Thursday, February 16, 2017

Desperate for a Deep Breathe: Holiday Lake 2017 Race Report

Holiday Lake 50k++

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Appomattox, Virginia

"And the darkness can come quick, the dangers in the anger and in the holding onto it"
-Alternate Routes

Let's jump right to it. I'm a head case, a basket case, a nut job, call it what you will. I am a dynamic disaster. I am my own worst enemy. I am responsible for my actions and my choices. My race at Holiday Lake was one of my worst thanks to a downward spiral of overwhelmingly negative self talk. That's the gist of it. For the more in depth side of it, keep reading.

Back in December, after Hellgate, I started getting asked what was next. Inspired by Alissa Keith and her performance at Hellgate I wanted to jump into training, give my all, work hard and improve. I chose Holiday Lake and decided that I wouldn't ever break the 4:50 time barrier if I didn't want it and go for it. I set my sights on a 5 minute personal best and told those who asked the plan.

I did a few tempo runs with Todd, Krista, Alissa and Kevin. I did track Tuesday with people who don't seem to mind that the weather is less than my age. I pushed hard a Wednesday evening or two. I didn't put too much emphasis on long runs, I focused on faster turnover and a bit more flat running. I enjoyed myself. I didn't hit more than 45 miles in any week after Hellgate and many were in the 30s but I didn't dwell on that. We got out only a couple of times to the course to run a loop and I didn't let it get to me that I didn't run faster than 2:23 for a loop. I had faster times, I could still hit my goal, or so (I thought) I thought.

Then race week came, and you may be surprised to hear that taper madness didn't come with it. There were pressing matters much more important. Like why do I hold in all of this anger, why am I not always honest about how I feel, why can't we just get along. Todd and I have had a rough year, a roller coaster of highs and lows but the week before Holiday Lake was about rock bottom. Fortunately a good kick in the butt by a few loved ones and we were finally climbing back out together, stronger. But that left little time for Holiday Lake worries.

Friday evening we went out to the pre-race meeting and dinner. Note to self, when you have done this once you have honestly done it enough. I couldn't eat, everything made me antsy, I wasn't good company. However, at one point Frank Gonzales walked over and we were just standing there, facing the rear of the assembled crowd and this happiness and calmness overcame me, but just for a moment.

I didn't prep for the race until 10 pm Friday and I felt like it took four minutes. Being my fifth Holiday Lake and a short (~5 hours) race it just seemed like there wasn't that much to prep. The weather forecast also looked favorably so there was less clothing and gear to worry about. I went to bed before 11 and was cautiously but optimistically awaiting the race.

Saturday morning I woke at 4:15 am, Todd got up and made me coffee and sent me on my way. He was very encouraging. I met Kevin and we rode to the camp in Appomattox together. He knew I was worried about my goal and he tried to reassure me that it didn't matter what I ran, only that I enjoyed it. We got to the camp and said a few hellos. I was nervous enough that I couldn't eat, I ate maybe three bites of oatmeal and about the same portion of a donut. My stomach was rocky.

 I headed over to the bathroom and waited in the long line to be only disappointed when my turn came. Waiting in line I had a chat with Krista about the race, I told her that she was going to do great but she maintained that she was under-trained. I told her that we always see each the other person better than we think when she tried to assure me that my track and tempo runs were going to pay off for me. I reminded her that she was right there with me on tempo Thursday and the previous Wednesday but she just brushed me off.

I was nervous, I had run track and tempo runs, pushed a few Wednesdays, all in the hopes of a few minute personal best. I know who I am (sometimes) I am not "fast". I know that fast is relative, especially at ultras, but Holiday Lake is not my strong suit unless it is covered in snow. I don't have natural speed, I have, if anything, a stubborn streak and endurance. I had a lot of friends saying encouraging things but I had, as it turned out, a lot more self doubt than confidence regardless of what my training log suggests.

For the first time ever I started near the front of the pack, I wanted good trail position, I wanted a good day. I wanted to run with Annie Stanley and found her in the pack but she ducked out of the group just before the race started when she realized she hadn't grabbed her water bottle. Instead I started out with Kevin, Marc and Justin. We were running too hard for me probably but it didn't feel too hard and so I hung. Mile one and two were good. I heard Justin talking about who would win and I wanted to speak up and tell him about a fellow Blue Ridge Trail Runner, Nick Reed, and how he was going to be a contender. Instead I kept quiet, it will be either way and speaking up wouldn't change that I decided.

I was moving along, happy to be running with Kevin and wondering how long I would stay with him when I realized my shoe, my double knotted shoe lace even, had come undone. I stopped just past the bridge as you enter the state park to tie it and Krista ran right by. I don't know why that bummed me out so bad, but her insistence that it was going to be just a run, that she was under trained and would under perform, surprised me to see her right behind me when I felt like I was pushing. But it was a race after all, we had bibs on, I tied my shoe, cursed my inability to tie them from the get go better and got moving again.

I saw Krista, Kevin, Marc and Jeremy just up ahead and worked to catch back up with them. However, on the other side of the state park Krista made a move to pass that big group of guys and I accepted defeat. I backed off, sure that I couldn't keep up the pace that group was keeping and let them pull away. I settled in to a slightly slower pace and watched them pull away.

Headed up to aid one I walked, I berated myself a little but I was torn between pushing harder and not blowing up. I realized that I may have done some harder runs, but short harder runs, I wasn't confident in my ability to push hard for 30+ miles. Todd had told me to believe in myself. I repeated that to myself and kept moving. My headlamp kept slipping so I pulled it off just before the aid stop.

At aid station one Todd was there to give me my sunglasses and hat and take my buff and headlamp. I told him I didn't want either and he insisted that I stick to the plan. In some ways my race had been over since the bridge but he tried to jump-start it. He told me Kevin and Krista were just ahead and told me get going. I left but truly didn't want the hat so I dropped it just a few hundred feet from the aid station.

I settled in behind Marc Griffin and went to my music. We ran steady through the trail section just after aid one but when we crossed the road around mile 6 I got passed by a few females when I slowed up to take GU #1 of the day. I had been 5th at aid one but quickly slipped to 9th in the following few miles. That was a hit that I didn't enjoy taking as I felt like I was already running too hard. I don't like to start out ahead and push and I don't like to be passed, I would rather be chasing. I was in a bad place and slipping when I remembered that Todd said I had to believe. I picked it up and told myself that I could do it and worked hard to pass back two females.

Coming into aid station two I felt like I was working harder than I needed to for a 50k. I wasn't enjoying anything but I told myself to just keep pushing. I would work hard to catch a female runner and then a few minutes later they would pass me back. Leapfrogging back and forth from aid two to aid three. Don Don was there at aid three and offered help and encouragement but I wasn't in any mood to accept either, I was trying to hold the day together and that was already taking it's toll.

Then Annie Stanley passed me and I went into 10th spot. I thought this was OK, I would just hang with Annie, she is a great, steady runner and has done exactly what I wanted to do at Holiday Lake. But then she just flew through the trail section. She came up and was gone in a blink. I focused on the front runners who would soon be approaching. I was wondering when I would start to see them and hoped that Nick would be leading.

Nick didn't disappoint. he appeared out of nowhere, moving like water and looking good with no one in sight behind him. I screamed and cheered and basked in his apparent good day. It was awesome. I was confident in his win at that moment. Then other runners started to appear and pass by me, I offered them all a "Good job" or "Great job". I allowed their presence as distraction as I waited for the turn around.

Near the dam I realized that my legs felt heavy. I hadn't been looking at time, didn't know what time it was or how I was doing. I hoped that I was running well but I feared that I was not. I thought about the very hard start to the week that we had had. "Life stress is body stress," I told myself. But it didn't make me feel better even when I repeated it. I felt like my legs were each twenty pounds heavier than usual. I ate a second GU.

I set my sights on seeing Kevin on the out and back, just after the dam I saw him, he literally stopped and cheered me on for a moment. I kept on running. He's a better person than I am I thought, I didn't stop and move aside and he's in the faster pack. Then I started wondering about what time I would make it to the turn around. I was still slightly optimistic that I had run loop one well.

Then I came in to the turn around and saw the clock. It said 2:22:40 as I approached the aid station table where I had my bottle refilled for the fist time and drank two small cups of Mountain Dew. Alissa, Dennis and Frankie were there and they said "Good job, Alexis." I said something about this not being my kind of race.

I left out of the aid station at 2:24ish. And I was confident in one thing. I wasn't running 2:24 or better on loop two. PR hopes dashed. Feeling rotten that I hadn't been faster, that I could run faster on a training run than I just had. Feeling like my legs were a million pounds each. Feeling done, done. done.

Only I wasn't done. I had 16 miles left to run. And then I had the true race ending thought of the day.

I thought about Todd, his encouraging texts that very morning, the talks about how negative I am and how that is bringing us down. I thought about my race and that I just COULD NOT believe that I was any good and certainly not that I could be better than I have been, and I thought, "You are such a disappointment. Todd is going to be so disappointed that you let this happen." And then there was blackness. Such an overwhelming feeling that it was all true. That I am a disappointment. I thought about what Todd said, that so many people believe in me. That isn't a comfort, it is a weight.  To feel that people believe in you when you know who are really are is hard. I know who I really am, I am not good. I am a first class letdown. That even if I could be good I won't be good because I don't know how to be good, I don't know how to get out of my own way, I don't know how to be positive, or try, or believe. I want to quit before trying because I can't stand the fact that I could try and fail. I would rather fail and wonder if I could have been better.  And then I started to cry. And then my throat started to close up and I realized that my heart was racing even though my pace had slowed to the point that I couldn't catch Jeremy walking right ahead of me. Then I realized that right in the middle of a race I was entering a panic attack.

I started to get even more upset when my throat felt like it was closing and I started saying "take a slow deep breath" over and over. I knew I was not helping anything and was causing my own breakdown. I knew I was responsible for the negativity and I just needed to shake it, but knowing a thing and doing a thing are not interchangeable.

The next two miles are a blur of not being able to breathe, crying, telling people who passed "good job" wondering if I sounded like I was crying and four belittling thoughts on repeat. I was thankful that I was wearing those sunglasses I had tried to refuse at aid one, I hoped that they would cover up the puffy eyes. I couldn't shake the tears. At one point I said "good job" to a fellow runner and I thought "You honestly think that everyone out here is doing a good job but you" it was ugly.

I tried to focus on Buster Douglas like Todd told me to at the end of the week. I tried hard to focus on my "why". But it turns out I didn't have one. I couldn't at that moment come up with any reason why I should run hard. I didn't care. I was trying to calm myself down. But if I am honest, which is what I am going for, I think I wanted to fail.

In fact. I'm almost certain of it. I came into the turn around as tenth female and I kept wanting a female to pass me so it could officially be over, my race. I wasn't going to walk it in, though I did consider even that at one point, but I didn't want to be contending for a top spot. Then a female passed me and I was thankful, it was over. But she was only ahead for a minute. I kept expecting her or another female, Amy Albu, Jennifer Anders, Holly Knight, Chelsie, someone, anyone to pass by.

I came into aid five and Sophie cheered me on, that I was in tenth but I was the closer. Tammy cheered me on. But all their words fell on dark ears, I didn't want to be negative so I just didn't respond. I knew I wasn't chasing anyone down because I didn't want to. There was no desire. There was no why. If it sounds ugly, that is because it was.

