Sunday, July 14, 2013

Western States Endurance Run Race Report 2013

It all began in Squaw Valley. The sport that has captured my interest and kept me pushing for the next biggest and toughest challenge began when a horse went lame. That is when a man said, "why not?" Gordy Ainsleigh decided to race against horses using his own two feet to cover the 100 mile Western States course. He made it. This year there were no horses; it was far less historic, but Gordy and I both toed the line in Squaw Valley.
Arriving in Squaw Valley With Some Awesome Team 5K Shirts

The journey to the hallowed grounds of ultrarunning is long and tough. Only the fortunate few get their names drawn and go from lottery hopeful to racer sharing a trail with some of the most legendary runners in ultrarunning. I am lucky enough to not only have my name drawn, but to have an amazing crew of five friends want to share the adventure with me.

Almost 400 trail runners and their crews descend on Squaw Valley on the last weekend of June the tackle the demanding course. When you arrive the atmosphere is very overwhelming. Shoulder to shoulder with the biggest names in trail running. All the rookies spend the first day bumping into each other as they stare awkwardly at Timothy Olson, Hal Koerner and Mike Morton.

Once I was able to get over where I was, my nerves subsided. I did my Friday pre-race medical check in.
Medical Check In... 120 over 84
This went surprisingly smooth.

Afterward we watched several members of the crew participate in the Montrail 6K Uphill Challenge.
John Gregg, Greg Wingo, and Stacy Barr

Brad Siegal and a Hill That Only Gets Steeper
We followed that up with a trip to the bar across the street. Alternating between water and Moose Drool Brown Ale seemed to be the perfect mix. I was more than relaxed for the mandatory race briefing early that afternoon.
Chia Seeds in the Beer
There are tons of Q and A sessions and information meetings in the days leading up to the race, but I felt like most of the information was a rehash of what I had already discovered online. I took away a few nuggets of knowledge and we retired to the condo a couple miles away.

Changing your routine before the race is generally not advised, but for this race I decided to go completely vegan the week before the race. I'd recently read Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run. I figured a little healthy eating wouldn't hurt. I enjoyed some vegetable pasta, mixed vegetables, roasted potatoes and a salad and I was ready for an early bedtime.

Being that I was still somewhat on Central Time, two hours ahead, I had been sleeping really well and waking up really early. It was no different the night before the race. When 3:30am rolled around I was up and ready to run.
Fun Times Before 5AM
On race morning you still had to check in and pickup your bib number. The process was really easy, so I had plenty of time pre-race to stand around with the crew and waste some nervous energy dancing.

The race starts sharp at 5am. A gun is fired and off you go, straight up. The first four miles take you straight up and over with around 2,500 feet of climbing. Unless you are elite, you are walking. It is just a matter of how fast your walk is. I passed Gordy early on the climb, that was neat to look over and see him. The sun rises at your back and it was incredibly beautiful to look over your shoulder and see the dawn of what was sure to be a long hot day.
Almost to the Top of the Escarpment
My pace was a little faster than mid-pack and once over the top I kept a brisk pace running with a good sized group along the ridge line. This section was the prettiest part of the whole trail. Technical single track over rocks and steams created by the melting snow. I was in awe of where I was and what I was doing.

Heading into the Lyon Ridge Aid Station
Approaching the Lyon Ridge aid station at mile 10.5 I knew the pace needed to slow down so I backed it down refueled and enjoyed the ridge. The next section was pretty exposed and even though it was early morning the sun began to heat things up.
The forecast this year was for heat, potentially 100+ degree record heat.

One of the Tough Ridge Climbs
This section of the trail was more difficult than I expected. Several steep climbs made for a slower pace than I had expected. I let a lot of runners go by me in these miles, but I had a plan to protect my body and I
was doing a good job sticking to the plan.

Runners don't get to see their crews until at least mile 23.8 at the Duncan Canyon aid station. The decent to this aid station is the first real significant downhill. After dropping almost 1,000 feet in a mile and a half you see that friendly crew for the first time.
John Gregg, Katie Gregg, and Foot Doctor Brad Siegal greeted me with smiles and cheers. You may not need any of their food, or fresh socks, but seeing them and hearing them cheer for you makes a huge difference. I grabbed my extra water bottle, threw some ice in my hat and grabbed some calories before taking off.
Ready to Serve... Me Fig Newtons

Creek Between Duncan Canyon and Robinson Flat
I knew the other half of my crew was waiting for me at the Robinson Flat aid station just six miles away. I didn't realize how tough, hot and uphill this six mile section would be. The heat was getting intense and my water supply was running dry before I reached the top of the climb and my awaiting crew. In spite of the tough going, I found my legs performed better than most and I passed several people.

Robinson Flat was a straight up party. So many people and I swear I heard music. It made me dance a little bit. This is the first place your weight is checked. The goal is not to loose too much weight, but certainly not to gain any weight. Weight gain is a sign that your kidneys are not working a a sure fire way to get pulled off the course. I was already down five pounds. That was a little concerning, but I took noticed and loaded up on food a fluids at the aid station.

On the exit to the aid station I saw the other half of my crew. Greg Wingo and Stacy Barr were joined by members of another local runner (John Cobbs) crew. I sat on a log and chatted with Greg, Stacy, Ali Edwards and Owen Bradley, but I can't remember what I did or what was said. All I know is I was told the trail went immediately up, but then really down.  

The climb up is vague in my memory, so it must not have been too bad, but the downhill was great. My legs felt okay, I was handling the heat, and I was looking forward to seeing my crew at Dusty Corners. I took two Aleve at Miller's Defeat and cruised into Dusty Corners in great spirits ready for a shoe and sock change.
Living Like a Diva

I started the race wearing Hokas. The strategy there was to minimize the downhill abuse on the quads before switching to my Saucony Peregrine 3's, a shoe that fits my foot perfectly. I had a slight blister rubbing my heel, but nothing that was a problem. Foot Doctor Brad lubed me up, slid on some new socks and with the new shoes on I was off into the heat again.

I ran into a local named Don during the next section. He gave me the 411 on what to expect with the upcoming trail. It was runnable and I hung with Don for a good bit. He had run Western States in close to 20 hours in the past and  and clued me into the fact that locals refer to this race as "States" and not "Western". He was also quick to point out how well I was doing and that was a huge confidence boost before I let Don slip ahead of me.

Devils Thumb is one of the iconic parts of the race. A big climb in the heat of the day that takes a major toll on many a runner. The climb is just less than a mile long, but you climb up about 1,300 feet. Again, I was shocked at how much better I did on this climb than most of the people around me. I passed Don and about 10 other runners on the way up. It was complete carnage for a couple folks and I could tell more than a few races were ending on this brutal climb.

Coming into the Devil's Thumb aid station, I had one minor concern. I was starting to feel chilled and with the hot temperatures that was not good. To fend off an possible heat exhaustion, I got an ice water towel draped around me and a popsicle at the aid station. The medical staff must have thought I was in good shape because they kicked me out after just a few minutes.

With a handkerchief filled with ice and tied around my neck I took off for a nasty decent down to El Dorado Creek. Five miles down with a drop of almost 3,500 feet will put a beating on the body. I ran hard for the first part of the decent before easing up when I realized exactly how far we were going down. This decent was very exposed and the sun was baking us as we dropped to the low hot canyon of El Dorado Creek.

Rolling into this aid station I was hot and for the first time all day there was no volunteer to greet me and ask what I needed. I grabbed a bottle refill, grabbed some fruit, a glass of ginger ale, and I left for the long climb up to Michigan Bluff. I left the aid station too soon. I was still hot and after about 500 feet into the climb I knew I needed to stop. I found a downed tree and popped a squat.

The Michigan Bluff climb is not as steep as Devil's Thumb, but it is two and a half miles and goes up 1,700 feet. I was in rough shape and stopped again to lay on a big log after about half a mile. This rest as well as being passed by two runners was enough to get me back on my feet and climbing again. I was cooled down and began to knock off switch backs one by one. By the last mile of the climb I was not only feeling better, I was gaining strength and looking forward to my crew who was waiting just ahead.
Cruising Into Michigan Bluff, Then Eating Some Roast Beef

Before I could see my crew, I needed to weigh in again. Consistent fluids and regular food had not only kept my weight steady, but I had actually gained a pound. Brad and Katie were waiting for me with a chair and a roast beef sandwich. The vegan thing was out the window because during the race you eat whatever you can. I find an Arby's Roast Beef sandwich has a good mix of salt, protein and carbs.

