Monday, October 3, 2016

12 Lessons from The Bear 100


Why run the Bear 100, a race 1,958 miles away from my home here in Blacksburg, VA? Well, there is the obvious fact that it is a Hardrock 100 qualifier. There is also the allure of running some new and challenging trails. The plan was to make this my ‘A’ race for the year and gear all my training and racing towards the Bear. This year continued my recent trend of ‘racing less’ and ‘training bigger’ meaning I only raced a handful of times since my last 100 miler (2015 San Diego 100) and spent most of my time doing big runs in the beautiful mountain of southwest Virginia.  With several training runs of over 45 miles and some with durations upwards of 15 hours, I was feeling about as prepared as I could be. We have an incredible community of trail runners here in Blacksburg and I owe so much to these amazing guys and gals. Without them, running in the mountains would not be nearly as fun, exciting or meaningful.  I love you guys. 

Sunny and mild the day before the Bear 100
Lesson #1: Preparation is key, but for me, that means quality time with my friends and family while doing it

Reroute #1

At the end of August, about 1 month from race day, a fire popped up along the race course. The Peterson Hollow complex kept growing and we kept watching closely as race day approached. Would the fire get put out? Would they alter the race? Cancel the race? Having gone through the sting of the cancelled 2013 Grindstone 100 (government shut down) I was preparing myself for the worst.  Once the fire was 100% contained at 1,242 acres and trail closures were effectively in place, the race directors came up with a miraculous reroute that utilized different trails.  

Lesson #2: Reroutes happen in life

Reroute #2

As race day approached, my buddy Josh and I flew out from Roanoke and met up with Collin and Daria Anderson at their home in Salt Lake City.  The weather had been making a turn for the worst over the last couple days prior to the race and now it looked like 100% chance of a fair amount of rain and snow. While east coast mountain living has afforded me a certain amount of experience running in the rain and snow, never had I imagined experiencing this at elevations upwards of 9,000ft.  The morning prior to the race, the race directors again changed the course to prevent runners and crews from heading into dangerous conditions in the high mountains of Utah/Idaho in the middle of the night.  Again, I felt a twinge of disappointment that I was not going to get the chance to run the ‘real Bear 100’ but quickly turned my attention to preparing foe the reroute of the reroute…aka The Bear 3.0

Lesson #3: reroutes of reroutes happen…. Be ready for anything


I need to mention that throughout all of these changes, my crew chief Josh, was dutifully changing all his pre-planned driving, pacing and crewing directions that he had meticulously prepared prior to leaving VA. I could not have asked for a more detail oriented, focused and loyal friend to join me on this adventure and while I knew it was stressful for him to change his plans at the last minute, I also knew he was going to make sure that he and the rest of my crew were always there and ready for me no matter what conditions faced them.  I had 100% confidence that my all star crew of Rudy, Josh, Daria and Collin would be wherever I needed them and would do anything in their power to get my soggy and cold self to the finish line.
Crew chief Josh's organizational skills at work
Lesson #4: Surround yourself with good people. They will carry you through no matter what

Go Time

After a fun night staying with a friend of a friend in Logan, we found ourselves at the start line and ready to go. The weather was a little warmer than anticipated and I was excited to hit the trail with a couple hundred companions. The gun went off and we streamed out of Logan into the darkness. It was comforting to immediately fall in line with an old friend of mine from VA, Greg Brant who would go on to crush the race and finish 6th! We caught up on life and contemplated what the rest of the day would have in store for us. Though the first 12 miles were relatively flat and muddy,  as day-light broke we looked up into the mountains and could see the heavy, dark clouds and could feel the damp, cool air rushing down the mountains carrying the precipitation that would follow us throughout the rest of this adventure. I smiled a little bit because we all have just a little bit of masochism running through our veins when we make that decision to run a 100 mile trail race…and a little added dose of weather doesn’t hurt.
With Rudy before the start
Lesson #5: When it’s Go Time, don’t let the little things get in your way.


After hitting the first aid station at around mile 12, we started up the climb through Millville Canyon, which on paper, didn’t look too intimidating. Needless to say, this climb it was a big, fat, technical smack in the face! I was climbing hands on knees and was feeling like I was going nowhere. Looking up was pretty depressing, knowing that we had a couple miles of this before topping out at the top of this climb. About 2/3 of the way up, it started gently snowing on us. I had been climbing with Kaci Lickteig, who is a fellow PT and she suddenly broke the silence by gleefully yelling out, “ITS SNOWING!!!!!” This sudden outburst jolted me out of my climbing pity party and made me look up and around, getting a sense of how truly incredible our surroundings were. We were climbing through vibrant fall colors with snow falling down on us. Just perfect.

Lesson #6: When you are feeling bad, stop thinking about yourself and just look around at the beauty of nature.

Reality Check

We hit the top of Millville Canyon at around mile 15 and I immediately felt coldness surge through my body. We had just climbed from about 4,700ft to about 7,400ft and the temperature had dropped dramatically. I struggled to put on gloves and a hat as the trail became more runnable. Rolling into the first crewed aid station at Leatham Hollow (mile 22), I was just happy to see some smiling, familiar faces. Daria, Collin, Rudy and Josh whisked me through and I settled in with Dominick Layfield, someone I had raced with at the Georgia Death Race this past year. He encouraged me with his many stories from his previous gnarly finishes at the Bear and gave me some sage advice about pacing the rest of the race. 
Running into Leatham Hollow at mile 22

The next section was my low point in the race. I found myself alone after mile 25 and started to struggle. My nutrition was starting to get out of whack because I had been drinking too much water over the first 25 miles (probably due to being nervous), which led me to start cramping, and having to pee every couple minutes. Not a good sign 1/3 of the way through a 100 mile race. Rather than freak out though, I ran through all the wonderful advice my super-sports-dietitian of a wife had given me over the years and I decided to systematically decrease my water intake and increase my electrolyte intake over the next 15 miles.  The other thing I was struggling with was the relentless false flats of this section. This part of the course FELT FLAT….but in fact we were again climbing from about 5,000ft up towards 7,500 ft. Not knowing the course well enough, I was feeling frustrated that I could not run this part faster and felt like I was losing ground on everyone. I had a major reality check during this section.  Despite all the hours of training and planning I had done going into The Bear, this race was going to be HARD. Things were not going to go my way the entire race and I would have to deal with plenty more adversity before I got back to Logan.  Though struggling mentally, I kept moving steadily to Cowley Canyon (mile 30) and down to Right hand Fork (mile 37).
My crew keeping me happy and well taken care of

Lesson #7: Reality Check: training hard and preparing well will not remove the struggle and adversity from a race. Training and preparation helps you be successful at dealing with that adversity.

Just Smile

Rolling into Right hand fork (mile 37) and seeing my crew again was refreshing to say the least. Unlike the last time I saw them at Leatham Hollow, I knew first hand what conditions I would be running in for the next 60 miles, had a plan for what I needed in terms of gear, got my nutrition sorted out and knew how to articulate how I was feeling so they could help get me on my way.  I picked up the one and only Rudy to pace me for the next 7 miles or so. I knew if anyone could turn my race around, it would be this guy. I think he could sense that I was not feeling my best as soon as we left the aid station but instead of trying to unnecessarily push me this early in the race, he worked his pacer magic and just kept me moving forward, talking with me about life, reminding me about how epic the scenery was and just keeping me smiling as only a good friend could. There were actually times during these rolling 7 miles that I forgot that I was racing, and I was transported back to the good old days where Rudy and I would cruise for hours through our beautiful Appalachian mountains without a care in the world.  As the trail emerged from a narrow canyon, leading us into open grasslands with sweeping views of the mountains around us, the rain seemed lighter, the air warmer and we even caught a brief glimpse of blue sky which was cause enough for a quick celebration.