Up the hill out of aid five I caught Jeremy Peterson. He said "About time, Alexis. I have never been ahead of you this long in a ultra race. I've been wondering when you were going to catch me when I saw you at the turn around." "I was having a mental breakdown." I replied. He kind of laughed and said that he had a little physical breakdown when his stomach revolted just past the start of loop two. I had noticed him up ahead walking but I hadn't seen him get sick. That was the only talking I did in loop two other than to aid station volunteers and "good job" to passing racers.

I had come down from my panic attack but the day stayed dark. I was out there alone and I would stop crying and try to run for a few minutes and then I would fall apart again. I wanted it to be over but even that wouldn't push me to try. I had a few cramps start up and I berated myself more, I hadn't drank well, I hadn't eaten well. Going up to aid six I walked the hill. I drank water and took a fourth GU. I didn't want to see my friends. I didn't want to see the disappointment in their eyes. I was completely aware of the fact that I was wrecking my own day and I just couldn't shake that, and when I thought about it, it made me so damn sad that I would start crying again and have to calm myself back down.

I have had some bad races. I am a bit of head case. But I don't think I have ever been so self-aware of being a head case and not been able to shake it. I started to work on not having a good day but just getting the day I was having over with. Blake filled my bottle at aid six because I knew I didn't want to stop for anything in four miles at Todd's aid station. Blake asked if I wanted anything but he didn't say anything else.

I left and felt confident that I would run those last eight miles and be done soon enough. Then I thought about Mike and Blake and how they didn't even try to encourage or cheer me on. Like they knew me well enough to know that I was done. It may be strange but it was comforting, to know my friends could read me. They offered up their aid but left the other words alone.

I ran on. I kept expecting some women to pass me. I didn't see any runners. I started to think about coming into Todd's aid station. That he was going to be disappointed in me. That they were all going to try and pick me up. I would just run right through without talking to them. They are great but I just couldn't talk to them. I needed to get the race over and start working on not letting it drag me down any longer than it had already.

I gave time to thinking about why I was racing. I love ultra running. I used to be amazed at what I could do, I could run a mile, then five, then thirty and even a hundred. I used to be proud of my body and what it could do. But I wasn't proud of anything I was doing Saturday. I don't like feeling like there is a target on my back right now, I know that my head and my why are all mixed up. I can't explain why they are, but in many ways they are the same things that have been making me a quitter all my life. I thought about quitting running, about quitting ultra running, quitting racing. But that made me sad too. I truly want to get better. And not so that I can PR or win anything. Truly, at the end of the day, I just really want to like me.

And out there on Saturday, I don't know that I have ever liked me less.

I was nervous about coming into aid seven. I didn't want to cry. I wanted to be done crying for the day. I didn't want to be negative. I didn't want to drag my friends down.

Coming into aid seven Todd was headed backwards on the trail. I turned my music off. "What is going on?" He asked. I am having a bad day I told him. "Why? What's wrong?" I really didn't want to say. I didn't want to speak at all. "What? What is it?" I told him I had a little breakdown a little panic attack after the turn around. "But why?" He was insistent. I really didn't want to say. "I feared you would be disappointed in me" I finally said in the seconds that were passing like hours. "That's ridiculous. You need to get moving. You are going to have to try like hell now to break 5 hours." I didn't say another word. He didn't get it. I wasn't running for 5 hours. I was running to finish.

Don asked if I needed anything, if I wanted to drop my pack. I said no and ran right on through. I got a little emotional as I left their aid station. I didn't want to let him down even about the 5 hour mark. I picked it up a little and thought that he was good for me. He doesn't let me quit. But then I started to cramp worse. I reeled it back in. The race was nearly over. The day was not. I started focusing on making sure that I didn't spill negativity at the finish line or to Todd later. This is nobodies fault but my own. I had to get over that fact in record time or risk bringing more darkness down upon me.

Then I hit a stump and cramped up. I couldn't get the cramp out and I couldn't walk. "This is fitting" I thought. This is perfect for this day. I just couldn't shake the negativity. I finally got the toes to loosen and work the cramp back out. I had about three miles to go. I just needed to finish. From here I would run easy until I cramped then I would walk until the cramp subsided, I watched roots and stumps carefully and emptied my bottle before the state park. I was amazed and honestly a bit angry that no females had caught me. I was running poorly and felt that I didn't deserve to finish top ten.

I was careful over the rooty sections not to cramp and walked all the uphills and a few flat sections due to cramps. I started to cramp every minute or so it felt, didn't matter how slow I ran I just kept cramping up. I admitted I hadn't done a great job of hydrating and was thankful for the temps staying cooler than had been forewarned. I walked the big hill up to the last section of trail near the end and wanted to run that whole short section of trail but I cramped up twice more. I started just chanting finish line is all that matters to myself. Don't cry at the finish line.

I got out on the road and it was almost done and I was thankful. Then my hamstring cramped at just past a half mile to go. I stopped and was massaging it out when I look up to see a runner approaching. It was Rachel Corrigan. She smiled and waved. I laughed a dark laugh inside, perfect I thought. I started to run again and I told myself not to run too hard. I wondered if I would cramp. I wondered what would happen if she caught me, would I push or let her have it?

She didn't catch me. I don't know if she tried but I was thankful that I didn't have to make those last second decisions. I don't know what I would have done. I finished in 5:04, tenth female. I crossed the finish line and Kevin was there and Tammy said something, I am not even sure what she said but I could feel what she said and I hugged her and even though I bit my lip hard to try to hold it in I started to cry. Tammy and Sophie were on it, they said all the right things, not every day is a PR day, not every day is a good day. I was very thankful for them at that moment.

I shed those few tears but then I set about to turning the day around. It was only lunchtime. I still had friends to cheer in, Candy to pass out and friends to spend time with. The race wasn't a success. I have a lot of work to do. I don't have all of the answers. Maybe I never will. But I have some really great people in my life who care about me. I am lucky even if I don't always see it.

I don't want to be sad. I don't want to be negative. I don't want to be a dark shadow over anyone's day. I want to be better.

I haven't shed a tear since Saturday. Usually in the week following a race I am up and down. I have been ok this week. I think I had all the emotions on Saturday during the race that there isn't anything left to feel. I know what happened. Maybe in a longer race I could have come back, but I don't know, I was feeling pretty done from pretty much mile two. I know what running means to me, and I know how much my self loathing is contributing to not just racing but so much of my everyday life. I have had a bad week but I have also had a good week.

I have accepted that I need help. I know that if I can't fix the negative self talk that I will not escape it, that I can only push it down so much before it will erupt. It isn't in the pushing it down that I need to work on. It's in the getting it out. Turning it away from the beginning.

I used to need to race because I wasn't a runner. If anything positive came out of Saturday it was the confidence that I am a runner. I need to work on my 'why' and I need to work on me. But I love running, and I love the people, my people, and I am proud of them and I want to support them, cheer them on, lift them up. I don't want to walk away from anything. I just want to quiet the voice in my head that says that I can't because I am not good enough. All I want is to be good.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Peak Ultra 200 Miler

200 miles. 40,000 feet of elevation gain. The Green Mountains of Vermont.

I can't say with certainty what drew me to the 200 mile distance. The challenge of the unknown perhaps? The prospect of testing myself against something unimaginable? My lifelong quest to find my limits? My boyish propensity for doing everything in the scale of "Epic"? I don't know, but I signed up anyway.

I signed up for the race before I really looked into it much. Which is just as well since information about the course is elusive at best. The race web site tells you that the course is 20 loops of 10 miles, that the course is different each year, that the course tends to be "Moosey."

So I secured at crew, and trained. The crew part was easy, Alexis and Kevin basically said that I wasn't going without them. They love to see me suffer, they're that kind of friends, and the chance to witness suffering of this magnitude was too much to pass up. The training part was uncertain at best. How do you train for a 200 mile race? Run, a lot. I put in more miles than I ever have for any event, which for me isn't saying a lot, but I put in almost two full months of 80 mile weeks. And ran a handful of 50K training runs.

During the taper weeks I exchanged a few emails with the RD and found out that the time cut off for the 200 was going to be different this year. Stricter. I thought that was interesting since no one even finished in 2015, and on top of that the new cut off was a little vague.

The new time cut? The race starts on Thursday morning at 7 am, I had until 7 pm on Saturday, or whenever the last 50 miler runner entered their last loop to begin my final (20th) loop of the course. The 50 miler, which started at 7 am on Saturday, gives it's runners 12 hours to run the first 40 miles of their race, and the 200 mile runners 60 hours to run 190 miles. Confused yet? Basically all I had to do was maintain a pace faster than the 50 mile runners were expected to for four times as long. Simple enough.


When we arrived in Vermont on Wednesday night before the race, we couldn't find anyone who knew anything about the event. We found the venue, but it was a ghost town. We asked half of the population of Pittsfield VT, the quiet little mountain town that hosts the race, but neither of them seemed to know what we were talking about either. So we went and set up camp where the emails had instructed us, and hoped for the best.

It was a cold morning when we awoke, 35 degrees and clear skies. We drove down the mountain to check in and all seven of the registered entrants were there and ready to go. It was obvious that I had come from the farthest point south, as I stood there shivering in my three layers, stocking cap, and gloves next to these New Englanders in there short sleeves.

Pete Coleman, the Race Director, checked us in and hung our bib numbers on the wall in the bunk house. He said that it was an intimate event and we would be going by our names not our numbers. The bunk house was the aid station, sleep station, and check in between every loop. Later, he explained, there would be a water-stop at the top of the mountain, but not until the sissy 100 mile runners started on the following day. Evidently by signing up for such a challenge as this, we had stated something about our fortitude, whether accurate or not, that implied that we didn't need any support out there on this measly little ten mile loop.

We lined up, reminiscent of a firing squad, all awkward and somber, and took a few pictures like soldiers preparing to leave for the unknown. Not sure which of us would make it back, but fairly certain that it wouldn't be all of us. Pete told us to relax and have fun, and sent us off into our first loop without ceremony.

The Loop

Armed with the knowledge that the course is different every year, and that the few race reports I had found estimated that the loop contained between 1200' and 1600' of elevation gain, we set out as a group to conquer the first climb. We trotted out of the gravel parking lot and into the woods, and no sooner had the Farm disappeared behind us then the ground rose up in front of us forming one of the steepest hills I've ever traversed as part of a race. (Alexis ran a loop with me later, and her watch said that we gained almost 500 feet of elevation in two-tenths of a mile.)

We hiked with our hands on our knees and joked about how bad this was going to feel at mile 150, but the truth was that it was bad the very first time. The grade fluctuated as we climbed, and the group spread out. By the time we had covered the first mile I had lost sight of half of the field of runners, and I would never see most of them again. Eryk ran ahead of us whenever the trail wasn't intolerably steep. I hiked ever step of the climb, and was able to stay within talking distance of Ryan.

The climb lasted for about three miles, but the last mile was completely bushwhacking. We hiked from streamer to streamer, through waist-high thorns and ankle deep mud. Over fallen trees and through shoe-swallowing bogs. By the end of the weekend we had created a trail where there was none before. (Also in this section there was several sightings of Moose droppings, a novelty to a southerner.)

When we finally stopped climbing the trail dried up and gave way to well worn mountain bike trails. This section, The Labyrinth, was a winding maze of trails that corkscrewed around itself several times, while weaving in and out of dense pockets of old cedars and pines. Ryan pulled away from me here, only to come running straight back at me a quarter mile later running the wrong direction. After that we stuck together until we made it to the Cabin at the Top of the Mountain, wandering off trail just once more and having to backtrack to find our missed turn.