I knew my chance to pick up my pacer was just ahead at the Forest Hills aid station. The problem is, I really had no idea how far away that was. For some reason I thought it was 10 miles from Michigan Bluff to Forest Hills. Turns out its about six miles. This stretch had a nice drop into Volcano Canyon, which as you might guess is hot. Out of the canyon the trail rises a little on some rolling hills. Eventually there was a sign indicating an aid station just a quarter mile ahead. The sign was a lie. At least a half mile later at the top of a jeep road was the next aid station. it was small and I noticed a lot of people hanging out. After a few questions someone told me it was less than a mile up the road to the main aid station of Forest Hills where my crew and pacer were waiting.

During this stretch crews and pacers are allowed to walk/run with their runners. As I hiked up the steep paved road I began to chat with another runner's crew. A nice local named Scott gave me some good encouragement. He had run the race in 2012 and was here to pace his friend Mark this year. I would see Mark and Scott several more times before Auburn. Within a few minutes I see my first pacer Greg Wingo trotting down the road. I was excited to see him and together we mostly walked the remaining half mile into the Forest Hill aid station.
So Happy to See the Crew

The relationship between a runner and his or her crew can be difficult. Runners are often tired, cranky, delusional among other things. Telling, convincing or tricking a runner to do what the crew wants can be similar to babysitting a four or five year old. My crew was hell bent on me eating partly because they knew I needed to, and partly because I told them before the race to make sure I did. After a few minutes of arguing and a sock change, Wingo and I took off.

It was more than 15 hours into the race so the sun was beginning to set. The temperature dropped a little, but not much and it seemed to be getting more and more humid. Luckily this section of the course was pretty runable and my legs felt pretty good. We were moving at a good pace and passing a lot of people as the sun slipped away and our headlamps began to light the way. I like night running and I was enjoying the trail and the company of my pacer.

In the back of my mind I was trying to do math. I suck at math, but it is necessary when trying to figure out when you might be able to finish. Wingo and I were talking a little about whether I had a chance to beat the magic 24 hour cutoff. We both had figured out that it was possible, but we didn't openly discuss it. The goals was kind of just understood. We kept a fast pace but I was cognizant enough to try and save my legs a little.

This section is capped off by the famous American River crossing. That marks mile 78 on the course. Over the almost 17 mile stretch from Forest Hill to the river I had improved from 154th place to 115th. I felt good and focused. Crossing the river is a great experience.
Wingo and I Take a Swim in the American River
They have a rope and lights that help to illuminate big slick rocks. The water is cold, but on a hot humid night it felt great. I dunked my body on the far side and hurried out of the water.
In a Hurry
It was almost two miles up a nasty jeep road to the next aid station called Green Gate. My other two pacers met me about half way up the hill and we all power hiked into the aid station.

Something happened in that two mile climb to Green Gate. I went from being focused and strong to exhausted and tired. I just wanted to lay down. I grabbed a cup of ginger ale and a quick bite in the aid station and then I went to find my crew. I remember seeing people laid out all over the place. I think it was mostly other people's crew members trying to sleep. My crew had a chair set up for me, but I was going to lay down and I grabbed the chair and threw it aside. This flying chair proved to be a rude wake up call to the guy sleeping as I'm pretty sure it landed on his face. I apologized as I laid down and instructed Brad to fix my left foot. I had a blister on the top of my fourth toe, but all I knew was that I wanted him to remove the toe nail. He couldn't do that, but he duct taped it and gave me a fresh sock. John Gregg and I departed a few minutes later.

The rule of thumb in ultras is when you feel bad just keep moving forward and you will likely start to feel better. Sometimes it happens a couple miles later; sometimes it happens ten miles later; sometimes it doesn't happen.
Walking Somewhere After Mile 80
We walked for awhile then I ran a little section. It was a good run, but it wore me out and made me feel real sick to my stomach. By mile 87ish I was stopped on the trail and vomiting. This made me feel better, but not much better. It was clear my stomach was not going to get better, but luckily I had less than 15 miles to go.

Part of a pacers' job is to do whatever it takes to keep the runner in a positive (or as close to positive) mindset as possible, and to keep them moving forward. Somewhere along the way I lost my bearings and had no idea where I was mileage wise. John decided it was in his best interest to lie to me about how far I had till the next aid station. I had no clue, but I kept marching on at a reasonable pace all the way to Brown's Bar.

There was music blaring here, and despite the name there was no kegs or cocktails (not that I could have stomached one). I got my foot looked at here, but there was little that could be done. I now had a blister on my forefoot and it made each step somewhere between uncomfortable and painful. I thought Brown's Bar was at mile 91, but it was actually mile 90. That meant the Highway 49 aid station at mile 93.5 was actually 3.5 miles up the trail and not the 2.5 I expected. No amount of lying by John could convince me that we had only traveled 2.5 miles, so he just convinced me that this section of the course wasn't accurate.

When we finally got to Highway 49 my crew was there in full force. I was in bad shape. I knew I would finish but any expectation of a finishing time had gone way out the window. I got no foot attention or shoe or sock change. All of that seemed pointless. Food and drink also seemed pointless. I was moving so slow and resigned to the fact that I was death marching to the end so no food, drink, salt, socks or whatever could make a difference now.

I left for the final seven miles with Stacy Barr. He was so excited to be there and he gave me a nice lift. He kept talking about how epic the whole experience was and that I was about to finish the Western States 100. We climbed up to an open ridge top where we were meet by the rising sun. I picked up the pace for a brief moment and joked with Stacy that he was going to get to run a little bit. At this point my run may have been more of a shuffle, but it was quick enough to pass by at least one person.

This part of the trail drops down to the No Hands Bridge, which is one of the epic landmarks on the Western States course. I thought I saw the bridge about five times before it actually appeared through the trees. It was underwhelming to me but that could have been more a reflection of my state of mind. I was tired and exhausted.

It is only a two mile climb up to Robbie Point from here. I thought it was going to be longer, tougher and steeper. I stumbled along the trail waiting for it to make a turn up the ridge. Finally we started to go up. It was just a few hundred yards before we were on a paved road with aid station volunteers cheering me and Stacy toward the top. At the top there is the Robbie Point aid station. They ask you if you need anything, but I have to imagine that they were left with coolers full of fluids and trays full of food at the race's end. Who would stop there when there is just a mile left to go?

Stacy and I powered on and were met by Ali here. The three of us climbed up for about an eight of a mile before the road tilts downhill toward the Placer High School track and the finish line. I was encouraged to run by Stacy, Ali, people on the street and even a runner who ran by me at what seemed like a 5k pace to me. Moving fast hurt and I was content to take my time until I saw the actual track. A fought back tears on what may be the longest mile of the course, but eventually you make a turn and end up on the high school track.

The track was underwhelming. I guess every time I had read about this place I picture it as a grand stage. In my mind it was a grand colosseum and not an average high school football stadium. I saw my crew, and I began to muster up a shuffle that resembled something of a run.
The Final Stretch With an Amazing Crew Cheering Me On!
Shortly after this another runner came onto the track and he was moving much quicker than me. Without thinking I increased my speed and covered the last 200 meters in what seemed like just a few seconds. I crossed the finish line 25 hours, 54 minutes and 19 seconds after I left Squaw Valley.

I was given a medal. I spoke to the medical staff and answered some questions about something. Did I weigh in again? All I wanted to do was lay down in the football field and after hugging and thanking the crew, I did.
So Happy to Be Done

One of the big prizes you get for finishing is the big silver or bronze buckle depending on how fast you finish. You aren't given this buckle when you finish, but rather at an awards ceremony at 12:30 on Sunday. It was hot, and the big tents in the football field were filled with exhausted, worn down hobbly runners and crews. I laid on the grass eating popsicles just like some of the biggest names in the trail running world. Eventually, they called my name and I got my hands the prized Western States finishers buckle.

I never expected to be in Squaw Valley to run this race. I was lucky to have my name drawn. I certainly never expected to have an incredible crew of people (Katie Gregg, John Gregg, Brad Siegal, Greg Wingo, Stacy Barr, and Ali Edwards) who actually want to travel across the country to put up with my crap. I am a luckier to have them. I will always treasure the memories of our epic Western States adventure and I look forward to future chapters on life's adventure.
I Don't Always Go to Squaw Valley, But When I Do I Go With Amazing People

Friday, March 22, 2013

Georgia Death Race Postmortem

Inaugural races can often be dicey. Throw in the word "death" in the race name and a first time race director that prefers to be called "Run Bum", this race had every reason to be a complete disaster. There were bumps, big steep bumps, but the race was anything but a disaster and in fact a rather challenging and wonderful experience.

