America’s Friendliest Marathon

According to its website, the Richmond Marathon is “America’s Friendliest Marathon!” The quotation marks clue the reader in to the fact that this is an unofficial designation, and can a marathon itself really be friendly anyways? Anthropomorphization knows no bounds. I was skeptical.

Regardless, in early 2015 I signed up for this race with the intention of avenging my two barely-over-3-hour marathon efforts and finally breaking that barrier. Shortly after signing up, I discovered that a friend of ours would be getting married that weekend. I took advantage of the option to defer my entry to 2016 for a small fee.  Then in between, I got my sub-3 at the DC Rock and Roll marathon in March. All pressure was off.

Keli was running the half. We would be staying with friends of friends–the friends would be there too, running the half, and the friends of friends would be running the 8K. Our hosts picked up our packets for us on Friday and prepared a nice pre-race pasta meal at their home–they were super friendly. I slept well, getting close to 8 hours of sleep (a rarity before races and a good sign).

Race morning, we were able to park in a a garage, quite literally, 1 block from the starting line (smaller marathons are the best). The temperature was probably high 30s and was looking to warm up a little but stay below 50 for the duration of the race, which was a good sign for me. We spotted a gsp puppy (good sign), and I was able to relieve myself of a little weight in the port-a-potty (another good sign). Tired of good signs? Bad signs included (1) the fact that I accidentally dropped my clif block shots in said port-a-potty and (2) it was a bit windy, which could make things tougher. I still had 3 gels, so all nutrition was not lost.

The half-marathoners head off in several waves beginning at 7:30am, the marathon at 7:45am. I jogged up the sidelines two blocks and watched Keli and crew run by, then went back to wait by the start. Around 7:40am I noticed that there seemed to be more runners yet to start then could feasibly cross the starting line by 7:45am. Just at that moment, I overheard another marathoner ask about this, and I learned that the marathon in fact started two blocks away (this is the problem of having gracious hosts take care of all details for you). I made a dash for the real start, snaked my way through the crowds and hopped the barricade for the first wave with about 30 seconds to spare. Game on.

Oftentimes when a race has both a marathon and a half marathon option (my sample size was 2 before Richmond), the two races share the first ~12 miles and then deviate. A marathoner in this situation has to deal with the crushing reality that he/she has another 14 miles while watching the half marathoners peel off for their final mile. The worst. Richmond is great in that the two races run in parallel for just the first 2 miles. Then the marathoners split off, do their thing, and the two courses share the final 5 miles. Jealousy is less prominent.

The first half was relatively uneventful. You have about 2 miles in the less scenic downtown area, but you quickly get into some nice residential neighborhoods. You cross the St. James River just before mile 8, then you get the next 1.5 miles running right along the south side of the river on a heavily shaded wandering road, with zero urban sights in view. It’s lovely and it’s early enough in the race that you should probably still be feeling good.

I took down a gel around mile 5 then again at 10. Around the halfway mark I spotted a “candy tent” and snagged a handful of gummy bears to make up for the aforementioned port-a-potty gummies. I crossed the halfway mark at a 1:27:30 which was faster than I was planning, but I was feeling in control so I didn’t panic. yet. At mile 15, we turned north back over a bridge.

The next 3 miles were tough. It was a very slight but steady incline and it felt like we were going into a headwind the whole time (despite a 90 degree turn halfway in the middle). It might have actually been a stiff crosswind on the bridge, but bridges are agonizing. I had picked up one of the race’s gels, an “Accel Gel” before the bridge, and had it soon after the bridge. Its metallic aftertaste prevented it from receiving my official endorsement. One final gel at mile 21 represented the extent of my fueling, which seemed to work well.

We joined up with the half-marathoners at mile 21, and the course did a good job of having a line of cones down the middle of the road to keep the two groups separate. By this point, I knew sub 3 was assured, a PR was also virtually assured, and if I didn’t crash much, sub-2:55 was also very likely. And here is where the race really starts to get, dare I say, friendly. Though not pancake flat, it’s about as close as you can get (blueberry pancake flat?). I kept up very even splits from 21 to 25, and then began to push it after mile 25, which is slightly down hill (fastest mile for me!).

The final quarter mile is steep downhill; gravity does all the work if you can just lift your feet and deal with the debilitating knee pain (Strava said I was running a 5:17 mile pace at the end). I spotted Keli and crew on the sidelines, veered to the side to get some high-5’s before the final push and crossed the finish line in 2:53:12, a new PR by 5 minutes, bringing to an end what can only be described as the friendliest marathon I have ever run.

We made a quick exit, showered, rehydrated, caffeinated, and were ready for a productive day of beer mile training.

Fat Dog 2016!

I ran the Fat Dog 120(+2) in August. It was a tremendous success by all measures, so without further adieu, here are my 10 steps for a successful Fat Dog (portions of which are likely applicable to other similar races):

Step 1: Optimize non-running portions of the trip. For me, this consisted of linking up with a merry band of fellow runners (Marthon, Julian & Daniel) and planning a vacation with Keli after the race. Even if the race itself was a disaster, I knew the trip would be a success because  I would have fun before and after (I did). Plus, the guarantee of pre- and post-race fun mitigated the need to obsess over my performance. Less obsession with performance –> relaxation –> better performance.

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Team Fat Dog!

Step 2: Don’t overtrain. I averaged about 50 miles / week leading up to Fat Dog, maxing out with 60-mile weeks on 3 occasions. I had 4 long runs: Holy Cowans 50K in May, Highlands Sky 40 miler in June, 28 miles of pacing at Hardrock and Catherine’s 50K in July. I had another few 18-20 mile runs but not many.

This sounds like a lot to me, but it’s definitely lower mileage than many other people; some people run more for half marathon training. I resisted peer pressure to run more on a few occasions (including those crazy Watkinses suggesting a back-to-back 50K the day after Catherine’s). I’ve built up my mileage very slowly over the course of years–not months or weeks–and I found that this amount of training, plus a healthy taper,  left me uninjured, happy, and rested. Post-race recovery was not all that bad either.

Step 3: Get Excited! You’ve gotta have a good amount of enthusiasm going into an event that will last a day and a half, and I had that. I didn’t let the adrenaline tire me out, but I did allow myself to get psyched up for this race in the weeks leading up and a bit at the start. The first minute of the race was probably the most exciting minute of my year, and really really wanting to do this race helped me throughout. Note: the last minute of the race was the most relieving minute of my year.

Step 4: Stay cool; don’t look cool. In thinking of what might lead to failure, I was most worried about the sun and overheating (that contributed to my demise at Bighorn last year). So I donned a really nerdy hat that covered my ears and neck and rocked some newly-acquired arm sleeves. I’ve appeared more stylish in races, but I think the sun protection was very helpful.