The view from the cabin was incredible. The Green Mountains of Vermont stretched out in every direction for miles and miles. And from here we began our long decent. Four miles of gradual switch-backing downhill, punctuated with the occasional little uphill or mud hole. The farther we ran down the swampier the trail became. One grueling climb broke up the monotony of the everlasting downhill. As smooth and graceful as the downhill was, the uphill was every bit it's opposite. Straight-up steep and rocky, hands-on-knees hiking. And then more downhill.

The decent ended abruptly with a sharp turn and a nose-dive down-hill to the river, the lowest point on the course. To call this slope a trail is being generous with the name, and it was littered with softball sized rocks that shifted under the leaves and slid with you, causing mini-avalanches every couple of steps. Half way down this drop, which was about a quarter mile long, a fallen tree blocked the path. The only way around was under it, so you slid like a base-runner stealing home to get by it, hoping to recover some semblance of balance on the other side, or tumble the rest of the way down to the river.

After a short jaunt along the river bank the course began to climb up gradually back towards the Farm. This section was the toughest later in the race because you would get close enough to hear activity, only to turn in the other direction and run away again. With about a half mile to go I ran into a streamer blocking the trail, a universal sign to not continue on straight, the catch was it wasn't at an intersection. Finally I noticed a streamer to the right of the trail, in the woods. And then another beyond that. And so we bushwhacked up a hill, about 40 yards, to another trail. And then down a quarter mile of stone steps to the start/finish/bunk house.

The Race

At the end of the first loop I had run for 2 hours and 14 minutes. The temperature had climbed from 35 to about 70, and I felt pretty good. There were two guys running ahead of me, Eryk the local, and Ryan from Philadelphia. I knew that I just needed to get in a good rhythm and stay there, and the loops would start ticking away.

By noon it was mid-80's and I was having trouble eating. I hadn't even run an Ultra yet, and I was hurting. I was way behind on food and hydration. At the end of my third loop things got a little tense with me and Kevin. He was trying to force calories down me, what was he thinking? I told him I that I wanted to eat, but I just couldn't. He was not understanding or comforting, what a jerk. I left carrying food and a lot of extra mental baggage. Half-way through my fourth loop I was doubting my chances. My loops were getting slower and slower, my legs were heavy and my stomach was rebelling. Somewhere in this loop I caught Eryk, god only knows how, and he told me that he was worried about the stiff cut-off and that is why he had went out so hard. We agreed that we needed to finish five loops before we lost the sun, and I hiked away from him.

At the end of the fourth loop I just wanted to sit and eat slowly, but Kevin and Alexis weren't having it. The temperature was starting to come down a little, but I worried that it was too late, damage done. I wasn't ready to quit, but I was far from optimistic about my chances. Then they brought out the chocolate milk, I'm not sure who's idea this was, but it didn't work the way they hoped. I drank a big cup of milk and started to hike away. That's when my stomach rebellion went to full on revolution. I vomited, and hiked a few steps and vomited again, and again. I was afraid that I was close enough to camp that they would hear me, so I hiked fast to escape before Alexis could chase me down and make me eat again to replenish what I just lost.

I started to feel better, you know the old vomit reset button, but I also knew that I truly was running on empty now. When I got up to the Cabin at the top of the mountain I sat down and ate a couple hundred calories. and then commenced to covering that down hill fast enough to beat the dark back to the Farm. I didn't make it, somewhere before the river I had to dig my headlamp out, but it didn't matter. I felt better. The temperature was dropping. I could eat again.

I got back to camp and ate a ton. Switched to my big head lamp, and put my music in at Kevin's urging. It was already so cool that sitting around for more than a few minutes caused me to start shivering. I got up and ran. And each loop felt better than the one before it, and by the time the sun came back up I had run 80 miles.

I set a secret goal at this point, to run the first 100 miles in 30 hours (the Course Record for 100 miles is 27 hours!). I figured that if I couldn't do that then I couldn't run the required 190 in 60 hours. So Friday morning, as the 100 milers took to the course and the rain settled in, I focused on those next 20 miles. It was during these morning loops that I was getting reports of the other runners. Several of the 200 mile runners had already quit, the only girl bailing after her very first loop in which she had gotten terribly lost in the Labyrinth. Eryk had spent almost eight hours out on his seventh loop in the night and was sleeping in the bunkhouse. It was just Ryan and Matt and me left if Eryk didn't come back to life.

I hit my goal, but only with a minute or two to spare. Alexis ran my tenth loop with me, and I felt like we moved pretty good. I didn't tell her about my time goal, but having her out there motivated me to push a little harder. The weather settled in with a steady soaking rain for most of the day. I changed socks a number of times, but it was impossible to keep your feet dry. The course which was swampy in places to begin with was a nightmare in the rain. Long stretches of trail turned to bogs or creeks. Rocks seemed to sprout moss instantly with a little moisture. The downhill became treacherous in places forcing me to walk sections that were runnable a few hours earlier.

By the time the light started to fade the rain cleared out, I headed into my second night with a clear head and a goal: 150 miles by sunrise Saturday. My legs felt good, and I had eaten well all day. The soggy trails and feet were a fair enough trade off for the cooler temperatures. But after my first night time loop I was tired, no exhausted.

I guess it showed on my face, because my slave-drivers actually took pity on me and allowed me to sleep while they prepared some food for me. It was so cold, but all I remember is sitting down and someone throwing a blanket over me. The next thing I know the blanket is yanked off and I'm eating hot mashed potatoes and cheese quesadillas. Without a doubt, this was the best meal I have ever had. In my entire life!

Then I'm up and stumbling up the hill. Kevin yelling at me to put my music in. I run better with it. He was right, at least at night. I've always loved night running, but I was in the zone after that nap and meal. I cranked my music up and knocked out two great loops before day break. It was during this second night that the woods started to come alive with things that weren't real. Sleep deprivation is a powerful drug. Snakes and bears and a green sheep, not to mention the crazy mountain people blending into the landscape. I saw a porcupine a few hours before sunrise, but I'm pretty sure he was real because he moved, albeit slowly, across the trail and made a chittering noise at me. None of my other hallucinations made noises.

150 miles done. I was half way though my 16th loop and now the 50 mile runners have started. I kept telling myself that I just had to out pace the slowest of them.

Pete had my buckle out on the table in the bunk house. A carrot on a stick. Every time I checked in at the end of a loop it was right there, pushing me forward. A little pierce of metal, that stood for so much more. I was the last one going, Ryan and Matt had both given up. Eryk never came back from the night before.

160 miles done and I'm moving better than I have any business moving. Still running the downhills, and hiking well up the inclines. Somewhere out on this 17th loop my left ankle started bothering me. But it didn't matter, I had not come this far to back off now. The downhills started to feel worse and worse. Damn it, I thought, I still have legs to run and I'm being done in by a contrary ankle!

I shuffle along and scrounge up a couple of sticks. I remember at this point that Mike Mitchell was going to lend me some trekking poles for this little adventure. Oh well, too late for that now. So I'm crutching along the downhills, anticipating the ups because they don't hurt.

170 miles done, no time to waste. I know I'm slowing down so I grab food to go and keep moving. This loop was a blur. I just remember that Alexis started with me and I asked her to leave at the Cabin on top of the Mountain. It hurt too much to have company.

180 miles done. I had five hours to finish a ten mile loop to be allowed to start my last loop. Every step, up or down or flat hurt. I was leaning heavy on my sticks and I was not optimistic about the outcome. But they would have to make me quit. There was no way I was not going on, even if it meant an unofficial finish.

190 miles done, 59 hours and 5 minutes. I hadn't seen another runner in 30 miles, and my tired mind had convinced me that there was no one else left running. Had all the 50 mile people been fast and finished? Was Pete going to let me start my last loop? Yes, he said, get your ass back out there!

I turn around to stagger to the bunk house to check in and some guy in a chair looks at me, as ragged as I must look and asks: Do you need some balls? I just stare at him and walk into the bunk house fuming. Alexis follows me in and asks whats wrong. Who is that jack ass who asked me if I wanted some balls? I yell. I just ran 190 miles, who does he think he is? Alexis just laughed at me and said: POLES. He was offering you his poles. And she points at my two pathetic tree branches. These are all I need, I mutter and walk out into the dark.

Once more into the breech. The last loop was as relaxed as it could be. There was no more cut-offs. Kevin and Alexis were both with me. I felt like a tour guide, taking them around an historic site that I was intimately familiar with. Step here. Watch out for that rock. It gets a little boggy around this switchback. The ankle hurt worse with every step but I couldn't care any less. I came to Vermont to run 200 miles, and I did it.

Finishing time: 62 hours 57 minutes 32 seconds. First place out of one finisher, seven starters.

I couldn't have done this without the huge amount of help and support, selflessly given by Alexis and Kevin.

(If you look closely you can see the endless stone steps behind them)

I also want to thank my Sponsor, Pearl Izumi for believing in this mediocre distance runner, and helping me believe in myself.

I have more reflections on this adventure, but I will save them for later. You've been forced to listen to my rambling long enough! 


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Running With Purpose

This year I picked up a Sponsorship from Pearl Izumi. At first I thought that this was great. Somebody believed in me enough to stand behind me as a runner, and let me represent their product. Pearl makes the only trail shoe that I have ever liked, and I loved the Trail N2. So when I heard that they were looking for Ultra Runners for the team I jumped on it.  I sent them a little info about myself, and surprisingly they said that they wanted me!

And then it all started to stress me out. It began to feel like a lot of pressure. My running, which is not structured or consistent, and generally just good enough for a mid-pack finish, now had some big shoes to fill.  My running, which I do for fun and not for medals, had to stand up in front of expecting Sponsorship Eyes and look like it was serious. What in the world was I thinking.

The first part of the year I was recovering from an injury and a couple of lousy races last fall, and I tried to figure out what I was looking for in my running. I'm not a fast guy, I'm not going to win races for my Sponsor. I'm not really a guy who likes the spotlight, and I hate speaking in public. How was I going to represent my Sponsor. I just like to run.

I just like to run. I like running with other runners. I like running alone. I like hanging out at races. The trail running community is a huge part of why I like to run. But its not the only part. I run for the feeling it gives me. The thrill of flying down a technical trail. The burn of the climb to get to the top of the mountain. The breathtaking views when you finally get up there. The connected feeling you get when you are running alone in the woods.

And it started to make sense to me. I just needed to love running to represent my Sponsor. I just needed to love running to get out of my funk. A couple of bad races is just a couple of bad races. I don't run races to win, and suffering is an integral part of the experience. Without the lows, the highs don't feel as good. Why do we fall? So we can prove to ourselves that we can get back up.

This year I picked up a Sponsorship from Pearl Izumi. They believed in me enough to stand behind me as a runner, and let me represent their product.  So when I heard that they were looking for Ultra Runners for the team I jumped on it.  I sent them a little info about myself, and surprisingly they said that they wanted me!


Monday, May 2, 2016

Promise Land 50k 2016 Race Report

I'm struggling. I have spent a great deal of time trying to articulate for myself why that is or exactly what that means, but I can feel it in my mind. It isn't just running, it's other facets of my life, but it's all focused on looking back. Remember when I ran that nearly great race, oh to be in that shape again. Oh remember when _______, just fill in the blanks. My 33rd year has been spent thus far looking only backwards. I didn't realize just what damage that was doing.

