Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Linville Gorge from the summit of Table Rock

Friday, January 19, 2018

2018 Weymouth Woods 100K

Though I've enjoyed each of my five trips to Weymouth Woods (even, somewhat, the first time, when I got hit with the stomach bug the night before) my success has been pretty spotty. If not for the great directors and volunteers, my DNFs in 2010 and 2015 would have been a lot tougher to take. So with a record of two finishes in four attempts, it seemed that 2018 could go either way, if past history has any bearing on future performance. If you look at my finishes: 2010-DNF at 13.4 with stomach bug, 2013-2nd, 2015, DNF at 31.2 due to just not feeling it, 2016-3rd, every "odd" running was a DNF. 2018 would be my fifth trip to Weymouth, an "odd" number. Would the trend be broken?

After a lot of debating whether to make the three hour drive on race morning, I ultimately ended up booking a room in Southern Pines. I didn't leave until about 5:00 p.m. on Friday and the majority of the trip was in a heavy downpour. That was consistent with the forecast, which also said that race day would be dry and stay in the low forties for most of the daytime hours--great conditions for an ultra!

I arrived at the hotel (Days Inn) around 8:00 p.m., having eaten in the car. The room was adequate, probably not one my wife, Leslie, would have enjoyed. But what stood out from my brief time at the hotel was that for the first time ever when traveling to a race, the person at the counter asked if I was there for the race. This was not a "host hotel" and I had made no mention of it when booking. Usually, the hotel staff are totally unaware that a race is taking place, and Weymouth is a relatively small race in terms of participants. My only guess is that some other runners had checked in earlier and told him about the event. He noted that he'd lived in Southern Pines for ten years and had never been to Weymouth Woods State Park, despite the fact that it is probably ten minutes from the hotel where he worked.

Race morning had the feel of a routine I'd repeated many times before--because I had. The hotel has changed several times, but arriving at the Park, setting up my chair and supplies, and packet pickup and the pre-race meeting all had that comforting feeling of familiarity. Speaking of familiarity, Marie Lewis is like having my own, personal, race director. Though there are four people sharing that title at Weymouth, Marie was the one I spoke with when I first signed up in 2010 and has been the one part of my trips to Weymouth that hasn't changed. The weather changes, my outcome changes, but Marie does not. She does a great job, and if you go, expect that she will do everything she can to see you finish and make your race enjoyable.

This year, the directors elected to have a relay event at Weymouth, as well. Teams of 2-7 members would take turns doing laps, just like with some of the 12 hour runs I've been to. This made it interesting because in past years, my goal was to not be passed (lapped) by the leader, but on this day, I'd have to get used to people coming by quickly all day long. It really wasn't a problem and I don't mind sliding over to let people by, but the majority of them didn't let me know they were coming up. I don't wear headphones, but several times I wasn't aware they were behind me until right when they were about to come around. That said, it brought a lot of new faces to the event that may some day become ultra runners, now that they've had a taste of what it's like.

After the brief pre-race meeting, we assembled at the starting line. It's kind of like a dirt bike race where everyone starts in a straightaway and runs onto the loop course, but the straightaway is never used again. It gives a little time and room for people to thin out. It was weird to see people starting so fast in a 100K, but they were (hopefully) the relay runners who would only be doing a few laps. I had told myself I really wanted to get a slower start than usual and ease into the race. My goal, without wearing a watch, was to keep all my laps between 40:00 and 49:59. In my previous two finishes, I had two laps each time that were just over 50 minutes. Interestingly, only one of the four 50+ minute laps was on the final lap, when I had to run part of it in the dark. Anyway, I was prepared to not PR on this day, and knew that my old goal of finishing without a headlamp was out off the table this year.

Knowing there would be sand (and roots, of course) I went with my newish Salomon XA Enduro shoes that have built in gaiters. I had worn them on some shorter training runs and they are very comfortable. They have a good tread pattern and I was hopeful they'd serve me as well as my Salomon SpeedCross 3s had in past races. Up top, I had on a TRU shirt and my trusty old Freedom Park 24-Hour jacket which has had its share of wear-and-tear, but is still a good light-duty jacket.

There were two types of sand on the Weymouth trails this year. One was the fine white, grainy stuff like you find in the bunkers at nice golf courses--fitting with Pinehurst so close. The other sand was the brownish, clumpy stuff like we have in golf course bunkers where I play. I felt really well early on and even though I tried to hold back, I was still under forty minutes on the first loop. At 38:00, it was only about 24 seconds slower than in prior years. I wonder if the relay people were pulling me a bit. 

After the second lap, the guy in front of me slipped over into the Visitor's center bathrooms. As he did so, David Lee (again timing the event) told me that that put me in the lead. I really wish he hadn't said that because then I start thinking ahead and I was only nine miles into a 62.5 mile race. I knew that unless the guy was having major issues, he'd be passing me back because I'd be making my own stop in there in the next lap or so.

So, however brief it could end up being, for the first time ever I had the lead at Weymouth. I'll note that the relay runners (and probably a few regular runners) had their chips attached to Velcro ankle straps. When I'd get passed, I'd look down for that sign of whether they were relay or individual runners. It didn't always work. Sometimes I couldn't see anything, often because their black sock perfectly matched the Velcro band. It was usually pretty safe to judge which race they were in by the pace they were running. If they passed me quickly, they were surely relay. If they gradually came around, probably individual.

As I ran my third and fourth laps, I noticed my legs were getting sore in odd places. I initially attributed this to the sand and uneven surfaces, but as I continued, I began to suspect my shoes. I've never paid much attention to the amount of "drop" in my shoes, only noticing that on a couple pairs I've worn that were "zero drop" my hamstrings would be sore the next day. The Salomon XA Enduros have 8mm drop and my SpeedCross 3s are 10mm. I don't know if that's enough difference to really notice, but when I finished my fifth lap, I decided I'd better change back to the SpeedCross to see if my soreness improved.