I had run the Duncan Ridge 50k a few months before the Georgia Death Race, and since the first 15 miles were practically identical, I knew a little about what I was in for and I knew it would not be easy. The Duncan Ridge Trail (DRT) is known for being steep and punishing. Whoever carved this trail into the North Georgia Mountains did not believe in switchbacks. The trail is rarely flat; either up or down.

This time around I opted to camp out in Vogel State Park the night before the race. The weather was mild and the facilities at the park are so nice this seemed like a good idea. After an uneventful pre-race meeting and a relatively good night's sleep I woke up at 3am and prepared for the race start. I don't normally run with a hydration pack, but since this race required runners to haul thermal tops, jackets, blankets and other gear, I decided to jam all of that into my hydration pack. I knew I would likely need very little of it, but remembering that this was Run Bum's first race as RD, I was prepared for anything.

At the start Run Bum gave a short speech. He advised that we would have both the best of times and the worst of times. He was right. Moments later we were off through the campsites to the Coosa Backpack Trail. This trail winds out of Vogel State Park before descending down to the bottom of Coosa Bald. Once you cross a few bridges your legs get a rude introduction of what is to come. I've heard it is about three miles up to the top of Coosa Bald. Luckily this is not the Duncan Ridge Trail so there are at least switchbacks to take you to the top.

This race started at 4am so everyone could be up on the ridge for sunrise. Some people do not like running in the dark, but I am not one of those people so I really enjoyed the first few hours of this race. On the descent from Coosa Bald I rolled into the first aid station. After a quick water refill and a handful of something sugary, I was off into the dark. You can see other runners ahead and behind you very easily as headlamps bob up and down along the ridge. We plunge into a valley along a real muddy and tricky trail. I almost slide off the trail and down the side of the ridge. How far would I have fallen? Death race, yeah, I get it.

This part of the race was brutal. So steep both up and down and it surely punished the legs in every way possible. The race continued to wind along the ridge in the dark as we made our way to the second aid station. I was cognizant to get some calories early since I knew it could be a long day, but I did not want to spend a long time in any aid station. As we left the volunteers told us to be sure and turn right in six miles when we hit the Benton Mackaye Trail.

Shortly after leaving the aid station, the sun would rise. I timed it almost perfectly as I peaked a steep climb the sun lit up the sky with orange and yellow. It was worth taking 30 seconds to stop and look around at the beautiful sight. Despite the pain on my throbbing calves and hamstrings, there was no place I'd rather be at that moment.

Along this part of the race that the Run Bum got mean.  Posted along the steep climbs of the DRT were signs taunting runners. One said that we were almost done with the climbing. Twenty yards later a second sign said, just kidding you aren't even close. That definitely stopped me in my tracks for a moment to catch my breath and contemplate exactly what I had gotten myself into today. 

The next aid station was at mile 21 and at this point I was in need of it. I start to think it cannot be a good thing to feel this bad just a third of a way into the race. Thoughts of dropping out of the race creep into my head but as I have no cell phone I know coordinating a DNF will be difficult and that puts that idea to rest. The trail drops for at least a mile into the third aid station where I loaded up on Mountain Lighting which I am told is super legit. It worked.

Once back onto the Benton Mackaye trail things got a little better. This part of the trail was more runnable and I did just that. Just a few miles into this section I was feeling much better and I was at the next aid station in no time. I had no drop bag waiting for me so I quickly filled up my water, joked with some volunteers, and departed onto a jeep road. I hate jeep roads, but this was runnable and a nice change of pace for me since it wasn't straight up or down.

At this point I started thinking big picture. I had thrown out some time estimates of 15-17 hours to my friends and that math seemed to be holding up. Could I go faster though? The temperatures were rising and I needed to be aware of my salt intake, especially as I began to push the pace in hopes of turning in a fast time. A quick stop at a small aid station gave warning of a long a brutal stretch ahead. It would be the last real single track and it would give us a lot of climbing.

It was supposed to be seven miles. It wasn't. We did; however, cover some gorgeous trail and some incredible overlooks along this stretch of the Benton Mackaye Trail. After what seemed like hours of up and down you keep expecting to come down a ridge into the next oasis of an aid station. Every downhill seemed to be meet with a opposite uphill. Eventually, I snapped. Sitting on a tree just 20 feet into a climb two runners come by to ask if I was okay. We exchange curse words about the lack of an aid station. Finally, a third runner suggests that it must be just over this next climb. I begin to drag myself up the climb again. Not much further up the road is a creek. I stop and lay down in it. I was overheating and in a bad way.

The optimistic runner was right. Just up the climb was an open field with enough pink polka dotted markings to signal a 747. I grabbed a piece and made a headband. It was humorous to me and I needed that. Previous runners had given word that #102 (me) was in trouble so the volunteers were very attentive to me when I finally arrived at the aid station. The consensus was that we were really about 38 miles into the race, but officially this was the mile 35 aid station. I wanted to stop, I wanted to drop. I told a wonderful young lady that I wanted to DNF, but I wasn't going to so instead I would sit down in a chair until I felt like running again. Several cups of ginger ale, some pretzels, and cookie, and salt pills later I was ready to leave. It was probably 15 minutes and it was exactly what I needed. 

I took this next part easy. I walked for the first couple miles but eventually felt good enough to run again. It started as mostly just the downhills, but eventually I was running the flats, too. From here on the race would be on all forest service roads. Luckily, these roads were all well maintained so while it was boring, it was easy running.

My spirits were high at the next aid station and being told the next seven miles were downhill only lifted those spirits higher. I ran almost this entire section and made great time. I was sweating and my stomach felt uneasy, but the legs felt great so I ran hard.

The aid stations and roads all kind of blend together from here on. I know at one point I got to eat bacon. I know at one point I wanted to stop and shit, but all the forest was burnt by a fire so there was none of nature's TP. I know we ran on a paved road for awhile and I passed horses and cows and goats. I know I thought about stealing and riding one of those horses. Even the horse may have broken down on the uphill forest service road that was just ahead.

The only thing I hate more than a jeep road, is a jeep road that goes uphill for miles and miles. That is what I found here. Combine a stomach  that was puking up a weird dark purple substance and shitting something worse. Those two things are not a recipe for fast running, but I kept moving. I took at the map at one point so I could try and figure how much further this climb might be. Either it was not possible to tell, or I was too messed up to effectively read it. I almost used the map to wipe my ass, but opted to put it back in my pocket instead.

After more sign taunting by the Run Bum, I finally reached the aid station. The gentleman there told me it was 6 miles to the finish, but that it was mostly down hill. After a quick swig of Mellow Yellow I took off after the final little climb. It was just about a half mile or so up the mountain before we hit a nice service road that went right down into Amicalola Falls State Park. The road was easy to run, but the faster I ran, the more I needed to shit. It was a balancing act that my shorts were praying I pulled off without incident.

When you get close to the finish you start to see people. Campers, hikers, cars, all of it starts to show up more regularly. This helps you push through the discomfort. I ran into the State Park and was looking for the finish. Where was everyone? I saw no sign of actual human beings. Eventually the pink polka dotted markers led me to a step rocky downhill and then a rooty single track with switchback after switchback. I bombed this part using trees to help navigate the tight switchback turns. Eventually I hear people and by then the trail dumps out onto a nice paved path with a simple but glorious finish line just a few yards away. I crossed in 15:54:43 and immediately plopped down in a chair. People wanted to give me food and drink, but all I wanted was a shitter and some real toilet paper.

The Georgia Death Race is hard. I mostly loved it and will certainly put it on my calendar for next year. No race is ever organized and put on perfectly, but for the inaugural running of this race Sean Cien Fuegosthechisel Run Bum Blanton and his team deserve a lot of props. I can't wait to see what he and the crew do to make this race even better and tougher next year.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

2013 Rocky Raccoon Race Report

In 2012 I spent almost 28 hours on the trails at Huntsville State Park trying to figure out the Rocky Raccoon 100. Getting a buckle means you conquered the race on that particular day, but I certainly did not feel like I had figured out that race, that distance, the challenge of running 100 miles. With all the lessons I thought I had learned in 2012, I was back again in 2013 to give it another shot.

This year I flew out with my friend John, who was also running, and our crew of John's wife Katie and our friend Martin. My parents who live in Houston would also travel up to be part of the crew. The decision to fly from Birmingham instead of drive like we did last year was clutch. We rented an RV and set up camp in the state park Thursday afternoon. Friday would be a nice relaxing day.