I made a plan for Promise Land around Terrapin when I finally remembered that 'running' and 'training' are not synonymous. I followed it loosely for a week or two before dropping the workouts and just focusing on miles. Not getting tons of them but increasing them safely. That was where my focus ended up, mileage increases.

A week out from Promise Land I wasn't overly optimistic (but then, when am I ever, really?). But I am a realist. I figured I had a good chance at 6:13 at Promise Land. I knew this, so why did I race so dumb?

Because I want to be better than I am. And I took the bait that maybe my head was preventing that sub 6 finish at Promise Land that I've longed for these past two long years. Todd told me I would never if I didn't believe it, then no less than 3 people said this was my year for sub 6, and so late on Friday evening I decided I needed to go, give all, go big or go home. The thing between me and my sub 6 was my head. Silence it. This is your day.

Only. It wasn't to be.

I was nervous. I took that as a promising sign. Don't I race better nervous? Looking back I say I do. I put the headphones in at the start line of the Promise Land 50k. I had that "Go Do" attitude. Todd told me not to run anyone else's race.

The race started and I turned my iPod on (mistake #1. Don't go to your iPod until you NEED your iPod) and "Beautiful Day" came on my iPod, I felt amazing. This was going to be a great day! I had never felt better mentally going into a race. Never felt better, bigger. I started up that climb and just fell in to the crowd and the pace, so happy to be there, so warm surrounded by people I like. I love racing, I thought. I love these days.

Anna Evans passed me and I thought, don't let her out of your sight (mistake #2, didn't your intelligent spouse warn you 5 minutes ago not to do this!?). I didn't run what Anna did, I hiked and just kept her in my sights, but I should have known when we got to AS #1 faster than I ever have (35:10) that I had already made mistakes. Instead I held on as Jared Hesse, Joe Alderson and Micah Jackson passed me. I was going big, I wanted the good day!

I ran and hiked better in these next few miles than I ever do, which made me feel good, but I was a little worried that I was giving too much. Wearing my heart rate monitor (for my first time ever in a race) I walked when it hit 160. But instead of just listening to my body I would run as soon as it said 159 or less (mistake #3, listen to your body not just one often confused though important muscle). When Joe and Micah picked it up on the Grassy Road I followed (Mistake #2 revisited). I ran with Joe. I had my music in so I wasn't probably very good company. I think the only words I spoke to him where to scold him for a 7:30 mile in the middle of the grassy road.

At Aid Station 2 I was just barely ahead of Joe, but 2 minutes behind my goal. But I felt pretty good, so I gave a little more in the WOR loop. Up, up , up, I passed several runners and tried to run smooth but hard. Passing over to the parkway my brain was just down on the fact that I wasn't running that "fast" and there was still so much left to run. I played it smart here, didn't kill the downhill miles to Sunset Field, but then I made it there, despite the overall effort, basically where I always make it, around 2:30 hours. The first time I ever ran PL I got here in 2:32, Saturday it was 2:27. That was discouraging.

But I saw familiar faces and Blake had my bag of GU and I knew that I had actually trained for what came next, steep technical descent. I left the aid station not as high as I had been at the start but still feeling good and optimistic. And then I (for me) killed the descent, for about a mile and a half. I passed a few people and felt good! I hiked the ups but ran the downs hard and well. And then my quad cramped. At not even 16 miles in! But I was making good time and I WANTED that good day. I thought of Frank G. He cramps, he keeps on running. I would just keep on running. I slowed a little but kept up best I could, then my calves started to cramp.

Then it started to get the best of me. I was drinking and eating well. It wasn't that. I had let that HR rule me, push me (mistake #4 and #5, try something new on race day and run a heart rate you never trained at and expect to have a good day). I had up until this point tried to hover around 160 bpm, I saw no reason why my body couldn't take that. Except that I had been training in the low to mid 140s and perhaps (though I am no doctor, just a Google user) the extra effort was just a little too much for my cramping prone legs. Just because you have never cramped at mile 15, well, never say never!

So I slowed until I had to stop and stretch. I tried hard to keep it together. I reassessed. I had been running STUPID. I had been running like someone else, not like ME. What is so wrong with ME that I was trying to run from ME? I started to worry about things other than sub 6. I started to worry about going 19 more miles on cramps. How bad would it get? How bad could it get?

Then I saw Kevin up ahead, I recognize him before I see he's struggling. The momentary happiness in seeing him was fleeting as I could see he was hobbling. I knew before I reached him it was his ankle. It looked bad, I'm too honest to have lied and said otherwise. I stopped and offered him help, he told me he was done but I needed to go on, get a sweatshirt he said somehow still bearing that winning smile of his. I'm cramping I complained, he offered salt tabs but I said no, he told me again that I needed to run on. I did so, but hesitantly.

At the aid station I told Jordan Chang and Horton about Kevin and then said I was cramping, Jordan gave me 5 Enduralyte capsules. I took 3 and stored the others for later use and told Horton that I was sad, I had never cramped this early in a race before. He told me I was still doing Ok, 9th place or so. I just gave him a thumbs up. Though I had been racing stupid, I'm not actually stupid, I knew that this was not a good sign. I ran on down the road and I started to really berate the mistakes I had made.  I knew I was taking a risk when I started, that there's a reason that they are called "risks" but I mourned the race that the smarter me would be running. I slowed on the road, I drank, I ate. I did the things I knew I could and that maybe I should. I tried to keep the cramps at bay. I didn't run over 150 (heart rate) again for the next 10 miles. My calves and left quad were so painful from the cramping, running downhill on cramps probably isn't very good for the muscles.

Shannon Howell and some men who I had passed on the steep descent caught back up and passed me, I was embarrassed to be running so poorly. I took out a Larabar and ate some of it. Shannon was super friendly and for a moment I was thankful for the sport and the people it attracts. She told me about her race last year and pulling her quad. Good runners have bad days I recalled looking back. Sometimes good runners have such bad days that they don't get to finish, and yet they still smile.

I tried to smile. But the cramps came back. I took the two salt pills I had stashed from Cornelius Creek. I hiked a lot along the trail to Colon Hollow. I remembered how Horton says this is where the race begins, I sulked a tad that this seemed to be where mine was ending. Amy Albu passed me back (when I was running stupid on the descent I had passed her and Shannon together). I tried to keep her in my sights but the cramps kept slowing or stopping me. She ran on. I tried to keep Allen Whittle in sight, he would pull ahead and I would try to keep him in sight but the calves were so tight I felt like they were in a state of solid cramping. I could tell I had probably done something not nice to my left quad as it hurt more than anything, I tried to remember it could be worse. I drank and ate because those were easy at the easier pace.

This incredible song came on my iPod so I started it over, in the middle of the song not much past 4 hours into the race, my iPod died. It kind of felt like the day was just laughing and pointing fingers at this point.

Then another girl passed me. I hadn't cramped in a few minutes, I hadn't run over 149 heart rate in 10 miles, I figured I would try and keep this girl who I didn't recognize in my sights. I put on my second iPod and without giving it thought started to pull my day back together. I ran with the girl, who was Laura Welch, to the Cornelius Creek aid station. Amy Albu was leaving the aid station as we were coming in. Jordan asked what we needed and I said new legs with a laugh, I drank a big cup of Mountain Dew. I was feeling beaten and there seemed to be so many miles left.

On our way out of the aid station Laura said there are two girls right behind us, it was Elizabeth Minnick and Michelle McLellan. Laura said come on, let's not let them catch us and then she moved like the meant to keep that word. Then I saw Anna Evans headed to the aid station in the out and back. All of those girls got me a little bit back in the game.

I tried to hike hard and run a little but my quad and calves weren't cramping but just so tight and painful from the miles of cramps, but I tried to be thankful that I was still moving. Laura pulled ahead and I expected all the girls behind to catch up. Near the falls Laura took a slight wrong turn, I called out to her but got ahead just because of the turn and her doubling back. Then we caught a male and female near the 'road crossing' just as you have .9 still to climb. As I crossed that road I looked back because I could hear chattering and laughing, Beth and Michelle were running up the steep switchback behind me. I said aloud, "Those girls are running!" to no one in particular. I figured they would pass me but they were also keeping me moving so I was thankful. I made it to Sunset Fields the second time about 5:38. Sub 6 gone, top 10 not looking too promising and 5 girls on my heels. I drank some Mountain Dew and Laura called for me to come on. It may have been a little fun, but my heart was only in the finishing not in the race and I only realized that later. I started telling Laura about Kevin, he's my running partner and he got injured, she said "Right. Right. RIGHT!" I was going the wrong way across the open field. I was lost in my story and not where I should have been, but I was enjoying myself and there's something in that when you've had a bad day.

I stopped to go to the bathroom (I peed 4 times at PL! That's a record for a 50k for me! The only record I have for the day! Sometimes it's the small things...) Laura said 'Catch up, those girls are right behind us!' I managed to take my break and get back on the trail just as Beth and Michelle were passing. They were friendly and looked so fresh. Running the steep rocky descent to Overstreet Falls I knew I had done something to my quad, but I didn't figure slowing down at that point would help the quad so I ran on anyways though by this point it was making the downhill pretty painful.

I caught Laura and we ran to the road together but then she took off, I wasn't running slow but she was gone in a flash. I didn't try to keep her in my sights but it wouldn't have mattered if I had, I don't think I had much more to give. Then Beth caught me again, we ran it in admiring the sub 6 finish and vowing that someday, well maybe, it will be ours. Mike Pflieger was out on the road, it was good to see him and have him run a few steps with me, though he did worry me when he said that he hadn't seen Kevin at the finish( I was worried that Kevin's ankle had been worse and he had left/been taken to the ER, he was however at the finish, Mike just hadn't seen him). Mike stopped running just as we reached the camp entrance and Beth started to kick it, I said "Wait, I'm not trying to beat you, I just want to finish with you!" But I was laughing, I was so thankful that the race was over.

Horton graced us with the titles of "First Losers" which surprised me a little, I wasn't fully aware that Laura and I were in the 10th spot, but it doesn't matter, the mistakes had been long made and a top 10 wouldn't heal those wounds to my ego any faster. During some of those final miles I had been feeling fairly high, that I hadn't "quit" when my mistakes caught up with me, that my risky behavior hadn't cost me more, that I had still given everything I had for the day, that I had shifted from risky to safe and pulled out a 6:19 finish. But there, at the finish, it just came bearing down so hard. That I alone had cost myself a better day.

The worst part was that I wasn't feeling motivated or encouraged by my day, but rather seriously reconsidering ultra running in general and more specifically races I've already registered for.  I tried so hard to put on a happy face but I was just so mad at myself. Ultimately, it really is what I think of myself that weighs the most on me, I learned that Saturday, I had bought in, that I could break 6, and it hurt me, that I had hurt myself, let myself down.

I feel beaten. My left quad is pretty battered and my calves still fairly tight and angry. I complained aloud a lot the rest of the weekend. I failed to train the way I should and then thought I could do something I knew I wasn't trained for (mistake #213). But running stupid trumped sitting the race out completely last year. And running reckless taught me some things that I wouldn't know if I hadn't risked it. And 6:19 isn't really that far off of the 6:13 which is what I thought I could run. So why am I so damn upset?

