Ultra Race of Champions 100K Race Report

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The day began with fog and a frog. The frog had jumped onto the hood of my truck during the previous night’s drizzle. Perhaps to show off his skills at hopping several feet from the ground and sticking to smooth surfaces. Perhaps to distract and slow my morning progress as he required a gentle eviction from the hood.

Nice amber glow frogface

Nice amber glow frogface

The Ultra Race of Champions 100K, otherwise known as UROC, has been held for eight years at various locations around the United States. The trend for the last three years has been to keep it in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia’s George Washington National Forest. It has also been in notoriously awesome and historical trail running locations, such as: Auburn, CA, Breckenridge/Vail, CO, and Copper Mountain, CO. The organizers, Bad to the Bone Sports, offer a large, $21,400 prize purse, so it draws many more elite runners than a typical trail running race.

As nice as it would be, I certainly had no illusions of winning a part of that prize purse but wanted to aim for a solid day characterized by consistency in pace throughout the course. Sure, most folks are slowing at the end of an ultramarathon, but the idea is to keep it to a minimum.

Being on the same weekend, I initially debated between the closer Glacier Ridge Trail 50 Miler in PA and the UROC 100K, but I needed to get in a ton of challenging climbing and more distance in preparation for other upcoming events this summer. I prefer the wilderness setting of a national forest and the climbs were longer in VA, so I decided to go with UROC though I knew I’d be lucky to crack the top 10 overall there.

The more information you have going into long events, the fewer surprises and tough spots you’ll get into (so do some internet research). Google revealed only a few race reports to draw from though.

A partial solution to my ignorance was doing a little course recon after going to the University of Virginia Running Medicine conference in March. That was definitely helpful to get an idea of the typical trail surfaces, climb and descent grades, tree cover, road crossings, and general course design. If only I could have run the entire course because I still ended up surprised by the trail in the final hours of UROC. Another good option would have been to run the Bel Monte 50 Miler in March as it traverses some of the same trails.

Let’s just say the UROC course is demanding, which is partly due to the >11,000 feet of climbing, but also because of the similar quantities of descending. It was the descending that would ultimately be my undoing.

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Standing at the start line during this damp morning at Skylark Farm, where the races begin and end, I was greeted by fellow Morgantown trail runner Trevor Wolfe. The thing about ultrarunning is nobody needs to do a warmup run so we just stand around and bask in each other’s nervousness.

I was able to run and chat with Weirton friend Travis Simpson through the Blue Ridge Parkway and onto the Whetstone Ridge Trail, where we would gradually descend 1500’ for the next 11 miles. We were eventually joined by Leadville 100 women’s champion Katie Arnold for much of this section. Katie had never raced trails on the East Coast and being from Sante Fe, it was interesting to get her thoughts on the course as we moved along. I couldn’t tell if she was having more or less fun than the rest of us every time we’d get to a gnarly, steep, rocky section and she’d let out a yelp.

I had drifted away from the pack as I approached a slightly confusing intersection in the trail at mile 14. After gathering about eight runners, we decided on the most likely route downward and thankfully, were correct in our choice. I became a little too caught up in the flow of this part of the descent because I was at the front of that pack. It was narrow but non-technical so I’m sure a couple of us were moving at least 7:00/mile, if not quicker. I’ll never know - my GPS data was quite jacked up on this section. Still, we weren’t as fast as the leaders passing us that were returning from the aid station at the bottom of the climb. No one seemed to linger at that 16-mile aid long but I knew it was a lengthy, 11-mile uphill back to the next aid. Sure enough, on the way back up, the sun busted out, the temperature and humidity came up, and I had to give another runner water, so it was worth the 45 seconds to completely refill my hydration pack.

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Even though it felt like less than two hours, now five hours deep, at the mile-28 aid station, I’m briefly humored by the fellow telling me that I’m maintaining a good pace and looking good but then asking me what I have wrapped around my ankles (gaiters) and whether I’ll take a 30-minute break to sit down. Apparently the leaders must have been in and out a little too quick for the interview.

I ran solo on a couple more miles of Parkway, plopping potatoes into the gas tank, as tolerated, then the hit the graveled Spy Run Road, then grassy paths back to Skylark where I was actually hot enough to pack ice under my hat. By the time I made it out to the next section of real trails off the Parkway at Bald Mountain, it was starting to rain, the sun was gone, and the temperature had dropped a few degrees again.

Back off road at mile 35 and happy to be running now on some of the trails that I’d previewed in March. The weather was chilly that day, but it was dry and clear with perfect visibility from the overlooks. Today it was strange to look out from the same vantage points to see nothing more than white, thick fog enveloping me and the trees. It almost felt like the edge of the earth was merely a few feet away, or that’s just weird stuff your brain conjures up 6.5 hours into a hard effort.

Before the Rains

Before the Rains

The rain became harder and washed all the Nutella away. From my hands. Not from the earth because, oh my God, no one wants a world without Nutella. I bombed the lovely White Rock Falls Trail in the pouring rain, perhaps with a little too much pep in my step. But it was a ton of fun and flowy. Even after climbing some tremendous steepness back out of that ravine I was getting chilled and switched to a wool long sleeve upon returning to the Slacks Overlook aid station around mile 43. And wouldn’t you know the rain promptly stopped, and I began to overheat a bit again by the time I made it a couple miles away.

Onto the final descent on Torry Ridge Trail, the surface and grade were becoming increasingly brutal, resulting in the first real moment when I really felt “over it” and wanted to be done with a particular section. It was increasingly rocky and steep, so much so that my legs just stunk at controlling speed and keeping me in an upright position. I hadn’t been at an aid station for over an hour, so I probably just needed a hug or a teddy bear. Unfortunately, I’d left teddy in the truck to lighten my pack. I was forced to slow to my pace dramatically (which was clearly not part of the plan). It was intermittently raining, though nothing as heavy as the saturating downpours I’d come through on the Slacks Trail and White Rock Falls Trail. And then I almost stepped on this super bright yellow box turtle to shake things up a bit. “Watch where you are going, jerk!” (I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide which one of us said that). Thank goodness it was just a close call because I didn’t have my license, registration, or proof of insurance with me at the time. Turtle shell repair work is just so expensive these days.

FINALLY, the trail swings a hard left and becomes less damn rocky. Back to 9:00-10:00ish per mile pace for a few minutes. I’d wished I could have run that portion of the course beforehand. Had I known of its difficulty, I would have held back more in the White Rock Falls loop. But that’s all part of the adventure and challenge. I could still run the flattish or slightly uphill parts of the course at a good clip, even after mile 50, but any steep descending made my quads scream loudly enough to deem them untrustworthy.

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There was a brief but nice ~2.5 mile total out-and-back dirt road section at mile 51 before the gradual ascending to the base of Bald Mountain on Turkey Pen Ridge Trail. The final mile of Turkey Pen was full of switchbacks and typically just steep enough that I couldn’t talk myself into shuffle running. I hiked it all at a consistent effort and was happy to be on it, though I was definitely starting to bonk a bit, which meant a more sideways wobble than forward hustle from time to time. The fog was insanely thick but helped prevent my grunts from echoing into the next county.

Coming into the final aid station at mile 58, I went for my reliable standard baby potatoes, a couple swigs of Coca-Cola, and a handful of chopped bacon. As I reached for my collapsible bottle from my vest to make a mix of watered down Coke, I realized that it was gone. Why me? Why now? Waaaaaahhhhh! No, I wasn’t actually that dramatic but I sure did like that bottle. Breakups are never easy. So, to whomever found the clear Nathan/Hydrapak bottle on Turkey Pen: enjoy the free gift but remember I kissed her first!

Obligatory watch check photo

Obligatory watch check photo

Zombie transformation complete in less than one second

Zombie transformation complete in less than one second

The volunteers here chatted back and forth about whether I should take a bottle that somebody had forgotten or dropped earlier. The one young woman said “there’s only four miles to go” and completely distracted by the fact that four miles sounded really small at the time, I took off without actually finding a substitute for what I was going to put in the bottle that I no longer possessed. I did not grab a gel as I had planned to do. Oops. Which means I started to really, really bonk as I headed back up the Parkway. It felt easier to run with my eyes closed, so I did. (FYI I don’t recommend running with your eyes closed, especially on the road. In heavy fog. Duh.) I think I could have taken a nap then pretty easily and I felt like I was kinda floating in the fog. Thanks hypoglycemia. I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be caught by anyone else and I wasn’t going to do anymore catching, so it was more about finishing at this point. Hypoglycemia also makes you not care about, well, anything.

Generally, I really liked the course design. I would not have wanted to run all of the paved sections at once but having multiple broken sections of paved Blue Ridge Parkway to run was nice for a 15-20 minute mental break and develop another rhythm. Beyond mile 60, the Parkway eventually peaks out and gives way to the grassy and paved descent back toward the race start. As a I ran past the pond just below the peak of Skylark, I could hear just a couple peeps. Looks like the day ends as it began: with fog and a frog.

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In the midst and the mist, I’d hoped to be closer to an 11:30 finish time but ended up in 12:03:12 with the 9th male position. There were about 118 people pre-registered but 69 finishers. If the 100K sounds daunting, there are 50K and 25K options to check out that would also make good precursors to the 100K.

Thanks to the volunteers, Bad to the Bone, and Anne (my solo crew member) for a well-supported and challenging day!







4 Lessons learned at the JFK 50 Mile

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This past November I made a late season decision to enter the JFK 50 Mile. I was looking forward to it from a new race perspective, but I was also well aware that it was unlikely to become my favorite event ever. It is typically more of a road runner’s ultramarathon and the course doesn’t lend itself to my strengths (i.e. climbing, technical singletrack, power hiking). But I did it anyway, partly because it’s big for an ultra but more because it’s the oldest existing ultramarathon in the US. I’m not a huge history buff, but being close to home I’ll buy into the novelty. However, if not for the section on the Appalachian Trail, I would have gladly searched for something else.

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Instead of me describing the course, I’ll just copy from the JFK50mile.org page:

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“The first 5.5 miles (starting on road surface and joining the Appalachian Trail at 2.5 miles) gains 1,172 feet in elevation. The course from 2.5 to 15.5 miles is on the Appalachian Trail (except for two miles of paved road between 3.5 and 5.5 miles). This section of the AT is very rocky in sections as it rolls across the mountain ridge. At approximately 14.5 miles the course drops over 1,000 feet in a series of steep “switchbacks” that then crosses under Rt. 340 and connects with the C & O Canal towpath. The “Canal” section of the JFK 50 Mile is 26.3 miles (from 15.5-41.8 miles) of almost totally flat unpaved dirt/gravel surface that is free of all automotive vehicle traffic. The JFK 50 Mile route leaves the C & O Canal towpath at Dam #4 and proceeds to follow gently rolling paved country roads the last 8.4 miles to the finish. The Boonsboro start is at an elevation of 570 feet. The Williamsport finish is at 452 feet above sea level.”


A fall storm had dumped several inches of snow on the area a couple days prior to the race which made for unique conditions. I was initially fearful that the Appalachian Trail section would be an ankle sprain waiting to happen with all of leaves down this time of year but with the snow, water, and mud it mostly just turned out to be messy, cold, and slow. There were plenty of sections of standing, frigid snowmelt midway up my shin.

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Here’s what I’ll remember most from this odd race in odd conditions.

  1. Getting and staying cold can cause a pretty noticeable decrement in performance, for me at least. I’ve trained plenty and raced several times in colder and even snowy conditions. But the combination of an extra long event paired with deep, cold water chilled me more than I expected it would. My feet were numb as we descended down to the C & O Canal. I figured I would warm up just from getting on the drier towpath and running consistently. And I sorta did. At least my feet weren’t completely numb anymore. The problem was I couldn’t sustain running fast enough to truly become warm enough. The lightbulb moment came when I guzzled a cup of warm chicken broth at an aid station. So that’s what I emphasized at each one. The unfortunate part was I skipped the broth at a couple of aid stations prior because I was initially thinking I’d warm up naturally and just took in cold food instead. Better late than never on figuring it out though.