Camping in style
My goal for the race was obviously to finish, but I was certainly shooting to break that 24 hour mark. I knew with foot care lessons and salt intake lessons learned at last year's Rocky Raccoon mudfest, I should be better prepared and sub 24 was at least a reasonable goal. I decided that I would run without a pacer this year so that I'd have a back up goal of just finishing the race all by myself if that sub 24 goal eluded me.

Before the race.
Race morning I was delighted to wake up to no rain and a nice temperature right around 50 degrees. Great running weather although I was a little concerned about the heat of the day, but I'd deal with that later. Last year John and I started in the middle of the pack and we found the first several miles very slow as a result. We decided this year to run up front and we were probably running in the top 20-30 runners for the first few miles. The feet were light, my headlamp was bright, everything felt good and right.

Somewhere after DamNation I decided I needed to dial back the pace a little bit and started to walk the hills of that DamNation loop. I started to get passed a lot, and at some point John caught back up to me and it was good to talk and strategize a bit. The consensus was that we were on a pace that was too fast, but neither of us felt concerned enough to really slow down. We don't have very similar running styles so we didn't really run the rest of the loop together. My first loop goal was 3:45, I came in at 3:24 just about a minute or so ahead of John.

Two really happy runners
At the start of this second loop I knew I was just three miles from getting my first real attention from the crew. John and I came into the Nature Center aid station together and promptly plopped down in chairs while our crew asked us what we needed. I didn't need much except some lube for the feet. I was hell bent on keeping blisters from being a problem. I probably drank an Ensure, but didn't really need much else. I left the headlamp and arm sleeves behind and took off.

John and I ran together for a little bit after this, but as the temperature started to rise, I knew I needed to be very cautious of my pace. I think I told John I was hoping to do this loop between 4:30 - 5 hours. He was going to go faster, so I let him run ahead. The second loop was really uneventful. I think a lot of folks were passing me, but I was more concerned about saving my legs and my body after a faster first loop than I had planned.

23 Miles, Get me some lube!
It turns out my goal of running a sub 5 hour loop would be no issue. I came back into the start at Dogwood at 4:11 hours and was feeling really good and strong. The temperature had started to rise even more and I knew at this point I needed to try to slow down even more.

I wish I could say things got tough during this loop, but I was so focused on dialing things back that I just kept it easy, tried to eat and drink, and upped my salt pill intake to three pills an hour to account for the extra heat. Again my crew was great at mile 43. I felt a little rubbing on a toe and my heel so I changed from my new Pearl Izumi N1's to the trusted Saucony Peregrine 2's. The crew told me John was looking and feeling good as I took down part of an Arby's roast beef sandwich. I told my crew the goal was something close to 5 hours and then I was gone.

43 Miles, looking a little bloated. Best Crew Ever!
This loop was probably the most challenging for me. It felt hot. My legs were starting to hurt, but nothing was keeping me from running. I ran the downhills and some of the flats. When I wasn't running I was doing a fast walk. I'd check my watch at certain points of the course and while I was definitely moving slower, the pace was still pretty close to previous laps. As the sun began to set I began to pick up the pace a little. I grabbed my headlamp from the crew at the Park Road aid station at mile 57 and headed back to Dogwood to finish off the loop. I managed to get it done in 4:28, so far better than 5 hours and at 12:06 total for the race.

Runners are allowed to get pacers starting at mile 60, but this year I decided to attempt the race with no pacer. I felt the challenge of finishing it by myself would be good for me. Now with the temperature dropping and my headlamp turned on I began to pick the pace up a bit. That is probably all relative to what your body can do. It felt like I was running a lot faster, but in reality, it was probably about the same. I remembered to pickup my iPod at the Nature Center and after a trip to the bathroom and an Ensure I was back to the trail. I knew John was ahead of me with his wife and pacer Katie and with the speed I was running I felt like I would catch them at some point. Out of the DamNation aid station I was running really hard since my iPod seemed to be randomly giving me a perfect running playlist. The temperature continued to drop, but I was sweating so staying warm was not an issue. Midway through the DamNation loop I came across John and Katie. I stayed with them briefly, but since our running styles differ I ended up running ahead after a few moments.

As I came into DamNation a few miles later I reminisced to how much different this year was from last year. In 2012 I was sitting at DamNation at mile 72 with a serious lack of salt problem and horrible blisters wondering if my race was over. This year, I grabbed some fluids, fresh headlamp batteries and I was headed to Park Road.

The Jeep road that leads to the Park Road aid station is my least favorite part of the course. If you know me you know I hate onions, chicks who wear too much make up, and jeep roads. Luckily, by now I had figured out that if I ran the downhills and some of the flats, I could knock this section out in about 25 minutes. I think my parents were surprised to see me at Park Road since I was well ahead of pace. I was moving faster on this loop than I did on loop three. I never stayed long at this aid station except for the time I used the porta john but I can't remember which loop or loops that was.

The next 4.4 miles to Dogwood was pretty easy. I was comforted by knowing at this point I had assured myself a sub 24 hour finish since I would have more than 7 hours to finish the final loop and I had just done the 4th loop in 4:19.

Out for the final loop I saw John almost immediately. He was probably about a half mile from finishing his loop and was happy to hear how close he was. I told myself that I was going to back the pace down and just make sure I could get a nice safe finish. There was no need to break an ankle now and DNF. I got my final Ensure at mile 83 and joked around with my crew some. I think they were remarkably surprised with not only the pace, but my upbeat spirits. Katie had dropped off from pacing John and was there to give me an update on him. He was doing really well and had Martin to bring him home for his final loop. How is it that we were both having such amazing races after the disaster of 2012?

I had time check points for each loop that gave me an idea of where I was and what the pace looked like. At DamNation I knew I was on a similar pace as I had been most of the day so I began to think of possibly finishing under 21 hours. Perhaps it was my excitement of the math or deliriousness of being at mile 86, but I made my first mistake here. I did not listen to my body and ignored the queasy stomach and did not take the antacids in my drop bag.

The next six miles were the worst of the race. I'd run but only to feel like I was about to throw up. I could usually only manage a minute or so of running before I was slowed to a walk by the feeling of sickness. I kept it steady and when I got back to DamNation it was straight to the drop bag for antacids. I thanked the aid station volunteers for a great job again this year and I was gone for the final eight miles.

Antacids seem to work almost immediately. Within a half mile I was back to feeling good and running more than I was walking. I found that I was passing a lot of runners; runners who had looked to be faster than me earlier in the day. My dad told me I ended up improving 17 places on the final loop. This really pushed me to keep going faster and faster. As I flew into the Park Road aid station my parents greeted me with smiles and applause. I was short with them, explaining that I was going to try to break 21 hours.

At this point I was not only racing the 21 hour mark, but my head lamp batteries. I noticed that it was getting dimmer and dimmer over the past few miles and that potentially it could die before the finish. The solution was to just run faster. This became a challenge once the trail dumped back onto the root filled single track for the last three miles. Somehow, I made no bad steps, I realized here that I was likely to break 21 hours, but if I hustle, I could also do this loop in less than 4:30.

When you get to the bridges you know you are close. I was there, but my light was so dim. In an effort to save batteries I would switch off my headlamp on the bridges since I knew the footing was good. Did this help? Probably not, but I did it on three of the longer bridges.

For the final mile or so you can see the main park road. There is one small climb and then you cross three roads on the way to the finisher chute. I think I ran this whole section and I think I ran it pretty fast. As you turn the corner to see the finish line there is an overwhelming sense of joy, pride and accomplishment. This ain't supposed to be easy and while it was much easier this year, it wasn't easy. I had managed to surpass all of my goals and expectations. My parents were standing at the finish line as I crossed at 20:54:35. The final loop was 4:29 and I finished 29th overall. They weren't sure it was me at first since I had done the last 4.4 mile section in maybe less than an hour. I hugged them and smiled bigger than I have in a long time. Joyce gave me my sub 24 hour buckle and I found a chair to sit down in. John would finish an hour later going sub 22 hours and turning in a race that surpassed his expectations as well.

An incredible team with lots of reason to smile
I have only done two 100 milers, both at Rocky Raccoon. I'd tell you I know what to expect now, but I certainly didn't expect the race I had this year. I think what I know now is that you can train, prepare, have a plan, have a crew, have all of that stuff, but when you hit the trail you just never know what is going to happen.