Because ultimately I have been looking back, back to when I was 'faster' and 'racing better' but also to when I was 'injured' that I've failed to look forward.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Hellgate 100k++ Race Report 2015 (Alexis)

Hellgate 100k++

Fincastle, VA

December 12, 2015 12:01am

Before the Start

This race report was ready to be written Saturday evening but I didn't know how to begin, after some deliberation I realized that there is a life lesson in this for me, it seems to be the starting I don't know how to do, after I commence a task it almost always seems easier than I thought. As Tom Petty would perhaps say, "The waiting is the hardest part."

This was so true for Hellgate. I registered for this year's Hellgate, my fourth, the week between Grindstone's original date and it's actual date, it was something to distract me while the fate of Grindstone was still to be decided, it wasn't until the application was accepted, my check cashed and my left achilles swollen that I started to have regrets. It wasn't that I didn't want to run Hellgate but as the weeks counted away (quickly) and my Achilles (a self diagnosed case of tendinitis and retrocalcaneal bursitis) didn't resolve, I started to worry.

I walked away from Grindstone with a little more confidence than I have had, I performed at that race way better than I expected on less training, I finally felt I was getting mentally tougher. However, slowly during the 8 weeks that separated Grindstone and Hellgate, I felt that confidence literally seep away. At first I tried to retain some semblance of training but after a week or two of painful running it was evident that I had to let the body guide the training, not what I wanted or thought I should be doing. So for the next six weeks I ran, once, twice, maybe 3 times a week, not more than 16 miles on any run (which I did twice), in shoes with part of the heel counter cut out to avoid pressure on the bursa. By the time that Hellgate week arrived I was less than optimistic. Usually I can rely on my current training to fight off some of the doubt, to help me arrive at some kind of goal but how can you have expectations when your training is that low, when you still can't wear shoes pain-free? When you maybe shouldn't be running at all?

On Wednesday I had Todd cut the final pair of Hokas I had, I told him where to make the cut but it turned out it was a little too much, my foot slipped around for too much of the run that Wednesday evening, I wasn't sure I could manage that for 60+ miles. But I just pushed it to the back of my mind. Then came Friday. First I woke with a headache, swollen throat and stuffy nose. The vitamins I had started pumping in me had not worked to fight off the cold I knew was coming. I went right out to CVS to buy Sucrets, Cold Medicine and more Emergen-C. The worst part was that the swollen throat just made it difficult to swallow and I didn't eat what I would normally try to eat the day of Hellgate. I was worried it would get worse, I was worried I wouldn't drink well in the heat (this could be the hottest Hellgate to date), I just got wound tighter and tighter as the day went on and the cold seemed to get worse.

I was upstairs, 5 pm, finally readying my belongings for the race when I tried to pick a pair of shoes, the Hokas slipped off my heel just walking across the carpet, the other shoes that were cut were too minimal, I had never run more than 16 miles in either pair, and I just didn't trust running Hellgate in them. I tried on a few non cut pair and the achilles instantly started to be at a higher pain level just putting them on. It worked so quickly to tear me down. Todd was getting ready too and I asked him if we could just stay home and watch movies and snuggle on the couch (he had a back injury leading up to Hellgate and was filled with similar self-doubt) he said yes, he sounded as serious as I felt posing the question. I decided the best choice was the Hokas Todd had cut Wednesday, I would just tie them as tight as I could to keep them on my ankle as best I could.

Shortly after Kevin Corell arrived and the question was off the table as we now had to put our best faces forward and get out the door. I managed this fairly well even if I packed absolutely nothing for post race. Maybe there was a part of me still thinking I wouldn't start? Fortunately, I had a few great friends, Kevin, Freda, Erin telling me I could do it, that I would do it, that I would be fine. It's hard to have people believe in you when you feel so unsure, it feels like a pressure, they don't mean it but it feels as though you'll let them down if you can't perform. I love the feeling and I hate it too.

We had a good ride up, we stopped and got pizza and then stopped at Walmart because (I thought) I forgot hairbows. Really my head wasn't in the game. I slowed us down with my lack of preparation just enough to miss the dinner but we made it to Camp Bethel in time for the Race Briefing that had been bumped from 8 to 7:30pm. By the time we got into the lodge where the meeting was held it was already pretty jam packed with runners and crews, we nudged in on the floor beside a couch that seated Brenton Swyers.

After the meeting I hung around the lodge for probably longer than advised, but I was in no hurry to go ready my things. I finally got dressed in shorts and short sleeves and readied my gloves, hat and houdini to wear at the start. At 10:50 we headed off caravan style to the Hellgate Trailhead which is also the start of the race. Driving us to the start was Brian Corell, Kevin's brother who had selflessly agreed to crew his brother and I through the Hellgate race. I met Brian this past summer when he crewed us for the Catawba Run Around but I didn't really know him, it was a pretty privileged feeling to have him agree to crew me as well as Kevin and his help definitely contributed to a decent day. In addition to Brian and Kevin, it was Todd, Mike Pflieger and Sheryl Mawn. Sheryl and I have run Hellgate these past four years together and she has always caught a ride with us. I felt pretty special this year, because she could have been with Kelly Reece but she chose my crazy self to carry on tradition. It felt like a long drive over and Todd made the comment a few times that he still wasn't sure he was starting the race. I knew if we got him started he could finish Hellgate and with it the Beast, but you can't push Todd into anything, so I just hoped he would toe the line, being his second attempt at the Beast Series (the first was 2013 when Grindstone was shut down due to the government).

When we got to the start Sheryl checked us all in and I decided to wear all the gear; the gloves, the stocking cap, the beanie on my neck and my houdini over arm sleeves and a t-shirt. This would prove quickly to be way too much stuff in the heat but the start was a little chilly despite the forecasts I had heard. I need a parental figure usually to tell me what to wear at the start of runs. We got to the start line right as they were singing and moving forward and getting ready to start. I hadn't really spent much time on a race plan or strategy, I just begged that my cold and achilles would allow me to finish. Seventeen hours, Western States qualifier was the only real goal. Sure, I would take all that I could get from the day, but my hopes were all but dashed at a top 5, a PR, a stellar day.

To Aid Station 2, Petits Gap

Once we were off (at 12:01 am) and running it felt so different, like this great pressure was off, that it was just running. Kevin and I fell in together and though we had made no plans to run the whole race together I knew we would more than likely cover many miles in close proximity. He said something along the lines of "We are going to have a good night, you trust me?"  If anyone knows just how bad a headcase I can be, it's Kevin, he knew I needed to believe we could have fun and enjoy the run. In this, I did trust him, and the running felt so much easier than thinking about and planning to run. We started sort of mid pack but quickly made well enough progress in the group that we ended up going around many runners. The weather quickly proved warmer than the start line suggested and I took off the houdini and wrapped it around my waist. Then the arm sleeves got rolled down, I was sweating already.

Brenton Swyers was hanging with us and I kept catching glimpses of Todd up ahead and tried to keep him in sight without really running with him. I was thankful that he had started and that he looked good. The first few miles are very runnable grassy double trails, some small inclines but all very runnable, this year it seemed particularly wet but I didn't try to avoid the water, mostly because I thought the rest of the course would be drier and I couldn't avoid the creek anyways at 3 miles in, not because I was trying to be a badass like Dennis suggested. When we turned away from the creek crossing Brenton said he was worried about the 'stupid' thing he did Tuesday, giving blood, that his heart was already racing, I tried to offer some encouragement, that my heart was racing, that WE were racing but it wasn't long and he was gone. We didn't see him the rest of the day.

Dennis, Todd, Kevin and I stayed pretty close together after aid station one, we headed up the gravel road to Petits Gap. We ran and walked, smarter than last year if not a little slower. Sophie, Annie and Rebecca passed us on the road, Kevin and I discussed how in past years I would try to run what they were running but this year I had to be steady, let things fall where they may. It always seems like such a long ways to Petits and yet the time passes quickly enough, though it was nice to reach Brian at the Tahoe. Todd had gone on by this point, but we stopped and I dropped my water bottle and picked up my hydration pack, switched the small Black Diamond I had worn since the start for an Icon, dropped my muffie and stocking cap for a ball cap, and stuffed the houdini in my pack though I wouldn't use it again. It was just that warm out. I drank about half a 20 oz Mountain Dew and then we headed on, it was about 1:30 am at this aid station.

Petits to Floyd's Field

The downhill from Petits is a little rocky but I wanted to run well and steady, so I tried to be quick footed but after only a few minutes the mountain dew or downhill got to me, my stomach tightened up and hurt like Hell. I swear it felt like someone was repeatedly punching my gut, I had to walk a few steps and when I started running again it was slower, and though I was trying hard to not let it bother me it hurt. I tried my hardest to not complain to Dennis or Kevin but it was a very strange, painful sensation. I was thankful for the climbing on the Terrapin side of this section, it gave my stomach a chance to recover and thankfully it did. I also took 2 Tums.

We made it to Hunting Creek Road from the trail at 2:13 am, I told Kevin that it was here, 2 years ago that I decided I was quitting (but didn't), we chatted about the weather that year.  I took a GU out and ate it, it was my first of the day but it went down so well that I ended up making the plan to switch to GU after not really having a plan at all going into the race. I aimed to consume one every 45 minutes unless we were close to an aid station. I stayed on this plan very well throughout the race and ate 8 Gu during Hellgate, nothing else from my pack other than water and meds.

We hiked fairly well (we "walk well") and came upon Todd about one mile from Camping Gap, he had told me early to stop asking him how he was feeling but I couldn't help it, he's my husband, it is just what I do. He said I needed to keep moving, not to let Kevin pull away (Kevin and Dennis had pulled a small lead on me, I don't walk quite as well as they do) and tell Brian not to leave Floyd's before he got there to drop. I didn't say anything, I just kept moving, I caught Kevin and Dennis and told them that my heart was breaking for Todd, but there was nothing I could do.

We made it to Camping Gap and I had some Mountain Dew and headed out with Kevin and Dennis. The three of us ran quietly together through here but I started once more to fall back, I was feeling OK, it was just the middle of a long night. Once we hit the 'grassy road' and I hadn't talked to them for a few minutes I made to start getting my iPod out and ready when I noticed Kevin doing the same thing, I turned mine on. And then it was like Kevin and I had a little fire going, we picked it up and ran on ahead of Dennis, we caught several runners here and made good pace to the turn towards Overstreet. But my foot was slipping a lot in my Hoka so I stopped to fix it and then when I got up my fire was out. I walked a lot the next mile. I saw Annie up ahead but I felt no real urgency to catch her. Kevin was pulling a small lead so I just fished through my iPod for more uplifting stuff. I passed Annie and caught Kevin who had stopped to use the restroom and I led down to the falls and the gravel road, it is one of my least favorite parts of Hellgate, that final rocky descent to the gravel road and I felt like I turned each of my ankles four times.  I was so thankful yet tired by the time we hit the gravel road.

We had made good time until this point but I didn't have the fight in me to run up this road. We walked every step until it flattens out near the top. Dennis caught back up around here and said that he too had caught a second wind and he moved on ahead of us. We got to Brian and the truck at 5:02 am which is sort of the best time I have made it to Floyd's but also not quite where the aid station is so it was about the same as usual. I grabbed some Mountain Dew and told Brian to wait for Todd, as  Kevin ran on to the Aid Station. I realized that Kevin moved through aid stations much better than I do. At the actual aid station Cheyenne Craig was there and she gave us quesadillas. She said Joe Alderson was just a head of us, I could see it on Kevin's face that he looked like I felt, that even though we were doing OK, both our fires had dimmed.