Step 5: Stop and smell the flowers. This race is incredibly beautiful. The vast majority is on nice trails, there are wildflowers galore and beautiful vistas when you get up high on the major climbs. We even got a clear night with thousands of stars and a meteor shower. Enjoy it. Slow down and take pictures. The pictures never do it justice, but it keeps you going slow, and you’ve gotta go slow to go fast.

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Scenic Death March
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This guy has the right idea
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Flowers for days

Step 6: Eat lots of Bannock. Mmmmm, so delicious. I almost retraced my footsteps to get more from the aid station after I left. In addition to that fried, bready goodness covered in fresh blackberry jam, I thought the food at the aid stations was great. Bacon galore. Lots of variety. I don’t overthink my nutrition, but I generally had success in fueling throughout the race.

Step 7: Stay positive. Attitude matters, so I told Keli my #1 goal was to come in and leave (well, at a minimum, leave) each aid station with a smile on my face. I definitely allowed myself some pouting and self pity on the course, but I figured forcing myself to be happy at regular intervals would help my overall psyche. I achieved this goal at all aid stations, with the exception of the last one, at which there would be only frowns and bug bites.

Step 8: Rely on the kindness of strangers & new friends. Attitude only gets you so far; sometimes you need a little help. All of the aid station workers and runners were super friendly (it was an ultra, and it was in Canada, duh). But, I got a few notable boosts along the way:

1) At the first major aid station (Mile 18), Julian’s crew of Nicki and Ann were there to help get me nourished, refill my bottles, and give me encouragement. Even without the promised pom-poms, they gave me a big shot of energy going into the next section, which was a tough one.

2) Work constraints made Keli have to fly out the morning of the race and was supposed to meet me at the next major aid station (Mile 41), but United Airlines had other ideas, so I found myself alone (she missed me by 4 minutes!). As I was looking around for Keli, Hannah and Jack swooped in to help me get changed and geared up for the night. Hannah also shuttled my drop bag to the next major aid station for me.

3) Finally, I fell victim to bad blisters (for the first time ever really), and I was a bit of a mess coming through the Nicomen Lake Aid Station in the middle of the night. A volunteer there gave me a few of her own bandages to get me through the next 15 miles (I got the full treatment at a major aid station the next morning). I’d also forgotten to pack some Advil, but on the way out another runner saw me hobbling and offered up some of his own stash, which was critical for making it through the night.

It’s amazing how much these little acts of kindness help out.

Step 9: Have a good pacer. On the whole, I felt great and could have managed all alone had the race been a mere 100 miles, but I was losing steam big time as I approached the final section, which had lots of climbs and would get some exposure to the hot afternoon sun. Luckily Martha was there to pace me after helping crew in the first half of the day. Martha enjoys conversation, so I knew that she’d have no trouble distracting me for those final 20 miles, no matter how long it took. But she also knew that sometimes a suffering runner just needs silence, so before the race, she armed me with a safe word (i.e. short, profanity-laced sentence) that I could use to demand quiet if needed.

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non-verbal manifestation of the safe word at mile ~105

Despite claims of being a bad pacer, Martha was great. She reminded me to eat and hydrate; she told good stories; she told one horrible story, then during quiet contemplation reformulated that story into a 15-minute masterpiece. I never came close to using the safe word in large part because Martha could intuit when I was suffering, and she herself would suggest halts in conversation/monologue that lasted five, even upwards of ten minutes–a veritable ultramarathon of silence for her.

And finally, it never came to it, but she was prepared to defend my honor, possibly with violence, in the final stages of the race: first when a chipper 40-miler was gushing over the beauty of the course as I sat on a log, looking deep within my soul and my bag of trailmix, trying to muster enough strength for the last 5 miles. And again in the final mile when overzealous course markers nearly tripped me up in a frantic effort to line the course with glow sticks… an hour before sundown. (And she also provided 50% of the photos that appear in this post).

Step 10: Have a great crew. It should be noted that anyone that serves as a crew is almost certainly an excellent person. Obviously, they help speed things up / eliminate chaos at each aid station: your drop bag needs no retrieval, bladders are refilled, food is brought to you, packs are cleaned of trash, etc. etc. If they really really like you, they may even massage your tired legs. Life in the aid station is good and efficient.

If, on top of this, you recognize the utter selflessness of crewing, you may feel compelled to repay crew by 1) not dropping unless absolutely necessary (they have invested their time for your success) and 2) moving as quickly as possible to minimize their waiting time. And if you genuinely like your crew, then, in those few miles before an aid station when you may be feeling sluggish, you may have even more motivation to keep moving to see a friendly face.

And if, on top of all of this, your crew is someone who not only is supporting you in the race in question, but also has supported you in multiple other races, and supports you in all non-running aspects of your life as well, then that is a comforting thing to think about and can give you a healthy dose of perspective when you want to amputate your feet in the middle of the night: what you are suffering through is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. So while I may not approve of Fat Dog’s slogan, I do think that having the above perspective does in fact help you to “suck it up” at low points.

All of the above applied to me at Fat Dog, and I could not ask for a better crew chief than Keli. After the race, we got to explore Whistler & Vancouver, where we had a grand old time, hiking, biking, drinking, eating, and singing our favorite new song (courtesy of Martha) a bit more than we’d probably care to admit.

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Recovery hike with my crew.

References and some practical bonus advice:

11: poles were helpful for the last 20 miles but I didn’t need/want them before that.

12: the race organizers take the mandatory gear list pretty seriously (and it sounds like it was all needed in 2015), so I wouldn’t try to cheat it. It’s not horrible but you should probably practice carrying extra weight in training.

13: Save your quads and go slow on the first few descents. 120 miles is a long way.

14: The ‘flat’ section from ~80 – 100 is a lot less flat than you would hope.

Photos I took from the first 40 miles

Professional Photos from the race.

Elevation profile in feet and employing a more useful scale than the one on the website.

If you’re considering running it, do it!

2016 Highlands Sky 40

Fat Dog was the big goal this year, but I told myself that if I was feeling good, I would put in a hard effort at Highlands Sky. I found myself the day before the race feeling good, though my foot was giving me a tiny bit of trouble–one of those injuries where you just start running and it could either go away completely or completely ruin your run.

The drive from DC to Canaan is lovely. Once you escape the first miles of 66, it’s smooth sailing, scenic and downright enjoyable. Former champs Martha and Aaron were hosting me in Canaan, and I was hoping some of their skills and knowledge would rub off on me. Check-in went smoothly, and I indulged in a bit of the pre-race dinner, which I personally found quite delicious (pasta, meatballs, chicken, salad, garlic bread, etc.)