Huge thanks to Joe and Joyce and the whole Rocky Raccoon team. They put on a hell of a race. My crew and support team is incredible. It makes a huge difference just knowing you have people there, and they are there for you. Seeing that smile, hearing the applause, it all keeps you going. I'm lucky and blessed to have people that want to share these crazy adventures.


Friday, December 21, 2012

Lookout Mountain 50 Miler

I see things in Chattanooga that I wish I saw in Birmingham. Over the past ten years or so that community has become a Southern mecca for outdoor sport and trail running in particular. This past weekend I was again lucky enough to be a part of it.

Wild Trails is the driving force and passion behind the trails and races that make Chattanooga such an amazing destination. They host several well run and challenging races every year and the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile is the longest race they host.

My crew of traveling vagabonds has gotten pretty good at making these trips more than just a race. Downtown hotels can get pricey, so we opted to find a cabin on Lookout Mountain and drove up Thursday night. You can usually get just as good if not a better rate with these cabins and you end up with a ton more space and privacy. The crew for this race consisted of friends John Gregg (running the 50 miler- not his first rodeo), his wife Katie (puts up with all our crap and runs the 10k), and newcomer Greg Wingo (first 50 miler and rookie to our traveling shenanigans).

Chattanooga has so much to offer so it is nice to have a day to kind of relax and explore the city a bit. We walked around the North Shore, did some indoor rock climbing, enjoyed some gourmet hot dogs and fine local brews before we went to pick up our race packets at Rock Creek. Rock Creek is the outdoor retailer that has become the home base for Wild Trails.

No trip to Chattanooga is complete without a stop at Lupi's Pizza. The only thing better than the pizza is the vibe. I'm not totally sure what makes Lupi's a must on every trip, but you can expect to see me there any time there is an event in town. 

It is not uncommon to have nervous energy before a big race, but on the night before this one, I felt calm and relaxed. I prepared two drop bags for the aid stations at mile 22, and 38. I was confident and went to bed.

The weather worked in our favor. A brisk wind and temperatures around 40 degrees at the race start made this race very mild. The rain that was predicted for race day earlier in the week had been pushed back to the following day. No sooner than the sun had come up, we were off to blaze 50 miles on the trails of Lookout Mountain.

My advice for these long races is pretty simple. Whatever pace you think is too slow, go slower. And, eat and then eat some more. I failed miserably at both of these points. The first ten miles of the race are basically flat or downhill. Inevitably I was going a bit faster than I wanted but the ease of the course and runable trail seemed to make this the only choice. As for eating... if you put all of your energy gels in your drop bags, then you don't have any for the first 22 miles.

What goes down must go up, at least when it comes to this race. The mile 22 aid station was back at Covenant College where the race started. I backed off the pace and and took it easy as we climbed from the bottom of Lookout Mountain all the way back to the top. The elevation gain would almost all be covered in a stretch of just 2.6 miles. That made it a slow, but steady climb.

My friend John had been running near or with me at the beginning of the race, but he scurried up a climb and ran away from me at mile 15. Now at mile 20, I look back and saw the Greg marching up the climb. We would run into mile 22 together on a race pace that made us both really happy.

Because I had not had the nutrients I wanted over the first 22 miles, I took some time here to eat. The meal consisted of several Fig Newtons, Peanut M&M's, some Mountain Dew, and I think some Gummi Bears. Nutrition is probably the most important part of an endurance race and this was just the fuel I needed to keep my body moving.

For the most part Greg and I ran the next 14 or so miles together. I was really impressed with his effort in his first 50 mile race. I remembered my first 50 miler and it did not go near as well as his was going.

The fuel and scaled back pace were starting to pay dividends for me now. I felt increasingly good, or at least in comparison to the other runners. The trail was great with some incredible views and runable yet technical terrain. I ran ahead of Greg at mile 36 and was catching and passing a lot of runners. My body felt great and I began to think about time. Could I finish before the sun went down? Could I do better than ten hours?

The course for the last 12 miles is back the exact way we came out. It was rolling but slightly downhill on the way out, so I expected a bit tougher as I headed towards the finish. I can't say enough good things about the job the Wild Trails crew did on these trails. The whole second half of the race had been cleared of leaves which made the trails much easier to run and navigate.

I had been running with a headlamp since mile 38, but I was hoping to not need it. As I left the final aid station with 7.5 miles left to run, there was one hour and 25 minutes until the sun was supposed to set at 5pm local time at 10 hours into the race. I was motivated by that 10 hour time goal. Lets be honest, 9:59:00 looks much better than 10:00:00.

As the finish line grew closer I began to run harder thinking there was a legitimate chance to finish under ten hours. I did not pay very close attention to the trails on the way out so I was unsure of exactly what I had left to run. Over each ridge and around every bend I was hoping to see lights or hear the crowd. I saw or heard no such thing until after the ten hour mark. The official time was 10:01:19 which still thrilled me.
All together, this was a great weekend. John ran a great race finishing faster than nine and a half hours, Greg came in 14 minutes after me, and Katie crushed the 10k until some old guy behind her started complimenting her on "the view".

Chattanooga and Wild Trails as usual did not disappoint. Four happy and one extremely sore runner (Greg Not a Rookie Anymore Wingo) finished the night with drinks and food at the Big River Brewing Company. I cannot wait for the next trip.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Western States 100 Lottery

 When it comes to ultra running there are several big events and races, but one that seems to be near the top of most people's list is the Western States Endurance Run. This race is generally regarded as the first 100 miler and still carries a ton of prestige and receives major attention.

Not just anybody can show up in Squaw Valley on the last Saturday and June to run all 100.2 miles to Auburn High School. Unless you finished in the top ten the year before, you have to qualify just to be considered. Qualifying means finishing a designated 100 mile race or 50 mile race within a certain time. That gets you one ticket. One ticket out of what was about 3,000 this year. Most of the 388 runners allowed to start this race are selected out of this lottery where your odds are just simply not good. First year entrants get one ticket. For every year you don't get in you can re qualify and get an extra ticket, but only as many as four.

This year, I had one ticket. I earned that ticket by finishing the Rocky Raccoon 100 miler in February. The odds of my name being called were 7.6%. The long shot odds made it really easy for me to dismiss any real possibility of running in the 2013 race. My hopes weren't in check, they were pretty much nonexistent. There are people who have been trying to get into this race for years and have compiled some really impressive running resumes in the process. Clearly, I did not deserve a spot over so many others.

Very few people can pronounce my name the first time they see it. Watching a live over the internet broadcast, I suddenly hear my name being spelled out because my one little ticket has been drawn out of that big giant bucket. My heart raced. I tried feverishly to text my friends though my shaking fingers caused more wrong letters than right ones. My Facebook was already blowing up. My nonexistent expectations were now completely overwhelmed with the reality that I would be running in one of the most important trail races in the world. An hour later my checks were more sore than my quads have ever been.

I have come a long way in the last four years. I could barely run a 10k back then. I've grown a lot and done it with the help of great friends and the encouragement of a loving family. I sit back now and look at the last four years and it hits me... Damn am I lucky.

In June I will head out to California to run the Western States Endurance Run where I will need the help and encouragement of those friends. I know it will be hard. I know I will have fun. I know I will laugh and cry. I know I will do everything I can to finish and finish with a big smile because I am one lucky guy. I don't know what the future holds for me, but I know it will be spent with some of the greatest people on Earth. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Laurel Valley White Water Wildreness Run

Sometimes you show up for a run and you realize it isn't really about the run. That is not the case at Laurel Valley. Nothing matters here except you and the 35 or so miles of trail, gorges, rivers, rocks and a state line. This race is pure and that makes it special.

I had heard about this race from friends, and read a few things online, so I sent in my check and hoped that race director Claude Sinclair would let me run. This race has no aid stations and I believe the permit only allows for so many runners, so Claude won't just let any yahoo show up and run. Luckily my race results were up to snuff and I was granted a number and a chance to wear it on a voyage through Gorges State Park.

This is a point to point race that starts near a little mountain town called Rocky Bottom, SC. If you want to stay the night in Rocky Bottom, you better get a tent or sleep in your car. My friend John and I were driven to the start by his lovely wife Katie. It was quite a drive up some winding mountain roads. Mario Andretti has nothing on Katie.

I believe the race started at 6am, but it could have been 5am. I was floating between time zones, but what mattered is that it was dark and slightly drizzling. Normally first time runners are supposed to be what is called a "Sweep". Sweeps stay in the back and make sure everyone finishes and doesn't have any problems. This also helps to ensure a sweep doesn't get lost on the course for hours, days, weeks. Again, I was lucky and Claude decided he had enough sweeps for this year and I was given freedom to run ahead.