Floyd's to Little Cove

Leaving Floyd's aid station Kevin told me to run on but I wanted the break as much as he did. We didn't move too quickly and I finally remembered this section for it's rough, rocky single track sections. This section can be very quick if you are quick footed and nimble, if you are scared and clumsy like me though, you take it slower. I had just stopped to pee for the first time all day (I was trying to drink as much as possible but it just wasn't enough I suppose) when I noticed headlamps approaching quickly. We were running along a wider yet rocky section when several runners descended on us at once, Kevin Townsend (who flies down a rocky descent) followed by Todd! My Todd!

He didn't slow to tell us any details but he obviously hadn't quit at Floyd's. We picked up our pace immediately and I asked what had happened and he said he dropped at Camping Gap but then got up when Brenton made fun of him. I tried to be more nimble but he was just too quick. We ran well from here to the aid station but I thought we wouldn't see Todd again, I hoped so. I worried that Todd may not have stopped and told Brian he was continuing on but he had, though I didn't know this until later, anything I CAN worry about though, I WILL. Overall though I felt good and happy here, I was so lifted that Todd was still in for the Beast that I let that news lift me and carry me to Jennings. I passed Rebecca somewhere through here and then Sophie just as we got to Jennings' but she left much quicker than we did at the aid station.

We got to Jennings Creek, the "Breakfast Aid Station" and Todd and Joe were sitting eating breakfast like it was Hardee's. Gina, Blake and Sam were there to help all of us and it was like a little party. Brian gave us Mountain Dews and Sam made me pancakes (delicious!) and then I told Todd and Joe to come with us. Todd said I am eating eggs I am not leaving and Joe said I will come with you but I won't be able to keep up, killing some time I said I wanted eggs too but then I couldn't eat them. I could tell that Kevin was leaving so I gave up on encouraging Joe and Todd to leave with us.

Well, I started to leave and then turned back and gave Brian my headlamp, it was still early, like 6:30 am, but I didn't want it and I knew we were on road until the sun came up. I was passing by Adam Evan's vehicle when he turned on Taylor Swift "Shake it Off" it couldn't have been more perfectly timed. It was a wonderful boost, that aid station, those people.

But then we met the road out of Jennings and it got very, very hard. It wasn't rocky or technical, it was 6:30 am, the worst time at Hellgate for me. Last year I had run some of the road to avoid that burdening exhaustion but this year I just didn't have it. Kevin said I could leave (he was giving me a complex that he didn't want me around), I said I couldn't. We hiked a while in silence, a few runners passed us and it took longer than either of us recalled to make it to the little gate at the top. I got so tired, I just wanted so badly to lie down and take a nap. We finally made it to the little gate and I said "Kevin! Talk to me. I think we will both be better off if we talk."

So we started talking about what we needed to do for Humble Creek (Blue Ridge Trail Runners race, yep that is a partial plug) and though we maybe were not flying we were moving steady and I wasn't focused on my achilles which had now begun to bother me a bit so I can attest that the talking did help. The distraction was nice. We had a female pass us here, Sheryl Wheeler, and then, at a turn near the road a Mr. Todd Thomas caught back up. He made fun of us, said we weren't running very well if he could keep catching us, but really it's just a testament to how good a runner he is when he is actually running. Once again, I was thrilled to see him and in a decent mood despite a lot of pain. He told me he was mad at us for making him start the race but I told him he could be mad at me all he wanted so long as he finished and brought home a bear.

We climbed a mile or so together but then when the road began to weave going up to Little Cove Todd fell back once more, I was hopeful that we would see him again, but that would not come to pass. We were making ok time, but not great time, around where I had run before, which was good considering my training and foot but Kevin kept encouraging me to run on, like I could just do that, run away. We ran and walked steadily to the aid station at Little Cove making it there about 8:20. Kevin ran pretty much right on through but I stopped for Mountain Dew and a few Lays.

Little Cove to Boblet's

After this aid station we ran quite a few miles very well, we walked but overall kept a good pace and kept the walking to a minimal. It was like Kevin had tried to get me to go on but then he carried us a ways with a good strong pace. After a little while he stepped aside and I took the lead, we were both moving pretty good. That is until we reached the hiker, this steep section that reminds me a little of running up a powerline hill, the wheels started to come off again there. I ate a Gu and tried to muster the energy but I was just getting low. Then it seemed to take forever to reach the actual Devil's Trail. A little while later, finally in the Devil's Trail the run came further apart, that section seemed worse than I have seen it in my four years, just so so many leaves covering up these many loose and shifting rocks. I would take a few steps and try to run and then turn an ankle. It was so frustrating. I finally committed to just walking the section for the most part after my achilles started worrying me, there were still quite a few miles to run and my achilles was getting worse and worse. I had switched from quick laces to regular laces to help hold the shoes in place and thankfully so, because I think that  saved the run but the shoes shifting on my ankle was still an issue through here as the shoe would get loose and my ankle rub more and more on the loose shoe. The other ankle also started to bother me so I knew it was the terrain as much as anything, not just the injury or altered shoe.

The last mile or so to Bear Wallow was as tough and draining as I remembered, I felt a good bonk coming on but just wanted so badly to make it to Bear Wallow for more water and some voltaren for my achilles that I kept moving as best as I could. We got to Bear Wallow at 10:10, right dab in the middle of when I have gotten there before, but still on the quicker side. We went to the Tahoe and I grabbed a Mountain Dew but then I headed over to the actual aid station table for water and warm food. There were so many people here, Grattan, Jamie, Gina, Kathie, the Sorensons, I was chatting and Kathie was taking care of me, heading over to the Tahoe for Gu and whatnot so I didn't have to do the extra walking and I was eating a little warm food and M&Ms when they told me I needed to leave. I had probably been there a good five minutes of so. I am waiting on Kevin I said. Immediately, Grattan and Kathie jumped on me, that I needed to go on, run my own race, not wait. I just brushed it off, I'm not leaving until he does I said. Kathie went over to Brian and the Tahoe to get Kevin and then she yelled back, he's already gone. I looked over to Brian and he said Opal and Kevin had walked off a few minutes ago. Kathie gave me more M&Ms and told me to go. I walked out of the aid station, I was surprised Kevin hadn't said he was leaving when he left, I didn't care about the leaving as much as I felt he didn't say anything when he did and yet I knew that he had been moving through aid station better than me all day, it was just a precursor to my little bonk full steam ahead. Also, I left without applying the voltaren. I thought about going back but then thought it was just more time wasted.

I hiked along but my stomach felt heavy from all the food I had just eaten. I had such a long ways to go. I didn't feel like racing, I didn't even feel like running. It was so hot. I passed Opal headed back to the Aid Station which confirmed Kevin was ahead.  Then I caught up to him not much later on the trail. We ran a ways but then I had to stop to go to the bathroom and Sheryl Wheeler who we had last seen at Little Cove passed me again.

When I stood up from using the restroom I was hit with a wave of nausea, I wanted to sit down. I wanted to throw up. Maybe cry. I was hot. Done. So, so much farther to run. Kevin was gone. I tried to take a Pepto, I couldn't. I tried three times to swallow it but then the nausea got worse so I spit it out. Another female passed. Then another. I started looking back, even though there was nothing I could do.

I caught back up with Kevin, though I don't know how and he said "What are you doing?" Like the little baby I am I complained to Kevin that I was sick, he offered me medicine which I gladly but ashamedly took. We both complained for a minute and then went back to not talking. The medicine and the slower pace and drinking water seemed to slowly bring me back together but not before we were passed by a few more runners. I started running more but didn't enjoy this section like I normally do, I was finding this section to be worse than I had remembered. Kevin fell a little back and then he told me to go. It was tough, I really wanted to stay, I really felt as though I should go. In the end, I went. I told him to catch me.

Not a half mile later I was out on the road. I saw Opal, I told her Kevin was just behind me. Then I came upon Sophie pouring water on a guy. We walked a ways together, she told me she had been in 5th most of the day but that 3 women had passed her in the last few minutes, the same 3 who had passed me, I had been in 6th and 7th since Jennings and not known where I was. She told me who was where, but that she had gotten hot, started slurring her words, she was going to take a break at Boblets, be smart and get that 10th time finish. I told her that was smart, she told me if I saw Rusty tell him she was ok.

After I passed Sophie though, even though I had that information, I still felt sick and hot, with little motivation. I got to Boblets and the crew of volunteers, many who I knew, asked how I was, I said 'HOT'. Brian and many of my fellow BRTR were there trying to help, they surrounded me and I felt cared for, I couldn't take most of what they offered but it helped to know they cared. Sam asked if I wanted food, I said no, he asked about ice, I said yes. Don was on it, dumping a cup of ice down my top. Then it was time to keep moving on.

Boblets to the Finish

With that ice working immediately to cool me down and a little Mountain Dew I was on my way just as Rusted Root "Send Me on My Way" came on (Krista Offields' recommendation!). The love and support and ice I felt there carried me down that next descent. Not that I killed that downhill gravel road, because I didn't, but for how I felt at the moment I moved fairly well. Both my feet hurt (too much wetness) my achilles burned, my other foot ached, my left knee which comes and goes was getting chatty.

I reviewed the situation. It was hot, but I can do heat. I needed to drink and make the best time I could, that was all. Don't worry about positioning, just keep moving forward. And that is what I did. Slowly at first and then I would catch people and see someone else ahead and it just became a little game and it was also a distraction and I didn't feel better but I was moving forward. I only passed one female which made me wonder if they hold up in the heat a little better. I thought I saw Dennis, I ran to catch him, he was having a slight issue (quite scary really) and was slowing to be safe, I told him it was good to be smart, it was for the Beast! And as soon as I left him I started to think about last year in the Forever Section, when I had my little epiphany, about how the experience of the Beast with those friends meant so much more to me than the racing part did. I thought about Kevin being at Day Creek last year and telling me I had to run hard. I was NOT going to race these last few miles, I was running just fine, I was getting to the end of a race that had seemed so uncertain the day before, I wasn't going to race, I was in 7th place. Not my best finish but considering the season I had it was good enough.

I wasn't racing those last six miles that was all I knew.

Finally, after so much weaving around the mountain I knew we would soon be going straight up, I came into Day Creek and all of these people, from so many directions were yelling that a woman was just leaving (it was then that I noticed Sheryl leaving the aid station) and that there were 3 more women just 1 (ONE) minute ahead of Sheryl. UGH! "I guess I will just take that with me then" I said to Brian taking the Mountain Dew out of his hand. Walking past the aid station table I heard cheers that I could take 5th, I could go for it. I don't know who said it, I was just so ready to NOT race those last six miles for once. "Why does it always come down to this?" I bellowed. But smiled.

I left and opened the Mountain Dew I took a few sips when I reached the trash bag, I had only drank about a quarter of it, about 60 calories, but I dropped it in the trash. I hadn't filled my water at the aid station, I felt behind me, not much left. I caught Sheryl and she told me there were a few girls just ahead, she said I could catch them if I ran but save some for the other side. Just after I passed Sheryl though Sonja who I had just passed in the Forever Section passed me and I fell back into 7th, I said "Good Job" and she said I would likely catch her on the downhill. But as she passed me I decided I wasn't racing those girls up the hill, I would continue to walk and hopefully walk well but I wasn't trying to catch them. I had very little water left. It was hot. I could blow up and have more girls pass me, I was really OK with 7th.