Through my first four loops, I had stayed within a stone's throw of my elapsed time for the prior two finishes. 2:33:51 this year versus 2:33:55 in 2013 and 2:30:02 in 2016. A bathroom break after lap four and the shoe change after lap five dropped me back quite a bit. That put me at 4:05:06 after six laps, versus 3:57:44 in 2013 and 3:52:37 in 2013. So, I was a bit behind, though I didn't have any idea at the time, but would the shoe change pay off?

For a while, I didn't notice any difference, but after another lap or two, the soreness did start fading. I was still sore as I would be in any trail run but it wasn't concentrated on my hips and hamstrings. Knowing I had made two "long" stops at the start/finish area, and not really knowing who the leaders were, I no longer had any idea where I stood in terms of place. That was fine as I was really hopeful I could just have a good race. I wasn't particularly well trained for this year's event, having had only one thirty mile run since Cloudsplitter in October (and that one had been a lot of walking.) So far, the Tailwind and a little food had held me well. Above the waist, I felt good. I knew I was coming into the dreaded miles 30-40 zone where things are always a bit harder, so I tried to focus on just gutting out the next few laps.

The ninth lap put me at about mile 40.5 and I emerged from that "dead zone" feeling pretty good. After looking at the splits, I realized why I felt better above the waist--I was running significantly slower than in those past years. After nine laps, my elapsed time was 6:37:23 whereas it was 6:11:35 in 2013 and 6:12:13 in 2016. I honestly didn't feel like I had slowed THAT much but the clock doesn't lie. At this point, I knew a finish was in the cards, but it might involve a lot more running with a headlamp than in prior years.

Somewhere on lap ten, my knee began to bother me--not a soreness but a sharp pain on the front outside--in an area I had banged on a rock during a fall years ago. It bothers me every now and then, somewhat at random times, but I was hopeful this was something that would pass.

It wouldn't. Laps nine and ten were the slowest I'd ever run during a WW100K finish, by several minutes. I was having to stop and stretch out my knee every few minutes and was having to walk quite a bit more than in prior laps. As I started my 11th lap, I knew this one would be telling. If I could "walk it off," I could gut out a finish, but I wasn't going to risk doing further damage by pushing an injured knee. I don't know a lot about knees but knew that DNF'ing Weymouth was highly preferable to causing damage that knocks me out of running for several weeks or months.

The 11th lap did not go very well. I was walking almost all of it. For a while, walking didn't bother my knee, but then even that started to be a problem. About midway through the loop, when I was a bit down on the realization that I'd probably be dropping, I heard the young woman ahead of my shriek out and turn around shouting "Who are you?" I was probably 30-40' behind her and taken aback. I looked up and saw what looked like a small dog coming down the boardwalk section of trail, just beyond her. I thought perhaps she recognized the dog as belonging to a friend of hers and she was just excited to see it. Then, I realized it was not a dog, but a large raccoon. She came back toward me and said she thought it was crying and asked if she could get behind me. I said it was fine and that I didn't think it was crying, but that was just a noise they make. The raccoon came to the end of the boardwalk and then stepped off and went into the woods--I assume to its den. We continued on. It did occur to me that seeing a raccoon in the daytime can sometimes be a sign of rabies, but it was certainly not aggressive and we were not too far from sunset, so it probably was nothing to worry about. Plus, he'd probably learned by living in a state park that people have food and he wasn't afraid of us.

So, I continued on, now almost certain this was the last lap. A couple times, I tried to run, but could only make it a few steps before the sharp pain returned. During the race, I had calculated that when I finished my 12th lap, that would be my 50th lap of Weymouth Woods. I would be finishing today one short of that milestone. 

I came up the steps behind the visitor's center and made the turn around David's timing trailer one last time. I might have tried to walk the rest of the 100K but finding that even walking was bothering my knee, I just did not want to risk it. After removing my chip, I spoke to David and David for a bit and then talked with Marie a while. My trend of DNFing the odd years had continued. While talking to Marie, I was second guessing myself about stopping. Would it feel better if I kept going? I got my answer as I carried my stuff back to the car. It was now hurting worse than it had during the race. I don't know if one of those elastic knee braces would have helped, but it didn't matter since I didn't have one.

Since I compared my splits earlier in this writeup, lap eleven was finished in 8:35:45. In 2013 I finished lap 11 in 7:48:16 and in 2016, it was 7:52:19. I was almost, but not quite, a full lap behind my 2013 pace.

I'll plan to return in 2019 if all goes well. That will be the 10th running of WW100K and would be an "even" year for me, so if my trend holds, it could be a good year. If I can recover from UTMB quickly enough, maybe I'll even try to train to go sub-10 hours next time--but given my rocky finishing history, I'll be happy with a finish.

Here are the lap splits compared to my two finish years.

Lap        2018           2016          2013
  1        38:00.0        37:36.1       37:36.6
  2        37:26.5        37:32.3       37:50.3
  3        38:09.1        38:22.1       37:11.4
  4        40:01.8        38:41.8       40:18.8
  5        44:09.2        40:07.7       40:53.9
  6        47:07.6        42:27.1       42:55.3
  7        48:51.2        44:22.6       43:03.8
  8        49:54.3        46:29.1       46:22.0
  9        53:29.6        44:17.9       48:51.6
 10       53:40.2        45:52.1       50:17.5
 11    1:04:42.6        50:48.9       49:48.5

Full results are at Finish Line Pros.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

2017 Cloudsplitter 100K

Despite last year's problems with Grindstone and UTMB qualifying, I knew that if I had the required qualifying points this year, I was guaranteed entry in the 2018 UTMB 100. The biggest problem was logistics. I did not want to head out to the west coast again in pursuit of a qualifier, so what was the most convenient option that fit my calendar and took place before the end of the year? A quick look through UTMB's searchable database of qualifying races revealed a pretty limited list of choices: Twisted Branch Trail Run in New York on 08/19, Vermont 50M on 9/28, and Cloudsplitter 100K in Virginia on 10/07. Interestingly, Grindstone showed up again as a qualifier this year...

