Run 100 miles. Why?
This is a question I never really bothered asking myself, at least not until I was actually racing the distance. It was more of a question of when. I had always planned to do ultras when I was “older” but somehow kept finding myself running them. Having raced a relatively flat 100k (62 miles) successfully hitting my goal time on the second attempt, I knew I still had more in the tank when I finished. Of course my legs didn’t but in the back of my mind I knew I could have gone further, but surely I would need to be much better trained to do it. The thing about a 100k is that with this particular distance I’m done in a day’s work if all goes well, and get to sleep in my bed that night. With 100 miles it’s another ballgame, and I didn’t just choose any 100 for my first hundo. Nope, I chose Thunder Rock, a course that covers the mountainous region where the Cherokee National Forest resides.
I’ve always loved running in the woods. When I was young I was building forts and blazing trails through the woods behind my parent’s house from one side of our property to the other. I ran them a lot, but it was just play, no forcing yourself onto the trail to “get in miles” like we do as adults. Alongside my dad we would hunt various game and our family would spend hours on our feet picking black raspberries, or bushwacking through the forest hunting mushrooms. It’s those distant memories of youth, brought back to life that really draws me into trail running. Every time I feel the leaves brush my arms as I run by, smell the fresh air of the forest, and feel my feet pounding the soft dirt while running all out with gravity carrying me downhill I’m taken back to those distant memories and it’s like I’m there again. I remember knowing every root, rock, twist of the trail, and tree to duck and dodge right down the hillside to our secluded fort in the middle of the woods.
As I’m driving to work each morning I crest the top of the inner state to gain a view of the smoky mountains. I see those peaks grey on the horizon and each time I have an urge to drive right to the base, get out, and run up to the top. It’s both beautiful and torturous at the same time. I try to spend my time efficiently, and unfortunately that means not getting to climb up those as often as I’d like and using that commute time to the trailhead to run in less scenic areas and have more family time instead. So, to get a chance to run in probably the most beautiful area of our state was a huge draw for me, and when I found out it was practically in my back yard the temptation was too great and I was registered.
Thunder Rock 100 is a Western States lottery qualifier (meaning it only gets you a ticket to the lottery, not actually into the race) and of course Western is the ultra-equivalent of Boston (original 100 miler, been around forever, epic environment, course, prestige, etc.) Every ultrarunner wants into this race, but unlike Boston the field is extremely limited with less than an 8% chance to get in and that number seems to shrink each year. In order to get time on my side I had to get the ball rolling. As far as elevation goes, Thunder doesn’t have the highest of any 100 mile race, but it does have its fair share, and the bulk of its 18,700 feet gain is distributed through a few sections. I knew if I was going to tackle this course I would have to work on my climbing as well as descending as my previous ultras were basically flat. With a tiny race called Boston to consider en route, I banked that training for it would help beef up the descending, and living near hills I had ample opportunity to get some amount of vertical in. The wrench in all the plans was nagging pains that weren’t injuries, but just suspicious enough to hold me back from my ideal training. Despite that I was able to work on my trail running a few times a week and generally stay fit with a few decent weeks, but nowhere near where I would have liked to be with a dedicated plan.
A nice part of this race is the training runs held on the course itself. During one of those I was able to get some big climbs and descents while simultaneously getting an idea of the last 50 miles of the course, all on tired legs as I had already ran a solid 70 miles for the week leading into that weekend. Looking at past results and trying to make a comparison to previous finishers I had hoped to finish around 19 hours, so I would try to pace for that. Plus it just made sense 9 hours first 50 miles, 10 hours second 50. 24 hours is the landmark time for the 100 mile distance, similar to a sub-3 hour marathon, and after the training run I was very confident I could run under that. I was going to push myself for a good time but ultimately crossing the line and getting a WS qualifier under my belt was what mattered. This created a low-pressure situation for me to succeed, however the course was reversed this year which changed the profile, logistics, and was essentially an altogether new race.
Race prep mostly involved a bunch of spreadsheets with food, drop bag locations, and stuff I would need like headlamps, batteries, etc. boring, but very important. In addition I was test running the gear I’d be using and although I had a good headlamp I wanted to pick up another and didn’t get a chance to until the week of the race. I was able to test it out it seemed better than the first, so I decided to use it as my main and have a backup, in addition to batteries. The noon start makes this race particularly tricky. It means a lot of night running on trails, where it can be hard to see steep descents, turns, rocks, and roots. Night running on trails is much different than on roads, which I am very familiar with. There is no illumination from the moon, nor is there an even surface, nor is there residual light from houses or streetlights where you can still make out the road. Nope, if your lamp goes off on the trail you are completely marooned in the dark. I had been getting up early around 4 to go run trails with my headlamp and I felt comfortable that I could handle it.
The week of the race I was almost as excited to race as I’ve ever been. Just knowing the mountains were right around the corner made my palms sweaty and I’d had to reel in my emotions a time or two. I still managed to get through the work week, and had everything prepped with each drop bag location, my bib number, and I even wrote what was inside each bag on the outside for quick reference. Mentally I was ready for a good race after Boston, and physically I felt a little lethargic and worn, but healthy and relaxed.