The race starts on steps that climb out of a gravel parking lot. You go up, and then you go up some more. As a rookie I was content to stay in the middle of a big group despite the pace being slower than I would have liked. At some point you reach the top of this climb, it didn't seem like more than a mile, and at this point I ran ahead of the group on a downhill and flat section.

The reports I had heard were that the first 8 miles was the most runable section of the course so I was going to run. I was catching and passing people fairly regularly until I found a group with the unmistakeable Huntsville Track Club Mountain Mist 50k hats. We ran and chatted for awhile talking about past and future races until we hit the first big waterfall overlook at mile 8.

Perhaps it was the slow start or maybe my legs just felt that good, but I picked up the pace. The race crosses over a few major rivers (thankfully with mostly nice bridges) and along some single track and old logging roads. One thing the course does not have is any aid stations. That means you have to carry your own food and use those rivers as your water supply. There are a two options when drinking from a river, sterilize, or risk it. I got a filter called a Sawyer Squeeze and it worked great for me.

This was my first real race effort since the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, so while I didn't really have any major time goals, I was hopeful to finish in less than 10 hours. Based on what other runners were telling me, I was on pace to finish in less than 9 hours as ran past Horse Pasture river somewhere past mile 20.

When a tree falls in the woods and I am around, it makes a very loud freaking sound! This happened and I was amazed at how long it takes a tree to fall and what it sounds like when it does fall. At first you hear a pop sound. That is followed up by a creaking where you see the tree moving ever so slowly. Luckily this particular tree, a huge hardwood, was up near the ridge and was not falling at me. As the tree continues to fall it picks up speed and gets louder until it is a roar that ends with a massive thud. When all was done the top of the tree landed just a few feet from the trail and about 40 feet behind me.

Bright white blazes mark this course, and they are pretty easy to see. Somehow, every year people get lost. This year, I was one of those people. I blame myself for trying to run and adjust my hydration pack at the same time. You see, I was out of water and there was a stream. All I needed to do was find a good access point and I would be able to refuel. As I kept running down the logging road the clear white blazes took a left. A matter of moments later I was refueled and off running up a logging road in the wrong direction.

The spider webs were the first real clue. When you are not leading a race and you are running into webs, you are probably lost. I back tracked about a half mile till I saw what I was convinced was a white blaze. Now it might have been a white blaze, but it was definitely not a bright white blaze, but I wanted to believe I was kicking that much ass and that was the reason I had not seen any other runners in 30 minutes. I kept going the wrong way, probably close to two miles the wrong way until I came to a giant mud puddle. The lack of foot prints was conclusive evidence that I was lost. I was also now very angry. I knew this detour would cost me at least an hour. I ran down the way I came and 30 minutes later I see another runner taking a left turn where I should have.

The rest of this race was really pretty, but I was all caught up in how much time I had lost and then trying to make it back up. I ran hard, went through a lot of water, and then on the next climb I pretty much died. The next several miles were pretty slow as the course seemed to go mostly up. On the next down hill I caught a few people and this at least gave me hope. Crossing the next river I was told that it was only a few miles to the finish. This news was great and I began to move fairly quickly to what I was told was a dreadfully long uphill stair climb to the end. Sadly, the stairs never came and I began to slow. It must have been about 4 miles later I came to a split in the trail. The Blue trail indicated a parking lot was less than a mile away. I probably knew this was the wrong way, but I hoped it was right. I figure it was about half way up where I got my proof. A leather clad European couple came down toward me. I asked them if there was a race finishing in the parking lot. As he took a puff of his cigarette, she said, "There is nobody else up there."

Now I'm tired, angry, lost, and breathing cigarette smoke. I quickly move down the trail and back to the original trail. Thankfully, I see another runner who directs me in the proper direction and says, "just three miles that way."

I'd like to say I was moving quickly, but by now it was a quick walk to a slow trot and I was just content to finish in under 10 hours. Twenty minutes down the trail I run into an older fellow wearing a t-shirt that said something about ultras. He tells me that I have just three miles to go. I snap at him explaining that I was told the same thing two miles ago.

You hear the roar before you see the final falls. The wonder of the last falls is that there are two of them, and it is beautiful. The bridges crossing here are tricky with large rocks leading the way to the more substantive bridge. This is not easy to navigate even for someone who had not just run 35 miles.

Once crossing the falls, you have the climb. Some of the people at the base of this climb had made it out to be the toughest thing ever. They said it would take 30 minutes to get to the top. For a sub 10-hour finish, I did not have 30 minutes. The truth is, this climb wasn't that bad. I think I got to the top in less than 20 minutes. There is an observation deck overlooking the falls about 85% of the way up. I found it funny to be striding past the causal falls spectators who were struggling to climb the four flights of stairs. The stairs open up to a road, and a few hundred yards later you are at the finisher tent. There is no finish line or clock. All that waits is clapping, smiles, and hugs.

I got in with a time of 9:54:01. I figure I did at least an extra 5 miles so I can't be too upset with the time. The better news is that my body felt good, and there were no injury issues. I absolutely loved this course. This is a pure trail race, and that makes it awesome. I'll be back next year for sure.   

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

You think you know, but you don't know. The light from my cell phone lit up my face in the dark RV. People who make a living predicting the weather get it wrong damn near half the time; what was my phone going to tell me? Very clearly it told me this: Things were going to be a lot different. We had all come to Texas with expectations, goals and ideas of what we would accomplish. Now we were nervous and unsure.

I have several vices: pizza, good beer, the inability to say no. Last April my friend John started talking about the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run. He's a good runner who regularly logs 200 miles a month. I am lucky to get 100 miles a month much less in one race. This was likely over my head. Vices are dangerous.

Races are fun, but adventures are better. My crew of John, Katie and Brad is excellent at creating adventure, and that was the goal of this trip. With camp site reservations, RV reservations and a bag full of too-few socks, we piled into a rental car and set the GPS from Birmingham to Huntsville State Park, Texas.

Not exactly roughin' it
I fully recognize that people come of all maintenance levels, but if you are moderate- to low-maintenance, then camping before a race like this is the way to go. No, an RV is not legitimate camping, but it does allow for some level of comfort and weather protection, which I highly recommend. For our crew Brad had easily packed the most. He is a restless spirit and wants to be prepared for movies in the camper or a hostile zombie attack and he packs accordingly. John and I packed light, and with the exception of the most lavish comforter in all of Alabama, Katie did too. After a stop off in Louisiana Wednesday night, we arrived in Texas Thursday in time to pick up the RV, set up camp and enjoy campsite burgers with just a hint of lighter fluid. A few beers later, it was lights out.

Friday was all about relaxing. We had nowhere to go and nothing to do sans a packet pickup and the race meeting in the afternoon. That is where we first heard from Joe Prusaitis. He is the race director and his resume is far more distinguished than his straight-talking, take-it-or-leave-it, this-is-my-damn-race attitude. There is a reason this is one of--if not the largest—100 milers in the country. The reason is Joe.

Pre-race meeting with Joe
During this meeting the dark clouds moved in. Racers love to fret about things they can't control. Weather fits into that category. The 10-day forecast told us it would be warm, but the closer we got to race day, it started to tell us it would be wet. How wet? We've all run in rain. We thought we could handle it.

That night I met my parents and another Birmingham runner, Wade, for Italian food. Truth be, carbo-loading doesn't mean squat for a 100 miler, but traditions are hard to break and we found a nice little restaurant. We talked about expectations and the forecast and had a great time. We were full, dry, happy and we thought we knew what was going to happen in the morning.

Weather radar at the race start.
I am almost positive the alarm didn't wake me up. It was probably the thunder. John was already awake, and I scurried down from my bed to get ready. Lube, dry socks, lube, dry shorts and headlamp all went on. John got caught in the rain on a bathroom trip and came back soaked strengthening my argument that we should run in as little clothing as possible. Shirtless, we got a ride to the start from Katie and Brad. Then we met Wade and jumped in his car. It was 10 minutes till the race was to start, it was raining, it was dark, we were all nervous and we weren't sure what was going to happen.

Drymax Socks Photo. I need a sponsor.
Nervous excitement is tempered at the beginning because a race like this starts like the line for Space Mountain at Disney World. We were tentatively jogging/walking along the dark trail, snaking back and forth surrounded by runners who all wanted to run faster, but either couldn’t because of people in front of them, or because they are smart enough to know there is no hurry in a race like this. We dodged some large mud puddles, hopped over countless roots and followed the glow of more than 300 hundred headlamps. John, Wade and I were running together, and the trail was easy here. The first three miles had rolling hills and several bridges down by Lake Raven, but nothing that I would call challenging trail.