I didn't want to go to New York, and Vermont took place when I was helping my friend, Lee, at the Yeti 100. There was also a qualifying 100M in Missouri in my time frame but I only needed four points and didn't want to do any more than I had to do, given my limited time for training. So, in a way, I kind of backed into Cloudsplitter. I did e-mail a friend who had done in in a previous year and he spoke highly of the people who put it on and the volunteers, so I signed up.

With three years of history under its belt, Cloudsplitter has four races: 100M, 100K, 50K, and 25K. They would all start at the local high school in Norton, VA, at 7:00 a.m. I knew this year's course was new so my looking at old results was of limited use in terms of guesstimating a finishing time. I did know that with a 7:00 a.m. start, I would certainly be finishing too late in the evening to make the 3:15 drive back home post-race, so I booked my room at the local Days Inn for two nights. Dennis planned to come up on race day and meet me at the Bark Camp Lake aid station (miles 19.42 and 28.22) and do the last 40 miles with me. My second time through this station was the earliest we could have pacers and the 100K was actually 68+ miles. He planned to arrive at 11:00 a.m., which was plenty early as that would mean I'd been doing seven minute miles to get there in four hours.

The race day forecast was for clear skies until around midnight when Hurricane Nate would bring precipitation to the area. It also called for warm temperatures, reaching into the 80s in the lower elevations. High humidity would mix with the warm temperatures to make for some heavy sweating throughout the day, alleviated at times by cooling breezes that I could only assume were courtesy of Nate. Also that day was Norton's annual Woodbooger Festival, which is their version of Bigfoot. 

Packet Pickup - Waiting on the Briefing
Packet pickup was held on Friday evening at the local middle school gym and would be followed by a brief meeting with pertinent race information. I checked myself in and, in addition to my bib and a long sleeved shirt received an "over the shoulder" race bag and a packet of coffee made to honor Karl Meltzer setting the AT record a year or so ago. This was a chip timed race and the "chips" were two small electronic strips we had to put on our shorts or attach to our running packs. They seemed sturdy enough, but I did worry about the strength of the safety pin holding them to my pack. They were serving pizza, etc... at packet pickup, but I wasn't sure I was up for that and planned to stop by somewhere afterward the meeting for dinner.

Runners slowly filled the bleachers on one side of the gymnasium. A guy wearing a 2016 TRU shirt sat right next to me and was talking on his phone to some friends. He seemed both excited and nervous and made some comment about the fact that the 100K had the same 40 hour time cutoff as the 100M and that he'd use it if he had to. I was texting Lee at the time and told him it was weird not seeing anyone I knew or even recognized.

It was kind of hard to hear what was being said at the briefing due to the acoustics of the gym. Most of it was the standard information about the flags, bears, dropping out options, etc... but they also said something about the USATF trail championships that I couldn't follow. I am not a member and had no delusions of winning or setting any records, so I didn't pay close attention to that part. For reference though, I looked it up while preparing this writeup and found information about the championships here. I gathered that the Norton community and perhaps the entire area, was in an economic downturn due to a reliance on coal mining and was trying to rebrand itself to attract the outdoor adventurers. With mountains everywhere around the community, I could see it working. This race seemed to be an early "toe in the water" test of such a movement.

The Start/Finish Area
I arrived at about 6:00 a.m. on race morning, my hotel being only a few minutes away. I checked in and put my "drop bag," which was simply a large ziplock with some food, in the Devil's Fork Parking Lot aid station pile. It would be available to me at mile 52.65 if I needed it. In my pack, I had an extra shirt, various bars, eight packets of Tailwind, my headlamp, extra battery, and handheld, and my ultra-lightweight rain jacket that stuffs into its own pocket. Up front, I had my two Salomon Soft Flasks and my phone. As everyone congregated at the start, I saw Jacob Guffey, who's done TRU a few times, and spoke to him briefly. A quick message from the RD, invocation from a town councilman, and we were off to the boom of a black powder rifle.

Roughly the first mile of the course is paved and is the beginning of a five mile climb that reportedly gains 1556' and loses 260', making the net climb and distance somewhat comparable to The Bear 5-miler. Since all the races start together, it was hard to tell who was in which race, though I'd later figure out how the races were distinguished by bib number. I stayed and spoke with Jacob for a little bit but then we separated as our paces differed. He was in the 100 miler and obviously had to be a little more conservative than me. I think there were somewhere around 200 people registered for the four races and we spread out pretty quickly as the paved road gave way to dirt and then to single track trail. 

A Blurry Look at an Early Section Showing Fall Color
For as much as it supposedly climbed, there were sections of runnable trail along this stretch, even some downhill, but there were also very steep sections that meant shifting to a lower gear or two to get up. I was a bit surprised to arrive at the mile five aid station (Pickem Mountain) in about 52 minutes. I'm sure in hindsight that I was heading out too fast but it really didn't occur to me at the time. All I really needed here was to top off my bottles and I thanked the volunteers and headed on, headed toward High Knob.

A quick pause here to note that while I took quite a few pictures during the daylight hours, I must have set something wrong on my phone camera because most were terribly blurry. So, very few are going to make it into this write-up.

This section was a lot of USFS road and though it trended uphill, I was able to run a bit here. The double track became pavement as I continued to climb. As I came closer to the observation tower, I saw they were setting up for a local 10K that would begin at 10:00 that morning. It was a great viewpoint and I probably should have just "wasted" a few minutes to go check out the view from the tower but I suppose I was in "race mode" and just kept going. A volunteer directed me to a side trail where I began a steep decent to the second aid station.

I reached this station, High Knob Recreation Area - mile nine, at 8:38 a.m. It was a larger station and the first drop bag location. Here, I would begin a roughly thirty mile out-and-back. I made a new batch of tailwind and I think I might have had PB&J triangle. I had tried a Belvita chewy granola bar earlier in the race and while I ate most of it, it was not very good, an assertion Dennis would later support when I mentioned it to him. At this point, I was ahead of a 15 hour pace--the fastest pace I had on my spreadsheet. I wasn't really running/walking strategically, though, and certainly would not be able to maintain this pace for the rest of the race.