Race morning I drove a few hours down to the finish area located at Raft One. These guys are a top-notch rafting and zip line crew with all amenities on site and super-nice. From here we would check in then be bussed up to the start line, less than 30 minutes away. Check in was easy and it was cool to get to see the finish chute before the race. As I was hanging around relaxing and planning to sleep in my car as I was early, I met up with my friend Dave. Dave is an awesome dude, and although I hadn’t gotten to talk with him much other than a few facebook messages, we had crossed paths running around Knoxville and I may even have a few race photos with him in it. He put on an awesome training run at his house, which I unfortunately was unable to attend as it was the same weekend I came down to Thunder to train. Next time I know where I will go. Anyway Dave kindly offered me a ride to the start with his dad who was crewing for him. I was all for that and gladly accepted!
We talked a little in the car and arrived to the campground. Dave is just one of those laid-back guys who it seems like you’ve known forever, and I was offered pretty much everything (except the shoes on his feet, bummer) and I did indulge in a bagel and some peanut butter. We had about an hour till the start and we both tried to cover our eyes and take a little siesta in his car. The clouds were moving in, but it was mixed with sun and the temperature was perfect. I tried to rest my mind and I felt good, I felt ready. Slowly people started congregating and I found my way to a few other familiar faces for some hellos. I sat in the shade and relaxed a few feet from the start line. Before I knew it Randy was giving us some sort of directions and next thing I know we start. I didn’t even have my garmin satellites locked yet, but I quickly hit start as I crossed the line and began my jog.
To Mulepen Gap
I wanted to be conservative and so far so good. The first mile we found our way into the trail and I was very relaxed and settled. Somebody just took off at the start and I thought that was either crazy, or that guy knows what he is doing, regardless I was in no hurry to chase him. The first climb wasn’t bad, on fresh legs of course anything feels good. I chatted with a few on the way up and slowly began passing, mostly unintentional. We made our way back down and I kept looking at my watch. It kept showing really slow miles, but I felt like were moving at a good clip so I was happy with it. That was until about the third mile when I realized I had removed the HR data output, and instead replaced it with time of day. So in fact those 12:15-12:30 miles were actually not. In my defense I usually keep my watch in my pack and run without it on my wrist, but had decided to wait for my pack until the first aid station and so ended up wearing the watch. Anyway I was still moving well within myself, although with a few guys going out fast I wasn’t sure where I stood in relation, maybe 5th, maybe 3rd, 10th? It didn’t matter I just tried to run at a pace I could maintain.
After some very nice soft trails, with the sound of water nearby we ran over a couple small bridge crossings and made it out onto a gravel road section and the first aid station. Now I could see I was in third and we were all there together as we grabbed various items from the table. I made sure to down some food as I didn’t have my pack yet, and I drank water and heed. I knew the next station was after a climb, but all I was worried about was getting to the river at the bottom. One of the guys shot out of there well before I did as I was making sure to fuel up, and he had 30 seconds to a minute on us in no time. “You’re in first place” one of the young volunteers said to him as he took off. I quipped back “It’s a long race”, and as I ran off “We’re almost to the finish, right?”
To Oswald Dome
This climb I didn’t really expect, or rather I wasn’t fully mentally prepared for. It wasn’t so much the elevation, but it was that it was entirely on road and straight up. For some reason it really wore on me. Even the guy in the lead said “I’m going to start running up because I’m tired of walking” and I did the exact same thing. I was not prepared to hike this long, at least not without some sort of switchback or relief, and certainly not on a hard road. We kept climbing. My hip flexors were already starting to complain a little. We kept climbing up. Walk a little, run a little. Keep going up. Finally when we reached a turn I thought we hit the top, and nope. We kept hiking up. That section was hot as well with sun starting to do its work, and I kept looking around the corners for trail markers leading off the road but none of them did, wondering if I had missed it somewhere. Each time I was wrong, and I would see another flag ahead as we kept going up.
Finally I knew I we were close to the peak because I felt an awesome breeze coming down toward me. I closed my eyes while walking and raised my arms, letting the cool mountain air slide around me. I ran up a few feet and saw a building with a tower which was curious. I had reached the peak, but this was an odd place, just a gravel road that seemed to circle back around. I had a sinking feeling in my stomach, this couldn’t be right. I turned around and ran a little back. Sure enough I had missed the trail markers. My damned eyes were closed. Now, I’ve taken wrong turns in trail races before, missed markers, and been lead in wrong directions, but it’s another thing entirely to find a trail with your eyes closed. Thankfully it was a small misstep and could have been so much worse. I knew this section was downhill and I was ready to run after all that hiking! I didn’t all out let it rip, but I bombed this section good, running the fastest miles of the race. I have no idea how long it took to get up there but it only took me a fraction of the time to get to the bottom.
I ended up passing the first place runner within the first mile going down, and managed to snag the GoPro guy away from him to smoke the rest of the downhill. We chatted for a bit and he said “we’re about halfway down”, I said “really” and I backed off the sub 7 pace, power-sliding switchbacks, and slowed it down to a more sane tempo. My quads were feeling a bit worn but I certainly felt like I hadn’t used them up. I was feeling good about being up front and really just wanted to hit the river crossing and get to the next aid station. The downhill section passed in the blink of an eye and I made my way to the bank. The Hiawassee current was strong and it was more difficult to wade through than anticipated. Near the end I dunked myself up to my neck to cool off and let the current carry me a few feet. Climbing up I thought the aid station would be right there, but I forgot it’s actually a little jaunt down from the crossing. I was feeling okay at this point, but still a little worried about that climb and regretting the descent (but not really it was incredibly fun).