The course had four aid stations and a total of five stops on every 20 mile loop. The first of these was the Nature Center, just 3.1 miles into the race. As I approached, concern over pace was at the top of my mind. The goal was a first loop under four hours, and that meant faster than a 12-minute pace. According to John and his GPS, we were averaging around 13 minute miles, and sure enough when we hit the Nature Center his distance read 3.1. Not fast enough.

Our crew was waiting here, standing in the rain as the conga line of runners came by. We peeled out of line, and Katie and Brad showed us where they were planning to setup our pop-up tent. This would be their home base for the next day and a half.

Out of the Nature Center, we picked up the pace. For a good few miles we all ran together and passed other runners at will and with ease, but eventually I felt like their pace was too fast, and as the least-trained runner I dropped back. I wondered when I would see them again.

The 3.1 miles from Nature Center to DamNation (a legendary aid station) were hillier than the beginning and also contained easily the muddiest part of the course. Mud is fun if you are a kid or if you are running a short race. On this morning you would have thought it was piping-hot magma sure to burn the soles of our feet. Eventually it did for many of us. Protecting your precious feet is so important to the runners, but eventually it is an exercise in futility and you say, "ahh screw it". As I rolled into DamNation, the darkness was giving way to a gray light, the rain still fell but not with angry fury, rather just an annoying reminder that it was still there and Mother Nature could torment us again.

There was much pre-race debate about what we would need in a drop bag. The course was set up to have two drop bags: one at the race start, and one at DamNation. I had a pair of shoes, a pair of socks, a shirt, batteries, lube, a bag with Aleve and salt pills. It was a relatively small bag compared to most, but it felt adequate. I added my headlamp. With a refuel of the water bottle, I was off for my next six miles.

You visit DamNation twice. It is remote and certainly a welcome site, given the next six miles. This section reminds me of a roller coaster. It starts going up and down for about three miles before it turns around and then snakes back and forth over some rolling hills. With just a few big mud puddles, this is one of the most runnable sections. By this point the runners have spread out nicely and I was running the downhills, walking the hills and doing a mix of both in the flat parts. As we passed 10 miles, it was hard not to think, “90 more to go.” That is a reality you cannot allow yourself to comprehend because it would kill you mentally.

When you get to the dam, you run across and can see back to the lodge on the other side of the lake. This is a tease of where you finish the loop, but also a welcome sign that you are close to a return to DamNation. After another refill, I was on my way.

Those that know me best know I hate several things: mushrooms, onions, smokers and Jeep roads. The trail from DamNation started out on the same single track that we ran to get to DamNation: the muddy, wet single track. Then it dumped out onto a jeep road. One of the veterans I was running with said, “This road gets longer every loop.” He was damn right, and by this point I was starting to hurt. It was only 15 miles in, and I did not think it was going to be like this.

Hurting early, at mile 15
My parents were set up at the Park Road aid station. I wasn't feeling good. but I pretended like I was a total badass. A smile and wave, and I was quickly into the tent where I refueled again, then scarfed down a cheese quesadilla. My plan was to treat this course like a 100-mile buffet, and so far I was.

I had just 4.4 miles to finish the first loop, but I was having doubts. In October I ran a marathon, 50-mile trail run and an Ironman. Those races left my posterior tibial tendon in shambles. Tough, hardheaded or just a moron, I waited until December to get treatment, then January to get the right treatment. Now I could feel it throbbing and my hips tightening up. I passed John and Wade coming out as I was going in to finish my first loop. They looked good. I was faking it, but making it and making it in 3:58.

I quickly grabbed my drop bag and sat down. I was No. 26, so I was on the first tarp. A change of socks, a handful of chewy cookies, two Aleve and I was out for loop two.

Mile 23 and I need a shirt
I thought this would be a pivotal loop. If I could do somewhere around five hours I'd still have a shot to finish, but any thought of a sub 24-hour finish was remote. I expressed my pain and concern at the Nature Center. I told my crew it didn't look good but I still thought I could finish. They gave me an Arby's roast beef sandwich and I was off.

By now the rain had slowed , maybe stopped, and the temperature was dropping. As I hit DamNation, I was muddy, wet and ready for a shirt. I was also making good time. During that six-mile roller coaster loop (perhaps a perfect nickname for not only the physical terrain but also the wild swings of emotions experienced) I was passed by the leaders. First Hal Koerner flew by, then Karl Meltzer. I found out Karl doesn't stop when he pees; he turns to an angle and waddles. Mad skills. Shortly thereafter, last year's winner Ian Sharman came by. I could tell he was not having his best day, and after he passed my I picked up my pace. I followed several yards behind Ian, which even caused him to look over his shoulder when he heard my footsteps. No worries Ian, I'm 20 miles behind you.

On the trip up we listened to a video that made fun of things ultra runners say. "I don't even warm up till 30 miles" was one of my favorites. Today it seemed true. Here I was at mile 28 and I felt great. Now I was bombing this section of the course, passing people left and right because I was coming through right after the leaders, people thought I was in fourth place. It didn't last long, but I had fun while it did and I got a ton of encouragement.

I set expectations pretty low for the second loop. My parents had gone back to the Park Road Aid station to await my arrival at mile 35, hoping that I would just make it there. A huge cheer erupted as I emerged from the woods, and I could tell they were thrilled and proud. I was feeling good, they were feeling good, but I had a long, long way to go and I wasn't sure what to expect.

A great crew can really help a runner out. The emotional and mental boost after seeing them can carry you for miles, and it carried me back to the start with a solid second loop somewhere around 4:40. Now, if I could just keep it up.

I am excited to tell my mom something
Second wind? YEAH!
Spirits remained high when I hit the nature center at mile 43. I had changed shoes and was ready for another roast beef sandwich. A quick chat and I was back on the trail. The course was starting to dry up, but any hope of keeping new shoes and socks dry was silly. I had learned that the fastest way through this section was to follow the flow of water. Yes, it guaranteed a wet foot, but also gave you the best footing. Physics (or at least my physics) said the flow of water would clear away loose mud and sand, leaving you hard-packed sand for your feet.

One more pesky little rain shower doused us, but after that the weather cleared and a north wind began to cool off the course. My pace remained consistent with good speed on the down hills and a fast walk on the flat sections and uphills. By now it was routine, and I knew my pacer awaited me at the end of the loop. I figured this thing was going to happen.

The number of runners I saw was really starting to diminish. It was, after all, more than 10 hours into the race. Many of the 50-milers had finished, and no doubt there were some people who would drop out of the 100 miler. I picked up my headlamp from the drop bag at DamNation and started out to finish the last part of my third loop in the dark. My feet were starting to burn. I had blisters, but only on my left foot.

I am a fast walker. John is not. His short legs give him a short stride and while that seems to be part of his ability to stay injury-free, it makes it quite difficult to walk fast. I caught him just before the Park Road aid station. He was struggling. His feet were worse than mine and any hope of running the rest of the way was unlikely. We came into Park Road together but shortly after he told me to go on, and I did.

One of the coolest things about trail running is that I get to share the course with the elites of the sport. At my mile 58, 98 for Hal Koerner (wow, that makes me sound slow) he came up behind me. Now I was feeling good here, so of course I started running along side him. We chatted briefly and I congratulate him on great race. It was 200 yards of running, but it was some of the coolest 200 yards I had all day.

I came into mile 60 on a "Hal High," and it was another good loop somewhere around 4:45. This is also where I could get my hands on some more lube and get my pacer--if only I could find my pacer. And where was that lady who checked my feet for blisters 20 miles ago? I could find neither. My pace goal for a sub-24 hour finish was to be here at 13 hours. It had been about 13:40 and I started thinking, maybe. Maybe I can go under 24. One more lap like I just did and it would be possible.

After a long stop at the start I took off. No pacer, no problem. The iPod was cranked, the headlamp was on and I knew these trails. I popped out at the Nature Center, where I saw part of my crew, but exclaimed that I had no idea where my pacer was. Brad stepped up and said, “I'm right here.” We argued about where he was supposed to be. I was wrong. You see, it is hard to remember everything in a 100 miler. You get delusional. You forget things. You go crazy.