Lesson #8: Smile and remember that all this suffering we go through isn’t about achievements and glory but rather the amazing things we get to do and see with people in our lives!

It Never Always Gets Worse

Rudy and I ran into Temple Fork (mil 45) with big smiles and with my spirits boosted, just in time to tackle the biggest climb of the day up to Tony Grove. I picked up Collin to pace me from here and after negotiating the traffic on highway 89, we started up the steep, muddy ascent for Tony Grove.  
Did anyone mention the mud?
I met Collin Anderson in 2006 at a small marathon in Maryland and we have been friends from afar ever since. He and his wife Daria, unexpectedly offered to crew and pace me when I told them I was heading out to do the Bear!  Collin has years of experience with crewing and pacing all sorts of different races from Badwater to Wasatch so I knew I would be well taken care of during this stretch.  As we climbed the 2,700 ft up to Tony Grove, I quietly listened to many of Collin’s stories from crewing over the years. I have so much respect for people who spend their time, money and energy to help others achieve their crazy goals.  Following his super bright running outfit, which he had me pick out the night before, we clawed our way through mud up the mountain. The rain and wind started to pick up during the stretch but we were pretty sheltered in the forest of aspens and firs. The rain soon turned to snow and we knew we were getting close to the top. We caught a few guys during this climb but were also passed by a handful. This was the first time I really thought about my place because I knew the leaders would be coming back towards us anytime now.  Sure enough, through the heavy snow we started seeing people running back towards us! In third place was Kaci, being paced by Zach Miller, a fellow Lancaster native! 
The view heading up to Tony Grove
Heading into Tony Grove with Collin

We made it to the Tony Grove aid station soon after and roughly in 16th place. I changed shoes and socks… and by that I mean Josh peeled off my shoes while my frozen hands fumbled with my socks. We had some fun at this stop seeing how many tasks we could accomplish at one time, with Rudy feeding me, Josh taking my shoes off and Chrissy making us pose for pictures. My legs were feeling great here, my stomach was sound and I was ready to roll out and head back towards Logan.  On our way back down the mountain, my feet started feeling a little tender, possibly from the 12 hours of being wet, and some words of Dr. David Horton popped into my head, “It never always gets worse!” This year marked my 11th year of running ultras and Dr. Horton has directed or been at nearly all the races I have ever done. He has played an integral role in my development as a runner and has always pushed me to be a faster, stronger athlete. When I told him months ago that I was doing the Bear, his eyes lit up and he said, “Chang, you will like that one! Oooooo that’s a good race!” Now, as my body started to feel the effects of the slippery, never ending descent, his words came back to me, reminding me that yes in fact, the pain never always gets worse.
Snowy views and smiling crew :-D
Lesson #9: Remember the people who got you started on this journey.

Green Day

At the urging of Rudy, Collin and I reluctantly crossed thigh deep through a creek to enter the Spawn Creek aid station (mile 60). I was able to put on some gloriously dry and warm clothes thanks to my crew’s stellar preparation and attention to detail to not only dry my jacket, gloves and base layers in the car between aid stations but to have them ready for when I arrived! I picked up Rudy again and we got our headlamps all set for night to fall. It was about 6:30pm and with the cloud cover and rain, it felt later.  After getting through a few hills early in this section, I wanted to see how my running legs were feeling, so with Rudy’s encouragement, I started going longer and longer stretches without walking. Running! This was happening at the 100k mark! I was feeling pretty fresh and running felt GOOD. In all my other 100 milers, the 100k mark was the point of gradual decline in my performance. This time, I was feeling the best I had the entire race! With Green Day blasting in my ears (what can I say I love me some Green Day) Rudy and I started flying down the trail towards Right hand Fork. At one point we caught up to Guy Love, fellow Hokie and founding member of the first and BEST collegiate ultra-running program in the country! Running, running, feeling free! I heard Rudy say something along the lines of “stay in control dude…” and I reluctantly tempered my pace, knowing that he was right. At another point, as darkness was settling in, I turned to him and made it clear that we were going to get to Right Hand Fork (mile 66) without turning our headlamps on. This was fun! I was having FUN in the rain, mud and with 60+ miles under my belt.

Having fun while trying to keep warm at Spawn Creek

Lesson #10: Have fun. That’s why we do these things!

Going Deep

Leaving Right Hand Fork, Rudy and I kept a solid hiking pace. Guy and Meri passed us about a mile later and we followed the glow of their headlamps up, up and up towards Cowley Canyon.  I hike this entire 2000ft climb but felt so smooth and steady doing it. I had a new found confidence that I had never felt this far long during a 100. I KNEW mentally that I was making the right choice by hiking this and my body was agreeing with me. At the top, we started running again and this time spent a mile or two with Guy and Meri, catching up on life and passing the time in the dark before separating right before the aid station. After rolling into Cowley Canyon in 12th and spending less than 3 minutes there, we headed back into the darkness.  While this is usually a point in a race where you have to dig really deep to keep moving forward, there was a refreshing lightness to my step. I was with a good friend, rolling steadily through the darkness and getting closer to the finish line with each step. I started peppering Rudy with all sorts of super deep questions about life, to which he did his very best to answer even though I knew he was just as tired, wet and cold as I was. Thanks for going deep with me dude.  Boom. Face plant. Rudy is there, picking me up as I’m having a coughing fit from slamming my chest on a rock. Systems check: all good, lets keep running.  At Richards Hollow, we stopped briefly and realized just how hard its raining now. Lets just say cats and dogs.

Lesson #11: Real friends are willing to go deep right alongside you.

Bend Don’t Break

I knew that I was not the most nervous person at Leatham Hollow (Mile 85).  My great friend Josh had been superbly crewing me all day but this was his first time pacing me, ever.  As we left Rudy to try and dry off and we turned up the final climb, I couldn’t help but smile as Josh recounted all the new and exciting things he had experienced throughout the day. Up we went, and again, the rain gave way to snow. The trees bowed down over the trail, burdened under the weight of the wet snow. I started feeling like those trees, bending under the weight of this endeavor. Looking around though, none of the trees were broken.  I was running a fine line, just wishing the finish to be right around the next corner. At the top of the climb, Josh and I took a moment to take in the frozen landscape before tackling the incredibly technical descend out of Millville Canyon. 

We finally arrived at the last aid station, and I was cold. The last thing I needed was to get hypothermic with 5 miles to go so I downed 2 cups of broth and we sped out of there, determined to knock out this last several miles with the same urgency as the first 95. Slowing down was not an option. Breaking here would just mean more time spent in the rain, wind and snow….and that was NOT going to happen. Off we went through the rolling hills just above the town of Logan. Eventually we made a glorious left turn onto asphalt and Josh turned to me and said, ‘Here you go man! You made it!” Best. Words. Ever. We ran quietly up to the pavilion at Hyrum Gibbons Park and all of a sudden, I was done.

21:42:48 -- 10th place

Lesson #12: Bend, don’t break. Breaking won’t get you to the finish any faster.