The aid station here I changed shoes and socks. I knew this would take some time, but I wanted to have some fresh kicks with dry feet and this would be the only shoe change for me for the remainder. That went well, I did remember to have someone fill my bottle and answered a bunch of questions while I changed shoes and nibbled a bar. This area is a camp ground and many random people were coming up asking me questions and giving me advice. “My husband says you shouldn’t go out too hard”, “This is your first 100 mile? Do you know you’re in the lead? What’s it feel like?”, “That guy is soaked, Mom”. I tried to stay focused, but the last comment I heard I was “Are you in a hurry?” I kind of smiled. Every second counts in a race, even one that is 100 miles long.
To Iron Gap
That station seemed rather slow going, but with a shoe and sock change it was expected. I hit the next section which was a pretty good climb coming up from the river. This was had definitely been seen by many a horse, but only for a mile or so. The sun was out now and I was dry within minutes. A runner caught up to me not too far up the trail, I was checking my phone, making sure I was on the right track since I hadn’t seen a flag for a while. We chatted a bit, he would lead for a portion, then I would hike in front but we weren’t running as this section was too steep. I used this time to hydrate and fuel, downing my only gel of the race. I generally don’t do gels, preferring real food, but I had grabbed it and hoped that it wouldn’t ruin my stomach. About the time I got that gel down, Jason the other runner had slowed and I asked what was up, “My – is cramping” I can’t remember exactly what he said, maybe calves, but it didn’t matter because I had no s-caps anyway.
The clouds were growing darker and this next section was very runnable. I fell into a comfortable pace and steadily covered ground. I found that I was kind of warm but not terrible. This section went by quickly and before I knew it I had made it to the Iron Gap aid station. I asked for ice here and they actually had some, so I had them fill my bottle. I wasn’t dehydrated but I just felt warm and hoped it would cool me down. I wasted no time here and after my bottle was full grabbed a fig bar and was out.
To Bullet Creek
Coming out of the aid station was a good incline up a dirt road. I passed the marathon sign without any fanfare and made my way back into some trails. This section I felt a little rain and soon we had a nice drizzle. There were some very interesting downed trees but mostly it was quiet and I enjoyed the misting rain, which helped make me seem less warm. I made my way up an incline and then a larger incline which topped out on a peak that ran along the top of the mountain. Thankfully I looked over to my left to see a gorgeous view of Etowah I believe, all the little houses and roads as far as the eye could see over the landscape. I made my way along the ridge, the rain now backing off and eventually the trail turned back down to the right. This was a fun section and I let out a few unencumbered “woo’s!” as I started galloping down with a smile from ear to ear. Like the previous downhill it was over quickly and led onto a grass jeep trail. This climbed and fell many times. I was still running comfortably, but walked a few sections here for good measure, eating a bit of fig and hydrating, but was still very thirsty.
The rain had left everything very wet, especially the tall grass and weeds and my shoes were soaked. About the time they would dry, back into the wet grass, so much for dry feet today. At this point I came in contact with a couple deerflies. I became very thirsty, going through both my bottles, and the water droplets on the leaves looked good enough to drink. I would try to walk little uphill sections only to be swarmed by an angry buzzing mob and start running again. This went on for a while and after a few miles I was getting annoyed, flailing my arms around my head and slapping many in the process. After following this trail for a bit I came back into a single track section and met up with the GoPro camera guy again. He was heading on up as I was on my way down, and I asked him how far to the next aid station, “.78 miles”. Down the ravine, just a hair over three quarters of a mile ahead I made it to the aid station, you have to love a camera guy who knows what he’s talking about.
I was in decent shape at this point. My legs were a little fried but overall I was in a good head space. I was warm and asked again for ice, heed, and ice, “Lots of ice”. I now had my bottles ready ahead of time and started to eat various items, some hummus with olive, pb and j, and possibly some other things I can’t recall. I took a few seconds to talk, but I didn’t linger, thanked the aid station and was back off.
To Manning Cabin
Running up the hill through tall weeds I was following someone else’s trampling’s, probably one of the pre-runners whose job was to cover the course and make sure flags were out. That was helpful finding the trail and I crested a small peak and saw the trail turn right. Just as I did that “Whap Whap Whap!” and a woosh! I had kicked up a large turkey, just about stepping on it and the winged beast launched up out of the tall weeds, flapping wildly. My heart rate shot up for a few seconds and I righted myself and continued on the trail.
The Epic Battle
The horseflies had now conspired with the deerflies, and every army of winged insect was attacking me. I now ran the uphills even though I didn’t really want to. Finally after flapping my arms around like a helicopter for miles I loosened my pack and put it on my head. Using it as a makeshift helmet seemed to help, but every once in a while I would catch a horsefly in the crevice of my arm or neck. After a time they died down and I found myself walking up a grassy road which then led onto pavement. This must be the road section I figured. This road was secluded with the forest on either side, and I saw only a few cars here which seemed to be going up toward the previous aid station. I was actually looking forward to this because it meant solid footing for a while. Damned if the insects didn’t regroup and begin a second assault!