  2. I’ve come to this realization before, but I was reminded that there’s always more effort left to give than you might expect. You really can’t assume that if you have been feeling crappy that it will go on forever. I had garbage legs for 20 miles, which is definitely the longest bad patch I’ve needed to run through, but it eventually came to an end a couple miles before the end of the C & O Canal towpath. I’m certain a huge part of this was psychological - at that point the course only had 10 miles or so to go. It didn’t help that the towpath is just boring and I knew that coming in. I was partly spurred on by another runner that was moving at a pace I could stick to when they caught me. But the point is that my better self was there, waiting. The stars might have to align to draw it out but you can keep trying to find it. It reminds me of when a basketball team is down by double digits and not scoring. The game’s not over and there just has to be a little spark to bring back a big run on points. What can give you momentum?

  3. A tough day isn’t really a bad day. Draw from it what you can. I still took away a PR for the 50-mile distance despite feeling rough for a good chunk of the race. That’s largely the nature of the course layout, but if I’d given up more mentally, it would have probably never happened. I know now that I can withstand a 20 mile stretch of suckiness. I didn’t get to do a real taper as if this was my planned “A” race, so my expectations align with the outcome. Bonus race = bonus pain = bonus discoveries.

  4. It’s good to try something different purely for the experience. This race is big. Not massive, like a major city marathon, but huge compared to typical trail races where you could end up alone for several minutes or even hours. The size made me curious, but it also wasn’t appealing to me, at least on this day. There wasn’t a time in this entire event that I couldn’t see someone in front of or behind me. If you thrive on pacing off or being social with other racers, this would be a more ideal race. It’s not the most enjoyable if you expect solitude.

Greenbrier River Trail Marathon Race Recap

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The Greenbrier River Trail is a rail trail, mostly double track, that extends about 77 miles from Cass, WV to North Caldwell, WV along, you guessed it, the Greenbrier River. Much of its length is contained in the Monongahela National Forest. The Greenbrier River Trail Marathon is a USATF-certified race on the River Trail that starts in Cass, WV. The funds raised by this race benefit the maintenance of this lengthy recreational throughway via the non-profit Greenbrier River Trail Association. West Virginia only has a handful of marathons and this one will certainly put many marathons, even national events, to shame when it comes to beautiful surroundings. The course layout should produce times similar to a road race but those ugly and annoying buildings, cars, and streets are replaced with crushed limestone gravel, trees, fly fisherman, and a meandering river.  

But dang, I’m sore. Quaking quads. Cantankerous calves. Hurtin’ hammies. My severe soreness shall, in no way, bias this race recap. See, flat running is a significant departure from my typical racing and training. I love vertical change. Up, down, up, down, wash, rinse, repeat. This marathon has about as little up and down variation as you will find in this region. It drops approximately 300 feet across its entire length. So yes, it’s averaging a downhill grade but there are definitely short sections where it’s flat or will have just a very slight uptick in grade. But I’m accustomed to climbing and descending 300 foot changes in as little as a half mile!

Years of triathlon training and racing have taught me that you can’t underestimate the toll that flat and downhill courses take on your legs. The movement pattern doesn’t vary much the entire time, making it a unique demand compared to rolling or mountainous courses. Floridians would do well here.

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If you have the chance to ride the Cass Scenic Railroad, it’s a great family outing. On the day prior to the race, we rode the train from Cass to Whittaker Station. The leaves weren’t quite at the peak of their color change yet, but it was still very much worth the trip. The lack of running during the taper week made me want to race the train up the mountain as it held a steady distance-run-esque pace.

Bet your marathon doesn’t have a steam locomotive

Bet your marathon doesn’t have a steam locomotive

After the train ride, I was able to get a preview shakeout run on the Greenbrier River Trail, pick up my packet, and enjoy the pre-race pasta dinner. Cass is a small town so everything is within walking distance.

Race morning it’s still nearly dark when we arrive. The fog, forest, and terrain keep this valley darker a few minutes longer than expected. An off-pitch Cass Railroad whistle echoed through the otherwise silent mountains during my warm up as I climbed Back Mountain Road, giving an almost eerie sense to the foggy surroundings. Cue the banjo.

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Our weather was almost ideal at the 8:00 AM start. A touch of humidity hung in the air and it would likely have been warmer than the mid-60s already if not for the heavy fog blanketing the hills and hollers. We could tell it would eventually become hotter as the day progressed, much as the day prior had done. And it did.

Though I didn’t warm up as much as I wanted, it wasn’t much of an issue since I like to start easy and build on long races. I don’t need a reminder that a marathon will take hours to complete and I have no issue with delaying the onset of suffering a bit.

At the starting line one of the other racers mentioned going for the 2:40s. I was hoping for 2:50s but all of that prediction stuff is guesswork when no one has raced the course before. We line up at the Cass Community Center,and the train whistle signals the start (a nice touch). We make a quick loop through a gravel street in Cass, and then we are onto the Greenbrier River Trail. I trotted along in 4th place as the first three pulled away. Would be a nice day to get top three though.

I wanted to take in my surroundings but tried not to lose focus. It’s difficult to ride the line of observing nature, working hard, and not falling on your face. The Monongahela National Forest is one of my favorite places, so I hate not to admire the views.

Despite the current beautiful weather, it had unfortunately and abnormally rained much of the prior week. The River Trail generally drains well, but being in a winding, tree covered valley, there were places along the path that were just a smidge wet. There was never any nasty, heavy, sticky, tacky mud but there was definitely squishiness in a few places where the trail becomes more grass and dirt than the primarily crushed limestone surface. A couple of the wooden bridge crossings were slick but not dangerous.

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The aid station folks were super supportive. It helps when volunteers give time splits and say things like “you’re looking strong.” I stayed within sight of the second and third runners for several miles but had lost sight of the first runner by mile 5 or 6 because of the curviness of the course. I think it was somewhere around mile 6 when I caught the two guys in front of me in relatively rapid succession. I felt decent and the splits were consistently where I wanted them. The aid station volunteers at mile 10 informed me the time gap to first place was two minutes. Really? After taking off that quickly? That’s not much at that point, depending on how things shake out, but I wondered if that wasn’t a rough estimate and more like four minutes.

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At some point, there was a very long straightaway in the trail that allowed me to see the lead cyclist and the first place runner. Perhaps I’ve made up time? Perhaps the gap really is just a couple minutes? Though they were just little specks on the horizon, it was enough information to keep me excited for the possibility of a better finish.

Many of the miles at this point were flying by, which is good for racing but bad for taking in scenery. My legs would actually do what I wanted. Speed up, slow down, square dance, hokey pokey, it didn’t matter. I occasionally had this feeling that my head was just mounted on a set of legs that were not my own. I’M INSIDE A ROBOT!!!! GUYS, I’M INSIDE OF A ROBOT!!!

As I rounded a sharp rightward curve around mile 15 I suspect my blood glucose was dropping and I broke my brain for a second as I glanced upward to the entrance of a giant space portal that was about to transport me into another dimension. Oh crap, that’s Sharp’s Tunnel. Doofus. Entering the portal, I quickly learned the tunnel is curved so you can’t see the other end and it is amazingly dark. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust. Don’t trip, space boy. It was actually very smooth soil. Pretty darn cool feature and certainly the first time I’ve raced through such a long tunnel.

An aid station awaits at the end of the tunnel. A volunteer yelled for me to get a banana and told me something like “you’ve got to catch the next guy.” Fantastic idea. I...chomp...will... chomp...win... chomp...this...chomp...eating...chomp...contest!

Falling apart at mile 26.15

Falling apart at mile 26.15

More running ensued. (Bet you wouldn’t have guessed that.) By mile 19 I could consistently see first place and could tell I was gaining rapidly. Maybe gradually ease up to him and hit the pace hard? By mile 20 I had drifted up behind Andrew. He knew I was there, probably from my periodic grunting, said he had blown up but was very encouraging to me pushing onward past him. Thank goodness I didn’t have to do a hard surge because those hurt.

Taking the lead becomes a different beast because you are now the chased instead of doing the highly distracting and motivating chasing. I had no idea if there would be someone capable of hitting negative splits in the closing miles. A couple of miles clicked off where I was happy just to see splits under 7:00/mile. I had briefly listened to music for a few miles but now it was just irritating. I gained a new friend in lead cyclist Ray Adams who probably grew tired of my heaving and groaning.

Race director Kellyn Cassell berating me for not running faster

Race director Kellyn Cassell berating me for not running faster

The final couple miles through Marlinton transitioned to pavement. My legs were reminding me with each step that they were indeed my own painful masses of contractile proteins instead of the Terminator’s as they seemed to want to piston more up and down than swinging forward and backward. I couldn’t get up onto my forefoot for any additional robot power because I could sense both calf muscles were one aberrant neuromuscular synapse away from cramping. Going to need an oil change and 15-point inspection after this.

The street crossings in Marlinton were staffed with more great volunteers. They rhythmically chanted “ROBOT SPACE BOY! ROBOT SPACE BOY!” with astonishing volume. (Not true). I spied with my two tired eyes an iron bridge that I recognized from a video of the finishing section. Must...aggggghhh….be...uggggghhhh...close. And then I see my favorite volunteers ever dancing while dressed in neon orange Japanese kimonos (or simply just waving orange flags) indicating a right turn into Stillwell Park. A glance at my watch tells me all I need to know...start kicking. Inflatable finish line arch, I love you. Wow, I’m glad that’s over.

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Seltzer, post-race snacks, pizza, sandwiches, finisher medals, pint glass age group awards, and custom pottery overall awards occupy our minds afterward. Great event Kellyn! Now, who wants to run back the other direction?

Results:

https://aptiming.com/race/results/624


The local paper wrote a nice article about the race:

https://pocahontastimes.com/first-ever-grt-marathon-a-big-hit/

Rock 'N The Knob 20 Miler Race Report

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It’s fall, my absolute favorite time to run and compete, particularly in trail running events. And much like the road marathon season, there are far more events to choose from this time of year. I can’t seem to stop myself from signing up for runs even when I am initially planning for a non-competitive weekend.

The challenge and scenery drew me back to Claysburg, PA since I initially had the pleasure of attending Rock ‘N The Knob in 2015. Central PA has developed a large and involved trail running community, partly due to their fantastic selection of trails. As a result, great events like this have continued to grow. And a bonus: this is PA’s highest elevation trail running race.

Directed by Allegheny Trailrunners, the event has had a shorter race of 5-6 miles and a longer 20-22 mile event since 2012. The 10K was clearly quite popular this year with nearly 150 finishers. This may be the 2018 site of the USA Track and Field 10K Trail National Championships next year, which would make it even larger. The longer course was my preference this weekend and it ended up with 66 finishers.

The race typically starts a little later in the morning because the top of Blue Knob Ski Resort tends to be enveloped in thick fog during the cool September mornings. This year was an exception - we had a clear, sunny sky. I didn’t even realize how truly awesome the views were until this year. I had even raced the Lost Turkey Trail Marathon here a few weeks prior but that course didn’t go to the absolute top of the mountain like this one. The drive in certainly had fog and cooler temps but by the start of the race, temperatures were already above 70 degrees.

Photo by Connie Stappello

Photo by Connie Stappello

The long course starts with a short gravel lot section followed by about 1.5 miles of rocky, technical trail. It’s so rocky that I managed to roll my left ankle before even running one mile. Frustrating. It must have been obvious since the runner behind me even asked if I was okay. I needed to be more careful or I was going to have the shortest trail race ever.