Back at Marthon’s, I had dinner part 2: pizza from Siriani’s. Also delicious. Next up was a failed attempt to feed the ponies, then a hike up to PJ’s house for s’mores plus 1/2 a beer around the firepit. I didn’t get to bed until after 11 and wakeup time was a little after 4, but I never really get much sleep before these things anyways, so it was good to have activities to keep my mind off the race.

At the start, I met up with Robin, who was coming off her course record at Laurel Highlands (a 70-miler) the previous weekend and was ambitiously gunning for another one here. I hadn’t really thought about pace at all, but she showed me her pace chart, and I learned that 10:30 miles would get me a 7 hour finish. I filed that away in my head.

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Bernie pup at the starting line = very good omen.

After some milling around, the race started pretty abruptly. The first two miles are on a paved road. It’s downhill. You can stretch your legs out and run probably a little faster than you should. Robin and I did the first two miles in about 7:30 and 7:00. My foot was not bothering me at all, so I was feeling pretty optimistic. Turn left on the trail, grab a drink of water and start the long climb up. The trail is not super technical to start, but there can be a lot of overgrowth, so you do have to watch where you’re stepping. The climb starts at a very slight, runnable, incline and seems to gradually steepen over the course of its ~6 miles.

One guy was wearing tights, which Robin and I thought was odd until we got to the stinging nettles section. It was maybe 3.5 miles into the race and only lasted ~5 minutes, but those suckers hurt. They don’t leave any lingering pain though, so once you’re through, you’re good. Note: tights guy said the tights didn’t even help, so stick with shorts.

I tiptoed around a few puddles on the way up until you cross a small creek / waterfall about 5.5 miles in. Your feet definitely get wet there. Soon after the waterfall, the trail gets really steep, and I power-hiked up until it levels out near the top. One mini/half fall on the flat section because I got a little lazy.

From here to the Road Across the Sky (henceforth known as RAtS), I settled into an easy effort. You have to slosh through mud, splash through black puddles with unknown terrain below (I think our year may have even qualified as a ‘dry’ year), and there is a lot of overgrowth, so it is in your best interest to take it slow. Later in the race, a lot of the top guys would be talking about falling down several times, which probably helped my cause. I made it a point not to look at my watch, instead just focusing on not falling, keeping my effort under control, and taking in enough food to fuel me for the second half.

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Up in the Highlands

Coming out of AS3 (mile ~16), I had settled in behind a runner, Matt, whose Capital Area Runners singlet suggested he was a good road runner. I had learned that we were sitting in 7th and 8th place, which was a pleasant surprise. A bit before the RAtS, you come to an area called “10 Bridges,” aptly named because there are, yes, 10 bridges (think wooden boardwalks). Once you get past the 10th bridge, you’re at the RAtS. Matt and I had caught up with two other runners at this point, so a top 5 position, and associated finish prize, was quite literally in sight. After Bridge #10, the four of us turned onto the RAtS.

Full disclosure: the RAtS is in many ways an objectively brutal section of the course. You are out in the open, the elevation profile makes the rolling hills look tame, but they’re legit (it also feels like the ups far exceed the downs), and you’re largely running in a straight line, making the road appear to stretch on for eternity. Aaron’s advice was to assume that the road would never end. That way, when (if?) it ends, you are happily surprised. I was carrying my phone for picture-taking purposes, and I had included some headphones so some music might help pass the time.

Confession: I loved this section. I emerged onto the road feeling great and quickly decided to forgo the headphones and focus on the race. Matt and I passed the other two runners and settled into a nice low-7 min/mile pace. There’s an aid station about a mile down the road, but the next one was only ~3.5 miles ahead, I had ample water and gels and was feeling great, so while Matt made a pitstop, I just called out my bib number and kept on trucking into 5th place. Two ants appeared on the horizon, and I told myself to stay steady and that I would pass them by the end of the road. In reality, I was able to reel them in before the next aid station, making sure to run a little harder as I passed them. My watch dipped into a sub-7 min mile pace on the downs.

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The Long and [non]Winding Road
Soon after that aid station, I caught another runner and moved into 2nd place, definitely uncharted territory for me. I must admit I got a little giddy at the prospect of actually leading a race, but I allowed myself to slow down a bit towards the end of the road to catch my breath and take down some more food. I arrived at the aid station at the end of the road to learn that 1st place was 25 minutes ahead (with ~12 miles to go this seemed insurmountable). BUT, the volunteers said 1st place did not look good and had laid down at the aid station, so I didn’t completely give up hope.

I took it slow to catch my breath for about a mile after the road, but then settled into a solid effort for the remainder–never letting up but also not pushing it super hard. After a few miles I realized that the crash I half/fully expected after my effort on the RAtS wasn’t going to happen. In every ultra I’d run up to this point, I’d had at least one low period that was painful enough to question why I run these stupid things. That didn’t happen this time.

Once I picked it up again after the RAtS, my mood could best be described as “happy.” It was kind of a stressful time in my life, and I was just thankful to be running in a beautiful place, and both doing and feeling a whole lot better than I expected. So I ran and was happy. I chatted with the various hikers / horseback riders who gave me conflicting versions of how far back I was (anywhere from 10 minutes to 45 minutes). Aid Station 7 told me I was 20 minutes back, but first place was still looking a little haggard. Spoiler alert: he fought through some pain and held on for the win, though he said he had strongly considered dropping late in the race.

Coming down the ‘butt slide’ (not too bad, though I guess if it’s wet it’d be a whole lot worse) I got some encouragement from Kirstin and Tom who were hiking up the trail. At the final aid station, Aaron informed me that first place was out of reach but told me to sprint it in for pride. So I did! For maybe a half mile. This course is awesome, but these last four miles are not that great. I figured I was not going to catch 1st and probably not going to be caught, so I eased up a bit.

I ran into Martha who joined up with me on her bike for a mile or so of road. After a few hours on my own, it was good to have some company, and she confirmed that 3rd place was nowhere in sight. She’s also a huge proponent of walking, so I got to walk some inclines with no shame. I jogged the last 1/2 mile of woods on my own and emerged at the finish line, crossing in 2nd place having closed the gap with 1st down to 9 minutes. Top-5 finishers got a sweet Patagonia vest, which I wore with pride.

Here’s my Strava. I ran in my beloved Saucony Peregrine 5s, which I think was a good shoe for this course. I hope to find another pair before I run this race again. I’m not sure I can have a repeat performance, but I’ll definitely run it again.

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destroyed my favorite socks. 😦

On Goals

On Goals

The Goal

Once the dust of Hellgate settled, I gave myself two running goals for 2016. One is to finish the Fat Dog 120 in August out in British Columbia. I am 0 for 1 in long races out West, so I’ve got a healthy dose of respect for and fear of this race. But it looks absolutely beautiful, there’s a good group going, and Keli and I may make a longer vacation out of it, so I’m really looking forward to it.