I hiked hard though. And I saw the girls, I saw Amy Ruseiki, it was hard to not fight, but I told myself I was being smart. They would race each other and win or they would race each other and blow up. I wasn't to get involved. Just do what I could. Near the parkway I couldn't see the group of four girls anymore, just that one of them was falling off. When I reached her she was crying, it was Angela! She had been in 3rd all day and she had fallen and was hurting, I asked her is I could do anything but she didn't really respond, I told her I was sorry, I knew she was close and she would make it, but it was so hard to leave her there.

I got to the Parkway and crossed, I hadn't run a step since Day Creek, but I knew I had now to make a decision, I could run a little hard and see if those girls were still in sight or I could cruise in. I decided to run a little hard and just see what happened, I was now 6th and I figured if I could even just close the gap and be closer in time to those girls that would be a pretty successful day. I ran a mile and saw no one but I was still feeling OK so I kept moving. And then I saw her, the girl in purple, who I didn't know at all. And I knew that was my chance at 5th and if I didn't fight I would be giving it away and I couldn't really stand that thought. So I fought a little harder, and passed by 5th who said "good job" and I wondered if she felt as tired as I did. I only had about 2 miles to go at that point but that felt like such a far way and the quicker pace was worrying me, it was hard. I did look back a time or two just to see how hard I had to keep pushing and even though I didn't see anyone behind me I didn't let up either.

As always that last stretch through the camp feels like it goes on forever! But FINALLY Hellgate #4 was over! I had somehow squeaked out 5th female in a time of 14:51:10, 3 minutes behind 3rd and 2.5 minutes ahead of 6th, it was a tight group there, and a stressful but might I say "fun" finish? Of course as soon as I was done I couldn't seem to walk anywhere, my feet were trashed from being wet, my achilles bothered from the beating, but it was nice enough (not running) to sit outside in the grass and watch others finish like that first year, four years ago, when I first ran Hellgate. The afternoon saw many more of my friends and trail family finish, many of whom, Todd and Kevin included, had finished the Beast with crossing the finish line.

The aftermath has been both worse and better than I expected. I expected to not be able to walk, just really sore and beat up from not training as much or as well as I wanted. But instead I have a raw neck from my pack, a severely battered, maybe broken toe and a unsurprisingly upset Achilles. But there's plenty of muscle soreness as well, I caught a glimpse of myself passing by a mirror yesterday and my swollen eyes and burned neck coupled with the other aches and pains made me truly feel as I had been in a fight, I'm just not sure whether I won or lost the fight. The good news is there isn't anything 'up next' just yet, I can really enjoy resting the rest of 2015 and with no big races (yet) on the calendar I can focus on truly 'recovering', and that sounds nice.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Grindstone 2015

I signed up for Grindstone (and the Beast Series) this year with a sort of calm confidence. Last year a lot went wrong, this year I knew some things. This year I would run smart, eat well, not sit down, and not sleep during the race. This year I would start slow, I would run my own pace, I would climb hard, and I would relax and recover on the downhills. This year my goal was to run 24 hours. This was my year.


Last year after Grindstone I took it easy. For a long time I took it easy. I wasn't signed up for any of the other fall races, and I ran very little through the late fall/early winter. I crewed Alexis at MMTR and Hellgate, and barely ran enough to stay in shape. I knew that I wanted to run Grindstone again, and regretted not running the Beast that year. So I decided to run the Beast in 2015.

So I set myself to training for the Spring 50K's. My training went better than my racing all Spring as I couldn't quite get things to come together on race day the way they are supposed to. Flu at Holiday Lake, I drank half a bottle of DayQuil at the halfway point. Huge blow up at Terrapin, a gel every 20 minutes turns into projectile vomiting after 16 miles. And at Promise Land I just had an off day, feeling tired and heavy-legged from the start.

But I kept training hard. I was climbing better than I ever have in my life. And then a week and a half before Highland Sky I fell down on a weekday evening run. It had been a hard day at work and I was tired and heavy-legged from the start. As luck would have it, I landed just right on a pointy little stump sticking up at just the right angle to rip a three inch gash in my leg and leave a hole the size and shape of my thumb in my left quad just inches above my knee.

So I skipped and Highland Sky. And I didn't run for weeks. And all of that hard work and training just melted away. I got fat and slow and never was able to run again. Or that is how it felt at least.

The come back was hard on me. It was mid-summer and everyone I ran with was training consistently and putting in tons of miles. When I was able to run again, I couldn't run down a hill. Period. I would grind my way up hills at a miserable painful trudge, only to be rewarded with walking gingerly down the other side because of my feeble wrecked quad. I figured my Grindstone PR was about as likely as winning the race all together.

But it got better, slowly, and I put the work in. I was running three to four days a week, and getting about 50-60 miles in. When I could get in the mountains I tried to make it count. I would push myself to exhaustion on climbs, but the down-hilling was coming back slowly.

Iron Mountain came around, and I used it as a last good long run/measuring stick race. I ran well for the most part, but felt weak on a lot of the long climbs. I did however finish feeling like I could keep running, which was encouraging.


As soon as it was time to start tapering the talk of another government shut-down began. I didn't let it bother me, I cut my running back to a bare minimum (7 miles the week before the race should have been). I focused on other things; work, kids, work, ignoring Alexis' talk of running. Then at the last minute we were shut down because of weather instead of the normal stupidity.

Again, I didn't let it get to me. For some reason I was confident that the race would happen the next week, and since I really didn't have a crew or pacers lined up I didn't have the logistical problems that others had to deal with. I was tired of tapering so I went for a couple of hard(ish) runs with Brenton Swyers during the extra taper week. Like me, he was tired of not running and fired up. Honestly the pace of these couple of runs worried me a little. I like to be very well rested on race day, and being old it takes me longer to recover from running fast.


Race day came and we all drove to Swoope. We set up camp, picked up packets and mingled with runners that we only see at races. We ate and we hydrated and we went to the race breifing, and then it was time to stick to the plan. Last year I had gotten so tired during the first night of Grindstone that I took a nap at an aid station. So as soon as the race briefing was over I retreated to my tent and laid down for almost three hours. I was able to get some good rest, even though it was only half-sleep. It was hot and Josh was SO loud in the next tent that it was impossible to get real quality sleep. (Some people.)

We lined up and smiled for pictures, and then it was time to run through the mountains for a hundred or so miles. The 6 PM start adds an interesting element to Grindstone, because even if you do manage to start the race well rested it gets dark right away and you have to run for 13 hours until the sun comes up. Almost immediately the Grindstone course bottlenecks runners at a narrow technical little creek crossing, so I jumped out kind of fast to get in front of the traffic jam, and then settled into my own pace as we ran through the camp towards the first aid station. I ran with Josh and Decker for a little bit, but Decker pulled away quick and I felt like I was working too hard to keep up with Josh so I let him go too.

The rain set in right away, just like last year but a little cooler, and it was dark before I made it to the first aid station. On the climb up to Elliot's Knob I realized that I was behind Shaun Pope and I was hanging with him pretty easily. Then he did one of the most impressive things I've ever seen: he ran every single step up to the top of Elliot's Knob. Every Step. I know because I hiked behind him the whole way.

We summitted and he dropped me quickly on the downhill. I saw Alexis and Kevin on their way up as I started the decent, right behind me as usual, starting slow only to build up speed the whole way. I ran the technical downhill on the back side of Elliot's like I was running a 10K. I'm not sure what happened up there, but I felt good and I was really enjoying the thrill of just barely maintaining control on the slippery wet rocks that shifted underfoot. I ran that entire four mile decent without seeing another runner.

Dry Branch Aid Station, mile 15 (ish). I ran into the aid station and there were a few runners leaving. Blake helped me fill my bottle and add my Tailwind mix, and he handed me a cup of broth as I was leaving but it was too hot to drink so I left without eating much. As I began the steep climb up Crawford I started to catch some of the runners who I had seen leaving. I passed Shaun, walking this time, and kept pace for a half a mile or so with Amy who ended up winning the women's race.

Up on top of Crawford I passed Josh who was eating, and Decker who seemed to be struggling a little, and then right before the downhill side I came up on Austin who said he had been puking. And then I hit the drop off of Crawford just like I did Elliot's. Full speed ahead, on the edge of out-of-control. The whole way down was like a ghost town, and I didn't see anyone else until I made it to Dowell's Draft aid station mile 22 (ish).

There were crew members lined up for a quarter of a mile leading up to the aid station, so I turned off my headlamp to keep from blinding everyone. Tyler and Erin who were crewing Alexis were  here with a bag of my gear. Tyler found me and helped me with my Tailwind switch and I grabbed some food for the climb and headed out. I had tried to keep it simple for Tyler and just threw all of my stuff in a bag and asked that he have it around when I come through. Having been in his shoes before, I knew he would have his hands full crewing Alexis.

I was still feeling really good, and ran so much of the climb up Hankey Mountain that I kind of surprised myself. Last year I had hit my first real low spot right here and sulked and dragged my feet up the four miles from Dowell's to the TWOT loop. I put my music in here and just dug in and ran some of the best climbing of my race.

After you get to the top of Hankey you get dumped out onto a service road that is slightly downhill for about three miles to the Lookout Mountain aid station. It was in this section that I realized that I wasn't eating much between aid stations, but I was sucking down 200 calories of Tailwind between each aid station. I still felt good, but I knew I had to be careful because if anything took me down at Grindstone this year it was going to be nutrition.

So when I rolled into Lookout Mountain I planned on eating as much as I could, and luckily AJW and Sophie had great food. "What are you doing here?!" I look up as I'm stuffing my face and Jeremy Ramsey is looking at me like my hair is on fire or something. "What?" I mumble through a mouthful of something hot and delicious. "You're in the top ten!" I tell him to shut up and and stagger out of there with a handful of food. Top Ten? That's probably not good. I felt good, but I knew I didn't have any business being up there. Trouble was coming, it was only a matter of time.

It is mostly downhill from Lookout to North River Gap. Mostly but not entirely, nothing is ever all downhill, especially at Grindstone. But I made good time through there, another rocky technical decent. I decided as I passed a guy who was picking his way gingerly through a particularly gnarly section that my only advantage out there was the murderous drops that everyone else seemed to be afraid to really get into. So I bombed what I could bomb and I climbed the best I could.

North River Gap, mile 36 or so. Sam Price's party central. I rolled into NRG feeling great still, and everyone asked me what I needed. There must have been 10 people there that I knew, it was great and a little overwhelming. I asked if they had seen Alexis' crew because they had my bag. Nope. Nobody had seen them. Panic. Don't Panic. My Tailwind had been carrying me so far and I knew that I wouldn't possibly see them again until the turn around if I missed them here. Eating at the aid stations was great, but my guts weren't letting me eat on the move, and drinking my calories had literally been saving my life.

"Do you have any calorie drink?" No. Nuun. Soda. Shit! And then Sam pulls off a crazy-watch-me-pull-a-rabbit-out-of-my-hat-magic-trick and comes up with a baggie of Tailwind from some guy who just happens to be dropping right at that moment. "You don't want to quit yet," I tell the guy, but I'm thinking "Thank you for dropping out buddy, you just saved my day." Chelsie mixes up my drink while Sam fills up a bag with more food that I can eat and they send me back into the wilderness.

Little Bald Knob. The seven mile climb. The soul-crusher. The bane of my race last year. Dig deep Todd, it's just a hill.

