|It was all for this.|
Warning: This report, like the race is gratuitously long. Go grab a beer, and maybe even a meal. You'll be here a little while.
Friday started after a surprisingly uneventful night's sleep and a 5:45 alarm to meet up with Eric for the drive down to Blue Ridge, GA in time to do drop bags and rest a little before out 2 pm start. There we met Willy, the RD for this fine event, who told me he had gotten elevation gain for the course ranging anywhere from 29,000 feet to 37,000 feet. That's when I got really excited. After, I'm going with ~31,000 climb total, but I am not sure. I do know the race is ~110 miles long, just for added fun.
The plan was (for as long as possible) stick together--Eric as his well-practiced 4.1 mph trek and me doing my best not to go too fast. Well, the first 35 miles of the course is easy, all things considered. We settled into the planned theme--hiking all the climbs and trotting the descents--all the while focusing on saving energy. Our average pace those first 35 miles was something like 13:00/mile pace. This stretch was uneventful, albeit rather flat compared to the overall elevation change. There were 6-9 miles of road, and the trails were reasonably groomed. The only real difficulty was managing the climbs in the Georgian spring humidity--this caused all sorts of problems. Then the walls came.
The Duncan Ridge Trail, that makes up (listed) miles 35-75 is nothing but a series of 300-600 foot walls. Grind up, and then lean back, doing your best to stay upright going downhill. As we came into mile 42.5, I was starting to feel weary, but wrote it off to not having hit the caffeine yet. In reality, the slow pace was catching up to me. We got hit with rain leaving this aid station that followed us for the next four hours. On the ridge line. Exposed to wind. Right as we're about to climb to the high point, a bald at 4300 feet.
The aid station volunteers at "mile 47.65" were the first introduction to a huge bonus of this race. The workers were AMAZING. The best I've ever seen. These two guys, up on the mountain not really moving around all night and into the following afternoon, gave us their jackets so we wouldn't freeze climbing up and over Coosa Bald in the rain. They actually suggested the idea and I couldn't think of what to say at first because I was simply not expecting such generosity. Going up and especially down the other side of Coosa to the turn-around was death march slow. We were in intermittent cold rain, descenting 3000 feet over 7 miles, with 1100 feet of climb thrown in their for good measure. On extremely technical rocky, rooty single track. We were moving slow. Motivation at this point wasn't just deflated, it was downright gone. We hit Vogel in ~15.5 hours. This is listed as 55 miles into the race. Eric's gps (and others) clocked this at 58+ miles. I was a wreck. I was soaked through. Hungry, sleepy, pain creeping in. I actually knew I couldn't finish as I was. But, there is a 48 hour cut-off for the race. So, I ate two amazing cups of homemade chicken noodle soup and passed out on the bed for 20 uncomfortable minutes. When I got up, I (still not planning to actually continue) started my drop bag routine. Eric told me he was pretty ambivalent to continue before we laid down, but afterward he mentioned he was going to continue so I thought I should at least try. I loaded my pack with little debbies, snickers bars, shot bloks and gels. I applied A&D to all the right places (damn the rain). And I changed into a clean shirt. Another cup of soup and a grilled cheese and I decided I'd keep going. Here, I made a huge incorrect judgment call and did not change socks, assuming the new ones would just get wet in a couple miles anyway.
The back up Coosa Bald was actually rather nice. The sun had just risen, we were passing 50 mile and 100 mile runners on their way down the mountain, and I felt reasonably regenerated by out 90 minute stop at Vogel. Eric pulled away about halfway up (he can hike just so well), and I didn't really expect to see him again. Then leaving the aid station on the other side (same one as the jackets before), everything went wrong. This section is 7.5 miles long, all on the Duncan Ridge Trail. I planned for this to take 2.5-3 hours based on what the climb up Coosa, another 7.5 mile stretch too. 2 minutes out of the aid station I lost the peanut butter sandwich I had just wolfed down. Then I started moving again, but couldn't hold it together. I ran out of water in 2 hours, about halfway through the section. This 7.5 miles took me 6.5 hours. No typo there folks--6.5 hours. After I ran of water, I didn't eat any more since eating without water would cause my stomach to turn. I kept hiking, using every bit of will I had to move forward. I stopped several times just to scream from how much my body hurt. I moved forward though, as slowly as is possible, until I collapsed in a chair, shivering even though it was close to 70 degrees, at the "Mile 70) aid station. Here, the only reasons I did not immediately turn in my bib were 1. It would be a couple hours at least until someone could come get me and 2. the 48-hour cutoff.