My other goal was to run a sub 3 hour marathon. I ran a 3:00:42 in Charleston in 2012 and then a 3:00:26 at Boston in 2013 and hadn’t tried to go faster since then. I’ve spent the last two years dipping my toes into and then fully immersing myself into the trail running / ultra world, largely leaving the roads behind. But the marathon does hold a special place in my heart–that’s what got me into running–and my PR seemed too close to the 3 hour mark to just let it sit there. I was only partially looking forward to this.

I picked the DC Rock and Roll Marathon to give it a go. The plan was to get down to business in January and February: eat healthy, do some marathon-specific training with some longer runs on roads, maybe some hill repeats on Joey’s hill (which the race would pass through). The reality was not close to the plan. No dedicated speedwork / hills to speak of; holiday food galore; weddings; travel, etc. I did have a good 3 week stretch with some solid runs, and I kept up running fairly consistently, but I tended not to rearrange my life in favor of training.

The Race

In the end, I arrived at race day unsure of how I would perform. On the one hand, I assumed my legs were generally much stronger than they were 3 years ago, but on the other hand, I hadn’t trained specifically for this race or for speed in general. I probably hadn’t run a total of 26 individual sub-7 minute miles in the past year. I wasn’t sure which side would win out, but I figured I had a decent shot, particularly since the weather cooled off and it looked like it would remain cloudy all day (it did).

My plan was to run the first half in 1:30, and then try to crank it up in the second half, and hope my legs and mind would carry me through. In my previous two 3-hour marathons, I’d given myself a good cushion at the halfway point, only to crash and burn in the final miles. Unlike my attempt at a serious training regimen, my race plan would be executed well.

I got some crowd support from my Dad in Rock Creek, made it up Joey’s hill at mile 6 just fine, got some more support from Keli, Melisa and other friends on North Capitol Street, and I’d shared much of the race from mile 4 onward with Robin and Martha, so things were going smoothly.

Martha and I bid a jealous adieu to Robin–she was running the half–where the two races diverged, and we came through the halfway point just a little behind 1:30. So far so good. Two pace bikes emerged and ultimately indicated that Martha was the second female. She seemed pleasantly surprised/cautiously optimistic. A few spectators let out a “Girl Power!” cry as we cruised through Capitol Hill, which presumably gave Martha power but conferred no benefits on me.

Soon after we entered the out-and-back section at miles ~15-17, we saw Aaron on his way back towards us. He was looking good (he went on to finish a solid 8th in 2:45), gave us some encouragement, and we continued on waiting to see how far ahead the first place female would be. Female #1 was looking strong when we crossed paths with her around mile 16, and though I botched timing how far ahead she was (my brain not good during the marathons), it was a good 3-4 minutes. Outwardly, Martha seemed content to hang back in 2nd, but internally may felt differently. We continued along our way.

Around mile 18, I noticed that a bird had pooped on my shorts, which is good luck? or not. But it was an appropriate metaphor for the current mood that was setting in. My legs were protesting a bit from the pounding of the roads, and I started to plant seeds of doubt in my head. During this stretch, I was doing my best just to keep up with Martha.  The race thins out a lot in the second half, and had I been running alone, I don’t know if I could have kept it up the pace (that happened to me late in the race at Charleston, another small marathon). So I fought a mile or two of pain, determined not to fall back. Ultimately, I took down a gel and some Gatorade, which helped a lot, and as we came through mile 20, Martha told me we just had to run the last 10K in 45 minutes to break 3. It didn’t seem quite “in the bag” as she noted, but it did seem very achievable.

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good aim.

There’s a gradual ~0.5 mile loop at this point at the end of Anacostia Park, and as we were coming out the back end of it, I caught a glimpse of the lead female’s two pace bikes less than a minute up ahead, just before they turned the corner out of view. I wasn’t sure if Martha had seen that, but I kept quiet since 1) she seemed to be in the zone (it was a rare silent Martha sighting) 2) I figured at this pace, we would catch her in a few minutes and 3) let’s be honest, I was working too hard to talk much.

Sure enough, we crossed paths with the leader as we came to a U-turn around mile 21. Then as we approached Fort Dupont park around 22, Martha kicked it up a gear and pulled into first never to look back. By the time we crested the final peak in the park, second place was a good 100+ yards behind. We’d separated from each other a little bit by this point–Martha had a race to win–and coming down the descent from that last hill, I didn’t try to keep up.

By now, I was confident I would make it and I felt myself ease up just a tiny bit, still keeping under 7:00 miles. I would spend the last ~3 miles running alone with Martha just ahead. Somewhere between 24 and 25, I heard a voice behind me and turned to see Keli riding up behind me. We chatted a little but she wisely told me to stop talking and cruised alongside me, giving encouragement, until peeling off just before the finish.

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1/2 mile to go. it’s gonna happen!

Coming down the final chute, the crowd gave me a huge ovation–okay, fine, maybe it was for Martha who was about to break the tape despite the efforts of the guy behind her (not me). But the roar was inspiring nonetheless, and I crossed the finish line in 2:58:07. hurray!

The Aftermath

I envisioned two scenarios going into this race: a painful suffer-fest in which I managed to slip in under 3 hours or a painful suffer-fest in which I didn’t make it under 3 hours. I didn’t imagine the possibility of a non-suffer-fest. Now, I’m not going to say it was easy, but apart from ~2 miles of pain and self-doubt, the race went incredibly smoothly and overall was, dare I say, very fun. And, soon after the race, I couldn’t help asking myself… could I go faster?

I think the answer is yes. I averaged 30-35 miles a week in the two months before the race and topped out at 51 miles. Most of this was quality running (trails with hills, harder running on roads, running a few miles on a full stomach after WUS). But there are people on the Strava doing much more mileage. Plus, with two big hills, the course is not a fast one.

So then… do I want to go faster? Again, the answer is yes, but I am not sure to what extent. This is a little bit of an oversimplification, but I’ve derived enjoyment from running in two ways: 1) the satisfaction of working towards a goal and achieving it and 2) the actual enjoyment of running (this isn’t a particularly profound thought, I don’t think).

Both aspects have always been a part, but the balance has changed a lot over time. In the beginning, I was very much focused on #1. I watched the Marine Corps Marathon one year, decided I wanted to run one and ultimately qualify for Boston. And I did (eventually!) and it was great. But I enjoyed going out for runs primarily because I saw them as a stepping stone to achieving the goal I set for myself.

The desire to set goals and work towards them is still there (uh, that’s what this post is about), but in recent years, the balance has shifted much more towards enjoying running for the sake of running. Short runs alone help me relax and clear my head, WUS is a welcome mid-week break, and weekend runs in Rock Creek are as much a time for socializing and animal watching as they are for training.