So I climb and I climb and I climb. Mixed in are a few short downs and a flat spot or two, but mostly it is up up and up to the top of Little Bald. Last year I fell asleep hiking up this hill. I sat down on a log to eat and fell asleep. I died climbing this mountain. But that was last year, and I wasn't ready to give up yet. I took a caffeine pill that Alexis had given me before the race and I turned my music back on. The Pixies, Dig for Fire. So I did. It's just a hill.

I ran what I could and hiked what I had to, and I got to the top and I was at the aid station over an hour quicker than the year before. Another aid station run by my Blue Ridge Trail Running family, this one captained by Shane Glass. I felt bad for these guys, up on top of an exposed ridge line, buried in a deep fog, and set up in a bog. But they were encouraging and helpful and had hot soup and community mugs.

It was good, like getting home from a rough day at work. I sat down and told Shane I was only there for three minutes. And then Steve or Dave brought me my drop bag and I grabbed some food and sipped some soup. "That's three minutes Todd," damn you Shane I don't want to get up. I was mad at Shane and thankful he kicked my butt out of that chair all in one emotion. I set off into a wall of fog.

Splash. The section from Little Bald aid station to Reddish Knob is all service road. Splash. With quite a few pot holes that all happened to be full of brown water. And the fog was so thick that I couldn't see more than six feet in front of me. The puddles came at me so fast and seemingly out of nowhere that it was all but impossible to dodge them. so I stopped trying and just ran through them.

This is a pretty short section, but it was so dark and lonely that I started to get tired. Just about that time a light appeared behind me. It was bright and getting brighter, and then there was a runner passing me. It was Josh Gilbert again. I tried to keep up with him, but he was moving pretty good. But at least having his light up ahead made it a little easier to see where I was headed. So I followed him the best I could to Reddish Knob where Jordan Chang and crew were hanging out in the fog making awesome pancakes.

We ran up the knob to the the punch and back down, and Josh dropped me heading to the turn around. The two miles of paved roads crushed my spirit. Not even the colorful graffiti that covered the pavement could keep my spirits up. I made it to the turn around aid station, and on the way back through Briery Branch I hooked up with Tyler and Jordan and snagged the rest of my Tailwind. I could tell they felt bad about missing me at NRG, but I told them not to worry about me, their job was to take care of Alexis.

There seemed to be so many runners coming and going at the turn around that I knew I would be dropping several positions quickly. My spirits where a little low here, but at least I had the rest of my fuel with me now. I struggled back to Jordan at Reddish Knob and grabbed another pancake which I tried to eat on the run but only got about half of it down before throwing the rest into the woods.

I passed Alexis, Kevin, Mike, and Brenton running together here. They looked like they were having fun and feeling good. I figured that I probably had an hour on them, but I was feeling rough and they looked good so I started thinking about when they would catch me and how long I would be able to run with them when they did. They told me that I was 12th or 13th, so I knew I had lost some ground at the turn around. I passed Elissa, Dennis, Anna, and Bethany before I got back to Shane at Little Bald. They all looked like they were feeling better than I was.

I lingered too long at the aid station, and then shuffled back up the slight incline to the top of the drop back down to NRG, my hip was hurting and my motivation was all but gone. The sun was finally starting to come up good, and about half a mile down the hill I turned off my headlamp and started to come back to life. It was as if the sun and the downhill were working together to bring me back from the dead. Of course, looking back on it, my resupply of Tailwind at the turnaround may have been a contributing factor. I had been steadily drinking calories for six or seven miles. By the time I got to the bottom of the hill I felt great (mentally) and I was hurting terribly (physically). My hip hurt whenever I hiked with any real effort, and my feet which had been wet for all but the first two miles were on fire inside my still wet shoes. And I caught up with Josh again, 30 yards from the aid station, and we tottered in together like heroes returning from the war.

I made a huge mistake at North River Gap(inbound), and it would hurt me bad later in the race. In addition to all of my great friends from BRTR, Tyler, Jordan and Erin where there to help me out. Josh wobbled over to his crew and sank into a chair to be pampered and I did the same. Everyone asked how I was and what I needed. "My hip hurts, my feet are shredded, and I need hot food." Tyler had DRY SHOES and SOCKS ready for me, but I refused (IDIOT!). "The damage is done, I don't want to waste the time."(MORON!) I ate like a champ, Joe Wilson and Jamie Swyers took care of my hydration needs while everyone else played Stuff The Food In The Runner.

I ate enough to climb Mt. Everest unsupported, and noticed Josh hitting the road with his pacer Chad. It was a good thing, because this pulled me out of my comfortable chair. "I'm coming sweetie!" I yelled to him and hobbled away from the comforts of home and back out into the wilderness to battle the mountains. We ran together for a little while, arguing about who was stronger and who should take the lead. Josh and Chad led up the first part of the climb and I started to bonk, which made no sense to me since I had just single-handedly eaten Thanksgiving Dinner at NRG.

So I sat down. On a rock. I took a deep breath and tried to assess the situation. Everything still hurt, so I clearly wasn't dead yet. I checked my watch and gave myself exactly three minutes to rest. I ate a package of Honey Stinger chews. I stood up and took another deep breath, and I started to climb. Hiking hurt, a lot. So I decided to fall back on one of the most basic tenets of ultra running: If it hurts to walk, and it hurts to run, then run. So I ran.

After about a half mile or so I caught up with Josh and Chad. Josh was eating red beans and rice. I'm not even kidding. Josh is awesome. Right out there in the middle of no-mans-land climbing and hurting he whips out a real meal and digs in. I, on the other side of the spectrum, had just eaten 200 calories of synthetic sugars. I pass them, still running on stupid. "See you in a little bit." And I climbed on up to Lookout Mountain.

Mile 70-something. AJW says: "You're looking good!" B.S. "You only have a 50K to go, anybody can run a 50K!" How is that for some screwed up Ultra Runner Logic. But you know what? It helped. I ate what I could and I left Lookout and headed up the long slow road to the top of Hankey Mountain. Running. Walking. Walking. Walking.

Come on man! Do you want to run 24 hours or not?!  Finally, my pacer had shown up. I ran (sort of) up the flatter part of the road. The only way to stop the hurt is to get to the end. Frank Gonzales' voice in my head was my pacer. He's more competitive than I am, and when we spotted other runners up ahead he pushed me on a little harder than I could have on my own. I made a pact with him, we would push as hard as we needed to go sub 24, but I wasn't concerned about top 10. I had to run my own pace, so I backed off and let those guys ahead of me disappear.

We caught up with them when the road turned back to trail. I was still killing the downhills, but my feet were getting worse. Phantom Frank said some harsh things to keep me moving on the flat stuff, but when we made the turn down to Dowell's Draft I was able to turn it up a little. I disappeared into my music, and Frank left me alone as long as I was moving good. That downhill seemed to go on forever, and I was thankful for it to be over by the time we got to the aid station.

Dowell's Draft aid station, mile 78-or so. I am still a little foggy on what exactly happened here. I was all worked up from running down for so long maybe, or perhaps the pain in my shoes that used to be feet was clouding my thoughts. But I left Dowell's without eating anything solid. 22 miles to go. Homestretch. But I think Tyler said mashed potatoes. I'm an idiot.

There is a steep little climb out of the aid station which doesn't really count as anything because you just go right down the other side before you have to really tackle Crawford Mountain. But this was Crawford from the runable side. This was the second to last climb of the entire course. This was time to celebrate and run. So I ran through the flat trail in the hollow in the shadow of Crawford, and I hit the climb with every intention of crushing it. And then the wheels fell off.

All four of them. Just right there in the trail. I stopped running and hiked. Then I stopped hiking and walked. Then I stopped walking and stood. Then I actually stopped standing and sat. A guy and his pacer came up out of nowhere and asked how I was. "Send a helicopter for me." They looked concerned. I smiled and lied and told them I was fine. I just needed to eat. I just needed to eat! How could I be so stupid. I took out some crackers and took a bite. Nope. I threw that in the woods for the squirrels.

What the heck? Get up you sissy! Thanks Frank. I popped some ibuprofen and ate the only gel of my entire race right there. I took a deep breath and put all the pain away. The pain I could get used to, the weakness I could fix. Calories! I stood. And then I moved. In a few minutes I had caught up the guy and his pacer. They were barely moving. I hiked behind them for a couple of minutes. The pacer was talkative, the runner was gone. Checked out. Frank made me pass them and I never saw them again.

Up, up, up and over Crawford. I think I passed someone else up there but it may or may not have really happened. There was a dump truck on the side of the trail, what it the world was a dump truck doing up a Crawford Mountain? Never mind it is just a pile of rocks. Down, down, down the other side. My downhill was really starting to suffer from my trashed feet.

Dry Branch aid station 87 miles done, 15 to go. There are real heroes in the mountains! Rebekah Trittipoe saved me. She gave me a chair and some tomato soup and hot fresh cheese quesadillas, while she mixed up my Tailwind and filled my hydration pack. She told me that it was four and a half miles up Elliot's Knob. I know, I know. But this is the last climb! 

I begrudgingly vacated my chair, and began the steep trudge up to the top of Elliot's. I hiked for a while with a guy who had gotten to the aid station after me, and was ready to go quickly. He seemed to be feeling good. He talked a lot. He was from Texas and had run the HURT 100 a few times. "You think this course is technical? This is nothing!" He was eating a gel, his 38th of the day. Wow, this guy was a machine. But then he was quiet and I looked back and he was gone.

The climb levels out a little about half way up. It goes from This Sucks Steep to You Could Run This On Fresh Legs. So I ran. I ran until it hurt, and then I kept running until it really hurt. And then I would pick a tree or a rock or random hallucination in the distance, and I would run to that point. I ran a lot. I think I even surprised Phantom Frank, who can be pretty mean when you are tired and broken down. He left me alone, and I pushed myself up the hill. And then the climb was over.

Running down Elliot's at mile 90 with mutilated feet was less than fun. I would run for a quarter of a mile or so, and then have to walk a few steps. The pain seemed to be unnaturally amplified out on the gravel road. When I finally got to the left turn at the bottom, I peeked at my watch. Holy S#*T! I was way ahead of my goal. I could walk it in from here and hit 24 hours!

Or you could suck-it-up and be a big boy, and RUN SUB 23! That's crazy Frank, do you think? I don't know, do you have it in you? Well, everything already hurts right. Lets go. The trail down to the aid station is mostly downhill, and we flew. I ran like I was running for fun on a Wednesday night with the crew. I was sweating and breathing hard. I did math to distract myself. The last five miles would take at least 75 minutes. I would check my watch at the aid station.

Falls Hollow, final aid station. Too many miles in. Five to go. The watch said I could do it. I was pumped up and tired. I was hurting and happy. I ran the last five in under an hour. I passed Jeremy Ramsey out running the course. "You're doing great. The next guy is right in front of you." Shut up Jeremy, I didn't want to race. I just wanted to run it in strong. Then I saw it.

I saw the guy's hat in a switchback up ahead. I caught him. He was walking through a creek and I flew past him. Technical was my friend. The gnarlier the trails the better. Then he was running with me. Then the trails turned to roads. Then he and his pacer were pushing my pace. Two miles to go and my side hurts. You don't run this hard at Grindstone you idiot! Then they picked it up and pulled away. One mile to go. Peek at the watch. Downshift. Eleven minutes later it's all over.

22 hours and 48 minutes. 6th place overall. Masters over all winner. (It's good to be old)

There is nothing quite like having a good race every now and then.