Ten wonderful hours of sleep later, I woke to find that the empty camp had transformed overnight into a bustling community of ripped quads and drop bags. I joined in on bag-organizing fun, had some breakfast (2 hard-boiled eggs and a sweet potato since I know you were dying to know), and wandered around some more to share the anxiety with my 100-mile brethren. I checked in, lounged in the hammock, found the rest of my crew (Jen Jacobs, Kristine Davis and coach Mike Broderick), got dressed, applied liberal amounts of BodyGlide, and did whatever it took to kill time before the 6pm Friday start time.
With a couple minutes to go, we all gathered behind the start banner. The giant totem pole stood just ahead of us as if to say "come on, hug me... but please run 102 miles first." I was raring to go and the nerves were as strong as ever. With just a couple seconds before the gun, Karl Meltzer turned around to ask "Joe Clapper's not here, is he?". (Background: Joe Clapper has led every 100 miler he's ever run for at least some portion of the race... this usually consists of him sprinting ahead like a Kenyan for about 5 seconds, then dying back down to 100 mile pace. Bragging rights are bragging rights, yes?)
And then everything got real... 3, 2, 1, see ya!
We ran across the field and clockwise around the lake. Coach Mike had advised me to go out fast the first few miles so as to avoid any traffic congestion as we approached Elliott's Knob, the first and probably toughest climb of the day. Even with this advice, I was still surprised at just how fast folks were pushing it in the first couple miles. The terrain looked flat, but judging from the perceived effort and elevated heart rate, there was definitely some incline to be had. "Not so bad" I thought to myself. "This will make for an easy downhill to the finish." If only...
Not remembering the exact mileages from the training runs, I expected to hit the climb up Elliott's within a mile or two. Then we hit Aid Station 1 (AS1), Falls Hollow, at 5.18 miles in. My heart-rate had been up there since the get-go. Ok, so maybe pushing it until Elliott's wasn't the best idea after all. I topped off my pack with some water to prep for the 9.45 miles until the next aid and headed out. Talking to Jared Hesse for a bit, we both agreed that although the pace was easily runnable, it would not be sustainable for 24 or so hours. Time to slow it down a touch.
The climb up Elliott's was welcomed with open arms. Truth be told, my uphill running is lacking compared to those at my level, but where I lack in ups I compensate on the flats and downs. Such is the life of a 175-pound ultrarunner, taking advantage of gravity when the opportunity arises. Gotta play your cards how they are dealt. Making it through Dry Branch Gap, AS2, was rather uneventful, just trying to normalize the pace and heart-rate. Slowly but surely I was getting there.
Approaching Dowell's Draft, As3 (mile 22.1), the trail finished with a short uphill climb into a sea of lights and spectators. Being the first opportunity for runners to meet with their crews, everyone and their mother was there, packed tight and still full of energy. Not wanting to waste time at aid stations and still being early in the race, I quickly found my crew, swapped my Nathan pack (water) and handheld bottle (Hammer Perpetuem for calories) for fresh ones and off I went. In and out without actually stopping, faster than them fancy schmancy Nascar drivers! Mike ran with me for 100 yards or so to check on how I was doing and offer advice. I relayed my heart-rate concerns but assurred him I was not getting into the groove. All was well.
And into the groove I got, so much that I honestly don't remember Lookout Mountain, AS4. I do however, remember coming into the following aid station, North River Gap, or as those of us in the VHTRC affectionately know it - The TWOT Lot. Running down the brief section of road and into the aid station, I gave a holler so my crew knew it was me. Ok ok, I may have yelled out "I love TWOT!", but who said you couldn't have some fun at these things? Knowing that the long sections between aid stations were now over, I switched my Nathan pack and handheld for my 2-bottle GoLite waistpack. It was a nice relief on the shoulders. I declined the offer for the iPod and opted for the calmness of nighttime wildlife. Coach Mike ran ahead with me once again, this time warning of possible trail sabotage up on Little Bald. Although concerning, Little Bald was one of the few spots in the race I have run past on multiple occassions, so I wasn't too worried about getting lost.