Photo by Connie Strappello

Photo by Connie Strappello

The trail does eventually become less technical, on average, which is great because we really started descending. This portion visited the Lost Turkey Trail and the Crist Ridge Trail. I couldn’t believe how much the trail was covered with leaves in the valleys already. A group of four of us formed at the front, the lead occasionally changing between each runner in the first five or so miles. I eventually made it to the front to eat my fair share of low calorie spiderwebs. Three of us arrived closely smooshed together at the Pavia aid station, around mile 7.

Hitting the first major climb here, the legs were feeling good and reliable. That can be a deceptive thing when you have been going downhill for a couple miles, though. I recalled this area as part of a loop from 2015 where I somehow sprinted past a subterranean bee’s nest without being stung while the midpack runners heading up the hill were clearly not so happy. This year I’m carrying an Epi-Pen and Benadryl in case I’m not as fortunate.

Most of this first big climb was runnable, and Lee Strappello and I remained close as we neared the top and were forced to hike on increasingly loose and steep rockiness. Lee had been great to talk to for a few miles but after one hour of running together, I guess the time had come to split up. (AKA, I started feeling anxious.) His mother was taking tons of photos of us, a couple of which I’ve posted here.

Photo by Connie Strappello

Photo by Connie Strappello

The trails become a little more overgrown and technical in the next section, around 10-11 miles. Unfortunately, I started to feel my calf muscles tighten during the steeper hiking of the 500-foot long Chappell climb. I knew I was taking a chance by racing for the third weekend in a row, especially since my calf muscles were more sore than normal after last weekend. Ultimately I wasn’t expecting to have full recovery and a peak performance but the trails here are so challenging, fun, and unique that I took the chance to race anyway.

Upper Ridge Trail was a quick reprieve from the technical parts and heavy climbing. The next tough, yet fun, area occurred around mile 12 at Deep Hallow Notch. Here the trail suddenly climbs the steep mountainside to the left, often using mossy, sandstone rock steps. It’s a climb of about 0.3 miles, far shorter than the upcoming Beaverdam Hollow climb so the threat level is lower. Knowing my calves were already tiring out, I kept trying to make it a point to take a slightly longer hiking step to make the quads take a bigger share of the load. Better in theory than practice.

Arriving at the Raven’s Rest aid station around mile 13 I downed half a water bottle, a few small cups of pickle juice, a gel, gummy worms, and a cookie. Let’s hope all that stays down. I recognized this station from 2015 so I knew there was about to be a really cool, technical section of singletrack up Mountain View Trail but then one of the tougher climbs I’ve ever encountered would begin. But that’s really why I came in the first place.

The Beaverdam Canyon climb crushed me in 2015 because I knew nothing about its difficulty. Even though two years had passed, I knew this time that it was painfully long and basically unrunnable. Over one mile of 99% power hiking at 14:00/mile. This is the part of the course that nearly every long-course runner won’t forget and I’ve not raced anything else comparable around this region.

And so the Battle at Beaverdam begins with repetitious crisscrossing of a half dry stream, switchbacks, and dozens of mossy rock steps. Midway up I see a soldier groundhog climb a few feet up a tree in front of me. I wondered if groundhogs and beavers were genetically similar. It leaps back down into the trail, surely plotting its line of best attack. But then it decides to climb back onto the tree and maneuver to the backside of it, much as a sneaky squirrel would. Clearly a confusion tactic, rodent. As I finally step beside the tree, the groundhog is clinging right at my head level, a couple feet away, staring with its beady eyes, blood dripping from its mouth. Okay, so there was no blood but I had visions of it leaping onto my face in a rabid fit of rage. Thankfully it stayed put.

More light becomes apparent through the trees and soon enough I can kinda, sorta run, here and there, at least. Even though the major climbing is done, the course rolls through the woods on the Lookout Loop to the next aid station around mile 18 where they tell me I had a six-minute lead at the prior aid station. I lean on the table and prophylactically down more pickle juice. So close to the finish yet still so far when my muscles are not agreeing with my brain about their assigned task.

I’m greeted with a bit more climbing up a brushy power line and then a huge descent begins down the ski slopes. That was a nice change until I came to the part that had a sign that said something like, “Are you an expert?” Here the slope really narrows amongst the trees and becomes ridiculously steep. This would be sketchy to walk on fresh legs. I seriously can’t comprehend people safely skiing that stuff. Despite having my shoes pretty snug at the start, my big toes and forefeet are noticeably unhappy hotspots while trying to limit speed.

Photo by connie strappello

Photo by connie strappello

Cutting on into the woods again, it wasn’t long before I arrive at the next gut punch: a scramble climb known as “I Need A Sherpa.” A tow rope would have been sufficient. Because I had been descending for a handful of minutes, the moment I started to climb this entirely unrunnable section, both calf muscles and my left inner thigh locked into a cramp. Oh no. No. No.

There was a moment of doubt as to whether I could actually get my legs to work well enough to get up that hill. I began to move as if I was wearing downhill skis and trying to go uphill, rocking side-to-side. Maybe more like a gingerbread man would walk. The loose, flat rocks slip and slide underfoot, making traction unpredictable. Fortunately, the hill was covered in enough small birch saplings that I could use my upper body for assistance. There was a single random glove stuck in one of the saplings. Yes, please, give me a hand.

Cresting onto a service road, I started seeing folks from the 10K just down the hill. They were a nice distraction. Then up another less intense climb and then there’s another where two spectators at the top asked, “What do you want to hear? Pop? Rock?” My initial thought was that they must have a boombox or instruments. I yell, “Rock!” They immediately begin serenading me with their accapella version of Crazy Train. It was unfortunate for them that I had no money to leave a tip. Thanks fellas.

The course flattens and both calf muscles retaliate once more, making my ankles useless. For some reason I’m now running like a cowboy that just jumped off a horse. Dory from Finding Nemo enters my mind. “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming.” Because the calf cramps were from fatigue-related muscle failure, no amount of pickle juice was going to stop them but I’m certainly glad it didn’t start any sooner. The cramping gradually eased again with each step and I’m sure my grunting helped bring it under control. The 10K folks were encouraging me onward.

The course nears its finish as I pop out onto a road with spectators claiming the finish is just up the paved road. I guessed it shouldn’t be more than a mile with this many people around. And it wasn’t too many more steps before I saw that lovely timing clock and kicked a tiny bit.

Good enough for first place in 3:12:44 and an REI folding camp chair. Race director Ben Mazur greeted me with a cool medal/bottle opener. The local beer distributor was stationed a mere 12 feet from the finish line, making that Goose Island IPA a very reasonable distance away.

Being an odd distance under an ultramarathon or a marathon, I wasn’t quite sure of whether I should wear my hydration vest, carry a bottle, or just take water at the aid stations. In 2015, I didn’t carry anything but gels. But it was a heckofalot cooler then. By the end of this day, I drained a 50-ounce hydration bladder and was glad I went with that choice. And I still drank more water at several of the aid stations. It was hot and humid.

I was impressed by the number of 10K finishers hanging out at the finish line to cheer on the long course finishers. And maybe it was the beer but they were super nice and encouraging too. Fun day out there!

Nutrition:

  • 3 Gu gels
  • 4 Gu chews
  • 2 bananas
  • 10 oz. or more pickle juice
  • 1 cookie
  • 2 gummy worms

Strava: https://www.strava.com/activities/1187257503/overview

Results: http://ultrasignup.com/results_event.aspx?did=47941

 

Iron Mountain 50 Miler Race Report

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Absolutely the best race that $25 can buy. 

Damascus, a small town in southwestern Virginia, has been the host of the Iron Mountain 50 Miler for several years now. As trail running has become more popular, the event grows, and the level of racing becomes progressively more competitive. The event’s popularity isn’t likely to stop anytime soon.

The 50 mile start is at 7:00 AM so you can actually sleep in compared to many ultramarathons that would start at 5:00 or 6:00. We stayed just 15 minutes away in Abingdon, VA and arrived just after 6:00. Damascus itself is filled with a ton of bed and breakfast establishments, which might be more appealing if you were staying more than one night. For me, the $89 Quality Inn was sufficient for 10 hours of use.

A Unique setup for the toilet paper dispenser

A Unique setup for the toilet paper dispenser

Parking was stress free right at the start/finish area for the 50 milers arriving early but I’m not sure if the 30 and 16 mile racers feel quite the same ease when that reaches max capacity. There is nearby overflow parking for entrants to use, regardless. Packet pickup goes off without a hitch. The shirts looked pretty cool though I didn’t buy one (because I’ve been informed via an unnamed source that I have about 30 too many).

With hurricane Harvey pushing moisture up the interior of the US, the chance of precipitation heading into Labor Day weekend was going to be high. So it wasn’t a surprise that it rained at the start of the race, then intermittently rained throughout the first half, and then progressed into a persistent heavy rain by the final two hours. Very reminiscent of the trail marathon I did a few weeks ago. I’m getting really good at ignoring rain. Historically, the race is more hot and humid.

Prepare for launch

Prepare for launch

We start the race exactly on time - a testament to the consistent management of the event for several years now. The cloud cover makes it darker than typical for this time. The start for all distances is a five-mile stretch of crushed gravel rail trail known as the Virginia Creeper Trail. Damascus is a unique intersection of the Iron Mountain Trail, Creeper Trail, and Appalachian Trail. The Iron Mountain Trail was a part of the AT until the AT was relocated in the 1970’s.

Pretty quickly I felt like I was running too fast, my heart rate already in zone 5. Ummm….just 49 miles to go people. Can we at least keep it over 8:00/mile? I’d seen the prior results of my fellow competitors and had no intentions of vying for a win on this day as I watched three guys gradually drift away.

A couple more runners passed me as I tried to slow slightly and get my heart rate into zone 4. I struck up a conversation with a runner from NC who told me she was moving fast while she could. Long climbs and technical sections apparently weren’t her strong suit. If I recall correctly, she said she had competed there a total of seven times among the various distances. The conversation helped those early miles pass more quickly, but that section will still occupy your mind with its rhododendron and numerous bridge crossings over Laurel Creek or Whitetop Laurel Creek.

Leaving the rail trail and entering the real trails, I started the first climb in 7th place overall. I couldn’t believe how dark it seemed. The trees and undergrowth were so thick that a headlamp would have been useful for a couple hundred yards. That climb is particularly steep, but often wide, and occasionally rocky singletrack in its first mile. The course continues to ascend on more packed and smooth singletrack trails until close to mile 7. Then there’s still plenty of climbing to be had all the way to mile 20.

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My left foot had been nagging me a little during the past week, so I broke down and dry needled it the day prior. I felt it kick in a couple times from mile 9-13, while traversing the ridgeline along the Iron Mountain Trail. The pain just intense enough and lengthy enough to scare me. Fortunately, it ended up stopping. I’m not sure it would have stopped had I not sucked it up and done the dry needling.

After the 16 mile aid station, the 50-mile course crosses Whitetop Road and becomes gravel road that eventually gives way to grassy forest service road. Good. I particularly love running gravel road. Despite another four miles of climbing, this six-mile section goes by fast, partly because it also contains a quick, mountainous descent surrounded by a bit of fog as it tops our second highest point. I caught one runner on the descent, almost too easily, which makes me think I need to slow down. I was actually having more fun following him because it made me feel like I was moving faster.

A long gravel descent on Hurricane Road follows the aid station at mile 22 but I am finally met again with true trails a couple miles later that force a little more climbing out of my legs. Around mile 25 you should return to gravel road but I mistakenly crossed that road and followed a trail that was not on the course for just a couple hundred yards. I suspected that it was incorrect whenever the trail narrowed and I acquired several spider webs on my face. I would not have been the first person to come through if this was the course.

After coming back up the hill to the intersection where I lost the course, I am greeted by a long descent with tons of switchbacks. There are a few rollers but it finally arrives to an aid station at mile 29 where they tell me the climbing begins. Three miles to the next aid station, the volunteers say as they are refilling my hydration pack. By this point I’m annoyed with both gravel roads and descending and say, “Good, I’m tired of going downhill” in between mouthfuls of pizza. They confirm that I’m in fourth place. Not bad. Maybe number three will crack a bit?