I was now running for my life, praying that the bloodthirsty bugs would leave me be if I was in the middle of the road away from the trees, but it did not work. I smote one dead right on my forehead and flung the guts off the side of the road. That seemed to anger them and in my frustration I ran off the side of the road to an overhanging tree branch. I ducked right underneath it as it was about my height and watched as the devil creatures tried to find a way in to me. I was able to see them now and swatted many down, but even that didn’t deter them. So I grabbed the branch over my head and began to shake it furiously left and right. Wielding the leafy branch as a weapon over my head with the accuracy of a blind man, they finally relented.
I started running again and wanted to make sure I was still on the right path and shouldn’t be back on trail so I looked on my phone and was still good. That was comforting and I continued on. It climbed very steadily and then became a very steep hike for a while. This road eventually intersecting with another that came out into the open and I became optimistic that the next aid station was just ahead. I ran down the road and encountered my first set of dogs. Barking from the other side of the road, but mostly they seemed harmless. As a runner on the roads every day, you learn a lot about dogs and that intuition was being used now. They continued barking as I ran out of their territory. I listened behind for the round of barks to see if anyone was behind me. I thought I heard them, and that was only a few minute span. This little town had a lot of crowd support somehow and the road which went straight was blocked by a ton of people directing me left. I was a little bummed that this wasn’t the aid station, but their enthusiasm was good and I waved and smiled.
Two more dogs ahead, about 100 feet up the road. They came out to the road but did not get much closer so I ignored them and continued reluctantly running up the steep hill. This road went on for another mile or two, up and down mostly rolling over the countryside. Three dogs at the next house ran out to bark at me while I ran by, so far so good and nothing to contend with. The pounding of the road was getting to me. I walked a few sections as it wrapped its way through houses on hills. I thought to myself this would be a nice place to live. The road wound down and soon I found myself in a valley with a little farm nestled in it. The road wound its way up a mountain, with a guard rail running alongside it back and forth all the way up. I didn’t realize how steep this road would be. After a mile hiking the road seemed to grow taller and taller, I looked behind me downward and saw no one, then I looked back out over the valley at the little farm as the sun was beginning to make its way down the horizon. I was going quite slow here and there was no running to be had as the climb continued on. My hips were aching and my legs weren’t feeling great. I ground my way up, hands on knees, then back to hips. This section crawled and I was looking forward to something, anything other than climbing.
I made my way to what seemed the top and around the corner to my surprise there was a guy running at me. He was from the aid station and said it was just up the way, grabbed my empty bottle and darted off. It was at the top of a hill and I jogged my way up. This was a drop bag section and I ate some of what is essentially organic baby food through a straw. I asked for ice in my backup bottle. I sat down for the first time and it felt incredible, my hip flexors were cooked, and quads not much left. I am not sure what else I ate here but I rested well and picked up my headlamp. After a few thank yous and possibly another bite of granola bar I was out.
To Coker Falls
This section was all road and a little depressing. Not so much the road, but the sun was starting to set and I was still running. I hadn’t made it to Coker yet and that was unfortunate because I knew the more daylight I had getting there the better. Very steep at times I hiked, then back down. Randy pulled up beside me, I hadn’t turned on my headlamp yet, but it was going to be soon. “you okay?” he questioned, “Yes I’m good, just legs are gone” I said reluctantly. “it’s all downhill from here, for a while….” I nodded and he was off. And he was right, as soon as I made it downhill, there was another uphill climb just after.
The road became dark, “At least the flies will die down” I thought. I made my way painfully down, now with my headlamp on in the dark. A runner came up toward with me a headlamp on “Are you first” I squeaked out a yes and he said the aid station wasn’t too far. I couldn’t be happier about that. I made my way down the road, my headlamp seemingly dim where I couldn’t really make out the road, “I must need to adjust”, I thought. I came into the aid station feeling pretty wiped.
I sat in the chair in somewhat of a stupor after giving my bottles to someone. I ate a tiny bit but realized just how bad my legs were hurting. “How am I going to do this?” I asked one of the aid station workers, who may have replied but it was rhetorical, or perhaps just me talking out loud to myself. I really didn’t understand how I would do it and I think I repeated my question. To be only halfway and know that I have to do that all again, on now very tired, aching legs really messed with my head. After accepting my fate I pulled myself up, pain shooting in my quads and haunches, grabbed my bottles and was off.
I had run this second half before and knew, generally speaking, the rest of the course. This was both a good and bad thing. Good because I probably wouldn’t get lost and was familiar with the stations and sections, but bad because I knew how hard this section was the last time I was here and that was in broad daylight. It was totally dark now and I was crawling through the technical terrain. Lots of rocks to navigate and I knew some of these sections were very steep and could only be climbed by maneuvering over the rocks with all limbs on them, sometimes jumping down or over and there were also some creek crossings. It was wet from the rain and the rocks were slippery. Top that off with my headlamp seemed insufficient. It was just…dim. I could barely make out the trail, let alone the rocks and what lay ahead. I felt helpless here. Soon enough I saw a bright beaming light coming from behind.