All of which is to say: there’s still a part of me that will want to push myself to go faster, but there’s a larger part that will probably be resistant to serious non-fun training, and would be very mad at myself if I got overzealous and injured myself trying to shave a few minutes off my marathon time. But, as I said, I actually had a lot of fun in the race, so we will see…

Congrats to Martha on her victory! Thanks for dragging me to a sub-3 finish. Sorry I ate your chips. The worst part is, they weren’t even that good.

Oh, that reminds of potential Goal #3: Get a Wardian-type record for running Hellgate in a birthday hat on my birthday…

Hellgate 2015 Race Report

I signed up for Hellgate in October after running much better than expected at Grindstone and feeling much better than expected in the days following. Keli was able to get a few days off from work, my birthday would be the Thursday right before the race, so we were going to take a mini one day vacation to Charlottesville before heading to the race. Birthday present to myself was Hellgate and Keli’s present to me would be to crew me. Hurray!

No Hellgate report would be complete without reference to Keith’s and Aaron’s reports. Keith gives a good breakdown of the sometimes significant difference between Horton miles and actual miles and his elevation profile would be printed out and taped to my handheld bottle to provide me with real-time updates of all the joy that was coming my way.

Aaron provides a very detailed description of the course, which I, like countless others, read in hopes of being prepared for everything that lay ahead. My brain turns to mush in a race, though, so (and also I think because of the nature of the course) not a lot of it stuck in my mind. So I would recommend both reading it and, if it’s your first time, expecting the unexpected. It’s a really tough course that goes up and down and all around, and besides being a little unprepared is part of the fun.

One highlight Aaron mentioned was turning off his headlamp and being able to run purely by the light of the moon. So a few weeks before the race, I excitedly checked a lunar calendar and learned we would have a new moon (i.e. no moon) for race day. Boo hoo.

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Hike up Humpback Rocks the day before the race.

Had a nice time in Charlottesville and area in the day before the race. I ate a lot of delicious food in the 36 hours prior to the race. Probably not the best pre-race nutrition plan, but oh well. I went into this race, not so much excited or tense, but also not relaxed. I was kind of ambivalent to be honest. I hadn’t run a ton since Grindstone, so I wasn’t sure if I’d feel out of shape, or well rested, or somewhere in between. I didn’t have any strong expectations (good or bad) going into the race. Mostly ambivalence.

The caravan left Camp Bethel at 10:50pm.

Observation 1: The caravan drives too fast.

There is a best blood award at Hellgate. I truly fear that one day that award will be earned on the drive to the start.

We arrived at the start, sat in the car for another 20 minutes, walked to the start, nailed the National Anthem, and were off.

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Ready to go…

Observation 2: This is a fast field.

The top 10 finishers get a sweet nano puff Patagonia jacket. I didn’t think I could feasibly get top 10, but, hey, you never know! Those thoughts were quickly dispelled at the start, when 30-40 people flew out ahead of me. And several people would pass me in the early miles. I try to start slowly, but still, there are a lot of fast runners in this race so don’t get drawn up too far!

I started off in shorts, t-shirt and windbreaker plus gloves. Five minutes in, I slowed to a speed walk and removed said windbreaker, stuffing it into my pack. Gloves would stay on for a few hours more because I have weak frail hands that get cold easily. Nothing exciting to report in the first five miles to the AS1.

There’s a long climb from AS1 to AS2. I expected the temperatures to cool off as we ascended, but about two miles into the climb, we rounded turn on the road, and it actually felt noticeably hotter and more humid. My stomach wasn’t feeling right, and sadly before we even reached the top of Petites Gap, I would utter “Never again [will I run this stupid race]” out loud to myself.

I don’t know if it was what I’d eaten before or the unexpected warmth, or despite my wanting to remain patient, the fact that several people were passing me on the way up, but I wasn’t feeling good, wasn’t having a good time, and I wasn’t being the toughest cookie about it either.  But I wasn’t planning on dropping or anything yet. So I continued on.

Observation 3: Rocks and leaves, particularly at night look very similar, and though the leaves tend to outnumber the rocks, you kind of have to assume that they’re all rocks, or at least that rocks lie beneath.

As Aaron notes—and this is one of the few things that stuck—the first half is largely up a road, down a trail. Though not always super technical, you have to be careful on the downhills. I was sufficiently careful throughout the race particularly at night. Had a few close calls, but no falls.

The race was uneventful from AS2 to AS6. I wasn’t feeling good through AS2 and AS4. Shared some miles with friends James and Erik between 2 and 4, which helped numb the pain. Seeing Keli for the first time at AS4 was a big boost, and by the time I left AS4, I was feeling better (still not great, but good enough). The pity party was over. I kept it slow and conservative (particularly on the trails).

The first signs of daylight were coming as I left Jennings Creek (AS5) with Erik. In hindsight, I should have left my headlamp there; you have ~2 miles of climbing on a road, so if there’s any glimpse of daylight as you leave AS5, you’re probably fine without a light. Unless you’re running up the hills, which I was not.

Observation 4: The aid station crews are great.

Hellgate does not have world’s greatest aid stations in terms of food. But another runner noted (and I confirmed at AS6) that a single crew would set up several aid stations throughout the race. So they’d set up AS2, wait for everyone to come through, then pack up and go set up AS5 (or something like that). I could be exposing my ignorance if lots of races work like. But everyone was clearly working super hard, and they were all super nice and helpful.

I started feeling really good leaving AS6. I picked off one or two people early on. About halfway to AS7, it gets a bit more technical. I ended up passing another 4 people in about a mile, and I ran pretty strong the last 1.5 miles into AS7 feeling great. I asked what place I was in and Horton told me I was 39th, adding that I was behind my expected finish (I was bib #30). I told him I would pass 9 more people. Hung out here for 5-10 minutes with Keli, eating lots of tater tots, soup, and other snacks. Headed off into the hills again.

Observation 5: I want to die.

15-20 minutes into this section, I bonked. Hard. Maybe I ran too aggressively into AS7; maybe I didn’t eat enough; maybe it was the heat. Interestingly, this kind of happened to me at the same point in the other 100K I’ve run (Miwok). I was all alone and not feeling at all good. There’s a decent-sized climb to start and for much of this section the trail follows this annoying, repetitive pattern of following a ridgeline while going in to and out from the mountain. At times it seemed to create an optical illusion where the trail appeared to be going uphill when really it was going down hill(?). I don’t know, I didn’t care. I thought I felt bad on that first climb to AS2, but now I was truly miserable and not trying to pretend otherwise. Luckily no one was around to witness my suffering.

I finally reached the road going up to AS8, having walked much of the way. In an effort to expedite the misery, I played a game where I would ‘run’ to an orange streamer, then walk the next ~100 yards to the next streamer, then ‘run’ to the next streamer, then walk, etc. I’ve played better games in my life.