I was running mostly alone now on a stretch that rolled but mostly trended downhill. I did have one guy go by me on an uphill where the trail crossed the road. Just as he crossed the road ahead of me and was out of site, I heard a lot of noise off to my right. I thought at first that it was him crashing through the woods on a downhill section of trail, but when I looked, I could only get a glimpse of what looked to be a dark blob--certainly not a rabbit or squirrel and not graceful enough for a deer. It could only be one thing--yes, the Woodbooger. I made a mental note to report my siting when I saw a wildlife officer.

The still-low-in-the-sky sun caused me problems at times, and made me wish for my sunglasses, but it was mostly nuisance and only an issue when I was running directly toward it. It did cause a real problem at one point when the sun kept me from seeing the flag on the opposite side of a dirt road I was supposed to cross. Instead of continuing on across, I turned right and headed down the road (I don't know why I automatically went right instead of considering left.) I had run for a minute or two down the road when I saw a guy running back toward me asking if I saw any flags. I said I had not so we backtracked and sure enough, there they were, right across the road from the other set. I let him go on ahead of me and he was soon out of sight.

It was 9:52 when I reached the third aid station, Edith Gap, at mile 15:17. I didn't know it at the time, but I was 28 minutes below the 15 hour pace and it probably would have been 30 minutes without my error at the road crossing. I felt pretty good and though it was warmer than I like to run in, I wasn't uncomfortable. I did drink a bit extra here; filling my bottle, then drinking it down and refilling it. As I came into the aid station, I noticed the guy ahead of me leaving it and heading a different direction than we had come and than I was heading. If he was in the 50K, why wasn't he heading back the way we came and if he was in the 100K or 100M, why wasn't he heading my way? I later looked in the race information packet and saw that the 50K had a short out-and-back on the dirt road to make the distance accurate and that's what he was doing. That did have me scratching my head for quite a while during the race, though. Finished with my visit, I thanked the volunteers and headed on toward Bark Camp Lake.

Though it had stretches that were unrunnable for me, this stretch went pretty well until I reached an odd trail intersection. The trail I was on went straight but there was a sharp right that went onto a boardwalk across the end of the lake. The yellow blazes, which we were told marked the course along with the pink ribbons, were on the part that went across the boardwalk. Not seeing any flags beyond this intersection in either direction, I elected to take the boardwalk route because it had the blazes. The map below will show what happened over the next little while--the red line being the actual course. I went (yellow line) for a while past the boardwalk and began to doubt my decision so I turned around and went back the other way. I then ran (light green line) on this side of the lake until I caught up to another runner. Not seeing any flags here, I asked him if he thought we should have crossed the boardwalk. Right as I said that, another runner was coming toward us and said we were going the wrong way--that there weren't any flags ahead. So, we all turned around and crossed the boardwalk, taking the blue line around the lake. Ultimately, that was the wrong thing to do and we should have stayed on the north side. Not only was it shorter, but there was construction going on at the far end (right side) of the lake that we had to go through while equipment was moving earth around. I'm sure the construction workers thought we were idiots.

My Bark Camp Lake Error(s)
When I finally reached the aid station parking lot, I saw Dennis and he asked what I was doing there so soon (because I was coming from the wrong direction.) I told him that I wasn't there, that it was my first time through so I was only at mile 19-20. When I checked in, they counted me as "another one" who had gone the wrong way so I wondered how many had made our error. At least I hadn't cut the course short, but there is something mentally draining about doing extra mileage, especially when the course is already six miles beyond the 100K distance. The one saving grace in looking back at my spreadsheet is that this section had been very runnable so I didn't lose as much time as I would have had it been a technical section. I was now 16 minutes ahead of a 15 hour finish time. Dennis had to just hang out at the aid station until I finished the nineish mile out-and-back that would bring me back to Bark Camp Lake. 

It was a steady downhill that followed Stony Creek. I see the irony in the name as I write this because this creek had a lot of large rocks in it. The water was low, but the rocks were extremely slick when they were in shady areas. I found this out the hard way when I stepped on one and went down hard. I thought I might have broken two fingers (ring and middle) on my left hand as they bent way farther back than they are supposed to. I never heard a crack or anything, though and while it hurt, they still had full movement. From then on, I took extra care on any wet, black rocks as they seemed to have been coated with motor oil. That mishap aside, the 4.4 mile leg down to Little Stony Falls seemed to go by relatively quickly, despite there being a lot of creek crossings--some of which required some climbing to get from the creek up onto the bank.

I reached the Little Stony Falls aid station, mile 23.82, at 11:52 a.m., now back up to 22 minutes ahead of a 15 hour pace. This was my turnaround and after a quick refill, I headed back to Bark Camp Lake, where Dennis would begin his pacing duties. Note: the 100 milers had to continue three miles beyond this turnaround to a Hanging Rock picnic area.

The return trip gradually made its way uphill and was the first time I'd see many of my co-runners since the start of the race since we were now heading in opposite directions. Of course, I didn't know most of them, but I did see and briefly speak to a guy in a "Grand-further" shirt, I saw Jacob again, and I saw one guy who thought I was the "Mohician Guy" and asked if I had run "Mohican." I had to let him down. It was obviously going to be slower heading upstream, into traffic, and being extra cautious on the creek crossings, and that was reflected in my time getting back to Bark Camp Lake--roughly 12:55 p.m, or about ten minutes slower than the outbound part of the out-and-back, though I somehow did miss a turn near the lake and went a couple hundred yards up the wrong trail--to the bottom of the dam. When I finally arrived at Bark Camp Lake, Dennis was talking to some guys from Kentucky who were there crewing another 100K runner celebrating his 60th birthday.