The headlamp was Brad, or so I would come to find out. I had chatted with him at the first aid station for a half of a second and hadn’t seen him since. That wasn’t reassuring. But he did have a working headlamp which seemed to dwarf my own. I tried multiple times to adjust mine, but to do that I had to cycle through which meant going dark for a few moments. Finally I gave up. “My light is just dim” I said and I told him I would try to stick with him, which I’m sure he wasn’t too keen about. We were actually working well together through this section in my eyes, pointing out the trail to each other and calling out sketchy jumps and roots, but we were still also competing. So he would try to gap me or at least it felt like it, and I would inevitably and painfully catch up. I yo-yo’d with him for a good long while. It was not looking good for me. I was now compromised with a half-working headlamp, and I wasn’t feeling good enough to stay in contact. After a while he said “if you are still with me at the Reliance aid station I’ll give you one of my extra lamps”, to which I replied “God I hope I am”, letting it be clear I wasn’t in a very good place. He must not have been feeling great either because he didn’t put much ground on me and finally after all the climbing, fumbling, crossing rivers, slipping on rocks, half stuck in mud, and thankfully staying gripped to the cliff walls we made it down the trail to the road leading to Powerhouse.
I was surprised to see Brad at the aid station and he was taking his time, so I took mine. I ate some food, can’t really remember what, but I always ate something from here out, grazing on various items. I had a delicious bacon-wrapped pickle, which was quite amazing. It’s the little things in life. I got my bottles filled and sat in the chair for a moment or two. After feeling like I had stabilized we took off into the dark again. I could see Brad just ahead, but he had stopped for a second I wondered what was up? Bathroom break. We were going up a very gradual incline and it was very foggy, there were some huge frogs dead on the pavement which made the whole scene even more eerie. My headlamp was working much better now for some reason, and my beam was brighter, or at least wider than the one ahead. It must have got reset at the aid station, good news for me but the bad news was my legs were shot and running on this pavement wasn’t doing me any favors.
Before we make it to the next short trail section Dave comes rolling up behind us and out in front. “Ron!” He looked good and had bided his time carefully. He seemed fresh and chipper asking how we were doing and possibly our philosophy on life, but I figured he had been running as long as us, so his legs were probably feeling the same. I decided to put my hypothesis to the test. This next section is somewhat technical, but very much similar to the trails I’m used to. I passed both of them and got a little ahead on the trail, my headlamp now working well, although it was a bit foggy at times I was able to run at a good clip. I felt like I was back home, just running a normal easy run on the trails, and slowly the light of their headlamps faded and when I looked back again I saw nothing. This section suited me well, very runnable short of some technical sections by the river where I had to use my hands and climb over some craggy rock. I slipped on one of the rocks here by the river and banged my knee on it, fortunately it wasn’t anything and I ran it off quickly. I was cruising with the thought of the Reliance aid station up a mile or two just over the bridge. I passed the 100K mark hitting a good stride and felt like I was flowing. From this point I would be running farther than I ever had before.
The fog was thick. I could only see a few feet ahead but I just followed the flags and eventually saw the aid station up ahead. I wasn’t feeling particularly good. I knew the biggest climbing portion lay just ahead and I really wanted to get out of that aid station and get moving. I got a taste of soup which burned my tongue, then went for a few other things. I looked in my drop bag and got out my spare headlamp for my waist, but only planned to use that if necessary. There was still a long way to go in the dark and I needed a reserve just in case something happened to my main. There was some extra clothing in there but it was far too warm for that, and I got a bite of pancake but that was it. Randy asked how I was feeling and all I was thinking was “Get to Deep Gap”. I knew if I could just make it there I could finish this thing. I regrouped for a second and with very achy legs started toward the next steep climb and a hearty 10 miles to the next aid station.
To Deep Gap
It starts with a shallow river crossing, then a steep climb up a paved road. This is not runnable save for a few Olympic level mountain goats and by the top my quads were not cooperating at all. It was very foggy and I had hard time going back down the steep decline toward the falls at any decent pace, but soon found myself on soft trail again and with the sounds of water falling over rocks beside me it was quite soothing. I stopped here to take care of business, and a few seconds later I saw a headlamp bobbing toward me. I ran up along the falls, the sound of swishing water fading and growing stronger as the trail snaked its way up along the cascading river. It’s a gradual climb here and at the top begins a series of switchbacks and steep climbs up to deep gap. I start making my way up and guessing in the dark I assumed I was halfway and I could see the other headlamp going to and fro along the switchbacks below. Then suddenly I couldn’t see the trail anymore. I walked up a few feet, just some logs and downed trees zigzagging and leaning. I went back where I thought I came from, and saw nothing. The other headlamp was now further ahead and climbing. “Are you okay?” it called out. Damn, I thought, I missed a marker or switchback. “Just finding the trail” I said reluctantly turning backward toward the climbing headlamp. It wasn’t until I typed this that I remember us doing the same thing in the training run, but there’s just no way to remember every inch of a course, let alone in the dark.
I had ran with Brad enough at this point to know he is a skilled climber, and it’s probably my weakness as I just haven’t done a lot of hiking, much preferring the running sections. It showed and before I knew it he was many switchbacks ahead, losing time staring at some logs in the dark didn’t help me any. I continued climbing and could still see his light up ahead, but I was dragging and my legs were very fatigued, breathing slightly labored. We made it to a little summit a few miles up and I was starting to zone out. I saw a pretty good climb ahead from what I could make out as his headlamp was growing farther and farther away. I thought I saw an animal scurry past me, whoa what the!? It was black and long, but very fast and ran right past my leg. I continued running and shined my light around the large leafs about waist high and thought I saw it again, some sort of skinny black ferret. But I realized quickly, much to my now enlightened self, it was not a ferret and only a mild hallucination, a trick of the light and my brain turning the shadows into something. I started to climb and then got light headed. My right leg gave out and I willingly stumbled to the side of the trail. I took a moment to relieve myself and made my way back to the trail to see two headlamps making their way up from below. I was exhausted and tried to go up a very short incline but almost immediately instead sat down beside the trail when my leg refused to rise. It was Dave and his pacer. They asked if I was okay, but because I was in a stupor I couldn’t really answer, or at least I don’t remember what I said but I did accept some water, even though I had some in my pack I figured it couldn’t hurt as I was aware enough to know it was still 5 miles to the next station and that could be a long haul in my condition. Dave moved swiftly on up the trail. I assumed my day was over at this point. “First is a ways ahead guys go get him” I called out as his pacer took off to go catch him up the hill.