Well, after 2.5 miles of that climb to the next aid station, I was the one starting to crack, struggling on the upper half-mile because it’s stinking steep. Everything looks and feels steeper when you are tired at mile 31. Additionally, that section of trail is used by horses and has more mud, ruts, and poo than the rest of the course.

Eventually, painfully, stubbornly I reach that next aid station at Hurricane Gap. This is the same aid station as mile 22 and completes this lollipop loop of the course for mile 32. Beef jerky looks to be the most appealing item. The climb had left me pretty drained. Leaving there I thought that I’d completed the main climb. Boy, that was COMPLETELY wrong. I guess the previous volunteers said three miles to the aid, not to the top of the climb.

I pop out onto a gravel road that seemed to climb for the next half hour. I was beyond halfway up but couldn’t seem to regain the running legs. Unfortunately, I’m not sure of the exact time spent continuing the climb because my GPS data was all jacked up after the fact, but I do know there were a whole heck of a lot of switchback turns up the rest of that mountainside, each one resembling the one prior. My love of gravel roads left a few miles ago. It was the mental low point of the day. I had to count steps or pick targets in order to run even brief periods.

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Finally! I summit the highest point of the course around 4200 feet and drop back onto the Iron Mountain Trail from the gravel. At this point the rain is heavier and I’m becoming cold but at least I can run at a decent clip on the singletrack. I start to put on my jacket but just as I’m ready to slip into the sleeve, the jacket is mysteriously ripped from my hands and disappears behind me as it’s grabbed by the surrounding thorny brush. My coordination is apparently declining.

I’ve never been so happy to get back onto singletrack, which tends to be the emphasis until you get back to Damascus. The major climbing was over. Just 15 miles or so to go. Now, the wet weather was adding a whole extra element of challenge as parts of the trail gradually became a streambed. But it was awesome. The ridge was already surrounded by fog and most areas remained very runnable. It is at this point that I seem to become robotic and is the point of running that I find to be a little addictive. I’ve entered “the zone.” Sure, the legs are a little uncomfortable but the descending on a rhododendron covered, tunnel-like trail feels like that warp speed they use in Star Wars as the periphery becomes a blur.

The next aid station is mile 37, Skulls Gap. I never did get to ask anyone about that peculiar and creepy name. In my haze I asked the volunteers if this was mile 38. A volunteer says “No, 37.” I said, “It’s okay if you just lie to me at this point.” The volunteer says something like, “In that case, you have 7 miles to the next aid.” Hey.... wait a minute! That’s not fair. My brain doesn’t work.

My wife surprised me at the mile 43 aid station, which was also mile 9. The volunteers tell her after I leave that they were worried about me because I apparently looked a little disoriented. What is orientation, really? There’s up, down, left, right. Good enough. But really I just wanted to be running again. It’s not weather I like to stand around in and I just wanted to finish up. At that point you’ve already proven to yourself that the major task could be done so let’s just hammer it home.

Around mile 46 the course splits back apart, so it was “new to me” trail once more. Here, I am running on motivation more than calories. My ignorance led me to believe it’s pure descending to the finish but actually I’ve encountered a challenging climb of maybe two-thirds of a mile. I surprised myself and ran nearly all of it. This is not the time to lose a placing because it would be a huge ego killer. It’s not looking good for seeing third place but I am catching a lot more 30-miler folks who were always encouraging me onward.

The final descent begins. It’s rumored to be unliked and technical. It actually wasn’t as technical as I was picturing but I did manage to briefly roll my left ankle once on those loose rocks. That portion went on forever, became quite dark, and then suddenly spit me out onto a paved street in Damascus. Gotta be close now though I don’t know where I specifically have to go.

This last section is the only real paved road running in the entire circuit. Arriving at the next main road intersection I had to stop to wait on vehicle traffic. My legs were so weird and wobbly at that point that I began to lose my balance, having to take a big step to the right in order to not fall down. Whoopsie. Good thing I don’t need need to pass a sobriety test.

Back onto the Creeper Trail, over a final bridge, and there’s the finish line at Damascus Town Park. I actually had enough energy to kick hard and felt good. Though I had wanted to come in under eight hours, I’ll take the 8:05:58 without complaint. I know where I lost the time and perhaps I’ll get another jab at this race one day.

I literally became a mountain goat on the climb

I literally became a mountain goat on the climb

I’m positive there were burgers and hotdogs and other snacks awaiting my arrival but my memory was a smidge fuzzy right then. I do know I ate something. And my wife was kind enough to find my favorite recovery drink at the local grocery: chocolate milk. Every finisher received a nice package of freshly baked cookies.

Such a great, adventurous course and memorable day! Thanks to everyone volunteering many hours of their time to help us challenge ourselves!

Results: https://sites.google.com/site/ironmountaintrailrun/results-race/2017-results

Big ol’ nutrition list:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 Carb-Boom gel
  • 3 bananas
  • 2 Oreo cookies
  • 3 vanilla wafer cookies
  • 1 mini Snickers bar
  • 6 Clif Shot Bloks chews
  • 8 oz. Coca-Cola
  • 16 oz. ginger ale
  • 2 small handfuls gummy bears
  • 2 small handfuls M & M’s
  • 2 small handfuls beef jerky
  • 2 oz. pickle juice
  • 4 dill pickle spears
  • 2 small cooked potatoes
  • ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • 1½ large handfuls of grapes
  • ½ slice of cheese pizza

New River Gorgeous Trail Half Marathon Race Report

If you wanted to run perfect trail conditions, the ACE Adventure Center outside Oak Hill, WV was the place to be this weekend. It was plenty sunny, hot, and humid, so there was no shortage of sweat dripping from the brim of my hat and a higher than average forecast for nipple chaffage, but that’s what you expect for August, isn't it?

When I had last attended this event two years ago, packet pickup took a very long time and as a result, the race start was delayed. Things were much improved this year. My packet pick up was completed in about 10% of the time it took me in 2015, which was a ton less stressful.

Despite driving nearly 3 hours, it was easy to make the trip to Oak Hill on race morning because the race didn’t start until 10:00. I know this bothers some runners, but I think it’s favorable if you like the additional challenge of running in the heat or maybe have an upcoming event approaching that will be in the heat. As we started, the temperature was around 70 degrees. Most of the course is tree shaded so the temperature in the woods likely stayed under 80 degrees for another hour or two.

How many people are touching their watches and why is everyone afraid of the timing mat? Photo by Appalachian Timing Group

How many people are touching their watches and why is everyone afraid of the timing mat? Photo by Appalachian Timing Group

Charleston runner Clay Evans started out hard from the gun. And then I realized I hadn’t started my music. Fortunately we started on a short stretch of gravel road before entering singletrack so there was a moment to get those favorite jams going. I train with music about 25% of the time but in short competitive events such as this, I thrive on incremental doses of upbeat and occasionally vulgar rap and alternative rock. Music is a legal ergogenic aid. Just use only one headphone so you can hear folks coming, okay?

Clay and I separated from the other runners quickly, switching the lead back and forth from time to time. Then he told me he was running the other simultaneous event - the 8.5-mile run. I briefly considered letting him drift away from me as we headed uphill but figured any amount of hanging at the quicker pace could help me get closer to my goal of breaking 1:30:00 in the half marathon. As we neared mile 2, still climbing, he began pulling away from me at a pace I wasn’t willing to attempt, regardless of event. I wasn’t expecting to be just a couple beats away from my maximum heart rate. Sure hope he wasn’t kidding about being in the other race. Seemed like a good time to take in a glimpse of this view:

photo by Anne Foreman

photo by Anne Foreman

After hitting the high point of that first and longest climb, I started recovering a bit and gradually came back up to Clay and coasted on by him. I could tell it was going to be a good day by the brief amount of time it took to recover from that hard effort and by the impressive number of birds cheering for me.

The best course description here would be “rolling.” It was actually really fun to hit some of the rollers out there, which reminded me of a rollercoaster on several occasions. Gain enough speed on the downhills and you can coast part of the way up the next climb before it feels too effortful.

Photo by Anne Foreman

Photo by Anne Foreman

Most of the course is double track the width of an ATV (or four-wheeler, if you prefer). Some of it is wider forest road double track. There’s probably just a couple total miles of singletrack. For the most part it is non-technical as there aren’t many roots or rocks. Some sections are wide mown grassy paths. Overall this makes it a road runner’s trail race. Many of the trails would be a good introduction to trail running.

Much of the time I was paranoid of rolling my left ankle to the point of spraining as I had done in 2015. With the trails typically maintaining a clockwise direction around the mountain, there is a frequent camber to the trail that keeps your left side on the lower side of the hill. I remembered the exact point where I rolled it previously so I did what any sane person would do at that section: I slowed down.

The footing on the trail was typically firm and predictable as it hadn’t rained recently. The course circumnavigates the mountain top, never descending or climbing for long periods, so I’m sure that helps keep them dry as well. Trail maintenance had cleared out a couple of recently fallen trees. But somehow they didn’t clear out the snakes. I’m not asking much, am I?

Much of the course is wider trail

Much of the course is wider trail

After topping the highest point on the course, and passing heavy equipment that you don't normally see on a trail run, there’s a fast grassy forest road descent. Nearly to the bottom, I caught a glimpse of a shiny black tubular creature in the grass and reflexively jumped away like an Appalachian kangaroo. I heard the snake jerk, probably because I scared it as much as it scared me but I didn’t bother stopping to ask it. I doubt it would have suddenly struck at a kangaroo because they can't eat kangaroos. I told the next aid station worker about it but I don’t think she was impressed.

The left hip flexors tightened a bit by mile 8, the climbs hurt more, and my general form deteriorated as the thigh muscles became heavier. I thought the course was a little short based on my old GPS data so I tried to remind myself that it was really only 20 more minutes of pushing. Rounding is always a useful tactic for time and distance mid-competition. It’s a great way to lie to yourself about the distance remaining because you’ll forget about it in 30 seconds anyway. And there is a ton of descending in the final 1/3 of the race so I just needed to quit whining. Although you don’t want to underestimate the final climb to the finish.

Bombing the final grassy section of double track descent I spied yet another shiny black tubular creature less than a squirrel’s length from my feet. Is there a reptile convention here this weekend? Where can I get my tickets? This one was stretched across the major width of Erskine Trail. There was no option to change direction at that very moment because: 1.) there was a giant drop off to the left, 2.) a steep embankment to the right, and 3.) my pace was roughly 6:30/mile. Good thing the kangaroo legs were warmed up by the earlier snake. Definitely the first time I knowingly jumped over a fully outstretched snake! It’s really okay if I make it another 23 years of running before that happens again.

I became a little panicked near the finish as I popped out onto the final road climb because I thought the next course marking I was to follow pointed toward some newly built trails on the opposite side of the road. I lost time wandering around in the woods there for over a minute while trying to find the next marking only to realize the course really did just climb up the road, just as it did in 2015. Wah wah wah. No race ever goes perfectly but I was bummed to not achieve my goal of breaking 1:30, coming in at 1:31:11.

Apologies to the young woman finishing her 8.5 miler that didn’t see me sprinting to the finish line and probably had her life flash before her eyes as I grabbed her to keep us both from going down in a burning heap of human shrapnel.