One of the ironic and oddly satisfying aspects of finishing a 100 mile trail race is how the finish line is often quite subdued. No bands playing, no beer tent or screaming rows of people lining the chute. And that’s just how I like it.

It Takes A Village

To say I could have done this by myself would be a big, fat, blatant lie. From the planning stages, to the training and all the way to the race execution, I relied heavily on others to carry me.

Thanks to my beautiful wife for being the most supportive, patient human being ever. Being married to an ultrarunner is not easy. Period.

Thanks to my amazing friends and training partners who always push me to be a better runner, friend and husband. #catawbaridgerunners4life

Thanks to the INCREDIBLE volunteers and race staff at the Bear. You all thanklessly stood out in the rain and snow for hours upon hours to serve a bunch of tired, cranky and sleep deprived runners.

Thanks to my crew. What can I say? You guys made this race happen for me. I am eternally grateful.

This sport is all about people. At church this morning the pastor said something that echoed strongly in my mind. “ Everything we work so hard to build up will eventually be torn down like a sand castle at the beach. Only those with a hand to hold are able to walk away with a smile.”

So with that I’ll leave you with the wise words of Collin Raye:

…Take my hand, we have many a mile to go 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Race Report: Georgia Death Race 2016

“You have to touch the magical pony before you leave the aid station!”
“I’m not going to touch the magical pony, I’m gonna kiss it!”

That was just one of the memorable interactions I had this past weekend at the 2016 edition of the Georgia Death Race, held in the beautiful mountains of North Georgia.

With the year’s edition of the Georgia Death Race being a ‘Golden Ticket’ race, I knew I had to go down and see where I stacked up against what I knew would be deep and fast field.  I had seen increasing success locally over the last couple years and was extremely excited to see what it was like to toe the line with some of the best racers on the east coast and beyond.

After a relaxing drive down on Friday and good nights rest in a cabin at Amicalola state park, I found myself on Saturday morning in the car with my buddy Josh, who was crewing me, on the winding road up to Vogel state park…and I definitely had the pre-race jitters. Even though my training had been great and I was well rested, I was nervous about what the next 12-15 hours would hold.  I was comforted by the fact that I had three awesome teammates running the race with me and I knew many of the other racers I would be seeing throughout the day.

Let's Race!

I snuck away from the crowd before the start for a little quiet time and sat by a creek in Vogel state park, thinking about my race strategy and trying to stay calm. Once the race started, my buddy Leif and I immediately found ourselves mid-pack, getting left behind by the leaders, most of whom definitely had an agenda that involved a golden ticket.  We spent the next several hours together, keeping the pace reasonable, but up-tempo through the big climb up Coosa mountain and onto the Duncan ridge trail. This section of trail was brutal. In a certain way though, the toughness of the trail was very comforting to me. It reminded me a lot of my home trails here in southwest Virginia. 

Running with Leif early in the race
We eventually settled in with a group of folks including Franklin Baker and Ron Brooks. As we headed towards Skeenah gap (mile 21.5) I found a little separation from the group and proceeded to quietly run on my own for awhile.  The descent into the aid station was the only out and back section where you could see who was in front and behind you and it was great to see how places 1-8 were shaking out as I entered this aid station in 9th place. Horton was there and as usual yelled something about "slanty eyes" and told me not to be stupid. After seeing a bunch of folks on the way back up to Rhodes mountain, I was on my own for the next several miles. I started to get in a rhythm and tried to shake off the fatigue I was feeling from the earlier miles of the race. This section of trail was a mix of steep ascents and rocky, root-filled descents and I had a blast! The sun started to peak out and the temp was rising quickly. Right before reaching Point Bravo, where I would see my incredible crew of the first time, I surprisingly saw someone up ahead. I made the conscious effort not to spend too much energy trying to catch him but inevitably I found myself in chase mode for the last mile or two before Point Bravo (mile 28).  I charged into Point Bravo hot, sweaty and pumped up! It was awesome seeing my faithful crew here and I have to give them a huge shout out for the effort they put in to keep me going. I had told them initially that I would be taking my time through the aid stations, but I got caught up in all the excitement and wanted to get in and out in a hurry to hit the trail again.

High-five from Runbum [race director] coming into Skeenah Gap.
Leaving Point Bravo with the sun finally shining
I somehow left Point Bravo in 7th place. From around mile 10 to mile 28 I had steadily moved up from about 20th place to the point I was now sitting solidly in 7th.  After crossing the Toccoa Swinging bridge, I found myself hitting my first low point. I was less than a 50k in to a 70 mile race and I honestly started feeling felt pretty trashed.  Each steep climb seemed to sap my legs more and more and on top of that, the sun had come out with a vengeance and was beating mercilessly on my back.  Here is where I first thought to myself, “why am I out here again?” Then I thought back to the start line when Runbum had stood on top of a vehicle and made all the racers recite out loud, “ I AM HERE TO HAVE FUN!”  So there it was. I was there to have fun and self-pity or despair had no place in my fun.  This next section leading up to mile 41 seemed like a blur because I was by myself and quietly was trying to re-invent my race. Runbum’s words kept resonating with me, “If you can get to the fire roads in the second half and be able to run, you will do great.” So since I knew was not quite to the fire roads yet, I tried to deliberately dial down the intensity for a little bit. I popped in my headphones and started running like it was just another day in the woods, like so many days I had spent in the beautiful mountains around my home. 

Jumping logs, having fun!

Soon enough I arrived at the mile 41 aid station. By this point the sun had once again given way to clouds and right when I arrived the skies opened up with rain. The amazing aid station volunteers tried to get me under the canopies to stay dry but I had places to go and racers to chase. I remember them saying to me, “Dude, you are the first person through here that doesn’t look TRASHED!” which I took as a compliment but they didn’t know that inside I was working very hard to not look trashed as well.  After kissing the magical pony I once again headed out into the forest and started thinking about seeing my crew in 8 or so miles. This section was the first where you hit a long section of forest service roads and I was able to open up a little bit, feeling smooth and relaxed. After several miles of gently rolling gravel roads I saw Darren up ahead and immediately knew something was wrong. As the ‘Team Doc’ for the VT Ultra team, I have had the privilege of watching Darren evolve over the last 4 years from a triathlete/road-racing freshman to the super strong ultra-marathoner he is today. It’s a little sad for me to think that he and the other seniors will soon be moving on to bigger and better things and I am super stoked for what the world has in store for these amazing young people who keep me inspired on a daily basis.  We briefly chatted and then I continued on my way up to the Winding Staircase aid station.  Here I hooked up again with my all star crew and switched shoes to better suit the final twenty-something miles.  In the process I managed to totally rip a hole through my pair of clean socks while attempting to put them on so I then had to put my dirty, wet socks back on my feet which was just gross and not pleasant. Oh well, things don’t always go as planned during an ultra.  Also at this aid station were the dynamic duo of AJW and Horton and it was great to get heckled by some familiar Virginia folks. Brian Rusecki was chilling there too, waiting for a buddy rather than racing onward so when I left, I found myself thrust into 5th position. Happily, I ran down the mountain and onto the last couple sections of the course. This part was super smooth and runnable with fun winding trail sections. This took my mind off the growing discomfort of having 50 miles on my legs.