We headed out from the aid station right around 1:00 p.m. I was still about twelve minutes ahead of a 15 hour pace, but I was now getting (with my detours) into that dead zone between miles 30 and 40 that almost always give me trouble. I did a lot of walking early on, even though the trail was runnable. Along this stretch, another guy, Eric, fell in with us for a bit. We eventually gathered that he was from Greensboro, but he didn't know most of the Greensboro-area runners Dennis asked about. He also didn't talk a lot, unless asked a question, but seemed content to have us pulling him along and didn't mind all my walking. There were a few spots where I felt comfortable running through here, but this leg would put a big dent in my pace due to so much walking. At one point, Eric decided to run on ahead but I wasn't in a position to do the same. Not only was this that tough 30-40 point, but it was also the warmest part of the day and I was in the lower elevations for the course. By now, the temps had to be in the 80s--the forecast high--and it was very humid.

When I reached Edith Gap, my 15 hour pace buffer had dwindled down to just three minutes. It was to be expected given all my walking and now that I had seen the trails (lots of flat sections were riddled with large rocks that made running tricky, I couldn't reasonably have expected to maintain it the entire race. I refilled quickly and, eager to be on my way, started walking ahead. Dennis lingered briefly to study the map and determine how far it was to the next station--possibly trying to figure out how long his pacing duties might take if I continue to walk so much.

I did try to move quickly when I was walking, but could only do what the terrain and my body would allow. There would be a lot of walking in this next section as well with some good climbs and moderately technical sections. We talked a lot, which helped to make the time and miles seem to pass quicker, but this section, which was right at 10K distance, took almost two hours to get through.

We were back at High Knob Recreation Area aid station at 4:02 p.m. I was now exactly on a 16 (not 15) hour pace. We lingered a bit at the aid station as I drank as much as I could. The Tailwind and S-caps seemed to be holding off major dehydration but I was still experiencing a mild case of it. Dennis and I both tried the boiled potatoes, which I'm sure tasted just fine, but did not sit well with either of us. I knew the climb back up to the Tower would be steep, but fortunately "only" about 1.5 miles. We headed out at a quick walk as someone else came into the aid station. 100 milers, upon reaching this aid station, have to return back to Bark Camp Lake again. Knowing that, I was extraordinarily grateful at that moment not to have been in the 100 mile race. A mile or two before we had reached this aid station, we saw the first place 100 miler coming back toward us. He was moving at a strong pace and actually smiling. I'm not sure I could have smiled knowing I had to repeat that tough stretch again.

The climb up to High Knob actually went by pretty quickly. Considering it gained 612' in elevation over 1.58 miles, the fact that I was only three minutes slower than a 16 hour pace when I reached the aid station in the parking lot meant we had made pretty good time up the mountain. Because of how close it was to the one below, this aid station was not here the first time I came through High Knob. It was a pretty large one and marked the start of a "lollipop" section of trail that lay ahead. It was now 4:28 p.m. I was three minutes behind a 16 hour pace and 32 minutes ahead of a 17 hour pace.

Dennis Runs Ahead on a Colorful Section of Trail
High Knob is the highest point on the course, so from this aid station, we had a good bit of downhill for the next 6.5 miles (1647' of drop versus 291' of climb, according to the website.) So, I tried to run the downhills as best I could, hoping to make up a little time and stretch my legs out. I could tell Dennis was ready to run as well. It started as a paved road and then changed over to dirt road and then to grassy USFS road. On the grassy section, we caught back up to Eric and he stayed with us to the Devil's Fork Loop aid station. We reached that aid station at 5:46 p.m., putting me now 11 minutes ahead of a 16 hour pace, but I knew when we returned to this point, we'd have a lot of climb back up to High Knob. The loop was roughly 7.6 miles in total with a 5.9 mile leg down to the Devil's Fork Parking lot. It was now 5:46 p.m. and not long before we'd be breaking out the headlamps.

We departed, with Eric coming along with us, at a fast walk. I drank a lot at this aid station and needed to let it settle. I'm not sure whether it was the particular section of trail or the time of day, but this was the most colorful part of the course I could remember. There were a lot of yellow leaves on the trees and the indirect sun gave them a bit of a glow. Dennis pulled me to run a little through here, which I did, almost stepping on a snake at one point. Slowly, Eric disappeared behind us, running his own race. As the loop went on, it got tougher, with long boulder fields and ultimately a bit of minor rock climbing. It was a tricky enough section that the race officials sent two people up to hang out in one area to make sure no one got injured.
The Devil's Bathtub

We now had our headlamps on as we made our way across the boulders and creek beds. After crossing a wide section of creek, we had to walk along a narrow rock ledge that I would later learn was above the Devil's Bathtub that had been mentioned in the pre-race meeting and on the race's facebook page. Since it was dark, I couldn't get a picture of this feature, but on the right is a public domain picture. If you do a search on Devil's Bathtub Virginia, you'll get some better pictures. In relation to this view, we were above and to the left of the pool when we were on the ledge. Roughly two miles later, we reached the Devil's Fork Parking Area and the mile 52.65 aid station.

Here, Dennis ran into a friend named Laura, whom he knew from the Abingdon area and they talked while I refilled my bottles. I hadn't eaten much lately and just didn't want much. By now, it was about 7:50 p.m.. I spoke to a local fireman while Dennis hit the Portajon. Eric came into the aid station while we were there and went to his drop bag. After a few minutes, we headed back out, faced with a climb of 1000' in 1.7 miles, back to the start of the loop.

There was only one thing to do and that was to just accept that this would be a steep and grinding climb. We didn't talk much, just focused our energy on the climb. There was nothing to see but the ground ahead of us. Nothing to worry about but getting to the next aid station. The fact that another long climb lay after that aid station was not important at this moment. Perhaps our focus paid off because the aid station came into view much quicker than I had expected and we arrived around 8:28 p.m. By that point, I was hoping for a 17 hour (midnight) finish and remember asking Dennis if he thought we could manage a 3:30 over the last 14 miles. It sounds doable, and 8:30 p.m. was just below the 17 hour pace for this aid station, but we still had a major climb back up to High Knob to tackle.