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Hating life coming into AS8

Observation 6: Having a crew makes me want to live again.

I was a broken man coming into AS8, where Keli was waiting. I sat down on a bank next to the trail. Keli had bought some trail mix and other goodies, which was good because Clif Bar’s #7 and 8 didn’t feel so good going down in that last section. She got me nourished, gave me some words of encouragement, and got me out of there. It’s unclear what would’ve happened in the absence of crew, but I might have just kept on sitting. It was in the mid-70s at this point I think.

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Thanks to the volunteer who gave me this ice water towel

There was still another ~13.5 miles to go, but in my mind, I was focused on getting to the last aid station, which was 6.6 – 8 miles away, depending on whose word you were taking. The last section, though not easy, seemed manageable and quantifiable (~2-3 miles up a mountain on a road, then 2-3 miles down a mountain on a road).

Leaving AS8, you run along a road downhill for maybe 2 miles before cutting off onto a trail that goes on forever. At times it is unclear why someone designed the trail in this way. You go up, down, left right, seemingly circling back on yourself. I got through it. It wasn’t pretty or enjoyable, but I ran/walked my way through it neither fast nor slow, always moving forward.

I passed three people in the quarter mile before AS9 (Day Creek). I wasn’t enjoying myself, but they were enjoying themselves less. I took my time in the aid station, eating a popsicle, eating some food, and drinking lots of water. The three of them headed out before I did.

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Waving goodbye as I backed out of the aid station.

I caught the first two in the first quarter mile or so. The third guy was way ahead, so I just settled into a determined power hike and trudged onward. Ultimately, I caught up near the top, we chatted a bit, and I pressed on alone (as I would remain for the rest of the race). Cresting over the Blue Ridge parkway it took me a couple minutes to adjust to running downhill.

With about two miles to go, I let all tension go. I had no races planned for 2016 yet, and I’d already decided during this race that I was going to dial back my running for a few weeks over the holiday. So I just let gravity take over, opened up my stride a bit, and let myself enjoy this last race of 2015. The road bottomed out, and I turned left up into Camp Bethel, slowing a little bit on the incline but still running strong. Up the final chute, and crossed the finish line just as Horton got my name out. Finished 30th place, so I wasn’t lying back at AS7!

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Victory! Well, internal victory at least.

Observation 7: Best race swag ever.

Patagonia Houdini (retails for $99), Nice warm socks, and conductor-looking hat that I wore with pride for the next few days.

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rocking my new socks, windbreaker and hat.

Observation 8: I’ll be back.

But not next year. And I think I’ll want more of a full moon. And maybe incorporate it into the Beast Series. I know, I know, I swore it off at Mile 7, and don’t get me wrong, I experienced some of my worst misery (second probably to my DNF at Bighorn). But the lows make the highs all the better.

 

Two Paths to 3:21 at MCM

I ran my first ever marathon at the Marine Corps Marathon in 2007 in 3:21:39. This year I managed to crush that time by 6 seconds coming off of Grindstone just two weeks ago. I started a little slower, but was feeling okay and wanted some therapeutic suffering, so I slowly ramped up my effort. Still very far from my PR, but given the circumstances, it felt very good to run this time and in this manner. And it’s a PR on this course. Here’s my strava log of it.

I went back and pulled out my splits from 2007 from the website, and here is my overall average pace plotted against distance for both years. Look how smart I’ve become. 2015 was much more enjoyable than 2007.

MCM

Maybe next year I’ll go for the elusive 3 hours here. But they’re moving the expo to the National Harbor, which is a huge letdown…

Redemption at Grindstone

This is my first attempt at a race report. I promise to improve with time. If you’re going to be running it and are most interested in a description of the terrain, scroll down to the very bottom for my attempt at doing so. 

The Government is Against Us

I had the goal of getting a Hardrock qualifier at Bighorn in June. I went into that race feeling very well trained, but I had a bit of a spectacular collapse. I might get around to writing about that, but basically, I think I underestimated the heat and the altitude. Then, in my wooziness, I ended up rolling my ankle badly twice in the night near the turnaround, and hobbling my way to a DNF at mile 66. Grindstone would be my redemption, I hoped.

I spent much of the early part of September worrying about a government shutdown, which had canceled the race in 2013. As the days rolled on, I began to accept the possibility of the race being canceled. Maybe I wouldn’t be able to get that qualifier, but oh well, I could try to do The Wild Oak Trail 100 later in October, and it wasn’t the end of the world–I’m not going to get into Hardrock for another 7+ years anyways…

But ultimately, a deal was reached to fund the government (nice job guys!) and the race was on. The forecast looked brutal for the weekend–the outer edges of Hurricane Joaquin were supposed to dump several inches of rain. It looked to be a pretty miserable race–which I’d also sort of accepted–but then the Forest Service, due to the weather, revoked the race’s permit at the last minute; foiled by the government again.

Of course, RD Clark Zealand did his thing and was ultimately able to reschedule the race for the following weekend, so now it was really really going to happen. With all the up and downs, I actually went into the race pretty relaxed. I wasn’t thinking too much about how I’d do; I was just happy to be running.

Chickens to Slaughter

With the rescheduling, my plans for getting down there and having a crew also had to be shuffled a bit, but it actually ended up working well. My good friend Justin would drive me down to the start, crew me up to North River Gap outbound, then head home to be a responsible father. Keli would drive down after work, spend the night somewhere, and crew me from North River Gap inbound to the finish. Another good friend Adam also planned on meeting me at North River Gap or later and pacing for some section.

Justin picked me up around 8:30am and we were on our way. We wanted to get down there before noon so we could visit Polyface Farms, which is under 10 minutes from the start and is the anti-factory farm. We saw some truly cage-free / free-range chickens along with rabbits, ducks and a solitary goose. We watched a few chickens meet their maker–not too pretty, but much better than a factory farm, and a good reminder if I was in pain in the next 24+ hours that things could be worse. We loaded up on some eggs, bacon, chicken and steaks–good gifts to buy pacers / crew–and headed to the start.

Free range chickens
Free range chickens
bees
T.J.

As usual, the “mandatory” pre-race was not in fact mandatory. It was, however, relatively short and painless, and they spend about half the time raffling off maybe  ~20-30 decent prizes (including headlamps, packs, patagonia gear), of which I won zero.

We parked up the hill, reclined our seats and talked about non-running stuff (which had been the theme all morning). I had slept maybe 6 hours the night before and had been awake since 6am. Around 3:30, I tried to nap a little, but despite some serious yawns, it wasn’t really happening. Although I had come into the race very relaxed, I was nervous about the late start, so my tiredness so close to the start was a bit worrisome, but no way to fix that, so I threw on my VHTRC blue and headed down to the start line.