Rolling into the Jake Bull (mile 54) I was feeling strong ready to tackle the final 16 miles or so. I knew that 4th was a good 15-30 minutes in front of me, so rather than thinking about chasing them down, I focused on taking care of myself and not faltering in the last miles. As the race had proven so far, anything was possible and no gap was too big to be lost. In the back of my mind there was still a possibility (even though a small one) that 2-4 could come back to me as long as I kept it together.  On I went, and soon hit the pavement of Nimblewill road. This felt strange because in many ultras I have done, hitting pavement meant you were almost done. In this case, I knew I still had a couple hours to go and darkness still had to fall. This got a little discouraging but a couple kids, who were playing outside their house decided to join me for a little bit and their enthusiasm and joy made all my aches and discomfort melt away….at least for a little bit.  The road took me back into the mountains and up a long fire road climb. This type of climb is one I was intimately familiar with because of how many of the ultras in Virginia take us up these extended road climbs. I was in a good place, walking and running up this climb, which seemed to keep going and going. The sun was setting over the mountains and what an amazing view it was. The sky was filled with bright oranges, reds and pinks as I made my last turn into the final aid station (mile 61) Here the volunteers helped me get my jacket out and headlamp on as the chill of night was starting to settle in and the wind was picking up quite a bit. 

The Nimblewill road climb was loooooooong

For the last time, I left the comforts of an aid station and started running into new and unfamiliar places. Darkness really brings out a different mentality to a race and I tried to tell myself that although these trails were new to me, I was not new to running long hours in the dark, cold mountains. Racing at night in the mountains was something I knew I was good at, and actually kind of enjoyed (I guess I have Dr. Horton and Hellgate 100k to thank for that) On I went into the darkness.

When I finally turned down the terribly technical ‘trail’ (rut/ditch/rock garden… whatever you want to call it but it definitely wasn’t a trail) heading into Amicalola State Park, I could see the lights from the finish area and I knew that I had made it. Oh wait, those thoughts ended up being WAY too premature because although I knew we still had some climbing left to do before finishing, I hadn’t wrapped my head around how ridiculously hard the climb up Amicalola Falls would be (Pro-tip: try and preview things like this before race day). Up the first section of 175 stairs I tried to keep a steady, solid rhythm. When I arrived a the viewing platform, I foolishly thought I just MIGHT be done with the steps, only to get gut punched when I looked to my left and saw a sign for 425 MORE STEPS. Yes. I thought 175 steps initially had done me in and then I had to triple that number just to get the PRIVILEGE of running straight back down a different trail to the finish. After dragging myself by the handrails up to the top of the falls, I looked down and saw that no one behind me had yet started the climb up the falls. 

Left: the stairs of death
Right: the view from the top of Amicalola Falls

This was a double edged sword because on one hand, I knew I was going to finish an awesome 5th place in the most competitive ultra-marathon I have ever run but on the other hand, all motivation to finish hard and be tough on the last rocky, root-filled descent immediately evaporated.  Instantaneously my body started to feel fragile and broken, as if the weight of competition had been the only thing holding it together for the last 13.5 hours.  I hobbled down the road and onto the last section of trail in a daze, not able to really run or negotiate the rocks and roots without extreme difficulty. At one point there was flagging on a downed tree to signal racers not to run into it and I just stood there for at least a minute, staring blankly at it, trying to interpret where it was telling to go (it was saying go straight just don’t impale yourself on this log 0.5 miles from the finish) Finally I came upon the finish and crossed the creek desperately trying not to fall.  The last section was by far my slowest but overall I was extremely pleased with how I executed my race.  Runbum and my crew were there to greet me and that was that. 5th place in 13 hours and 50 minutes.

How Strava saw the race

DONE !!!

As I threw my dirty railroad spike into the coffin at the finish, I was reminded about what Runbum had said at the pre-race meeting with regards to the symbolism of carrying the railroad spike for 70 miles on your back and then tossing it away when you finished before getting your finishers award (another railroad spike of course).  I thought about how this race carried a lot of meaning for me beyond just racing through the mountains of north Georgia just to see who was the fastest. There is a lot more to life than that.  I thought about all my friends and training partners at home who were cheering me on from afar, about how much time and energy they had invested in me and how I wanted to make them proud.  I thought about how inspiring my fellow UltraVT teammates who were still out racing were to me and how incredible my crew had been all day and night. I thought about my amazing wife, who sacrificed so much to let me put crazy hours into training for this race.  But most of all I thought about my mom, who just started her battle with breast cancer this past week. She was my ultimate inspiration during this race.  I kept thinking to myself about how trivial the burden of carrying a steel railroad spike across 70 miles of mountains on foot was compared to what my mom would be going through for the next days, weeks, months and years. It put things into perspective for me.

There is nothing that we can do or achieve as ultra-runners, adventure seekers or daredevils that can outweigh how tough, strong and incredibly resilient the people we love are.  God made us tougher than we know and that should be something that inspires us.

This one is for you mom.  

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Gates of Hell 2015

Hellgate 100k 2015
Letting go of the past

So let’s just start by stating the obvious. Hellgate 100k is a special race. It has always been, and will continue to be, one of those races that annually draws an incredible group of people out into the dark, blue ridge mountains on the 2nd weekend of December.   

This year was my 9th Hellgate. Its crazy for me to think about where I was in my life back in 2006, the first year I ran Hellgate.  I was a 19 year old sophomore at Virginia Tech, just beginning to think about what I wanted to do with my life. My roommate Devon and I had hatched the crazy idea of running Hellgate over the summer of 2006 and through luck, perseverance and with the help of many people, I finished that first Hellgate in 16:48. I still count that as the hardest race of my life.

Fast forward to 2014. After an exhausting 2-year journey to complete the Beast series through 2013 and 2014, I found myself at the finish line of my 8th Hellgate, physically and emotionally spent and broken. Why, after 5 years straight of PRs and great executions of my race plan, had the last 3 (’12, ’13, 14’) gone so poorly? Through some soul searching I realized that I had been racing too hard and too much since re-entering the ultra-running world in 2011.  I knew that if I wanted to do well at Hellgate again, I needed to actually rest and prepare for this race, not as an end-of-season hurrah, but as an “A” goal race. So that is what I dedicated myself to in 2015. I meticulously planned out the 4 ultras I would run during the year and accompanying shorter races to be ready and prepared for Hellgate 2015.

2015 has been quite the year.  The plan I made at the end of 2014 came to fruition better than I could have imagined. Starting with a PR at the Boston marathon, I was able to keep the momentum going with a 4th place finish and PR at Promise Land 50k,  an 11th place finish at the San Diego 100 and a win a the Iron Mountain 50 miler. After Iron Mountain in late September I had a few months of consistent, steady training leading up to my last race of the year and the most important one to me: Hellgate.

Pre Race:

I decided to take off from work early this year to minimize the travel stress of getting up to Camp Bethel so Kristen, my friend Josh and I rolled into camp with plenty of time to eat, relax and prepare. Once again I was blessed with an all-star crew of veteran Hellgate crew members and first timers to help me get to the finish line. Led by my beautiful wife, this group would prove to be invaluable in my race execution.

Before the pre-race meeting started, Darin Dunham, one of the folks who had run Hellgate every year since its inception called me over to tell me something. He said, “Jordan, you are my inspiration for doing this race.” This took me back because it was coming from a tough as nails guy who was going for his 13th Hellgate finish. He didn’t need me to inspire him. So I asked him, “why?” Darin told me that he remembered back to 2006 when he and David Snipes were running with me, guiding me and making sure that my 19 year old self made it to the finish line despite being injured, scared and utterly in over my head.  He said that he remembered me limping up each of the long climbs, determined to finish despite the pain I was in.  This conversation really sunk in with me. Thanks Darin for your kind words. They came back to me big time during the race this year.