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Course summary: Minimal climbing (average 100 feet/mile, 1300 feet total), generally non-technical with occasional loose rocky sections but no rooty sections, slight but frequent off-camber, minimal singletrack at approximately 1.5 miles total, no more than a couple hundred yards of pavement, minimal muddy sections and no crazy swampy sections, primarily wide and maintained ATV width trail, about 0.5 mile of gravel road, no drop-offs, 100% runnable, generally well marked, fun course overall

Results: https://www.aptiming.com/race/results/543

 

Lost Turkey Trail Marathon Race Report: Lunging to Victory

Somehow I managed to enter an event before the largest rain soaking of Summer 2017. There’s crazy flooding all over this region and I thought it was a great idea to drive 140 miles in the pouring rain and sleep in my truck in the pouring rain and then do a long trail running race in the pouring rain. Needless to say, the drive that should have taken 2.5 hours was almost 3.5 hours. I slept in my truck bed but my camper top leaked so that was kinda damp and I woke up about every hour. Poor me. I’d do it all again.

It’s interesting that the entry price for the marathon and 50 miler were the same, but due to the timing of an upcoming 50 miler that I am training for, the marathon worked better in my training plan because it could replace a long run and push my effort. After being sick for the past several weeks with lyme disease, I wanted to race again now that I had begun the lovely antibiotics last week and was actually feeling a ton better. I hate ticks.

When I awoke for the fourth time at 3:00ish I considered that I could have just run the 50 miler because they were going to start at 4:00. The marathon went off at 8:00. The marathoners had to be shuttled from the Blue Knob State Park to the start of the Lost Turkey Trail whereas the 50 milers do an out-and-back on the same trails.

The bus was a little late picking us up, which I expect was from the insane fog on top of that mountain. And it was still raining. At first I could not even find the tent to pick up my packet at 5:30 even though I was only a hundred yards from it. The roads were barely visible and several us missed the turn into the parking area. It was the craziest, thickest fog I had ever seen.

I had raced from Blue Knob State Park before at an event called Rock n’ the Knob. The climbs were a little more epic than western PA and northern WV offer so I wanted to come back to have that extra challenge. The last time it was super foggy and a little drizzly but nothing like the drenching of the prior 24 hours.

6:00 AM, fog's actually thinning out

6:00 AM, fog's actually thinning out

1:00 PM, what a difference

1:00 PM, what a difference

Exiting the shuttle bus we had about 30 minutes until race start time. The rain slowed and seemingly stopped. I removed my Gore-Tex jacket, stuffed it in my pack, and put on a lighter shell. Normally I don’t carry two jackets but I don’t normally run in a hurricane either. But with just a moment to go before starting, the sky decided to begin another downpour. The race director fired a starting pistol. Only it didn’t fire, it… clicked. Fitting for the past few hours.

The first couple miles of the course were full of standing water. Being on a plateau, the water just sits and doesn’t drain anywhere. Plus it was still raining pretty heavily. My inner ankle began aching a little from the increased demand on my tibialis posterior tendon that comes with rock hopping and trying to run a little more gingerly on the slick or unpredictable deeper grass. I actually started to welcome the deep puddles as they would briefly override the ache.

I had three runners in front of me through this several miles of new squishy swampland. Even though the initial mile section is rocky and more technical, many of the early miles are wide, nontechnical grassy paths. There are a ton of intersections with other trails and roads throughout this course, so you really have to pay attention to avoid missing the turns. Finally, after much hoping, the trails started to feel a little more technical and that helped me pick off a runner.

I began passing the suffering runners from the 50 miler who were running the opposite direction. They were actually a really nice indicator from afar on whether I was still on the right trails. It looked like only about half of them even started and I know several people bailed from the marathon too.

At the first manned aid station, Buffalo Road, mile 9, the race director tells me the next runners are two and five minutes up. Being of the opinion that the first guy went out way too hard and the second guy probably did too, I figure there’s a good chance of closing that gap down. I was counting on the later steeper inclines I saw on the elevation profile to work in my favor.

Not my pic

Not my pic

Eventually we get to a really long section of old pea gravel covered access road. I suppose it is still part of the Lost Turkey Trail but it is not technical at all and lasted nearly two miles. It felt like a road race because it was ever so slightly downhill and I felt like I could really open up. Being so flattened, it reminded me of running across an old coal strip mine, only without the acid mine drainage.

As I approach the next aid station, I see the runner who was previously two minutes ahead of me. Fantastic. I felt decent and spent just a few seconds in the King’s Field aid station so I could monitor his position. I tried to use the descent to my advantage but I couldn’t seem to see or catch that runner. Strange. Well that’s because he took a brief wrong turn just past the aid and I just didn’t know it until the next aid station.

I told those aid station volunteers that was the longest descent I had ever run and they thought it was funny, apparently because the race is known for crushing people. Beef jerky in hand I started up the really steep section of trail from Burnt House around mile 17. Lunge. Lunge. Lunge. Work it. Work it. Feel the burn in that booty. Uh huh. Uh huh. These are all things I say to myself on these climbs and are clearly one of my biggest and best performance enhancing secrets. Actually, I was thinking “who the hell puts a trail straight up the side of these steep ass hills without switchbacks.”

I notice my low back aching a little more than usual. I blame my inability to strength train for the past several weeks because the stinking lyme disease did something to my muscles that made them really easy to strain and become sore for days, which I had to learn the hard way multiple times. I hate ticks.

Perhaps it is somewhere in here where I recall running a ¼ mile section of the softest moss covered trail ever. I felt like I was committing a crime but I’m guessing it must be pretty resilient or it wouldn’t have been there in the first place.

Then, if I remember correctly, after getting to the top, a section of trail begins that seemed a little like someone just hung some ribbons along the hillside and figured running a group of people over it would eventually make a trail. It was super narrow and sometimes not benched at all so the mud on the off camber would just make you slide sideways down the hill toward what would surely be instant death. On one of steepest sections I had to climb through the limbs of this downed tree. I fell down there a little thanks to those pesky 50 mile runners who had come through and torn up the wet trail and smeared the tree in mud.

You won’t believe what happened next! Through some miracle of the human spirit, I kept on running. Because this is a running race, dammit. There’s no time to lie on the ground and bemoan the existence of mud. I realized this course becomes increasingly technical as it progresses.

Around mile 21, I approached Bob’s Creek, which I had seen in photos because of it’s unique overhanging cable “bridge.” It looked serious in the picture. But in real life I looked at the water and thought “that doesn’t look very deep.” Yeah, the muddy liquid was moving a little quick but I just stepped down into it and walked across, the water never going any deeper than my mid-thigh. I suddenly felt a little cheated, because I was imagining on the bus ride that this thing would have to be deep and fast today. I would surely have to cling to the cables above raging rapids. And if I fell in I would have to swim while being swept downstream for at least 50 yards. Other runners on the bus were even talking it up. If only I could have texted some frowny faces to someone who cared.  

also not my pic and clearly from winter but there's disappointment creek

also not my pic and clearly from winter but there's disappointment creek

Just after I crossed “Disappointment Creek,” another serious climb begins. Real serious. Welcome to the final part of the event: the uphill lunging contest. About ¼ mile up the climb I spotted the runner in first place. Time for the arm warmers to come off (because I wasn’t wearing boxing gloves - this is a running race). And they were just going to slow me down anyway because of their poor aerodynamics. Past experience has taught me that uphill lunging contests are all about aerodynamics.

He caught a glimpse of me and I could tell he was probably more interested in just finishing at that point. Mostly because he said, “I’m just going to move at a snail’s pace” and immediately started screaming “Why me! Why me!” Well you can never really trust these trail runner folk because many of them are actors so I lit the afterburners and lunged my way up that climb at record lunge pace.

My lateral calves began cramping a smidge on the next descent and my left big toe was not happy but lucky for me there was soon an aid station known as “Lost Children” at mile 24 where I guzzled a bottle of miracle pickle juice. Here the race director provided her encouragement because she knew I had worked my way up to the front. Despite less than ideal conditions she was doing a really thoughtful thing by bouncing from one station to the next to encourage us. The volunteers were super encouraging too.

"stairs"

"stairs"

At this point the sun is coming out and it’s suddenly a beautiful day. Too little, too late Mother Nature. Don’t even try to talk to me right now, I have a race to finish. Here begins the final uphill lunging contest challenge of going from 1800 feet to 3100 feet of elevation just so that you end up back at the Blue Knob Ski Lodge to eat a hamburger. Nearer to the top, the trail has a long section of rock stairs placed for your enjoyment. No longer can you define your step length because the steps do it for you. One less thing to worry about. For some reason I began grunting and snarling more than usual during this final piece, perhaps to demonstrate my manly dominance over the puny and weak mountain.

The race director cheated and drove her car up the much shorter and smoothly paved road to the top of the climb but she did greet me at the finish line after 4:15 of running with a sweet custom turkey call so that I can find that darned lost turkey.

Loads of swag

Loads of swag

I'm getting out of here

I'm getting out of here

Results are here.

Nutrition:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 4 bananas
  • 1 bottle pickle juice
  • 4 Gu chews
  • 2 pieces beef jerky
  • 1 Rice Krispies Treat
  • 2 electrolyte tablets

Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Race Report

A couple days have passed and my quads still haven’t let me forget about this race. My quads aren’t normally this sore, but then again I don’t normally have such unusual circumstances leading up to a race.

I started feeling a tad funky on June 11, and I developed a 101-degree fever by the end of the next day. An accumulation of infant-induced sleep loss, disease carrying children, general life stress, recently increased training load, and a lovable personality made me the perfect host for Virus 349XY.

The fever persisted, fluctuating in intensity throughout each day - my intracellular fluids apparently being too tasty and nutritious for Virus 349XY to throw up a white flag. Every time I thought I had won the battle, I’d start to become super fatigued and fevered again.

Did I mention I went to the ER? Because apparently I had also strained a deep abdominal muscle in the weeks prior and just in case there was an off chance I had actually formed a strangulated hernia, I wanted to know prior to an ultramarathon. But there was no hernia and they thought I was crazy. Not sad about that lack of findings.

But it wasn’t good enough to just be sick. That little punk, Virus 349XY, also sucked out my motivation, threw it on the floor, and stepped on it repeatedly with its tiny little virus boots. All 47 of them. Jerk. So I’d stress about all the stuff I should have been getting done while lying on the floor with my squashed motivation.

I certainly wasn’t eating or drinking like I normally would leading up to an event. The one good thing is I would have been tapering and resting anyway. With this increased rest, as each day passed, I could feel myself growing stronger, like the stench on a pair of sweaty socks in the laundry basket, but the week is only so long and the laundry is eventually all washed up.

sunrise at the race start

sunrise at the race start

After reluctantly making the trip south on Friday, we ended up getting to the pre-race dinner a little late. We joined the other racers to help ourselves to a good meal at the Canaan Valley Resort. I still didn’t have a huge appetite. Perhaps it was the (low) altitude. Probably not. I began to prophylactically guzzle Pedialyte and juice. Carbs and electrolytes, you mean everything to me. Please don’t let me bonk.

Off to bed before 9:00 PM under some decent fatigue. Mr. Virus gave his one last war cry by awakening me with a low grade fever again at midnight. We spoke briefly and I told him to get the hell out, I’d had enough of his misguided ways.

Race morning I awoke at 4:15 feeling pretty normal. But I knew there was no point in trying to hammer. Mostly because my wife coach told me so. My goal had to be modified from racing hard to simply completing the event. I’d come to terms with that possibility a couple days prior. Mostly because wife coach told me. Not ideal for something I had been building up to for 6 months but slow running is better than no running, right?

Wife coach wanted to see the start (and to ensure I wasn’t faking “normal”) so I skipped the shuttle bus and we drove down to the starting line at Red Creek. I was less excitable than usual but still just wanted to get moving. One of the race directors remained unwilling to allow me to race under a pseudonym in order to protect my fragile ego. I don’t want to mention any names but thanks Adam. My ultrasignup.com ranking has plummeted and my sponsors won’t return my calls. My lawyer will be in touch.

nobody seems to go slowly the first 2 miles of pavement

nobody seems to go slowly the first 2 miles of pavement

Anyway, I hiked so much more of the first half of the course this year than last. I went way too fast on that section last year. That definitely helped me to feel pretty decent at the mile 20 aid station. Wife coach met me there, I think mostly to grab the ripcord from my pack and provide a de-motivational speech if I would happen to look the least bit like a dying squirrel left by the side of the road. Boy was she surprised. And yet so proud. So proud.