Refueling at TWOT
The climb up Little Bald was steep but manageable. I made a conscious effort to "hike with a purpose", pumping my arms as I made my way up. When I arrived at the top of Little Bald, just as expected the course took us off to the right. Ok, so the aid station should be right around here somewhere. My GPS says I've already covered the distance and I've only got a sip or 2 left from my allotted fluids. Sadly, the trail kept going and no aid station was appearing. Scenarios ran through my head. What if there was some funky turn to get you to the aid station and my assumed knowledge of the trail made me blow right past it? Should I backtrack? What if I re-ran that small section on my way back? Would I have enough fluids for the 4.5 miles to Reddish Knob?
And then, like an oasis in the desert, an aid station appeared in the middle of the trail, nowhere I thought it would be. Coming in I had no idea if it was Little Bald aid station or Reddish Knob, all I knew is that it was fluid and calories. It was in fact Little Bald and I hadn't missed a step. Definitely a relief! I grabbed my dropbag, refilled the Perpetuem and downed 2 cups of Mountain Dew to get a different flavor in the mouth (plus some caffeine even though I was feeling perfectly energized).
Adam Casseday, the #2 seed, was leaving the aid station as I was coming in. I knew something was up. He shouldn't be this far back. After a couple minutes I caught up and he explained that he was having trouble keeping things down and he was just going to make it to the next aid station and drop there. He hadn't taken in any calories in 20 miles and he was well on his way to a serious bonk. I offered some ginger root capsules to help settle his stomach, and he reluctantly accepted. With the ginger caps also came some words of encouragement and a plea to not drop, at least to give the ginger some time to work its magic. It was, in fact, a little less than halfway into a 100-miler and things could still make a full 180. Rest assured, Adam went on to finish 9th place overall and under 24 hours! Talk about a comeback. [Remember that one the next time you're feeling like crap early in a race!]
I let Adam do his thing and he encouraged me to go on ahead. After a little more downhill came the paved road section of the course. I'm not normally "against" running on roads, but wow did this pavement hurt. Every step was a painful thud reminding me why I love trail running so much, and also reminding me that I had run a very difficult 40-something miles thus far. I had expected Karl to pass way earlier, but to my surprise I didn't see him until mile 46.5, about 10 hours in. Thinking about it now, that timing makes perfect sense as he was continually gaining his lead time on the rest of the pack. Either way, Karl was looking strong as could be expected. In the #2 position was my good buddy Mike Mason, and as I passed him yelled out the same words of encouragement I did at MMT: "Mike Mason I want to have your babies!" Don't ask why, it just seemed like the right thing to do at the time, and he laughs when I say it.
The Reddish Knob aid station was a glorious sight, not only because it signified the near-end of the pavement, but it was also an opportunity for me to stop and get out the pesky debris that was rubbing on the bottom of my right foot. Despite this sitting down, I blew on through and made it up the summit of Reddish Knob. Horton happened to be there at the time, standing at the ledge of the parking lot and looking out at the beautiful harvest moon. I ran up behind him and gave him a big, sweaty, man hug - his favorite! (That was the running gag for the weekend, by the way, so feel free to give Horton man-hugs anytime you see him!)
I headed back down to the Reddish aid station, didn't stop this time since it had only been 5 minutes since I last past, and within 2 miles I met my crew at Briery Branch Gap. This was not an aid station, but crews were allowed to access runners here since it was the closest they could get to the turnaround. Briery Branch was last year's turnaround, but it had now been extended 1.4 miles out to Gnashing Knob due to recalculation of distances... or maybe Clark just felt like he needed to add in some Horton miles. Either way, it was more climbing and more miles. Fun! I dropped my waistpack, picked up a single handheld bottle and made it quickly up to Gnashing Knob. Halfway done and 11:13 in!