During the middle of Horton’s pre-race speech, I suddenly realized that Kristen and I had a mix up back at the house and that we forgot to place the hydration bladder in my pack. After a few minutes of panic and Kristen running around trying to get service on the phone, we were able to get a hold of Robbie, another crew member who was on his way up and thankfully was able to swing by our house to grab the bladder. Phew! Crisis averted.

When we finally got up to the start line, I got about 30 minutes of glorious sleep in the back of Josh’s truck.  Soon enough though, the caravan of cars rolled in and you could hear Horton over the loudspeaker telling people to check in.

Race Time: 

At the start line, I found Darren Thomas and Danny Luciani, my fellow Hokies and then at 12:01 am, we were off and running into the night. My goal for the first part of the race was to stay with the leaders. This happened to be Darren, Nicolas Dubuget, Brad Hinton and a couple other folks early on. We all ran together through the warm, muggy night and kept up a solid pace up the first climb. Going into aid station 2, Nicolas and Darren had separated themselves from me by a couple minutes and I was by myself in 3rd. 

After aid station 2 you get into the nitty gritty of Hellgate, but it’s also the most peaceful and quiet section of the course. Big sweeping climbs, open grassy roads and the deep dark forest all blend together over the next several sections of the course. It’s a great place to just turn your brain off and enjoy the journey. When I arrived at Camping Gap (aid station 3) Horton was there and informed me that the top 2 were 3 minutes ahead of me (only?) and I was 1 minute under course record pace. Uh oh. At least I was feeling relaxed at this point and I was very familiar with what was coming up next. As I set out from there towards the highest point on the course, took some time to remember the goals I had set for myself a year ago after the 2014 Hellgate: Sub 11:50 and a top 5 finish. I was well on my way there but with a ton of racing left to go. Kristen had given me firm instructions to push fluids and electrolytes and I heeded that advice throughout the night. As I headed out onto the promise land section of the course, it was with a renewed sense of urgency but also a controlled excitement for what lay ahead.

Dropping down to the road that lead up to Floyd’s field, I started to feel my feet getting a little blistered from how humid and warm the conditions were.  On the climb up to Aid station 4 I was excited to see my crew for the first time in several hours and to get some fresh batteries. When I got there at 3:57am my crew of Josh, Robbie, Kristen and Matt as well as a horde of AMAZING Hokies were there to meet me and got me in and out of the aid station like clockwork. I continued to run alone down the mountain to aid station 5 at Jennings Creek, pulling in at 4:55am which was the first time I had ever arrived there before 5am. This was a good sign!  As I was climbing away from aid station 5 I turned to see a headlamp coming into the aid station and folks cheering another runner on. Time to get moving.  Up the mountain and down the mountain I went.  A couple miles later I ran onto a gravel road and I immediately saw the person trailing me again. This really got me moving and I basically sprinted the rest of the way down to the base of Little Cove Mountain.  

When I got to Aid station 6 Little Cove Mountain, Horton was there and I asked him, “is that Brad [Hinton] behind me?” He replied in his usually abrasive manner, “NO THAT’S GOGGINS BEHIND YOU…..AND HE WOULD DEFINITELY DESTROY YOU IN A FIGHT!” Thanks Horty for the life advice… I wasn’t exactly planning on getting into a fist-fight with the world record holder for pull ups in a day.  On I went, trying to get as far as I could with darkness still surrounding me. I managed to hit 40 or so miles still needing to use my headlamp which was also a big victory for me.  I felt great during this section and rolled into Aid station 7 Bearwallow Gap at 7:50 am. 

Normally this is where my race starts to fall apart, but I was determined to not give up here. I was hanging solidly onto third place with 4th nowhere in sight. “It’s go time” I told myself. Up and over the mountain I went, still completely alone.  Through 8 other Hellgate finishes, I had never left Bearwallow Gap without a pacer. Needless to say the next section was tough. I had difficulty getting my forward momentum and just felt slow. Here is where I remembered what Darin Dunham had said to me earlier that evening and I thought about how much harder it was back in 2006 when I had basically no experience with running more than 1 hour at a time. I thought about how much stronger I knew I was right now compared to back then and this kept me moving at a steady pace, even if I was hurting quite a bit. Thanks Darin.  Eventually I was relieved to see Josh 3/4 of the way up to Bobblet's Gap, knowing I was about to start the last couple legs of this race.

While trying to be as efficient as possible, handing off my pack to my crew and gathering food from the aid station, I did and take minute to breath and pause before taking the plunge into the ‘forever’ section. Robbie calmly told me to “Stay focused” which was exactly what I needed to hear. Kristen reminded me once again to continue to push fluids and electrolytes and "be tough" and down the rutted fire road I went. Once on the single track of the section I started counting the creek crossing… “one, two, three…” all the way until I hit lucky creek number 13. There I knew I was only minutes from the last aid station. I was clinging to 3rd place, knowing that I had slowed considerably in this section but not to the point that anyone had caught me yet! Kristen was waiting for me a couple hundred yards from the aid station and ran into Aid station 9 Day Creek with me. The effort I had put forth through the night had caught up to me at this point and as I walked slowly through the aid station, I was conflicted. My body wanted so badly to just stop here but my mind was saying, “FINISH THIS THING.”  After downing 4 cup of glorious Mountain Lightning, I was off up the last climb.  

Leaving I heard Kristen yell, “You have to hurry, 4th place is not far behind you!!” Darn it. I need to rush up this mountain. I just wanted to take a leisurely walk 3 miles up and jog easy down the other side. “I guess I have to run this thing” I told myself. Fail. I really tried to get my running legs going but this was not happening.  I compromised and found myself able to run every other switchback.  Once at the top, I allowed myself a couple seconds to allow the last 11+ hours of racing to sink in. Everything was a painful blur as I ran down towards Camp Bethel.  For me, there is no feeling quite like seeing Kristen waiting for me with a ½ mile to go. She has been there with me through nearly every ultra I have run and it never gets old to see her excitement.

Turning into Camp Bethel is always a very special moment for me. It’s usually desolate right when you get into the camp so you have a precious minute or two to reflect on the journey you are about to finish. This year was no different. Here I was, about to complete my 9th Hellgate 100k in my fastest time and highest place. That’s special.  The silence was soon broken by the sound of Horton yelling at me to hurry up… in French. That was motivation enough to finish as quickly as possible. 

My year came to a close with a 3rd place finish in 11:41:58. My previous best finish was 5th place in 2009 and my previous best time was 12:51:38 from 2010.

Mad props to my incredible UltraVT teammates Darren on his second stellar race at Hellgate and Danny Luciani on an amazing first Hellgate and first 100k! Keeping up with these UltraVT kids is TOUGH.  Thanks for being freaking amazing you guys. Y’all inspire me to stay fit, train hard and have fun doing it! Go HOKIES!

It would also be a crime to not recognize my crew; the folks who stay up all night driving the windy back roads to see me for MAYBE 3 minutes at a time over a span of 12 hours. You guys are one of the big reasons I keep doing this race. It’s incredible to be blessed with friends who willingly put themselves through sleep deprivation and time away from their families to make sure I have the best race possible. Selflessness is a major trait of ultrarunners….and I love it. So to you Robbie, Josh, Matt, Butch and of course my lovely wife Kristen, I say thanks for another successful go at Hellgate 100k. 