The Start

Storm clouds brewing an hour before the start

Here’s my game face… and then we’re off! It was overcast at the start, and 10-15 minutes in, we started to get a little drizzle. Another 10 minutes in, and the skies opened up. We deserved at least some rain, since we avoided running in a tropical storm the week before. I spent about 5 minutes taking my jacket out of my pack, putting it back in, and repeating this cycle as I sped-walked along. It was pouring, but also still hot, so I decided to hold off for a bit. We cross the train tracks, arrived at the first aid station, and because it was dark and getting colder, I took the time to put on my rain jacket.

A few miles outside the aid station, I had to bite the bullet and wade through the first unavoidable creek crossing (I’d been able to hop on over rocks until then), so my feet were completely soaked through. Also around this time, I went to take a sip of water from my handheld and noticed that it was basically empty. I had topped off at the aid station and had failed to screw the top on correctly. Since it was raining, I hadn’t noticed that I was spilling water all over myself. I had some mixed Perpetuem in another handheld, but I definitely had less water than I would’ve liked with ~8 miles to go to the next aid station. I managed to stay relaxed though and forced myself to take it slow.

Running at night as well as my fear of rolling an ankle also kept my pace pretty conservative towards the start. I tried to settle into a steady power hike on the uphills, take it nice and slow on the downhills to save my legs and avoid catastrophe, and my run was pretty uneventful through North River Gap. Mentally it was a huge help to see Justin at Dowells Draft. I took the time to change into some dry socks (and throughout the race, I did a pretty good job of readjusting my socks when they got bunched up).

At North River Gap, I bid farewell to Justin, grabbed my cellphone to text Keli on my way back (never got reception up there) and snap photos of the gorgeous views (we were in a cloud most of the time) and headed up the long climb to Little Bald. After some long solitary climbing, I caught up with Amy Rusiecki who was the lead female. She’s the RD at Vermont, which had been my first 100 the previous year, so we talked a bit about that as we trudged along the muddy fire roads. It was super foggy at times with just a few feet of visibility.

Ankle Fail

I punched my bid at the top of Reddish Knob. Unfortunately, it was too foggy / cloudy (and fortunately too early) for any pictures so I headed off to the turnaround. The fire road turns it to a paved road for a portion of this, so I took the time to tune out. Big mistake: I stepped onto the edge of a pothole and managed to roll my ankle. I was pretty mad at myself, but it wasn’t too bad of a roll, so I walked it off for a minute and kept on going.

Low Point

Coming back from the turnaround, I started to feel the lowest I had yet. My feet hurt, my legs hurt, the aid at the turnaround had been kind of weak so I didn’t have enough calories. This portion is all relatively flat, so you feel obligated to run, but I just couldn’t.  I had a minor pity party for myself from as I power walked and jogged as much as I could back towards Little Bald. I passed two fellow Wussies WHTom and then Todd–he had decided to make Grindstone his first 100, which was an inspiring decision–both on their way out.

Finally made my way into the Little Bald aid station, where I grabbed some soup and sat down by the fire. I took off my shoes and socks, dried them by the flames for a minute, but making sure not to waste too much time, put everything back on and headed on. I’d taken some Advil earlier and though my feet and legs were hurting, I told myself out loud that this was all manageable pain and it wasn’t going to get any worse, so just suck it up and go.

High Point(s)

My peptalk seemed to work and I further reminded myself that both Keli and a new pair of socks waiting for me at North River Gap. I think I was even more excited about seeing Keli than I was about getting new socks, which is saying a lot, because… dry socks, right? Downhills like this always take a toll on phsycial and mental toll on me, but I took it slow, managed not to roll an ankle, and finally emerged in the parking lot where my socks (and wife) were waiting for me.

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Heading out of North River Gap (mile 66)

Once again I sat by the fire and dried my feet a bit while eating some delicious Perogis. I learned that Keli hadn’t been able to find a motel in the area (apparently every school in the region had homecoming or parents’ weekend), so she had slept in her car (without proper clothes / sleeping bags / blankets) so bonus points for her! Adam, my pacer, was parking, having driven from DC that morning as I was getting my shoes laced up. Perfect timing

When preparing for the race, I really didn’t know how fast I could run it, so a week before, I’d created some estimated pace charts ranging from 24 hours to 30 hours. These were very rough estimates based off of 2 random people’s splits as published in their race reports (the results site seemed to be down leading up to the race). Based on those charts, I was on about a 25+ hour pace. I’d also made it to the turn-around in just over 12 hours, so I wasn’t expecting to break 24 hours. I didn’t care much at that point and ~25 hours would get me in before or around sunset, which is what I cared most about. I figured I had a good shot at that.

So Adam and I headed off taking it easy for the first several miles. We talked about non-running stuff and enjoyed the fall colors. I had ditched my phone, so I didn’t get any pics, but in the daylight, you are completely surrounded by vivid yellows, oranges, and reds.

As we were making our way up the gradual incline, we came across the 2nd place female who we played leap frog with for a bit. Amy was still first female, but I wasn’t sure where she was. I thought to myself how glad I was that I wasn’t in a position where I felt compelled to really race the final 25-30 miles of this race.

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Cruising into Dowells (mile 80)

We took down some delicious bbq sandwiches at the Lookout Mountain aid station and continued our way up. I was looking forward to the 3 or 4 miles leading downhill into Dowells Draft. The night before I remembered power-walking / jogging up the smooth gently inclined trail and thinking how fun it would be to run down. Finally, we crested the hill and began the descent.

This was the most fun I had all day. It was, as I remembered, a super smooth trail and a very gentle decline. We’d done a lot of walking, so I had some energy saved up, and I let myself go a little bit on this section. We slowed down to pass a few mountain bikers, and they stepped off to the side when they passed us back, but apart from that, I cranked out a few fast miles down into Dowells, giving my pacer a bit of an intro to trails.

All Alone

Adam had to get back to DC, but the 15 miles he’d put in with me were hugely helpful. I ditched my pack and would just carry handhelds from here on out. We were at mile 80, and it was just about 1:00pm, meaning to break 24, I had five hours to do 20 miles. 20/5 = 4mph = 15:00 min / miles. Totally do-able. Half a mile out of the aid station, I remembered I actually had ~21.5 (not 20) miles and I couldn’t do that type of math in my head.

Two big climbs to go. Heading up the first, I saw two runners (racer + pacer) hiking their way up. I got a bit of a competitive kick and was determined to power past them. I sped-hiked / jogged uphill until a few minutes later, I caught up. It was Amy and her pacer; she asked about the 2nd place woman, and I relayed the fact that #2 had entered Dowells as I was leaving.