I continued hiking as well as I could, but mostly just walked up. As I came to a grassy uphill road I started half running and was reduced back to a walk. I made it onward a few sections and the road began to turn back to the left. It was at this point that my eyes began to squint. I felt the heaviness of my eyelids as they drooped and fluttered, halfway open, then my eyes rolled shut, my chin dropped, and immediately my legs gave out and I fell over in the middle of the trail. I was on my back with my knees up with my head gently nestling the soft grass underneath it. It was a beautiful night and I could see every star in the dark sky blinking up overhead and the silhouette of the tall mountain trees all around. The wind whipped over and through them and crickets chirped. It was quiet. No swishing of my pack, no sound of footsteps crunching the trail, just peaceful. I pulled off my pack and laid it under my head. I looked up and stared at the countless stars and drifted in and out of sleep, my eyes shutting and closing with fresh mountain air rolling over me. I breathed deeply, not having a care in the world. I did wonder when the next runners might find me, but wasn’t too concerned about it. I had many thoughts here but I only remember “Why did you have to do this race, why put yourself through this?”, and it was answered later “This must be my limit. I guess this is why you ran this race” I closed my eyes.
After a number of minutes drifting in and out of consciousness, maybe ten or fifteen, I pulled myself back up, struggling and putting my hands on my knees as leverage to get myself vertical again, my legs weakly shaking beneath. I didn’t feel right, or maybe I was just exhausted but I felt like throwing up, I almost did but nothing. I began to walk again and tried two more times, the last time getting on my hands and knees giving it all I had to hurl but nothing happened. There was no stomach issue, my body was simply trying to tell me it wasn’t jiving with what I’d been up to for the past 14 hours. I looked at my watch and started to calculate how many 20 minute miles walking would get me, and I knew I could at least finish this thing and not have to drop at the aid station. I was very tired, but somehow able to do basic math still. I continued on hiking and walking making it back into another climbing switchback section. There were some downhills here, but it hurt to run them. I glided down slowly and painfully.
A runner caught up to me here as the trail went up and sadly I can’t even remember who it was, Josh maybe. I was pretty out of it but we remember that we had an entire conversation and that he was a nice guy. We worked together on this section with me taking the lead, now chatting about who knows what. Talking helped and soon we were slowly but surely making our way up to Deep Gap, along the way reading the motivational signs I only caught part of due to it being dark. I could hear some music and we made our way up the last little hill to it. The only thing I remember being said was “I think from here it’s mostly downhill.” To which I replied, “Nope I know for sure there is another good climb ahead”, not wanting to set him up for failure, or at least, demoralization.
I was happy to be at this aid station, ran by Will the RD of Pistol Ultra which was my first one less than two years ago. One aid station at that race is ran by the Woody’s who are especially fabulous and I remember how well I was treated there, so to see one of their friendly faces brought back memories of being taken care of. This was no exception. I asked how far ahead the leaders were “first is about 45 minutes and second maybe 25”. That was pretty depressing especially in the condition I was in knowing there was no way I could catch them, but I would have to try to hold onto third, if I even finished. Will changed out my headlamp batteries while Diana offered a plethora of edibles. I tore into some watermelon and she packed me some to go. I was very thirsty the whole time and again asked for more ice and this time got tailwind. So far I had been using heed, but when that icy tailwind hit my lips, there may have been a choir singing or a unicorn getting its wings. I knew my quads were shot and there was still a hefty amount of climbing to the top of the mountain, but we were very close. Two other runners came into the aid station about as I left with Josh already gone. I was ready to get going again, albeit slowly and started the trek up switching to my backup headlamp which was nice and bright.
To Thunder Rock
It wasn’t long before I was passed on the uphill climb. I still couldn’t get myself together and both Josh and the second runner and his pacer hand now passed me, pushing me down to fifth overall. I was hurting very badly but continued hiking as well as I could, but the headlamps worked their way up and over the ridge before I knew it. I was struggling to maintain and was starting to accept my fate, clearly still groggy or tired and certainly wasn’t running on all cylinders. Not a lot made sense other than “keep moving, just finish”. Finally I made it to the downhill section, mostly jeep road with tall weeds and sporadic rocks that jumped up from the ground unexpectedly to bite. I started to pick up the pace, painfully. I was taken back to a trail marathon I ran earlier this year. I went off course early and had lost 3 miles due to it, but still kept hammering starting from behind to pass nearly the entire field of 25. Had I not backed off near the end, thinking i was certainly out of contention, I could have easily ran the 33 seconds i needed to come in third overall. I learned there that even when you are down, you are not out.