Thank you Horton for putting on such a painful, challenging race for us. Thanks to all the aid station volunteers. You have the toughest job out there and as usual, you guys were AMAZING. Thank you for being so generous with your time and energy.

Hellgate remains my all time favorite race to love and hate. Will next year be not only my 10th but also final time racing Hellgate? I guess we’ll just have to see.

Gear Check: Thanks to our UltraVT sponsors including Salomon and Patagonia for providing us with the best gear around to train and compete with.

Shoes: Salomon Sense Pro (Special shout out to Cooper our local Salomon rep and all around cool dude)

Socks: Swiftwick quarter socks

Apparel: Patagonia Air flow shirt and Strider shorts

Nutrition: Nathan Firecatcher with 2 liter bladder, BASE Performance Salts, Powergels, Strong & KIND Bars.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Grindstone 100 Race Report 2014

Ok, so a little back story before I get into the nitty gritty of Grindstone 2k14

I met Matt in 2002 which was my sophomore and his freshman year of high school
I met Kristen, Devon and Carrie in 2005, my first year of college at VT
I met Steve in 2007 through competing with, and losing to him in many triathlons
I met Brett in the fall of 2013, when he joined the VT ultra team
I met Trevor in March of 2014 at Terrapin Mtn 50k after he found out he was moving to Blacksburg to teach
I met Kate in May of 2014, while spectating a triathlon that Steve was racing

...and somehow at a little after 2pm on Saturday, October 4th, I found myself surrounded by these 8 people who, by seemingly random events, I met and became friends with over the years. For that I am grateful.

These guys (and gals). What more could you ask for?

The word ‘blessed’ seems overused in our society. People say that they are blessed because their favorite TV show came back on, or the pair of jeans they wanted to buy just went on sale, or their cell phone didn’t die when they dropped it in the toilet. Yeah. Anyways, the folks mentioned above continue to show me that the relationships you build, friendships you develop and adventures you go on together are really much more important than a lot of things we worry ourselves about on a day to day basis.

When Clark and Horton announced that they would be putting on Grindstone 100 back in 2008, I literally took one look at the elevation profile, laughed and immediately went back to worrying about how I was going to make my triathlon bike more aero. I had run a bunch of 50k’s, 50 milers and even Hellgate a couple times but I had zero desire to touch Grindstone. It was too crazy, too long and too hard I told myself. And that was that.

2011 was an exciting year. I was in grad school working towards my doctorate, getting ready to get married and was running stronger than ever. I had set PR’s at every distance from 1 mile to 50 miles in a seven month span and was feeling great about my running. Then Steve convinced me to do Grindstone, meaning, he bought my entry into the race as a wedding present. To put it nicely, that was the worst idea I have ever had: I was not prepared, made many stupid mistakes and barely made it to the finish. When I crossed the line in 2011, Clark told me to my face that he had thought I was not going to finish base on how slowly I was moving in the last 20-30 miles. I never wrote a race report for Grindstone 2011....and quickly moved on.

In 2013, after moving back to Blacksburg and catching the ultra-bug again from all the young guns on the VT ultra team, I decided to give Grindstone another go. I trained hard all summer and we all know how that ended: with a government shutdown that forced the race to be cancelled.

Fast forward to fall 2014. I had another great summer of training under my belt thanks to my guys (and gals) on the VT Ultra team. I had snagged my first ‘W’ at Iron Mountain 50 which was a solid affirmation on how my training was going.

Going into Grindstone this year, I really wanted to get some redemption from my last go-round in Swoope. Unlike most people racing, I did not really taper at all. I kept up my normal running routine going up until race day but shortened up my weekend runs in the last few weeks to just a couple hours. I didn’t want to disrupt my routine and I really wanted to keep my mind off of all the distractions that come with tapering.

On race day, we headed north towards Swoope, with a pit-stop in Natural Bridge to drop Kristen off with her bike to ride the rest of the way to Camp Shenandoah (she had a 3hr ride to complete towards her ironman training). I arrived and set up my hammock, did the whole check-in/meet-and-greet thing/pre-race meeting and then settled down for the ‘hurry up and wait’ part of the day. Laying in my hammock by Lake Hope, I had the chance to reflect a little about the journey that myself and 260+ others were about to embark upon. We all knew the night was going to be difficult, with a cold front coming through bringing rain, wind and general nasty weather which would be compounded on the ridgelines and balds. We all knew that Saturday was going to be a beautiful day, with sunny skies and moderate temps. We also all knew that Saturday night would be another windy and cold one. Hopefully, I would be done by then. That was the goal but definitely not set in stone. Last time out I had aspirations of finishing during the day on Saturday as well.

Not getting rest before the start...
The week before the race, I sent Steve, my crew chief the following email:

“I have no idea what splits I am going to shoot for so your best bet would be to check out these links which follow the splits for people who have run the times I am shooting for : 20:35, 21:30, 22:30, 23:40, 23:55"

There you have it. I was shooting for sub 24 with a best case scenario goal of 20:30.

Nervous energy
As we gathered at the start line, I instinctively sought out some of my running buddies to huddle next to and share one last minute or two of peace before the race started. I found Joe Dudak and Johnny Robinson and we proceeded to nervously chat about the race, our hopes and our goals. When the race started, I stayed mid-pack through the section around the lake and back through Camp Shenandoah. I chatted light heartedly with Joe, Johnny, Jason Flassing and several other folks. I had decided to run with same hydration equipment as Iron Mountain 50 which was my bright and visible Nathan Firecatcher vest which held a 1.5L bladder. Through the sections leading up to the first aid stations which includes moderately technical trail and a few stream crossing, we proceeded to get rained on pretty significantly, which would set the tone for the entire evening.

Early on with my buddy John Robinson

After the first aid station, we began our climb through Falls Hollow and up towards Elliots Knob. Here I met Andrew Wilcox and we spent some time talking about running, hiking and general adventuring. When we got to the gravel road for the final push up to Elliot’s Knob we split, but we would definitely be seeing each other again.

In 2011, I ran this entire climb…which ended up being a big mistake. This year I promise my friend Matt that I would NOT run this section and true to my word I walked the entire way up to the bib punch at the top. Interestingly enough, my walking has improved so much over the last few years that I actually passed 7 people on the climb while walking. That’s a good feeling.

The fog up near the top of Elliot's was CRAZY. We could not see anything, even holding our headlamps low near our knees! I could literally see 3-5 ft in front of me and that was it. It was a group effort of 4 of us runners to:
#1 find the left turn towards the firetower at the top
#2 find the fence and bib punch.
After punching my bib, I tried to run back down towards the turnoff but the fog was so intense that the best I could do was a quick shuffle and even then I was slipping, tripping and generally not staying upright. I started running with my headlamp in my right hand, stooped forward so I could hold the light near my shins. This allowed me to at least see the ground. After turning left on to the North Mountain trail the conditions did not improve much. I stopped to readjust my healamp and was passed by fellow VHTRC runner Brad Hinton. We ran together for a long stretch and caught up on life. After several miles Brad started taking it a little easier on the wet rocks but I wanted to just keep running so we split up. After another mile or two I saw 4 headlamps bobbing down the trail beneath me. I am not used to seeing big groups of people running together because this rarely happens with people who are trying to win/place at races. When I caught up to them I was surprised to see the group was made up of Neal Gorman, Brian Rusiecki, Jeff Browning and Michael Owen. They were all taking it easy down the mountain towards Dry Branch so I decided to just fall in line. As soon as Neal and Jeff realized that I had latched on they skipped in front of Brian and both took off into the night. Brian, Michael and I stayed together until Dry Branch (Aid Station 2).