It hadn’t rained much lately so the course was drier overall than last year. I was surprised to be in the top 10 at that point because I was really trying to hold back and many people were passing me.

switchback hidden amongst Stinging nettles

switchback hidden amongst Stinging nettles

more stinging nettles

more stinging nettles

traded nettles and slight climb for ferns and steeper climbing

traded nettles and slight climb for ferns and steeper climbing

trading up to pine trees

trading up to pine trees

topped out and we can see the sky again

topped out and we can see the sky again

Then as I began to run the “Road Across the Sky” there was no doubt that I just didn’t have any of my usual oomph to give. The legs were heavy, the strides were short, and the quads were already sore. Not good that early. But it didn’t come as a surprise, so I didn’t stress too much about it. I just tried to be consistent and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the birds, flowers, trees, and elusive wild pugs that have roamed this region for centuries. I stopped multiple times, which is atypical for me in a race, to take pictures and to listen for the faint snort of a wild pug.

wild pugs should be appreciated from a distance. The WV DNR denied their existence for decades but frequent sightings led to their ultimate acceptance into the local animal identification texts by 1974. The WV DNR suggests that you do not attempt to make contact with a wild pug as they are typically disease carrying scoundrels. 

wild pugs should be appreciated from a distance. The WV DNR denied their existence for decades but frequent sightings led to their ultimate acceptance into the local animal identification texts by 1974. The WV DNR suggests that you do not attempt to make contact with a wild pug as they are typically disease carrying scoundrels. 

pretty high up here

pretty high up here

Road across the sky is about to end

Road across the sky is about to end

Compared to last year, there were better conditions this year while coming across the wide open Bear Rocks segment of the course as the temperature was only in the 70’s and it was partly cloudy. I found Travis Simpson at the next aid station. He wasn’t having a great race either. Claimed he was mostly walking but for some reason I never saw him again after that aid station. A federal Strava investigation using judicious amounts of taxpayer dollars revealed that “walking” at that point must have meant a 8:00/mile pace.

There's a Lot of this

There's a Lot of this

overlooking the canaan valley from Rocky Ridge before descending 

overlooking the canaan valley from Rocky Ridge before descending 

more overlooking

more overlooking

I could not get down that mountain quickly enough. My quads had passed “GO” 10 miles earlier, taken the $100, and spent it on comic books and booze. Worthless. Get a job loser(s). After all I’ve done to/for you!

The final section of road where I was able to give a good push last year seemed to take forever. I reached the final aid station at mile 37.6 a full 10 minutes after my 2016 finish time. And I still had a few miles to go despite my begging and pleading to the aid volunteers. Still, no tears were shed. At least not by me, in public, at that moment. I knew others around me were not having stellar days. Wife coach would want me to continue onward knowing that another race is always on the horizon. I held my chest high and shuffled down Freeland Road as quickly as three fully functioning quadriceps muscle fibers could move a person.

somewhere in canaan

somewhere in canaan

and somewhere else

and somewhere else

An hour slower than last year, I finally arrived to the lovely sights of a finish line. I’m really happy with that, considering the circumstances. It certainly made for another level of challenge. One that I do not need to replicate again.

Thanks for a great event again this year Dan, Adam, and Highlands Sky volunteer army.

This article has been dedicated to the memory of Virus 349XY who passed in the early morning hours in Davis, WV while doing what he loved to do most. He is survived by his cousin, the mutated form 349XZ, currently residing in 127 different humans, mostly ultrarunners, across Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina.

Map: https://www.strava.com/activities/1041547950

Stuff I ate: ½ Gu Stroopwafel, 6 Gu gels, 6 Clif Bloks, couple handfuls Pringles chips, at least 16 oz. cola, 9 oz. ginger ale, 2.5 bananas, 8 dill pickle spears, handful of grapes, several mini Snickers bars, 3 handfuls of watermelon, 2 strawberries, my pride

Stuff I wanted to eat: freeze pops, more pickles, elk burger

Coopers Rock 50K Race Report

This turned out to be a very interesting event this year. After a taste of warmer spring weather for the past couple weeks, Mother  Nature changed her mind and dumped a few inches of snow in the area on Thursday into Friday. With Coopers Rock State Forest being at the higher elevations of around 2000 feet, the snow and colder temperatures stuck around for the race on Saturday.

At race start, the temp was about 29 degrees and the woods had a varying 2-5 inch blanket of snow. I can’t recall  competing in this much snow since the Snowflake Chase 5 Miler in McHenry, MD, some 20 years ago. Last year we had the perfect dry, cool conditions. I guess you never know what spring will bring around here from one year to the next.

The 50K course begins with a 1.5 mile road section and a simultaneous half-marathon start, which does cause a slight confusion for placement estimation. Fellow 50K runner Travis Simpson started off harder and faster than I typically ever do, even if it were a marathon. But that’s just his style.

As a result, I exited the pavement as the second 50K’er and wondered how big of a gap I would have to close for that first position. It certainly took a while. I finally saw Travis pop up just before the 6-mile point as we entered the Mont Chateau trail, where the half marathoners split off, but it took me until mile 7.6 to catch and pass him at the bottom of that trail. Here, next to Cheat Lake at 650-700 feet of elevation, there wasn’t a bit of snow.

Warmer

Warmer

The lake happens to be the turnaround point of a short out and back where we began a 1300 foot climb back to the top of the state forest. It didn’t take long while climbing back up this overlapping portion to pass the 3rd through 7th place 50K runners. There must have been good technical runners in that group. Travis finally didn’t seem too interested in pushing at this point so a gap formed between us, although it shrunk back down as we approached Rock City.

We ran Rock City together and then I separated from him again as we hit the Underlook Trail (a challenging world of boulders, this time covered in snow!) It is on this trail that you have to hike and climb quickly on large rocks that are surrounded by other, even larger rocks. All are gradually breaking away from the cliffside every couple hundred years. Rhododendron abound and provide a saving handle sometimes. The footing was so uncertain that you have to constantly watch where your feet are landing. At one point this focus caught up to me because my peripheral vision was also slightly inhibited by the brim of my cap and I managed to ram my left shoulder straight into one of the boulders at full fast hiking speed. Ouch. Five minutes later I cracked my right knee off of a boulder. More ouch.

Underlook Trail

Underlook Trail

I entered Aid Station 2 at mile 10 feeling pretty well despite playing geology tackle. Following this portion, we do another out and back to the Raven Rock overlook. That design quickly lets you know the gap to the next competitor - and it wasn’t far. Maybe 60-90 seconds. I tried my best to remain steady on that section and approaching the McCollum Campground as it was still too early to push the pace.

Raven Rock

Raven Rock

Please don't pass me

Please don't pass me

Then we hit Aid Station 3. I checked my watch and noted that my time was basically on par with my time from last year. This was a bit of a problem considering the course was perfectly dry last year and this year it was a muddy, slick, snowy mess. Somehow I was still climbing well.

I headed out to the Powerline trail off Clay Run. As I reached the top of that mile-long climb I could still see Travis trailing me by a similar time gap. Isn’t he getting tired yet? But I knew we had had similar performances in 50Ks in the last couple years.

Ever instruct a dizzy runner?

Ever instruct a dizzy runner?

Returning back to the same aid station again, I began the not so fun trip on the Roadside Trail toward the front entrance of the state forest. It reminded me of running on horse trails. The many giant footprint divots in the snow had melted partially yesterday and must have frozen again overnight, creating some nasty, unsure footing.

In some ways I was happy to arrive at the paved Henry Clay iron furnace roadway to get off of that trail. I tried to eat the banana I was carrying but it had frozen nearly solid so that didn’t quite work as planned. Unfortunately, midway down the road Travis came barreling by me. I might have tried to hang on if this was a 5K, but it wasn’t, so I watched him gradually drift to a quarter-mile lead.

It was at this point that I *slightly* regretted helping Travis with his hamstring strain injury earlier this week with dry needling in my clinic. Next time Travis, I may use more of a “sham” treatment technique if we are going to be in the same race that week. I’m kidding, of course.

When we hit the Advanced Ski Trail I started to reel him back in again. We chatted a little and then I separated from him again down the Intermediate Ski Trail. Making it to the next aid station at the frontmost parking area, Travis came in just 20-30 seconds behind me. I was starting to feel like crap and I don’t think he was feeling great either. We coasted along the new swampland known as Scott Run trail. My quads were clearly unsure of their function. Travis surged on me again, I fell back about 5 seconds but then caught him once again up the final technical climb.

Having seen his stellar road running abilities, I knew I was in trouble with the design of the final portion of this course. Travis threw another surge as we exited the final aid station and entered Roadside Trail again. He has too much raw power for me to counter on those flats! I tried to stay strong, but without any more climbs or technical sections, my ability to catch him again became substantially inhibited.

He would end up taking the first spot while I came in a short distance back. He executed that final part very well. Over the entire event we were never really more than two minutes apart from each other. Third place, Aaron Horrell, didn’t take too long afterward to come across the finish line either. Three of us coming in well under 5 hours in those slick conditions was quite surprising. And as much as I would like to have won, I was really happy to see an individual that I helped with a new injury overcome the odds and run to their fullest potential.

Would be a sweet view if these guys would move

Would be a sweet view if these guys would move

Looks like there were 40 total finishers in the 50K, although I’m pretty sure we started with closer to 50. It was definitely a day to test limits.

This is the second year for the event, and I thought the course markings were even better than last year’s, though I am a little biased for having known the course already. This year for entering we received “A Guide to Coopers Rock State Forest” along with the SweatVac brand synthetic shirts, which run a little on the large side. Last year we had the same shirts but received a durable map of the forest lands. Unique swag.

I definitely must thank the volunteers who braved the cold for hours to come out to help with this event. It’s not comfortable and not easy to stay warm when you can’t move around much. We all appreciate the ability to get food and drink in at the aid stations.

Here are the results on the Coopers Rock Foundation site. 

Favorite Statistics:

  • Average power: 228 watts
  • Average pace: 8:57/mile
  • Elevation gain: 4967 feet
  • Amount of time climbing: 2:15:05

Strava link

Strava Flyby Player 

Nutritional intake:

  • Breakfast - egg and bacon on english muffin and coffee, trail mix, frequently sipping water all morning
  • Thirty minutes prior to start - one banana
  • In race - 5 Gu gels, 1 Gu stroopwafel, ½ banana, ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich, 2 pickle spears, 2 pieces boiled potato with salt, 1 cookie, about 40 oz. water, about 8 oz. Coke/Dr. Pepper sodas

Please share this article with your running friends! To receive updates as each blog comes out, complete the form below. And if you have any questions, please email me at derek@mountainridgept.com.

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Canary in the Cave 25K Race Report

I’ve wanted to travel down to Fayetteville, WV for the Canary in the Cave 25k for the last couple years, but I just hadn’t made it a priority. Being a WV Mountain Trail Runners event, it automatically had potential to be a quality event. Little did I realize what I had been missing. It is now in my top three all-time races.

The weekend weather lately has been superb for running. This time around it was sunny with a cloudless sky and about 30*. Entry to this event was small at 108 pre-registrants and just 79 finishers. I imagine that would increase if people knew exactly what fun these trails are and the stellar views they could find along the way.

The majority of the trails are wooded singletrack. This time of year it can be hard to tell exactly where a path is under all of those leaves, so you have to be vigilant to stay on the course at times. That’s where it is nice to be near someone from the area and just let them lead. I did inadvertently go off course briefly twice, even though it was generally very well marked.