A half mile down I could see a headlamp ahead, it was Josh. I passed him shortly within a few turns of the road. That induced adrenaline which helped fight off the pain in the quads. I can only describe this pain as the equivalent of two large men hitting you with a baseball bat as hard as they can on both legs twenty times each on the front, side, and back, then tell you to run for your life. That is the pain. I hate the term “pain cave”, in fact that is the last time I will ever type it or mention it again in my entire life, period. I despise that term. There is only pain and there is no hiding from it. You have no choice but to embrace it, and each step I felt my muscles searing, each step a slap in the face reminder.
Two more headlamps were up ahead, I could look across the winding road and see them on the other side. I continued pushing, knowing if I made a move here it would have to be significant. Within a few minutes I had caught them. “Good job guys” and I rolled by, heedless of any hills. I did have to slow at times, but only on the slightly uphill sections of this service road. The weeds were prickly here and I got snagged many times, a few almost yelp-worthy but it was much less than the pain in my muscles. I kept hammering down this seemingly unending road. I looked back a few times but only saw darkness.
Finally I reached the end of the road. This is where we got lost on the training run, fortunately the “bushwack” was marked clearly this time with reflectors and I found my way very slowly along the route. This was my least favorite section. It was along the side of a steep incline, and my feet were sliding sideways forcing them to the bottom of my shoes at an uncomfortable angle. The dirt was soft and each footstep would push down into it, wasting precious energy. I worked hard to get through this quickly, knowing it was a rather short detour and a single track lay just up ahead. I went as hard as I could once I met the trail again and was getting fairly reckless knowing that the aid station was less than a mile. My quads were screaming still, but I pushed hard and nearly ended myself when I came to an abrupt turn. I swung my body backward away from the ravine and fell on my back against the trail, landing fortunately in some nice soft leaves or bushes. That could have been worse I thought to myself, half entertained. I saw a man up ahead at the highway crossing and he gave me hope “You are the only one who ran that section”. Indeed I did and almost took myself out of commission in the process, but it still felt good to hear. I kissed the trail sign before crossing the highway.
This aid station was mostly a blur. There was a drop bag here, but I didn’t even ask for it. I didn’t need it. All I needed was ice cold hydration and to see that finish line. I remember this trail well from the training run and knew it suited me. I asked the aid station worker “how long since the last guy”, “2-5 minutes”. That startled me and I jumped a little, now frantically trying to figure out what I needed but was too flustered to put it together quickly. I asked for tailwind, knowing there probably wouldn’t be any and was correct in my assumption. Instead I went for 50/50 heed and water with ice, threw it in my pack, “thanks!” and jetted out.
To Whitewater Center
At this point I started to think about time goal. Maybe I could get under 21? I wasn’t sure and the math, although working, was fuzzy. I knew I had a shot but it would mean really working the rest of the race and not slowing significantly. I had to try. But first I had to deal with another decent climb. I walked a bit but was now running uphills. The dawn was slowly coming and as I popped out of the forest onto an open dirt single track I could suddenly see everything. I still needed the headlamp to make out some rocks, but the morning was fast approaching. I reentered the woods and started to pick up the pace. Within a mile I saw a headlamp ahead. I had already turned mine off so I was kind of questioning why it was on, but began reserving for a pass. I had to be cruising to catch up so quickly and I was fully prepared to sacrifice my already compromised quadriceps on the stiff downhill up ahead. I passed Brad and asked if he was okay. I can’t remember what he said exactly as my nearly empty bottle was making a racket, but it wasn’t anything bad, blisters maybe. I kept gliding along the trail, the ice clanging around against the plastic of my empty bottle with each arm pump. I opened the cap and crunched on the remainder.
At this point I hit a moment that I referred to in my mind as “flow”. It’s where the body is moving without you asking, rocks were dodged, hills were climbed, all effortlessly and smooth. It was an odd feeling, and odder yet to be that far into the race and feel it. As the sun was rising I wasn’t sure but I thought I could make out in the distance the sound of the fleet foxes playing from the clouds. I felt no pain. Nothing ached, nothing hurt, even my quads somehow felt absolutely fine. I was amazed how good I felt, I was in the flow. I tried to hold onto this feeling but as soon as I hit the steep descent it vanished. I bombed down, the knives clearly being stabbed into my quadriceps again with each agonizing footfall. I crossed the bridge, seeing a few civilians for the first time in quite a while and gave them a “good morning” and waved, somehow holding onto my pep at 90 miles in. There was an aid station just around the corner and down a hill. I made my way there and asked “how far is the next guy” I believe he said 15 minutes, maybe more. That wasn’t great. With about 10 miles left, and one steep incline I didn’t think I could close that gap. I would do everything I could and at least try to get as close as possible. Even if I finished second that would be huge. Two Tennessee guys taking the top spots would be incredible! I wanted to do that, I had to do that.
To Boyd Gap
I got out of the station with just filling bottles with water and a bite of something. My stomach was fine and I was running well again, no need to do anything else. I tried to recall this section and all I kept going back to was the steep climb. I would have to run a while to get there, and these miles were not coming easily. I had to walk a few sections to maintain, feeling I would redline if I didn’t. If I went too fast here it could be disastrous. I didn’t want to end up lying down in the middle of the trail again. Keep moving forward, control. Finally I saw the pavement which was good and bad. Good because of the last climb, and bad just because this climb is a beast. I began my hike, looking back a few times to see if anyone was there, but even if there were there was nothing I could do about it. I made it to the top of the road and started working my way into the trail, going up along a ravine smattered with loose rocks. Eventually after a fair amount of climbing I heard the sounds of voices and knew the aid station was close.
