. 

I hit the Deep Gap aid station gasping for air.  I quickly refueled and hit this 5.8 mile loop.  I knew that Patrick and Will would both likely be on the loop when I returned to the aid station and I’d be able to know how close behind me they were.   I noted the clock time, and realized I had an outside shot of breaking 34 hours, my stretch goal.  I had made up huge time on the last three sections.  Running the loop backwards from the start of the race, I humped up the 500 foot climb as fast as I could and took the 800 foot descent even harder.  It was rough going as the previous night’s rain had turned the previous day’s wet spots into flowing streams across the trail.  My head kept playing tricks with me, as I tried to figure out a shortcut back to the aid station.  The entire loop goes around a loud mountain stream; and I frequently (thought I) heard Patrick and Dave just behind me.  More than once, I turned off my flashlight to peer into the darkness and catch them sneaking up on me.  I then became convinced they were running in darkness to lull me into slowing; so I pushed even harder.

But when I approached the last aid station, Dave and Patrick were both there, Patrick in a chair cleaning out his shoes.  He was clearly suffering and just trying to pull it together for the finishing push.  The aid station volunteer told me Will had come through just 16 minutes behind me though.  I knew Will was strong enough to have cut that lead in half on this loop.  That meant I might have as little as a 6-8 minute lead with just under 3 miles of pavement left.  I was in full flight panic mode as I raced to the finish.  I turned my flash light off when there were no cars, I didn’t want to give away my position to Will.  I turned onto the Camp Morganton driveway and sprinted to the finish in 33 hours, 38 minutes, third place overall.  George, George, and Vinny cheered me across the line and I immediately went inside to cool off and recover, elated. 

Will Jorgenson crossed the finish line just 10 minutes behind me.  That made the final push even more rewarding for me, as I now knew for sure I had needed to push every step of the way to stay ahead.  I took a hot shower, ate some pizza, and waited for Patrick who finished in 5th place in 35:47.  He had vomited on the Deep Gap loop and just held it together to finish.   After he cleaned up, George made the 45 minute drive back to Vogel State Park and we all collapsed into bed in the RV around 3:30 AM.

Last I heard, maybe 11-13 runners had a chance of finishing, but final results have not been posted yet.  This was a brutally difficult course, and one I would highly recommend.  The course is fantastic, although I measured it at 107.5 miles (not including our bonus mile, giving us 108.5 total), a little longer than advertised.  While the ascents and descents are harder than anything else I have run at this distance, it is completely runnable.  There are few spots with so many rocks that you can’t run consistently.  The views from twenty something different peaks and ridgelines are magnificent.  The sound of mountain streams and bird songs dominated the air.  Willy had everything well organized, the aid stations were all great, the course was well-marked.  I don’t think there is any doubt it ascends to being the second most difficult race east of the Rockies behind the inimitable Barkley.  I will hold onto how good it felt to run the last 22 miles the way I did for as long as possible.  Unless my work and life schedule dictate otherwise, I will be back next year.