So, we headed out of the aid station and up the grassy road we had descended earlier. To our right, an orange moon peered through the trees, still low in the sky. We wondered when we might see runners coming toward us but we were completely past the grassy road and onto the dirt road before we saw anyone. Making our way up the dirt road, I tried to run the occasional downhill on this section, but I was in another low point. We saw runners trickling down toward us either solo, with a pacer, or in pairs. We saw the first place 100-miler go by, and much later the second place 100-miler, but everyone else was in the 100K with me. The number of climbs seemed inconsistent with the number of descents we had had coming down this section. And it wasn't until we reached the paved section of road that I began to feel like this race might actually have an end. I knew we didn't have much farther to the next aid station. A sign reinforced my belief when it read just .5 miles up the paved road to the parking area. Though I felt somewhat like I needed to throw up, I pressed as best I could up this hill, relieved when the aid station lights (some with an unsettling strobe effect) came into view. I was now at mile 60.92. It was somewhere around 10:30 p.m. now, which was 21 minutes over the 17 hour pace with about 7.5 miles to go. Dennis gave me half a banana here, but I couldn't eat it. I was just ready to be done. Though the temperatures had not dropped, a strong wind cooled things down substantially on this exposed point so we didn't linger long. I asked if they had any Tums but they did not. I suppose I could have tried ginger ale, but didn't think about it at the time. After thanking the volunteers, we headed down the paved road, looking for the spot where the course turned into the woods on the left.

Dennis would occasionally pull ahead and I'd shuffle run to catch up. Once we got onto the trail, I remembered it was double track and I really had no good excuse not to run, so I did so as quick as I could, which is to say 5-6 mph at most. My headlamp had annoyingly kept sliding down my forehead but I hesitated to tighten it too much as I already wasn't feeling great. For the last several hours, I had unclasped my pack to let air circulate around my soaked shirt, but I could only do it on uphill climbs. While running downhill, the pack bounced around too much, but I surely could have used some cooling down now. It seemed that every time we ran, the breeze stopped so I was getting hotter through exertion as well as lack of air flow. It seemed incredible that despite being well after sunset, the temperatures had barely dropped.

The last (Pickem Mountain) aid station came up much sooner than I had expected because the prior aid station told us we had 3.5 miles and it was actually only 2.5. With the home stretch ahead of us, we lingered only long enough to be polite and then took off. It was about 11:10 when we left, or 24 minutes off of the 17 hour pace. We had to average 10 minute miles the rest of the way to meet that goal, but I seemed to recall a few things about this part of the trail that would make that difficult. First, there would be some uphill sections, and second, there were some very technical sections and sharp turns. But we pressed on as finishing was the important thing. I had looked on the check-in sheet at the aid station and thought I saw only three times recorded when they wrote mine in, implying I was in third place. While a top three finish wasn't my goal, it gave me some motivation to keep from being passed in the last section. We had no idea where Eric might be or if anyone might have passed him and be chasing me down. So, I moved with a little more enthusiasm. I'd still have to slow down at times and keep from overheating, but it was usually momentary, and I was able to continue to run the runnable sections. I told Dennis that we'd have about a mile to go when we hit the pavement. We crossed pavement a time or two, which gave us some false hope, but then, almost unexpectedly, we emerged into a gravel park area I remembered from earlier in the day. The pavement came right after it and we charged down the hill, "smelling the barn". It was the middle of the night and as we passed a house, there were three people outside that told us their coon hound was loose and if we saw him to just tell him to go home. I told them I had beagles and knew what it was like to have them go roaming in the middle of the night.

Down we went, under the same massive bridge that I had passed under seemingly so long ago and moving over to a coned section of the road. An uphill I had forgotten was on the final section of road, beside the high school, and I made it the first uphill I had run in many hours. Down the other side and left into the parking area and then less than 100 yards to the finish. I saw the clock as I drew near and it read 17:12. So, I had missed my time goal, but achieved my ultimate goal of finishing. The same guys who Dennis had talked to at Bark Camp Lake were there waiting on their friend so we spoke briefly post-race. It turned out I was actually 4th--the third place guy was sitting there and came up and spoke--but that was fine. I hung around just long enough to return my chip tags and thank the RD for putting on the event and making it a UTMB qualifier. Susan, the race director, gave me a large finisher's medallion.

As we left, a bank's sign indicated that the temperature was still 71 degrees--after midnight in Virginia in October. At least Bryce Canyon had dropped down later in the evening--and it was in June! That was the longest race I can recall where I had to deal with so much heat and humidity the entire time. I don't know what the finish rate was, but I imagine that there were at least a couple people that were taken out by the conditions. I was just glad it wasn't me. We made our way back to Bark Camp Lake for Dennis to retrieve his car and there were still 100 milers (I guess they weren't 100K runners) passing through the aid station. It seemed so long ago when I was here, and it was--12.5 hours ago--but they were hopefully heading back from their second time through that out-and-back.

After seeing the sections the 100-milers had to repeat, I was extremely glad to not have signed up for that event. Once was tough enough, but going into the out-and-back or loop a second time, knowing what it was like, would have been torture, especially if the incoming rain made things slick and muddy. It was hard to fathom late Sunday that I had finished the 100K, cleaned up, slept about five hours at the hotel, driven around 3.5 hours home, had lunch, napped, had dinner, and gone to bed at 9:30 p.m. Sunday night and there might still be people on the course, taking advantage of that 40 hour cutoff. I'm certain that Dennis pacing me cut significant time off my finish because without him bugging me to run some of the sections, I am pretty sure I'd have walked them and had a much slower pace. It was helpful to have him ahead on the climbs, "pulling" me up as well. So now, when he goes back and does the Cloudsplitter 100M, I guess I have to pace him for his last forty miles. LOL.

So, unless something bad happens, I am now qualified and guaranteed entry into the UTMB 100 for 2018. The question is should I even try? I've mentioned it before in write-ups, but unless I figure out a way around the eating issue later in races, I don't see how I could finish something that will take possibly eight hours longer than say Grindstone, where I was already finishing on fumes. Registration is in January, so there will be a lot of hard thinking between now and then. But for now, I'll just be glad to have survived another 100K (plus.)

The full results are available here. It was good to see that the guy (Brian,) I had seen in the TRU shirt at packet pickup finished. Also, Jacob finished strong in the 100-miler.