This aid station was my second instance of amazing volunteers. The girl working helped me peel of my shoes and socks, tried lancing a (currently) non-existant blister on my trench-foot begotten feet, made me wolf down THREE PB&J's, wrapped me up like a burrito in a blanket followed by a sleeping bag, and made me hold hot water against my core to stabilize. I had definitely been tapping into my fat stores before the aid station. She then took my wet socks and shoes and stuck them under the heater in her car to dry out. Honestly, I would not have finished the race if she hadn't done that. 35+ more miles when I was already developing trench foot would have been mentally (and possibly physically) impossible for me. After I saw a few friends come through and realized I was actually joking with them, I decided that even though my body had quit on me already, my mind was in too good of shape to stop here. So with a lot of help from that kind volunteer, I pulled on my socks and shoes an hour after they came off and started moving again. The next several climbs were even more miserable than the ones into the aid station, but I was moving with a little determination. The descent down Coosa bald was the first time I got to open up my stride in over 40 miles, and it felt great. I clocked some really good miles (at the time) into the drop bag aid station at "mile 80".
I hit a wall out of that aid station though. My joints finally quit on me, and I could nothing but shuffle forward. The 80 miles of technical single track I had completed thus far, along with a pace much slower than I was used to in training caught up to me. My ankles had filled with fluid and stopped long ago, then my knees joined them, and now my hips were stiffened up too. My muscled were fine still, even my quads, but my joints were gone so the muscles were useless. However, a mile out of the aid station, a female runner Carin and her pacer Mollie caught up to me and I resolved myself to stick with them. The company was much needed, and I would not have finished without them. I forced my body to shuffle along, and we talked a great deal. I hadn't had a real, lengthy conversation since I left mile 70 and it was much appreciated. Carin was miraculously doing this race as her first 100 miler, and she crushed it. Mollie was a good pacer, constantly reminding Carin to eat and drink (which caused me to follow suit). Somewhere in these miles, my joints started getting more painful, causing me to groan pretty regularly and stumble some. Mollie did a good job talking me up and keeping me moving when I wasn't even her ward. She had us both laughing off our hallucinations, joking about her watching my butt, and talking about almost anything but running. Some pizza and grilled cheese at "Mile 87" hit the spot and we 'speedily' hiked the "3.3 mile" road section into the next aid station. Walking along that road, I actually swayed and dozed off a couple times while still walking.
At the aid station, I finally realized I should have started hitting the caffeine hard much earlier, so I drank two cups of Mountain Dew, did 50/50 of water and Mountain Dew in my pack, took some ibuprofen, and we were off. I left about 30 seconds after Carin and Mollie, so had to play catch-up. Having to speed up to catch them, I realized I felt okay for once so I leaned forward and ran up the mountain away from them. Running again felt amazing mentally, and not horribly physically. I was using muscles that hadn't been touched in a long time. Then, when I hit the top and had to go down the other side, my ankles gave me a cringe-worthy reminder of how torn up I really was. I actually had to sit down for a minute and collect myself because I was breathing so heavily fighting of the discomfort in my joints. Then I heard the ladies' voices coming up the trail. I knew they would catch back up soon, and I thought I should keep moving forward at least, and let them catch me when they will. That didn't take very long, and I was thrilled to have the company again. These descents were very technical, with lots of loose rock, and I could barely trot down in my current condition. Mollie took the lead and told me to follow. I was in no place to argue, so I held on and just kept wincing as we moved downhill into the second-to-last aid station.
From there, the next 5.8 miles are a loop followed by 3 (or so) road miles to the finish line. I stopped to use the bathroom and lost about a minute on Carin and Mollie early into the loop. I think I really like playing catch-up, because I was able to start running again to catch them, even some downhills (even though they were excruciating). I hung out with them a minute before we hit a nice, comfortably graded climb so I ran off ahead again. I was actually running very well for a couple miles in here and was dumbfounded by that being possible. Then, I got worried. My headlamp was close to dead and had switched into it's very dim power-saving mode. After that, things along the trail began to feel very familiar and I worried I had missed out turn back toward the aid station, even though it is such an obvious turn. I turned around and ran backward until I saw the ladies again, confirmed we were going the right way, and took off back toward the aid station. I was racing my headlamp, so I was actually running hard here, and loving everything except the downhills.