Here, I saw Horton for the first time and got the best advice I have ever gotten from him….and believe me, he has given me a lot of good (and questionable) advice through the years. He said, “CHANG! RUN SMART!” to which I replied with “And what does that mean?” Horton replied, “Stay comfortable. That’s the only thing you should do. STAY COMFORTABLE.”

Ok, well that sounded easy enough right? Off I went, back into the dark, rainy mountains following the lights of Brian and Michael. The next section of trail was a mostly runnable series of climbs and descents that for the most part were blanketed in dense fog. Rain and condensing fog was steadily falling on us as we ran this section. I would periodically catch up to 3rd and 4th place throughout this section but at this point placing didn’t matter. I had to focus on running my own race. No one cares what place you were in at mile 20 of a 100 miler.

Rolling into Dowell’s Draft I had the chance to see my amazing crew for the first time that evening. Steve, Kristen, Matt and Kate dutifully took care of my pack, filled up bottle and efficiently got me back onto the trail in no time. From here you have a climb then some beautiful ridge running for awhile. I really enjoyed this section because it just felt quiet, remote and still. The rain had ceased for the most part by now and I was comfortably running through the fog, not being able to see more than 5 feet in front of myself but having a blast trying to figure out what was going to come upon me next. After running up Lookout Mountain, I started my descent towards North River Gap. This section seemed to go by fast, probably because it was mostly flat and downhill. Once again, I was battling the fog and could barely see my feet, which gave it a pretty exciting feel. I caught up to Michael Owen at the bottom right near the North River Gap aid station and we talked for a little bit as we rolled in to NRG. Here I met up with my crew again, got weighed and prepared for the long haul up Little Bald.

night time at North River Gap

The climb up Little Bald is over 6 miles and to the next aid station is 7.8, almost all straight uphill. I knew the climb would be one of the most mental challenging aspects of the course, especially since I would be doing it by myself. I headed up with a steady walk, with Michael still in sight….for about 5 minutes. After that I was all by myself and just kept walking…..up and up and up and up. There were a couple runnable sections but for the most part it was all steep climbing. The moon started to peek out during this section, which gave me false hope of seeing the lights from the aid station up ahead on top of the ridge. About an hour in, I started to really feel the climb and I toned down the walking speed to stay comfortable. This worked well and I fell into a nice groove the rest of the way up. When I crested the top of little bald, I felt good enough to start running right off the bat and headed off towards the Little Bald Aid Station.

About 5 minutes after that, my headlamp blinked, indicating it was low on batteries. I had hoped that the batteries would last until Little Bald but I knew I had a while to go before I got there and the last thing I wanted was to have my headlamp go completely out before I got there. So I knelt down (no small feat after a 2 hour climb) pulled out my spare batteries and proceeded to change batteries purely on feel, without any other light source. That was both exciting and nerve wracking because I knew if I dropped the batteries, I would have to wait until the next runner caught me to do anything. So after getting my light back and running I continued on my way to Little Bald aid station where I chowed down on my new favorite aid station food....PEROGIES! The aid station crew sent me on my way back into the dark and I headed off towards Reddish Knob and my crew.

I enjoyed the section between Little Bald and Reddish Knob because I had hiked this section with my friends earlier this summer and felt very comfortable with the terrain. These miles went by quick and once again, I caught up with Michael with about 1 mile to go before the Reddish Knob aid. We started walking the last climb to the AS and then saw a little headlamp bobbing up towards us. It ended up being Brian Rusiecki and when he ran past us, Michael went along with him, leaving me in their wake. This would be the last time I saw anyone in front of me until mile 80.

The climb to Reddish Knob was uneventful except that when I got to the top, the fog was so dense I could not find the bib punch and spent a good 5 minutes walking around the edge of the parking lot until I found it. Then I had a hard time finding my way back to the road that led off the summit! Finally back on my way, I cruised down to Briery Branch where I met up with my crew again and picked up Matt, my first pacer. After a nice shoe/sock change we headed backup towards Reddish Knob and got to start scouting out the competition on the way back. I felt great at this point and we kept running the uphills and bombing the downhills on the paved sections and fire-road leading back to Little Bald Knob. We got the chance to see lots of good running buddies on the way back during this section including Joe Dudak, John Robinson and Keith Knipling. After eating more perogies at the Little Bald AS we continued our trek down off the mountain. This long descent was pretty tough on my legs and I remembered from the last time I did Grindstone that this part can really leave you beat up. Matt and I took it pretty easy coming down and said hi to everyone we saw, trying to give out encouragement to those still climbing. After 1:45 of tough, rocky descending we finally popped out at North River Gap, right as the sun was starting to peek out a little.

Here I got to see my full crew again and picked up Brett to pace me the next section. Now Brett is a super happy, enthusiastic character and I knew this would be helpful as we climbed all the way back up to Lookout Mountain then Dowells Draft. Once again, I was sticking to my plan of being comfortable but this was becoming harder and with each giant mountain climb. Luckily, I had Brett there to help my focus on the task at hand while keeping me entertained with his dancing skills. Brett had recently moved from Blacksburg to Richmond and it was great to get to run with him again. The sunrise was BEAUTIFUL over the mountains and during this section we got to experience one of the best aspects of trail running which is sunrise ridge line running. The air was crisp, cool and breezy, but had none of the harshness of the night wind and rain. Somewhere along this section I was passed by a strong looking Adam Wilcox, and after exchanging pleasantries, he ran off, out of sight.

Soon enough, we dropped down off the side of the mountain and came upon the Dowells Draft AS. This was mile 80 and where the race supposedly begins. The surprise for me here was not just that I had caught Michael again (the first time I had seen him since the turnaround) but that Horton was there as well. While my crew was getting me all set to go, I spent some time chatting with Horton, who told me that now was the time to “get uncomfortable!” Devon, my next pacer and I eased our way away from the warm atmosphere of the aid station and trudged back out into the mountains. Devon is one of my best friends and because we now live 5 hours away from each other, we had a lot to talk about, ranging from memories of our crazy undergraduate years, to how our lives have changed as working ‘adults.’ This helped the time go by as we climbed Crawford Mountain, the hidden beast of this course. As we crested up onto the ridge, the wind REALLY picked up. The trees were a beautiful yellow color and the wind was howling. We kept up a strong walking pace up the mountains and gentle run on the downhills.

Running with the one and only Brett

The race started to feel long in the section. I thought it was funny that the last time I did this race, I was cooked by the time I reached Dowells Draft but this time, I really only started to feel the effort once we passed it. I remembered the long, steep descent to Dry Branch AS and really started looking out for it. After 1:47 had elapsed we finally popped out at the Dry Branch aid station. I was freezing by that point from all the exposed ridge line running so I switched out into my long sleeve shirt from the Baltimore Marathon. On the sleeve of the shirt it simply says “I Will.” This was a powerful reminder to me and I took that simple phase to heart for the rest of the race.