I asked one question “How far is Dave?”, “Maybe ten or more minutes” they said. “Good job Dave” I said out loud, knowing at this point unless he just fell apart would come through in first. “Good job YOU” Kris said, and I smiled. “I know you’ve had a rough day” she said. I didn’t have a response and I was busy preparing for this last section, now committed. I ate something sweet and something juicy, made sure I had ice in my bottle, “thank you!” and I was off again. One of the aid station workers called to me as I ran off “What do you want at the finish?”, “Chocolate Milk!” I yelled out, looking back I saw their bewildered faces and laughed a little to myself.
To The Finish
7.6 miles, doesn’t seem that long really, in fact it’s a little less than one loop at my nearby trail, but this was the longest 7.6 miles of my entire life. Dave was probably long gone, I hadn’t gained any on him at the last aid station and he seemed to be in much better condition, so I would have to burn these last miles up and go for second. I was hurting badly though. My quads had been hammered, obliterated, and beaten beyond submission, beyond what I ever thought possible. There was pain, but it was a necessary pain now and I had somehow tuned out that part of my brain. I figured I could just coast in to second, surely I had run hard enough for that? With that mindset I began slowing on a runnable section and was jogging or walking here and there. About a mile down the trail I looked over my shoulder, I saw someone, and that someone had a bib.
There are certain moments I can pick out of races, and this was one I will not forget, a turning point. The adrenaline hit my bloodstream like nitrous and I found some other gear, deep inside. I went from a walk to a crisp efficient run. My knees lifted and although my quads hurt I began laying down steady miles. Each mile was more painful than the last, but also faster. I looked at my watch, if I put on a solid effort for one hour I’ll either be finished, or close enough. I did just that. One hour of pain, catch me if you can. I hammered every hill and blasted every downhill, quads be damned. No pain. Well, not really, LOTS of pain. My legs were just meat after all, and I may have as well been slicing it off and feeding it to sharks. I kept hammering, knowing every step whoever was behind me could be gaining. I ran harder.
Then in an instance, “Fwap, WHAM, thud!” my left toe stubbed into a rock, feeling as if a nuclear blister erupted. I counter-balanced and flew through the air, superman-style both arms forward. I hit the ground hard, feeling the weight of all my momentum driving me into the dirt. In a half second I assessed my bloody knee, looked at my scraped arm, got back up and started running again. No hobble, I’m good. I picked up where I left off.
After an eternity of trail turns, left right, left right, left right, I finally came to the final right turn. At this point there is another bushwack section, thankfully well marked. It slowed me down a bit, but I was saving something anyway. “If third place catches up to me, they are going to have one hell of a battle coming their way”, I thought – In fact I almost wished that to happen. Knowing that there was a pretty stiff climb leading up to the finish, I saved my mental energy, but kept the pace strong. A river crossing. I jumped in happily cooling my legs up to the knee and hopped back out onto the opposite bank to resume running. Finally I reached that good old red Tennessee clay and the final climb up. I kept looking back, fully expecting to see someone come along and swish by me. A quarter way up, look back, halfway up, look back. Finally when I was near the top I looked and saw no one. But my race wasn’t over. There was still a downhill section that the zip lines run along. I bombed the switchbacks hard, quads of no concern at this point. I was thrilled to finally be finishing! I put on my best pace to the finish and crossed the line for second place in just under 21:13.
Post-race was amazing.
I can’t imagine a better way to end it than right there at Raft One. I swear everything was handed to me, plus hot showers, bunks, and all the volunteers were simply amazing. After a bit I went in to the bunk and slept hard! So hard in fact when I woke up and saw 2PM on my phone, I thought it was Sunday and I had slept an entire day. But it had only been an hour or two and I felt like a million bucks again, well my legs felt like they were in debt a few million but I was walking around surprisingly well and stayed through to the last finisher. After some burgers and fired personal pizzas I really felt good, and wouldn’t you know it but the RD Randy himself went out and scored me a huge chocolate milk. Kudos to him and his wife, and all those who made this race truly an awesome experience!
It’s hard to put into words what it feels like to run a race like this. A huge sense of accomplishment and relief. There is just so much that goes into it, and so much taken away. I remember someone saying a 100 mile race is like living an entire life in a day. Even if I wrote a hundred more pages, there would still be experiences, thoughts, and moments that would be missed and my rudimentary writing skills can only reveal a glimpse of it. For my first hundo I am abundantly happy! The fact that Dave came back one year after a tough dnf to conquer the trail and win tickled me, I think I was more happy for him after the race than he was! He was so humble about it, a true testament to his character.
I enjoyed watching all the runners come in, and many of the friends I made ran incredible races, beat their goal times and finished strong, which is saying a lot considering less than half who started did. Each time one came through the line I felt their accomplishment and you could see it on their face, right down to the very last runner. Even those who had to drop out ran as well as they could on that day, and that is all you can ask of anyone, it takes guts just to sign up let alone give it everything you got. In January someone said they thought I was ready for a 100, and my response was, “I don’t know, I don’t think I’ll ever do a 100”. Unlike then, even before my quads have forgiven me for this one I’m already asking, “When can I do my next 100?”