My first time through Briery was quick, but the second time through I took my time, for no other reason then to spend some quality time with the folks who were going through a sleepless night just for me. I did some stretching, ate some mango slices (my new favorite aid station food of all time, so delicious!) and of course had to listen to some heckling from Q who had now joined the late-night crew party (who invited that guy?)
Sadly, the return to Briery meant the return to additional pavement on the way back to Little Bald (now mile 58.7). It was, however, great seeing all the familiar faces on the way back, cheering everyone on and getting encouragement in return. This was also an opportunity to gauge how far back and how strong those were looking behind me. If I was seriously competing (which I wasn't, #1 goal was to just finish), this would have been great logistical intel to plan out the second half of the game.
I made it back to the Little Bald aid station right as the sun was starting to light up the sky. Perfect timing because I had planted my sunglasses and hat in my Little Bald drop bag! Not knowing if I was to be running when night fell again, I kept my headlamp and flashlight in posession so I could hand them off to the crew when I next saw them at the TWOT Lot. It was a bit awkward running with sunglasses, a hat and a headlamp but I managed. Also awkward at Little Bald was me trying to force down a breakfast burrito. I knew it would be questionable to try and stomach such substantial food, but let's be honest I'm a fat kid at heart so I couldn't say no. It made it's way down, and so did I (down the trail that is).
About a mile outside of Little Bald I passed Gary Knipling, one of the most fun and genuinely nice and caring people in the sport. Gary is the true essence of ultrarunning. 65-years-young and going for his 22nd 100-mile finish with the biggest smile on his face. If that doesn't make you love life then I don't know what will. He cheered me on, I did the same for him, and off we went in our separate directions.
Life was good, I was in 9th place overall on my first 100-miler, feeling great in terms of nutrition, energy and fatigue levels, and on pace for a sub-24 hour finish at possibly the hardest 100 on the east coast.
And then it hit me, pain in my left anterior tibialis tendon.
Effin A. I sat on my feet to stretch out the tendon, and while it seemed to help a touch, it didn't put out the fire. Then came the extremely steep descent down Little Bald. 8 miles of anterior tibilias tendon pounding. No bueno. No bueno at all. Again, effin A! (I did, however, notice that I shaved 10 minutes off my 100k PR as I made my way down the mountain.)
I came into the TWOT Lot aid station (now mile 66.5) and instantly knew the game was changing. I was still in 9th place, I was still on track for a sub-24 hour finish, but there was now a big honkin' wrench thrown in my spokes and it would be questionable if I could remove said wrench over the next 35 miles. I immediately sat down, explained to the crew my concerns and tried to massage out the pain... to no avail. Oh well. I knew that finishing my first 100 was going to require some serious toughness, so here comes the time to grit and bare it. I knew that this would possibly mean throwing out hopes of maintaing my top-10 position, but the #1 goal was to finish and I was determined to finish, even if it took me the entire 38 hours. Coach Mike appeared, ready to start pacing, and off we went, not knowing what to expect.
Pain, that's what I should have expected. As soon as we headed out of TWOT the pain got increasingly worse. I was, however, able to run through the pain without significantly slowing down my pace. So far so good. Still in 9th, still moving forward. As they say, If the bone's not showing, keep going... right?
Well, as we trekked the 5.45 miles to the Lookout Mountain aid station (now mile 72), it was painfully obvious (no pun intended) that ice was going to be necessary. "Nope, our ice guy just left to go get something so we don't have any right now." NOOOOO!!!!! "Oh wait, yes we do, nevermind." Phew, close one. We put some ice in a baggie, then a trash bag around it, then loads of duct tape. The cold seemed to numb the pain a bit, but clearly I was still facing a huge dilemma. Hopefully the ice would be enough to last the 8.35 miles to the next aid at Dowell's Draft.