It was clear that Brad was ready. He may have resembled a member of Navy Seal Team Six more than a trail runner but minus a gun, he had it all. The hydration pack had pockets with pockets inside the pockets and loaded down must have weighed at least 20 pounds. He was eager because remember Brad has a restless spirit and it had been 14-hours since the race started. I took off my iPod, refilled the bottle and with pacer in tow, I knew what was going to happen. Sub-24 hour finish, here I come.

The course was still muddy--really muddy. It was also dark and I was running fast. Brad was a few yards behind me when I heard him yell out in pain. A half mile in Brad said, "I think I broke my ankle." I'm no doctor, but even a delusional, crazy trail runner could see Brad was not being a drama queen. I had no time for this and Brad had enough gear on him to survive till Wednesday. I was on the sub-24 hour train to DamNation. He said he would get back out and I bounded along in the dark without music, but with a clear goal.

I had salt pills in both drop bags. I took some at the beginning--maybe after the first loop, but eventually they became an afterthought. Things I learned at Rocky Raccoon: Salt intake is vital. My stomach had felt weird for a while. I mentioned it to John on the previous loop, but it wasn't till this point that it became a problem. I wanted to puke, but I couldn't. I needed to eat and drink, but my stomach was so damn full. This happened before. In October at the Pine Mountain 50 miler I thought I had heat exhaustion (and maybe I did). This was the same feeling, but it was much colder outside so I was confused. Instead of stopping at DamNation I kept moving. Ultra runners don't always make good decisions. By the nature of what we do as a hobby, you should automatically question our judgment. Walking this six-mile loop would cool me down and set me straight; that is what I thought. The roller coaster got me.

It was well after midnight and I can't say I remember much of this section. It was slow, dark and I was probably stumbling around the trail in a fashion more suited for Bourbon Street than the middle of the woods. I know I sat on a bench. I know someone asked me what was wrong. And I know he said the words "Western States" and "you need salt."

Independence and stubbornness can be positive and negative. For me they had been a real detriment. Finally back at DamNation, I asked for help. and as they have for thousands of trail runners, they came through. Lynn Ballard was the captain of this aid station, and at least at one point he helped me. Maybe it was just him, or maybe there is someone else that looks like him. Maybe everyone looked the same to me by now. I took three salt pills, some food and a chair in their heated tent. Next to me was a girl who was in worse shape. She was dropping for sure. That thought had crept into my head, too. The chair was so nice and on a few occasions, Lynn or someone had to wake me up. Was I asleep for long?

Aid stations are happy to see you, but they are happier to see you go. Their mission is to get you to the next stop on the course. DamNation was hell-bent on kicking me out. I felt like a kid telling his mom that he wanted to sleep five more minutes before getting up for school. My five minutes was up. With someone’s old windbreaker and some black gloves, I was sent back to the trail.

My watch said bad things. The fourth loop was already more than 4 hours old and I still had 8 miles to go. The clock’s bad news was offset by the fact that my stomach was working again. A belly full of food looking for a place to go meant I got gassy quick. I made a brisk walk to Park Road where my parents were absent, no doubt tucked away in a warm hotel bed. A PortAPotty was an equal reward though. It even had toilet paper--two rolls! Life wasn't good, but I was going to make it, at least to mile 80. The fourth loop took me 6:30.

Eighty was a relief. I had plenty of time to do 20 more miles. At mile 40 I tweeted and I wanted to do it again at 80 just to say I was going to finish. If I put it out there then I had to, right? This is when I saw the text from Katie. Her plan was to pace her husband, John, for the last 20, but unfortunately the mud and water had burned his feet up and blisters forced him to drop out. She told me she was waiting three miles down the road, and she was going to pace me home.

Blisters forced a lot of runners out of this race. 2012 had the highest DNF rate that I could find of any of the previous 20 years. My left foot was blistered badly and I had adjusted how I was walking: back on the heel of my left and a forward roll on the right. Not a pretty motion, but a forward motion.

Katie and I are ready for some quality time
The Nature Center at mile 83 was weird. John was in normal clothes. Brad was back in the camper in a splint, sleeping. John told me Wade was about an hour up the trail. Apparently, when he came through he and John had a conversation that ended with Wade saying, "I haven't seen John or Kyle in a long time." John says, "Wade, I am John and you've been talking to me."

Things get weird on the last loop. You think you know, but you have no clue. I was better than most, or at least Katie tells me I was. We actually passed a lot of runners here. My quick walk was fast enough that Katie had to jog at times. She was moving quick enough that she needed to take off her jacket. That made me feel good.

I think I’m tough and stubborn, but I have a very worthy adversary in Katie. The youngest of our group, she is by far the most mature and the glue that keeps our wagon together and rolling forward. She knew her mission tonight was to keep me moving forward and with a mix of motherly concern and positive reinforcement she was saying all the right things.

We stopped at DamNation. I sat down in a chair to change socks. Sitting down is a bad idea. The look on Katie's face when I took off my shoes said a lot. My feet were done. I lubed them again, but they were so blistered and wrinkled that it didn't matter.

The final trip on the roller coaster loop was nice and slow. We talked about a lot, most of which I can't remember. It was good stuff though, like the kind you would have with your friend on a long road trip. She wants to hike the Appalachian Trail but thinks she needs a trail name. "Stumpy" it is. I suggested if we go fast and pass people I'll be "Anya Left," but everyone will think I'm a girl.

After four loops you think you know the trail pretty well. I was not a good trail guide. I was convinced the dam was right around the corner, but I was wrong at least three times. When I finally saw it, oh what a relief it was.

The last time through DamNation was quick. A hot dog in a tortilla, a refill and goodbye. I felt like I should really thank those guys for saving my race, but I was upright, mobile and headed to the finish, and they had bigger problems than me to worry about.

The sun started to rise when I hit mile 94. Dawn brought out the crazy in me. The pace had slowed and I was seeing runners. They weren't really there. Ghosts of Rocky Raccoon past, but none of them were on the trail. All off stretching, or peeing or lying down. It was like Field of Dreams, where they couldn't cross over onto the actual trail. This only lasted about half a mile. It was on a jeep road--I'm telling you, those things are evil.

Katie busted out her phone to give my parents a heads up that I was coming up on Park Road. They wanted to meet me there. I was surprised to see how many other people were texting Katie looking for updates from the trail. It meant a lot to see how many people were up at 7 a.m. on a Sunday and checking up on me. Pretty damn cool.

At Park Road, I gave my parents a hug. My dad offered to do the last 4.4 miles with us and I was thrilled to have him. I told him it wouldn’t be fast. He is not a runner, but I don't think he was worried. By this point I was mentally and physically done. Both feet were blistered to hell. I was tired and ready to be done. Runners began flying by me in the last three miles. They weren't moving fast at all, I was just that slow.

When you see the road, that is when you know. The emotions start to creep in and you have to fight back tears. That is when all those painful steps, delirious hours, missing minutes, all of it is worth it. To share that with Katie and my dad was special. I was ready to finish, but I'm not sure I wanted that feeling to go away. If I could stay at 99.7 forever that would be fine with me. At the final road crossing you can see the finish. I stopped and hugged Katie. She truly was the MVP of the trip and doesn't deserve a belt buckle but a crown.
We can see the finish

It is barely more than a walk
The finishing chute itself is not very exciting. It is plain, which is perfect. It’s soaking in the feeling, looking at the people waiting and smiling. I told my Dad I was going to try to run the last few hundred yards. It wasn't a pretty run, but we did it together side by side, all the way across the line. 27:43:53

The buckle is the first thing they give you. Not two feet over the line, it’s firmly in your hands, where you grip it tight like a rope over a ravine. Hugs, pictures and congratulations all seemed to happen rather quickly, and within a few moments it went away. The feeling from 99.7 on is gone. Now you are tired, and the longer you sit the stiffer you get. Bed sounds good, but can you sleep with your legs hurting this badly? Eventually, yes you can.

This was my first 100-mile race, and by all accounts this is one of the easier ones. To me, on this day, it wasn't easy. That said, I have plans to be back in Huntsville next year. Joe and the crew do a fabulous job, and I completely understand why this is one of the most popular races in the world. Huge thanks to my parents and crew. I could not have done it without them.

My first belt buckle
I learned a lot of lessons on the trails this year. You cannot have enough socks. Be prepared for blisters. Read up on how to treat and prevent blisters. I had blisters in places I don't get blisters. Nutrition can end it for you quick. I'll be monitoring my salt much better next time. Drop bags are good, but the plastic bins with trays where you can organize things are better. With these lessons I figure I'll be able to do much better next time. Now I think I know, but I probably still have no idea.