Running with my boy Devon

Devon stayed with me as we climbed up and away from the Dry Branch AS, slowly making out way back towards Elliots Knob. About 15 minutes into this section I reached into my pack, pulled out a gel and quickly gulped it down. Little did I know that that was going to be the last gel I consumed during the race. As soon as the gel hit my throat my body went into full rejection mode and I projectile vomited the gel and everything I had eaten at the Dry Branch AS all over everything. My pacer was not spared from the carnage. So that was more gels for this guy!

Moving on from this pleasant experience, we just put our heads down and kept climbing up, up and more up. I knew that we would have to crest the mountain, run a ridge line for awhile and then drop off to the left of the ridge before we would pop out on the gravel road at Elliot’s Knob however, it just seemed to go on forever. This section WOULD NOT END!! This was definitely my lowest point of the race because of the dense, loose rocks, cold wind and generally fatigue that was setting in. I was trying to push the pace but it seemed like I was just slowing down. I nearly face planted several times and I somewhere along the way during the section I actually fell asleep WHILE WALKING and fell forward, catching myself before hitting ground. I am pretty sure I yelled ‘WHEN IS THIS GOING TO END!!!!” a couple times during this climb. After about 30 minutes I knew I had to start eating again because I was riding such a thin line between being ok and bonking hard. I pulled out a Honey Stinger waffle and started literally nibbling it hoping not to puke. It took be about 10 minutes to eat the whole thing but after getting it down I started feeling a little calmer about my nutritional intake.

When I felt like we were closing in on the road at Elliot's knob I started running again just hoping to get this part over with and sure enough we quickly came out of the woods and found ourselves on the steep, steep gravel road that I had climbed up some 18 hours before. To my surprise, when we stepped out of the woods the first thing we saw was the 4th place runner, Adam Wilcox, less then 100 feet in front of us! Obviously motivated, we bounded (ok you can’t really bound down a 15% grade downhill after 90 miles of running but you get the picture) down the mountain, passing Adam and hoping to put as much time on him as we could. Unfortunately we found out later than Adam had a family emergency and had to pull out at the next aid station.

We sped down the smooth, gentle downhill sections of the Falls Hollow trail and soon arrived at the Falls Hollow, and FINAL, aid station. Here my crew had apparently been having an impromptu dance party which I have not doubt was led by the one and only Carrie, who had instigated most of the dance parties during our undergraduate years at VT. Like a nascar pit crew, my folks got my pack and bottle filled and strapped back onto me in a matter of minutes.
We try to be as photogenic as possible...not matter how many miles we have under our belt (95 at this point)

chugging some mountain dew....fuels the soul

Amazing crew doing what they do best

After chugging a little mountain dew for good measure,  my last pacer Trevor and I ran off to start the last section of this race. I have a bad history with this section. In 2011, my feet were so trashed, and my body in general was so tired, that I was relegated to a near crawl by the time I left this aid station. The final 5.2 miles took me about 2.5 hours the last go round and this time, I was determined to get some revenge on this part.

5.2 miles left....Trevor getting ready to help me do some digging in the pain cave

Little did I know that Trevor had the same plans. Within a few minutes of leaving the final aid station he turned to me and said,

“I am only going to mention this once. It won’t be easy but you NEED to try and break 20 hours. YOU CAN DO THIS!”

With a heavy sigh, I ceded to myself that I would have to give it my best shot. Oh, how I wanted this last section to just be a glorious, enjoyable prologue to a well run 95 mile race! Nope. Trevor would not have any of it. Trevor, one of the world’s greatest motivators out there, was there to make sure I got to the finish line as fast as I could, no excuses. When out for normal training runs he has a nice, happy and funny demeanor, but when you need to put your head down and just make big things happen during a race, he’s the guy you want by your side because he’ll run himself in the ground before he lets you quit. Needless to say, this part of the race was a lot harder that it could have been and I have Trevor to thank for my discomfort.

We ran way more than I wanted to and kept pushing on the uphills that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. I kept thinking to myself how crazy that 19+ hours into a race I was still chasing a time goals with less than 5 miles to go. I didn’t look at my watch as we churned out these last few miles. I had no idea what pace we were going and I really didn’t care. I just wanted to see that darn lake, so aptly named Hope lake which would tell me I’m just about finished. I promised Trevor I would lay it all out once I saw the lake so on one hand I was actually dreading seeing the lake. When we rounded by the back of the Boy Scout camp with more than a mile to go, Kristen, my beautiful wife came running out to meet us. True to form (she is not the most sympathetic pacer) she immediately jumped on Trevor’s bandwagon of “RUN AS FAST AS YOU CAN IN THESE LAST 2 MILES AND BREAK 20 HOURS!” I was pushing as hard as I could as this point, no more room for fun conversations, jokes or stories. Just running. I was closing in on a goal that I had to wait 2 years to achieve. It started dawning on me once we saw Hope lake that I was about to run around 20 hours for my second 100 miler and PR by over 6 hours from my previous 100 mile finish!

not in a happy place

pain face climbing up to the dam at Hope Lake

As I struggled to stay upright while running down the road into Camp Shenandoah, I reveled in the fact that I had such amazing people to support me in the crazy endeavor and was looking forward to spending some more time with them….after I finished!

Nearly falling over while shaking Clark's hand

Down the yellow finishing chute I ran, hearing my name being called out by Clark. Once I crossed the finish line I shook hands with Clark, thanked him for a great, tough race and immediately found my way over to the infamous totem pole, which I proceeded to hold on to for dear life. I did not want to let go of the thing and I think the pictures sum it up perfectly. I just wanted to hold that totem pole, close my eyes and enjoy not moving for a few minutes. I let my emotions catch up to my while holding onto that pole with my eyes finally resting shut for the first time since before 6pm the prior day. It was a wonderful, fulfilling feeling, having some of my best friends standing there with me, just letting me be quiet and still for what seemed like several minutes but what I am sure was only a minute or two.

in a happy place....never going to let go of this Totem Pole

After prying myself away from the totem poll, I sat down in a chair next to the finish line and started debriefing with my crew.

 So there’s the story of this year’s Grindstone 100 (ok 101.85) Just a few final thoughts… I just cannot describe how amazing it is to have such a dedicated, fun and supportive group of friends to do these events with. I am privileged to have friends who are willing to spend a whole weekend following me through the woods to see me for mere minutes at a time, carry my dirty, wet and smelly clothes and shoes around, and even get puked on….while getting little to no sleep.

Kristen, Matt, crew chief Steve, Kate, Carrie Devon and Brett, you guys are the best crew I could have asked to have with me on this journey and I am always thankful for you friendship!

 Thanks to Clark and his crew for once again putting on a tremendously successful and professional event. Even with all the things you guys had to go through with last year’s government debacle, you guys made this year’s event as great as ever.

Doctor Horton, thanks for your encouragement out on the course.

And to all you crazy, crazy aid station crews, thank you. You guys make this race special and we as runners have nothing but gratitude for all your hard work in taking care of our needs so selflessly. YOU ROCK!

By the numbers: 101.85 miles in 20 hours, 5 minutes and 37 seconds, 4th place out of 242 starters, PR by over 6 hours from my previous finish in 2011.

2 shirts + 2 pairs of shoes + 2 pairs of socks + 1-1.5 liter Nathan Firecatcher pack + 1-18 oz Nathan hand bottle + far TOO many Gels to count + 1 lucky VT hat (thanks Jenny) =  1 awesome race in the mountains with some amazing, inspiring people.

Keep doing awesome things!