I knew the last 3.5 miles of trail before Dowell's were smooth rolling singletrack, but those 5 or so prior just kept throwing endless amounts of small but relentless hills that I was having one hell of a hard time negotiating. " Nonetheless, we pushed forward, albeit slower and slower with every step. Mike gave me his iPod, cranked some Grateful Dead, and I was able to get into a groove that resulted in a solid 40 or so minutes of strong running down into Dowell's Draft aid station.
Dowell's was also the first time during the race that I was able to see my mom, dad and sister who made the long trek to come cheer me on. My sister proudly displayed a sign that said "we love #7" and I was greeted with the loudest cheering section of the race thus far. If only I could have greeted them with the same enthusiasm I had carried up until my descent off Little Bald. Instead, I sat down and begged for more ice. Lots and lots of ice (ooh, and some mangoes too).
I seriously considered dropping right then and there, but what kind of ultrarunner would I be if I once again had to ditch my 100 miler goals for the year (the first time being MMT, dropped 3 weeks prior due to ITB injury), and to top it off, ditching my goal of finishing the 2009 Beast Series. Well, the answer to that question is "a smart ultrarunner". Moving ahead exacerbated the anterior tibialis pain beyond belief.
It was 7.5 miles to the Dry Branch Gap aid station. I was able to swing another good 30 minutes of hard running, surprisingly still in 9th place and only slightly slower than 24-hour pace. Perhaps my injury wasn't as bad as I had imagined? No, definitely not. The ice melted and I was now able to feel how intense the pain actually was. It was clear that every step I took, although closer to the finish line, was also another step towards a longer recovery once this whole fiasco was over. The climb up Crawford Mountain put me at a snails pace, literally planning each and every step.
Folks behind me finally started catching up and passing as Mike and I slowly walked up Crawford. Adam Casseday blew by, running at a ridiculously fast uphill pace! I was so proud to see that after the condition I had last seen him 10 hours prior.
When we reached the top of Crawford it was 2.8 to the aid station. Ok, we can do this. Mike decided that the name of the game was now "get to the aid station, rest, ice, elevate, immobilize the foot and reassess my capabilities". Sounded easy enough, but it wasn't.
Descending Crawford was possibly the most painful movement I have ever experienced. I was unable to plant my left foot on the downward slope. I tried walking sideways, but that was only marginally less excruciating. I tried walking backwards (yes, honestly) and the pain was still just too unbareable. I tried butt-sliding, but that only got me a few feet. Mike then found me a big walking stick that I could use like a crutch. Still, only marginally less excruciating.
An hour after starting our descent down Crawford and we still had 1.7 miles to the aid station and 15 until the finish. Mike and I both knew what the right call was. I had given my absolute 100% best and pushed through the pain. Injury is the only thing that should ever stop you in a 100-miler, and I was now faced with the option of maybe finishing Grindstone and maybe being able to run again, ever, or call it quits at mile 85 and live to see my 100-mile dream come true another day.
"If I go ahead and get outside assistance that disqualifies you."
"Go ahead, Mike. I'll try to make forward progress in the meantime."
And just like Mike disappeared into the distance, so did my dream that I had worked so hard for all year long...
C'est la vie. Not every race is perfect, and everyone has to DNF at some point. For me, I guess I got my DNF out of the way early, and in this case it didn't just stand for Did Not Finish, it also stood for Did Nothing Fatal (to my running career). You live and you learn. I learned that even though I didn't do it on this attempt, I have what it takes to conquer a 100-miler, and I have the ability to do it fast and strong. I have tasted the 100-miler and I absolutely cannot wait to taste it again. My injury will heal, I'll crosstrain, do extra strength training and stretching, and I will be back...
...I will be back with a vengeance.
Useful race links:
My race splits
Photos from my crew (Flickr)
Photos from Wendy Marszalek on the course (Flickr)
Photos from Coach Mike (Facebook)
And of course, a huge thank you to my extremely supportive, helpful and understanding crew: Jen Jacobs, Kristine Davis, Derraugh Ewchuk and Mike Broderick. Without you guys I would not have made it as far as I did as fast as I did. I am eternally grateful to each one of you!