The terrain was rolling, up until mile 9. Early on, the Fayetteville Trail leads into the Boy Scout Camp Arrowhead trails. Those trails are actually designed for mountain biking but are really awesome to run. Off-camber surfaces are minimized because the trails have been cut into the sides of the hills. Even with all of the leaves, I realized that the trails were primarily packed dirt with minimal roots and rocks.

It’s very twisty, which I love. It brings the pace down a little but is so much more distracting than a straight line. Any short descent is quickly matched with a little rolling uphill. They have produced a rollercoaster-like feel with the quick ups and downs. Even more like a coaster would be the brief sense of weightlessness while launching off the small dirt mounds.

During the early Arrowhead trails, perhaps around mile 4, another runner started nipping at my heels. I would throw various surges to get a feel for where he might drop off. It seemed like the descents and more technical sections weren’t his forte. He wasn’t going anywhere on the climbs though.

Coming off the Camp Arrowhead trails we descended on a fantastic old dirt and gravel access road that has been carved into the steep pitch of the New River Gorge. I will not forget this part, from miles 10 to 13.  You could seriously fly on the upper part. The sun hadn’t hit in here yet so it was very chilly. I took in a couple glimpses of the gorge at this time but couldn’t stare too long as there were definitely loose, washed-out areas. It’s the kind of old forest road that most people would be really nervous to drive on. To your left is a very steep drop off, older growth trees, and otherwise nothing to stop you from rolling hundreds of yards down into the ravine. To your right are absolutely humongous gray sandstone boulders, bigger than semi-trucks.

I used the early steepest part of the gorge descent to put a gap between me and my chaser. But, despite my efforts, he caught back on when the decline below became more shallow.

Having never done the event, I didn’t realize the intensity of the final climb and just out of bad timing I started to eat a gel as we rounded the turn to the Kaymoor mine where I knew we would begin to ascend. Crap.

I was disappointed to see the end of the descent, not only because my mouth was full of gel, but because I wanted to get even closer to the railroad tracks and the New River that I had just viewed from 500 feet higher up the mountainside. The river is still another 500 feet lower than the turn. The race director informed me the original race course did descend further but mud slides haven’t been kind to the lower portion of the Kaymoor Trail.

One-third of the way up what is known as the Kaymoor Miners Trail, the person who had been pushing me for the last 9 miles began to absolutely crush the quick and steep upward scramble. I quickly realized this was a high schooler. Not again! A repeat of last weekend. We climbed multiple flights of wooden and rock stairs while trying to get up this 0.4 mile-long beast. It was hands on knees hiking for much of it and occasionally hands on rocks and trees for stability. Thank goodness it wasn’t any longer.

I had red-lined so hard that I struggled to recover and regain the previous pace at the top. The final portion was a revisit of the first three miles of the course, now in the opposite direction. It hurt much more now though. Boy was I happy to see the “1 mile to the finish” sign. I couldn’t even see the high schooler anymore as he maintained pace very well.

Despite being a youngin’ in the trail running world, Jacob Birurakis ran this course like a seasoned veteran. He was the runner-up at the WV XC State Championship for AAA this year, which might explain his ability to go pretty darn hard up a climb. Nathan Bonham led from the start and destroyed the previous course record, completing the course in under two hours.

I ended up with 15.6 miles on my Garmin with 2014 feet of climbing. Others had as much as 17 miles on their devices. The director reported the course is around 16.5 miles. It’s a strange sensation but I felt like I descended much more than I climbed. Nobody is going to complain about that. My only complaint is that this isn’t a 50K where we could have done two laps of that beautiful course!

Participants received a multifunctional headwear/neckwear/wristwear item and some unforgettable views. Proceeds benefitted the local 4-H group and the WVMTR.

 

Results: http://www.wvmtr.org/events/canary-in-the-cave-25k-2/canary-in-the-cave-2016-results/

 

Dirt Monster 5 Mile Trail Run Race Report

Another weekend, another race. Glad I registered for this one. As the year is coming to a close and the weather becomes frequently less enjoyable, I was lucky to have a race weekend where there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.

My friend Kellyn and I arrived just a little later than I would prefer, about 35 minutes before the start. The Google maps application and I were not getting along.

The entire park was covered in heavy frost. It was a little cold out, around 39*, but using the add 20* rule resulted in a temperature of 59*, which means it’s still shorts weather. Plus the sunshine made it seem a little warmer.

After standing in the packet pickup line for 10 minutes shivering I knew I wouldn’t have much time for warming up. And I knew I would want a good warmup because the start of the course, according to the elevation profile, was an upward pitch for a couple hundred yards with a short descent immediately followed by a 0.5-mile climb.

Anyone who is doing a shorter event and planning to go hard should run at their race pace for at least a couple total minutes in their warm up. If exposed to a hard effort beforehand, your body will know better what to do with the byproducts of anaerobic effort during the race. Anyone who has ever pushed hard knows that feeling of shock accompanying the first hard effort, especially if you didn’t ease into it. You don’t want that feeling in the race if you can move it to the warm up.

I did manage to get in a mile of slow running but I never quite got to my typical fast and hard part of the warm up. Some warm up is better than none!

Before I knew it, we were off and into the woods. I suspected the trails would be more tame, and they were. The first five positions were largely decided in the first mile of the race thanks to all of the climbing. Question being, what order would we come in? First place, Matt Lipsey, had taken off fast to the point that I had lost sight of him before completing the first mile. Hey Matt, I just did a 50K two weeks ago. Can’t you have some pity? Yeah, right.

So I’m back battling it out with high schooler Dalton Kalbaugh and 20-something Mike Tait. I hadn’t gone this anaerobic since September but I felt like I was climbing better than they were. The youngin’ would drift away from me for short periods and then I would climb back to him. Old man climbing base I call it. Took the Strava Goat Path course record as a result. Perhaps my greatest victory of the day.

The course was awesome. Wish I had known it in advance. Sun shining, leaves falling, absolutely tons of volunteers, and plenty of course markings. It was not usually very technical  but the wet leaves would add an extra slippery element. Most of the course was 3-foot wide plain dirt trail and gravel service road. We hit a couple narrow, rooty, and rocky sections that I loved. I wanted more of that, especially uphill.

Little did I consider that the high schooler could descend like, well, a high schooler. I should have guessed. The final half mile of the course averages an elevation loss and I’m too old and scared to descend trails super fast anymore. Oh well. Save the knee menisci for another day of battling for a win. My ego took a gut punch 4 miles ago. It turned out to be a great training day.

The post-race gathering was well attended. Still chilly, the chili and fixins were a welcome find. Somebody brought a tiny keg of a homebrew and about five craft brews. Everybody received long-sleeved poly shirts with their registration. I don’t think any race can do better than this for $20. Proceeds went to the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation of Western Pennsylvania.

Results: http://smileymiles.com/2016/RES16%20DIRT%20MONSTER%205%20MILE%20TRAIL%20OA.htm

Patapsco Valley 50K Race Report

As the weather cools off each year, my desire for a longer trail event grows. It’s a remnant of running cross country every fall. The Patapsco Valley 50K provided a perfect opportunity to race on new trails and enjoy some nice fall scenery. Although I favor more technical trails and longer climbs, the timing and location was hard to beat.

We arrived to the venue at Patapsco Valley State Park near Baltimore, MD a little prematurely, at 5:30 a.m. Although the prime parking spot did make the walk from the finish line to the car afterward much shorter. Packets included a sweet long-sleeve Brooks shirt and a toboggan. For those of unfamiliar with that term, it’s a winter beanie hat.

The wind was picking up as daylight approached. Although it was around 50 degrees, the wind made it so much more chilly. The start was at 7:00, slightly before sunrise, so we all began with headlamps. It was a novel touch but perhaps a little silly because the lights were no longer necessary within 25 minutes of the start.

I could tell from the elevation profiles and old race reports that the course began with a climb. What I didn't expect is how steep it was, which skyrocketed my effort way too early. My plan was to stay near the front, but I couldn't believe how hard these guys were going in the first mile. Especially for this climb being loose rock that was also covered in leaves.

The trails at the top of the climb were smooth but so leaf covered that I lost the path a couple times since the daylight hadn’t shown up yet. The thick cloud cover wasn’t helping.

As the first three to four miles passed, I tried, half-heartedly, to back off a bit, but it still wasn't slow enough to recover and it wasn’t fast enough to stay higher in the rankings. That intensity might have been fine for a mile or two, but the guys showing up this year were clearly maintaining a pace faster than the average in the prior two years. It was around this time that I somehow stopped my GPS recording for a couple minutes. Data lost to the wind. 

After working my way into a small group with two others, we stayed within view of each other for at least 10 miles. At one point we crossed a small field as the rain spit and a huge gust of wind blew a large, 4-inch diameter, 8-foot long tree branch down to the ground just five yards to my left. Up until that point I had been distracted from the danger of the winds. Adrenaline spike.

Nonetheless, I pushed on, because at that point we are in the middle of the woods and there are no other options. It was strange how much the trail conditions would fluctuate. You could go one or two miles on twisty, super smooth singletrack and then be suddenly bombarded with nasty rock-strewn river edges and crossings for a half-mile. Despite a little recent rain, the trails were largely dry.

My favorite section of the course was along what I assume was the Patapsco River. Perhaps it was the Ilchester Trail, but I am not certain. It was bizarre. It was as if someone had taken a paved, single lane road along the river, flooded it, rolled in a bunch of boulders, threw in a couple mud slides, and cut several trees down across it. The edge dropped straight off into the river yet there was pavement here at one time. Kind of post-apocalyptic.

I felt like I was flying through the technical sections after mile 10 until I rolled my left ankle a bit. Not quite as bad as in my recent trail 10k but I definitely had to hold back for a couple minutes.

And to make things worse, I began to have occasional calf cramps around mile 13. The crazy speed up until this point was way too fast for me and started to cause negative effects even sooner than I would have hoped. I particularly use the balls of my feet on the technical areas so my calves were getting hammered. With two guys behind me, my first thought was “don't change your technique or they will know something is wrong.”

The cramps would improve for 20-30 minutes right after a little pickle juice that I had packed but I eventually ran out by mile 22. No surprise the two guys passed me around that time, the three-hour mark. That and I was prematurely getting a bit of bonky tunnel vision. Again, the result of starting too hard in the first 10 miles.

It also didn’t help that I inadvertently blew right past the mile 20 aid station, not realizing it was grouped together with the drop bags at the start/finish area.

After climbing the initial climb yet again, all I could think about was cola. I knew it could save me. I wanted nothing more than cola for about 5-6 miles. We had run this same section in the dark and early daylight so it seemed familiar, but I actually think that made it worse. The problem was that I was no longer running 7:45-8:30 pace, instead it was a 10:00-11:00 pace. This makes the miles go by much slower. Math can shove it.

At a lonely water cooler in the woods around mile 24, I tried to take a few swigs, only to squirt water up my nose and cause a cycle of coughing that ultimately cramped my pelvic floor muscles. Who cramps their pelvic floor muscles? Apparently I have not done enough kegels lately. I have never experienced this before, nor would I like to experience it again. So if you are going to drink fluid in a long run, don’t get it up your nose.

The aid station around mile 27 came about 45 minutes later than I had hoped, but three cups of cola and two ginger ales helped tremendously to resolve the bonk once I arrived. I don’t recommend running in a state of bonk for 5 miles. I had been trying to eat energy chews but the temperatures were so cold that they were like gnawing on cold taffy and I had run out of water. Also, that is not recommended, but on the bright side my stomach felt great because I was hydrated.

I ended up walking more than I would have ever planned. Of course my body had to throw out another weird cramp of my outer lower leg muscles before we could call it a day. This time it was my extensor hallucis longus and peroneus longus muscles. So my right foot wanted to twist outward and my big toe wouldn’t come down. Can I just take a nap or something? Much to my disappointment, the leg muscles were not trustworthy enough to bomb the final miles of the course despite the overall elevation loss.