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POSTSCRIPT

A few weeks post-race, I went to the UTMB website to see if Cloudsplitter was showing up in my qualifying points list and what do I find???  Grindstone 2016 is now showing up! If you do not understand why I highlight this, I was going to be guaranteed entry for 2017 UTMB if I finished the 2016 Grindstone 100 (which was showing up on the UTMB site as a qualifying race.) I did finish but Grindstone did not submit its paperwork to the ITRA so it was not considered a qualifier when it came time for me to register for 2017 Mont Blanc. Now, a year later, it shows up... I could have either skipped 2017 Bryce Canyon or 2017 Cloudsplitter and still been qualified.


And below is where it shows I am guaranteed (priority) for 2018 UTMB.


As a twice rejected lottery applicant, I was supposed to be guaranteed entry for 2017 UTMB, but because Grindstone ultimately didn't count at the time to register for 2017, I had to register for the another Mont Blanc race, for which I had enough points, the TDS. I was unlucky in the draw, however. After Bryce Canyon, I e-mailed the UTMB board and pled my case. They graciously informed me that because my situation was unique and unfortunate, if I was qualified for the 2018 race, I would be guaranteed entry. So, I added Cloudsplitter to get my remaining four points and now with 2016 Grindstone counting, I didn't even need them. Still, I enjoyed the event and it really served to inform me that I need to get more serious about training for longer races like this.

Monday, September 11, 2017

2017 Table Rock to Beacon Heights

For its 40th Anniversary, the MST took on the challenge of having every mile of the Trail hiked on its September 9th anniversary date. I was put in charge of recruiting hikers for our local area--Segment 4--which runs from Black Mountain Campground to Beacon Heights, near Linville.

As the ten legs of trail we set up filled, I started to think about what I would do during the event. There were not any hikerless legs that I absolutely had to cover and I needed to get a long training run in for an upcoming race, so I decided to take another crack at last year's Table Rock to Beacon Heights run. To make it interesting, I emailed a bunch of runner friends and asked them to take part in a wager. If I could cover the distance in 9:30, they would donate $20 to the MST. If it took me longer, I would donate $20 for each person who took the bet. It took me 9:45 to cover the distance last year under less than favorable conditions. Of the 50 or so people I contacted, 20 took me up on the bet, so $400 was in the line. The MST would win no matter the outcome.

As the date of the event approached, I began to think I should lower the time goal and after speaking with Dennis, changed it to 9 hours even. I wasn't in the best running shape, but the weather forecast promised much better conditions this year with a high in the 70s, probably 20 degrees cooler than in 2016. Ray, who was originally going to run the first leg with me, had to back down to just driving me up to the Table Rock parking lot and meeting me a little ways down the trail.


Linville Gorge from the Table Rock Summit
After Ray dropped me off, I hurried up to the summit of Table Rock, hoping to get started as soon as possible and take advantage of as much of the cool temperatures as I could. Hurricane Irma, now in Florida, seemed to have pulled the humidity out of our air so the views were really impressive at the summit. My cell phone didn't do a great job, but to the right is a panorama of the Linville Gorge.

I started the MapMyRun app on my phone, hoping it would not only time the run, but also map the route and distance to prove I wasn't just driving over to Beacon Heights. At 7:16 a.m., I began my trek towards Beacon Heights, some 31 miles away. I was geared up with my trusty running pack, two Salomon soft flask water bottles, S-caps, Tailwind sports mix, various granola bars, and my Sawyer water filter with the matching water pouch. I had a cap attached to my pack in case I got hot and needed to soak it in water along the way.

At around 7:26 a.m., I crashed and caught my face on a rock, having barely gotten onto the MST itself. This was the first time my head has ever made contact with the ground in a fall. The rock was fortunately flat but it left a nice bruise on my eyebrow and cheekbone. It happened so fast, I hardly had time to react. I don't recall a trip but think my back foot possibly slid out from under me on a slight downhill. The only blood was a small scrape on a knuckle, but it was enough to make me a lot more cautious the rest of the day. I was going to be out there alone and while there would be hikers coming through during various parts of the day, if something happened where I needed immediate assistance, I'd be in trouble with a bad fall.

A sign back at the Table Rock parking lot warned of bear activity and I couldn't help but think of that in the back of my mind. An unfortunate bear encounter could bring the plan for the day to a quick halt. As I made my way down to Steele Creek and then back up towards the Highway 181 crossing, I could see to see my cheek bone swelling out of the corner of my eye. The familiarity of this leg (part of our Table Rock Ultras course) helped it to go by relatively quickly. And it didn't just feel quick, it actually was as I got to Highway 181 a half hour quicker (two hours) than last year. I had stashed a collapsible bottle here, used it to refill one of my other bottles and stuffed it in my pack.


A very dry version of Upper Creek
As far as my goal was concerned, I had covered a little over 1/4 of the total distance (8.4 miles) in two hours, so if I could keep from dropping off my pace too much, I was in good shape. The next leg is pretty runnable in a lot of places so I tried to do so as much as possible. Occasionally, I had glare issues with the sun coming through the trees, but not enough to make me regret not bringing sunglasses. The Upper Creek crossing (pictured to the left) was not very difficult, especially compared to what I've seen in the past. For now, I was rock hopping the creeks. I knew that when I hit Harper Creek there was no way to avoid wet feet but I figured I'd keep them dry as long as possible.

I don't know if it was the earlier fall or something else, but I found I was catching a lot of roots and rocks and not picking my feet up. I didn't always fall but it was a bit annoying and concerning. I had honestly forgotten how runnable this section was and tried to take advantage of the terrain. While I felt generally ok, I felt kind of leg-heavy. I don't know what it was, but it certainly was connected to my not picking my feet up and tripping so much. As I felt like Harper Creek (my next "checkpoint") was getting closer I made an effort to drink up all my water because I planned to refill everything in the creek.

I was about an hour ahead of last year's pace when I did come to the Harper Creek crossing. The water was cold at first but then felt pretty good as I stood shin-deep in it refilling my bottles. Five minutes later, I was climbing out of the creek and continuing along the MST.