The next 15 miles were up and down terrestially, and mentally. The giddiness I had in Dowells was tempered by the steep climbs and steep descents, but I managed to stay nourished enough never to crash hard (though I did have my moments of weakness). Got a few minor hallucinations (black rocks were big black labradors, bushes were tent camps), nothing too cool. Leaving Dry Branch Gap, I thought I had a decent shot at 24, but again, my math skills were hazy.

I made it to the top of the last climb and somehow shut out the pain of running down that steep gravel road. Owww. Made it to the trail where I continued to run as hard as I could downhill. Sloshed through the creek, and emerged from the woods to the final aid station in 22:35, having beaten Keli there–she had stopped in town for a minute. Grabbed some water and left my second handheld at the aid station hoping Keli would pick it up. As I was about to leave, she showed up. I got a good luck kiss, told her I was going to go get sub 24 and off I went for the last 5 miles.

I had no idea what place I was in, but I thought I could’ve been close to top 10 and my competitive juices kicked in when I saw a runner walking up ahead. I figured I could motor past him, which I did only, to have somebody else come flying past me with 2 miles to go. (Jeremy Alsop, I salute you). I popped out of the woods, with a crowd of one (Keli!) cheering me on. Crossed the dam and climbed my way out, hearing the voices of Amy and her pacer close behind me. Keli ordered me not to get caught, so I dropped my water bottle and took off sprinting for last quarter mile to the finish, crossing the line in 23:36.

Emerging from the dam
eyeing the finish
Eyeing the finish w/ 1/4 mile to go

Overall, the race went as well as I could have hoped for. Pretty much everything fell into place with only a handful of lows that are inevitable over this distance, and there is very little I would have / could have changed about how I ran it. Got myself a Hardrock Qualifier and some Bighorn redemption. It’s a great race that I’d recommend and would probably run again.

Big big thanks to:

  • Justin for driving me down, keeping my mind off the race for the many hours leading up to it, and crewing me for the first 1/3.
  • Adam for pacing those 15 miles and giving me some good company on an otherwise pretty solitary run.
  • Keli for crewing me the final third, driving me home while I faded in and out of consciousness and for just being so supportive of my running in general.
  • Clark Zealand for pulling the race off with several setbacks.
  • All the volunteers for doing their thing.
  • All the WUSsies for helping me get used to evening runs (I just treated this race as a long Tuesday night run).

Things I did well

  1. Took care of my feet well, adjusting socks when they got bunched up and changed socks at miles 22, 36, 66. Took the time to adjust them on the trail, but didn’t waste much time doing so.
  2. Started slow and was able to run the second half faster than the first. 37th place after ~15 miles; 12th place at the finish.
  3. Stayed positive throughout. Tried to be cheerful at all aid stations.

Things I learned

  1. I think I like evening starts (sample size = 1). Starting at night helped keep me slow. Running the second half in daylight was mentally helpful.
  2. I’m better on uphills than downhills. I generally passed people going up and got passed going down. Think I could work on technical downhills a bit.
  3. I think I could improve my nutrition planning. I made a spreadsheet that I was able to stick to pretty well through the first half, but I let it fall apart a little on the back side. I’d like to find something that’s a little more palatable late in a race. I love me some Clif bars, but #7-10 were painful to take down.
  4. I love my Salomon Speedcrosses. I wore them the whole time, and their grip gave me a lot of confidence on the trails. I did not lose my footing once and the course was wet throughout.
totem pole
Great success!

****COURSE DESCRIPTION****

The elevation map tells you 90% of what you need to know. If you live nearby, it’s worth trying to make it out to the MMB50K which covers some of the course, and is a pretty fair representation of 1/3 of the course. So think of Grindstone as 3 MMBs.

Start – Falls Hollow (~5.2 miles): You begin by running out of Camp Shenandoah and turning right along a grass section on the edge of Hope Lake. When you reach the corner of the lake, there’s a kind-of hairpin turn at the end of the dam where you drop down towards a stream and have to climb back up a few paces later. A big bottleneck forms here, so you can either sprint towards the front to minimize your wait, or, alternatively, come to grips early on that it’s going to be a long day and just relax! This section is a mix of smooth camp trail / fire road / double-track and some slightly rocky sections along a creek, which I was able to navigate without getting my feet wet. You’ll cross over some train tracks just before the aid station.

Falls Hollow – Dry Branch Gap (~9.5 miles): Darkness falls. Fire road for a mile or so, then you’ll get onto single track that runs along a creek. I managed to keep my feet dry early on but there was one section where it was unavoidable (both in the dark and then later on my return in the light), and I had to submerge both feet. Single track leads you away from the creek for another mile or so until you get to a gravel fire road. Steep climb to the top of Elliot Knob (steepest climb you’ll face I think). When you get to three-way intersection, you’re a quarter mile or so from the top. Coming down from Elliot Knob is probably the hairiest section of the course. Lots of rocks (can be loose and slippery, so take it slow, particularly towards the top). As you get closer to Dry Branch Gap, the trail gets better but still worth taking it slow.

Dry Branch – Dowells Draft (~7.5 miles): Steep climb out of the aid station. Single / double track combo with a handful of false peaks until you get to the top in 2-3 miles. Long single track descent down, which is generally smooth with a few rocky sections. When you bottom out, you’ll cross a creekbed once or twice. I was able to avoid water with a little tip-toeing. You’ll cross a short wooden bridge (slippery!), then cross a road, at which point it’s less than a mile up and over a small hill then pop up to the aid station.

Dowells Draft – Lookout Mountain (~8.4 miles): Good smooth single track (fun on the way back down if you have legs), generally just a gradual climb to the top (few short steeper sections). Coming down off the top, the trail turns into a nice runnable fire road (occasional puddles in the tire tracks that could be avoided).

Lookout Mountain – North River Gap (~6.4 miles): Fire road turns into single track (Wild Oak Trail?) soon after aid station. Not-too technical descent down. When you cross the cool little suspension bridge, you’re a few minutes away from popping out onto the road that leads down to North River Gap, which is the biggest aid station and a good place to leave a drop bag / meet crew.

North River Gap – Little Bald (~7.8 miles): Pretty nice single track 7 miles up to the top (elevation profile tells the story) then fire road off the top for a mile. Can be very foggy at the top.

Little Bald – Reddish Knob (~4.5 miles): all fire road. Puddles / mud in the tire tracks can be avoided but it can be super foggy. When you climb up to punch your bib, the punch was attached a reflective streamer on the guard rail on your left as run up the road (some people reported trouble finding it in the dark).

Reddish Knob – Turn Around (~2.5 miles): all fire road, much of which is paved, but there are some potholes, so don’t tune out completely like I did.

The terrain stays the same on the return trip. Take it slow on the way down to North River Gap!