Then, the world turned against me in probably the most fitting end to this gratuitous adventure. About 2 miles before the end of the loop, rain started coming down--hard--in a real torrential downpour. It was likely past 4am at the time, and the temperature must have dropped to close to 50 degrees in that cold, pouring rain. I knew the only way I could keep warm in my tiny little Patagonia jersey and arm panties (that I only had thanks to Mollie--seriously I could not have finished with those two) was to keep moving with a lot of effort. HOWEVER, my headlamp finally died at what turned out to be about half a mile from the end of the loop when I could have made my way to the aid station without it, and finished without it on the roads back to camp. That didn't happen though; it did die. And in the black of night, in the pouring rain without a star peaking through the clouds, I could not see a damn thing. I couldn't see my hand inches from my face. I've never experienced that kind of darkness in a situation where I couldn't just turn on the lights. I got scared about how cold I could get here. There was no way I was going to keep going, I the trail had a sharp drop on one side that I would most definitely fall down if I overshot that way, and I had no way of gauging where to go. So, to conserve what little heat I could, I sat down on the trail and curled up into a ball, breathing into my shirt until Carin and Mollie came up on me about 5 minutes later, shivering like mad as soon as we started moving. I stuck just off Mollie's shoulder, moving from her headlamp, shivering all the way. We didn't even stop at the final aid station. I grabbed a gel for the road and we took off. I told Mollie I needed to go to get there as quickly as possible, fearing I would end up hypothermic if I took too long. I ran down the road descent, but Mollie and Carin followed and we turned onto the road into camp together. Here I finally smelled the barn and decided to go for it, so I left the two of them and ran all the way into camp, cringing all the way as my mangled feet slapped the asphalt.
With no headlamp and the sun not quite up, no one at camp even realized there was a finisher coming in until I was already up on the parking area. A quick exchange with Eric and Will Jorgensen and I moved inside to change clothes as quickly as possible. I was done, and I couldn't actually fully appreciate that fact because my body was in such bad shape. I forced down some Gu Recovery Brew and a Clif Builder's Bar, and tried to compose myself enough to leave.
To put my experience and my misery/pain along the return trip into an understandable setting, here's some comparison. Eric left me at "mile 60" and finished over 9 hours earlier than me. Derek Dowell, another run I met on the trail, moved ahead of me at about "mile 77" and finished 3 hours earlier. The return trip (about 52 miles), including my hour stay at the "mile 70" aid station, took 24 hours. The entire Grindstone 100 last October, which I ran conservatively, took 24:51. I have never suffered so much for anything, especially a belt buckle.
Finished: 40:02. Finishing is all.
Looking back, I will cherish this race. This is the hardest thing (running or not) I have ever done, and so now the future will seem much easier by comparison. And I know I can duck down my head and grind for literally an entire day, which is a useful skill right? Maybe that should go on my resumé. At the finish line, a discussion broke out regarding just how hard this race is. We came to the conclusion that this is the hardest 100 miler in America--even harder than big boy Hardrock. The race has ~98 miles of TECHNICAL single track, about as much elevation change (though much of this is sandwiched into the middle 40-45 miles), and involves a great deal of humidity, which causes all kinds of foot problems. However, the RD knows exactly how hard the race is and truly did everything possible to get people to the finish line. He lined of a slew of knowledgable, enthusiastic volunteers, and was extremely well organized. All aid stations and the finish line knew where all runners were at all times. The aid stations all had at least the standard fare, which more than half having hot food ready for runners and they were never close to running out of anything. I don't expect this race to ever get big, it's too difficult for that. But give it some thought, the organization was flawless. The RD was out on the course driving from aid to aid all the way through the second night, and right before we left, I heard he was actually working an aid station himself. That is dedication. My hat is off to you Willy.
A couple take home points: People may think I was simply undertrained for the race. That is not the case. I am the most fit I have ever been. However, I was incorrectly trained for racing the way I did--slow with so much hiking. My training mileage was adequate, and my weekly elevation change was great, but it was much too fast, funnily enough. I probably could have run the 50 miler here very well, but for the 100 mile, I needed to be hiking instead of running. I also need to worry less about taking caffeine too early. I worried here and did not take nearly enough for the 49 hours I ended up being awake.
I'm writing this on Monday night, and I still can't walk without a cane. Will I go back? I feel I have some unfinished business, but I really don't know. This race brutalized me. It stripped way everything by the bare essentials needed for survival, and even those were dented.
Sunday night, for whatever reason, I decided to see the new Star Trek movie with a good friend. She asked me why I do this to myself, and did so in an honest way, not the standard incredulous question all ultrarunners face regularly. And for the first time, I really had no idea. This race put a lot of doubt in my mind. However, today I know that I at least do these because I love that I can will myself to do something so difficult. Nothing matters beyond that. That skill is infinitely useful.
People reading this preparing for an ultra of your own, take this one thing from it: you can finish if you want it enough. What your body tells you does not matter, your body is a tool for your mind. You can fight it for much longer than you think.