Harper Creek Crossing
This leg I knew would be a bit crowded because it was a popular area last year when I was on it, but I also knew I might encounter some friends, Beth and Eric and their son Zakk, who were hiking it as part of the MST event. That made me try to go a little quicker to catch up and say hello. But, I was also slowed down by a steady stream of scouts heading toward me on the narrow trail. They were broken out into maybe five groups of 5-7 kids and while they were always friendly, letting them pass or passing by them did take quite a bit of time. The other thing that slowed me down was the many creek crossings on this section of the MST. Like last year, I did not count them, but it was certainly a lot. With the agreeable temperatures, I didn't need the cold creek water to cool off, but it still felt pretty good.

Somewhere beyond the mid-point of this leg, I caught up to my friends and the couple (Barry & Jamie) I knew they were hiking with as part of the MST event. We spoke for a bit, noted that our phone GPSs seemed to have lost signal, and then I headed on. It wasn't until five or ten minutes later that I realized I should have gotten a picture of their group. I emerged on Pineola Road knowing what was next and that I was not as close to Beacon Heights as I thought I was last year. Some nice gravel downhill, past the bear hunters reloading their dogs into the trucks, and then down to Huntfish Falls where I noticed a profound comment beside the "Trail Adopted by" sign. It read "At what age do you tell a trail that it was adopted?" Some people just have to leave their mark, I suppose...


Huntfish Falls
I remembered making decent time down this trail last year but something inside me (the earlier fall?) didn't feel as "care free" as I was before. So while I did run down the trail, it wasn't as fast as it might have been on other days. Though there were several cars at the trailhead, I didn't encounter anybody until the actual Huntfish Falls and that was a guy fishing in the creek.

After passing the Falls, it became a mix of runnable/hikeable trail so I just did what I could. I still generally felt pretty good. The few times during the day I had gotten warm, that was soon followed by a cool patch and/or a breeze blowing through my sweat-soaked shirt. At 3.6 miles, this was by far my shortest leg of the day and it certainly passed quickly. Like I mentioned earlier, when I arrived at Pineola Road last year, I confused it with Roseborough Road and made it even worse by thinking there was only three more miles to go after Roseborough. A final water bottle refill stop that took way longer than it should have thanks to a partially clogged filter, I was emerging onto Roseborough Road and this time knew that I had six more miles to go.

I was part way up the old road bed that I remembered from the prior year when I began remembering last year's brief rain shower at this point and how I held out my water bottle, hoping to catch a little water. I was badly dehydrated last year but today I felt really good. I even ran some of the less-steep sections of the road where I had walked all of last year. A couple groups of motorcycles came by me, heading down and then I encountered David and Arlene coming toward me. I knew they'd be hiking as part of the MST event but didn't know I'd be on the trail with them. David warned me that he had accidentally stirred up a yellow jacket nest just ahead on the road so after we parted ways, I kept to the opposite side of the road. For some, unexplainable, reason, right after starting up again, I bonked pretty badly. It was as if some hummingbird had sucked out all my blood sugar. I was light headed and weak. While I could still walk, albeit unsteadily, I couldn't even run the flat parts. I tried eating something and drinking more of the Tailwind in case my electrolytes were low, but nothing had an immediate effect.

When the MST split off the road and onto an actual trail, I was still not feeling very well. Remembering what the trail was like--steep and rooty--I knew I'd be walking most of this last few miles, but had hoped to be able to power hike it rather than stagger up it. It was right about 2:30 when I started on this part of the trail. The MST guide lists this point as being 2.8 miles from Beacon Heights. My nine hour goal meant getting there by 4:15 p.m. So, I had 1:45 to cover the threeish miles. While that sounds like plenty of time, I wasn't convinced it would happen. I pressed on, trying to extract every drop of water from my bottles so I wouldn't have to go through the time-consuming process of getting the water pouch from my pack and filtering it into a bottle. I walked as fast as I could, the trail never really lending itself to running for someone of my ability. Even though I remembered being frustrated with how long it felt before, it still frustrated me this time. There were many times it felt like I was coming up to the top of the climb, only to drop back down again. Some times, I found myself going for long stretches in the opposite direction of Beacon Heights. I tried to remind myself that as long as I was moving, the distance left, no matter what direction I was going, was decreasing.

Finally, I could see the wooden trail directional sign ahead that meant I was close to the parking lot and overlook. I'd like to say I picked up the pace out of an adrenaline rush, but I couldn't. All I could do was move forward. I had glanced at my phone because a text message came through shortly before seeing that sign and I knew that I was fine on the nine hour goal but still wanted to do the best I could. As I made my way up the trail, I could hear voices ahead on the overlook. We passed in opposite directions as I emerged from the trees onto the massive rock. I'm sure I looked a sight, but I didn't care. I stopped my tracking app on my phone and took a picture of the view and then sat down for a minute and dug the salmon jerky a friend had given me out of my pack.

My app recorded an elapsed time of 8:14 and a distance of 12.18 miles. So, while the clock was correct, the distance was off by almost 19 miles. MapMyRun Info

Beacon Heights Overlook - With Table Rock way off in the Distance
I texted my wife, Leslie, to let her know she could pick me up at the parking lot at any time and quickly got a response that she was already there. So, no more time to enjoy the view. But, to be honest, my wet shirt combined with the cool air and breeze was chilling me down, so I couldn't have stayed on the overlook much longer. Ultimately, I shaved 1.5 hours off last year's time which is way more than I expected and it made me feel guilty that I had set the bar at nine hours, which seemed to be a 50/50 proposition of achieving at the time I set it. I decided I'd make a donation to the MST for each person that took part in the wager/challenge so they wouldn't think I was just suckering them into a donation.

In the end, I was happy with the way the day went, other than the wipeout right at the start. I think that was the longest I've run alone without it being part of a race event, and possibly even including races since I tend to fall in with people off and on during races. It served its purpose as a fund-raiser, training run, and participation in the MST's anniversary. It was a great day to be out there and I can rest easy knowing that I never have to do it again!