All of this foolishness was obviously happening because of the early hard pushing. I was prepared to run in the 4:20 range but who would have ever guessed that the winning time (3:57) this year was going to be over 32 minutes faster than last year! There is no doubt that by chasing for so long I buried myself further than I have in a long time. Therein lies the problem of trying to keep up with these young guns that train an extra 30-40 miles more per week than I do!

On a good day (running smarter) this course has the potential to be a very fast 50K. The only silver-lining was that I did have a 50K PR by 5 minutes. I muffled my whimpering at the finish line with a nice bowl of warm chili and a Poor Righteous IPA from local brewery Jailbreak. Happy I didn’t knock out yet another tooth like I heard one of the other runners did.

Overall, I would definitely recommend the race to any mid-Atlantic region trail and ultra runner. Part of Blair Witch Project was filmed at the park, which makes it automatically creepy, yet perfect for your Halloween time. Perhaps I will check it out again in another year or two to go after a faster 50K PR.


 

Morgantown Half-Marathon Race Report

Just finished up the Morgantown Half-Marathon this morning. Last year I ran the marathon at this event, but in an effort to save my legs for a longer October trail running event, I opted for the half-marathon this time around.

The entire event, which raises money for Operation Welcome Home, kicks off with an 8K on Saturday that shares some of the same roads as the Half-Marathon and Marathon, which are on Sunday. I opted to use the 8K as a warm-up run and pace a couple other local runners since it’s part of our local Morgantown Area Grand Prix running race series.

We had an earlier start (7:00) for the half than the prior day’s 8K (8:00), but it didn’t feel like much difference. It had rained during the night and remained humid and overcast. I wasn’t sad at that point for being in the half instead of the full. Plus, my legs felt like they were filled with lead at the start line despite a solid warm-up. 

The start line announcements were brief, which is nice to keep everyone from becoming more anxious. Of course, all the events must start with a couple “LET’S GO MOUNTAINEERS” chants. It’s the perfect way to get those sleepyheads roused.

Stride for stride

Stride for stride

The 8K and half-marathon courses are about as flat and rolling as you can achieve in Morgantown without going onto the rail trail. So glad we don’t do that because it would be crowded and boring. This makes the courses challenging but quite achievable, even for those folks who primarily train on flat terrain. Total elevation gain in the half is 745 feet. The marathon course has a bit more climbing at 1775 feet of gain.

All courses start out on a quick mile with a little elevation drop on a four-lane road (yay, we get our own lane!) But that sense of ease from going downhill seems to encourage a few folks to go a little too fast off the front. Not the best course to start out too hard because THERE WILL BE CLIMBING, though it will be distributed nicely.

No big hills. They are just frequent. 

No big hills. They are just frequent. 

The course design lends itself well to distraction. For one, the rolling aspect forces you to mix up your technique, pace, and effort frequently. Practice your hill intervals until you say “oh, I didn’t even notice there was a hill there.”

A majority of the course lies inside of a couple nice neighborhoods near the WVU Coliseum. That allows many of the residents to wander groggily a few feet out of their homes to offer support. I was surprised at the number of random spectators along this course and so many were willing to offer encouragement. Pretty awesome to have that consistently throughout.

Another great thing: community supported unofficial aid stations. I remember a few of these on the marathon course last year. Nothing like a bunch of little kids having a great time handing out Swedish Fish and gummy bears. The high humidity made it even more critical to take on water so these stations were very welcome. Thank you!

Almost home

Almost home

The course is a circuitous version an out-and-back with a lollipop loop at the midpoint. The support from other racers on my way back to the Coliseum was perhaps the best I’ve ever encountered in a road race. I tried to wave at several runners as a thank you because speaking clearly wasn’t much of an option as I tried to focus on negative splits. I began my build just a little too late, though, and ended stuck in no-man's land, running alone until the finish line.

With cash prizes in the half this year I expected that a couple of really fast runners would show up. And that was exactly the case. The top three guys were all under the 1:16:00 mark. I won’t be running that fast anytime soon!

I found the course length to be spot on to my GPS value at completion, which almost never happens for me. Plenty of well-earned Panera Bread bagels and pizza were waiting at the finish along with a post-race IPA.

My Strava file

Results for the half and marathon

Coopers Rock Stump Jump 10K Trail Race Report and 6 Trail Running Tips

This Labor Day weekend I was looking forward to a little trail time at Coopers Rock State Forest. Last year I didn’t have a great performance at this race, ultimately blowing up in the last mile. For such a small event (61 racers this year), the fellow competition can be pretty stiff. I just remember it hurt more than the average 10K. In 2015, my speedy high school cross country running neighbor exclaimed “that’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done” afterward.

No doubt, the course is difficult, primarily because of the elevation changes. At nearly 800 feet of gain, no one is going to set a new 10K PR. Additionally, the easiest section, Roadside Trail, is along the first mile and then it becomes more technical from that point.

Tough elevation profile

Tough elevation profile

I expected that the switch to an early morning race time (9:00 a.m.) from last year’s afternoon time would be beneficial for performance. And it was. Sweat volumes were down 43% (exact figure gathered in a very scientific manner). The weather for running is fantastic in the forest now that September has rolled around and the humidity is dropping a bit. Fall can be the best time to run. Go outside!

Through my typical warm-up running I couldn’t seem to make my legs feel very powerful. This is entirely my fault for pushing them a little too hard earlier this week with weight training. They were not recovered and the soreness made that obvious. Not an “A” race but a slight bummer, nonetheless.

After the start, it didn’t take long for one racer to go hard off the front. Since he looked young, I opted to let him go alone at that quick pace, hoping he would explode on the brutal climb at mile 4 known as “The Wall” or “Vomit.”

I lost sight of him by mile 1 and promptly rolled my left ankle off the side of a small rock. It popped and hurt a little but wasn’t the worst roll ever, so I kept running. Maintaining a higher turnover cadence minimized the damage, thank goodness. Yes, I hurt myself on the easiest section of the course.

Tip #1: Look at the exact spot where you want your feet to land. Don’t look at anything you don’t want to touch. If you look directly at that slippery root or rock, you are probably going to step on it. That can be both good or bad. Set your gaze just beyond the bigger obstacles.

My splits were more consistent this year than last because I conserved in the first mile, so I tried to focus on an even effort now that I was alone in no man’s land. The legs were just not getting it done and never did come to life.

The descent that begins after mile 2 is lengthy, as it lasts until mile 4. It’s not super technical but it is long enough that it will take a toll on the leg muscles. But it is fun and there are a couple of logs and streams to hop. Think I jumped a stump in there too.

Tip #2: A course like this does not lend itself to obtaining even mile splits. You have to be good at reading your effort level or learn how to use a heart rate monitor to control your effort. With technical trails, you are likely to run at least 1-1.5 minutes slower per mile than a road 10K. And that’s just on the flatter or rolling sections. Hill climb miles will take an extra 2-3 minutes per mile, if not more.

At mile 4 the real climbing begins. Now that the descent has deadened your quads and so many miles have passed, we head up The Wall, where I always remember being unable to ride on a mountain bike as a teenager. That’s because it’s between 15 and 20% grade for the first tenth of a mile. But the whole climb is nearly a quarter of a mile long.

Tip #3: Nearly everyone walks on the steepest climbs of trail running. Anytime you choose to walk, walk with a dedicated, driven purpose. The walking is still going to allow a little recovery from running, even if you push your pace. So many folks hunch over, give up, and can’t even take a deep breath when they decide to walk.

There’s a moment of rest to be had while descending Rhododendron Trail, but it’s short-lived as the final 1.5 miles of the course account for at least 400 feet of the course’s elevation gain. This is where I was really suffering last year. I had conserved better this year and could actually push the effort a little bit.

Tip #4: Save a little something extra for a course that is known to have a large climb near the finish. You will always be more tired at that point than you think you should be.

Tip #5: Wait, you didn’t know there was a climb at the finish? Doing a little research can go a long way. Just ask around the group. Someone will be familiar with the area and course. I knew there was a long climb last year but I didn’t realize it would be so persistent and unforgiving.

About a half-mile from the finish the course drops into an awesome area known as Rock City where sandstone boulders are a gigantic 20-30 feet tall and large enough to contain a trail network. It’s a favorite for runners and hikers, as well as the average passerby.

A couple greenbriar snags later, at the finish, I was thrilled to cut a big chunk of time off of my attempt from last year. I would have been more happy to run this as a 20K since my old man legs haven’t done any speedwork lately.

Standing at the finish line, I saw many racers completing the event with blood on their legs, on their arms, and even on their faces. These trails are no joke.

Tip #6: You can catch a toe on anything that sticks up in the trail, at any time. Many accidents happen when you tire a little, let your guard down, and aren’t picking up your feet as high. But even with excellent vigilance and balance, falls are common to trail running.

Big thank you to Mark and Eleanore Jones who always do such a great job of directing these endurance events at Coopers Rock. As runners themselves, they get it done right. What a great way to support the Coopers Rock Foundation.

The 2016 results are over on iplayoutside.com at http://iplayoutside.com/Events/2016/09/16190r.html

The 2015 results are at http://www.webscorer.com/race?raceid=50270

Ragnar Trail Appalachians Relay Report

This weekend, I had the pleasure of participating in the local Ragnar Appalachians trail running relay. It was only a few days ago that I even planned to attend when my friend Kellyn asked me if I would be interested in running as part of an eight-person team representing Team RWB across the mid-Atlantic region. Being a trail running nerd, it doesn’t take much peer pressure for me to consider entering a trail event.

Nearby Big Bear Lake Campground in Hazelton, WV had hosted this event for the last couple years so I knew a little about the format. I had no prior expectations to attend, however, because the minimum team size is four people. I always expected that a team would need to consist of hardcore trail lovers, who are a little tougher to come by. Or maybe I would consider it one day if they added a duo or solo category.

Camperville

Camperville

Nonetheless, I gave in to the siren’s call of the trails, over-packed my camping and running gear, bought a bunch of salty snacks, and headed out Friday morning. We carpooled, which is encouraged because of the limited on-site parking.

The well-organized and spacious camping area was along the airstrip at Big Bear Lake. This was also the site where all three loops of the course started and finished. Loops were identified by the colors red, green, and yellow; each with their own distances. According to the ideal eight person format, every team member was expected to run a loop of each color, which would equal 24 total loops completed and 14.6 miles per person. The “ultra” teams of four people run more.

There was not a specific start time. Teams were started in a staggered format, every half-hour beginning in the late morning. Some teams didn’t start until the late afternoon. This concept was a first for me as any relay or overnight event that I’ve attended used a mass start, which is more intense. I can see where this would appeal to a more novice runner because there is far less stress without a hundred people bumping elbows at once trying to enter a narrowed piece of singletrack trail.

Log hopping dude

Log hopping dude

Quickly after arriving I realized that many of the people doing this event are not traditional trail runners. Actually, I can’t recall this much participant diversity in any other event since starting my endurance sport journey over 22 years ago. If there was ever an event for the “everyman,” this must be it. For now.

I had the impression that most teams contained a couple people that weren’t necessarily training to run but were usually active. There were recreational road runners that had never run trails before, serious road and trail runners, triathletes, and obstacle course racers. Some wore costumes. One guy ran in nothing more than a Maryland flag speedo. Eclectic bunch, wouldn’t you say? Sorry I didn’t get the speedo pics you wanted. Better that way, trust me.

Easy

Easy

The humidity was high on Friday, especially with fresh rainfall that morning. At least one of the beauties of the woods is that the tree canopy will keep the temperatures a touch lower. A touch. Like five degrees. But the ravines tend to hold humidity and lack wind so you are still going to sweat plenty here in August. So do your darndest to hydrate consistently. Running at a decent clip will keep you a little cooler but if there’s hiking involved, then you tend to feel hotter.

About two hours after our first runner started, we learned that we would have only seven total racers as the eighth person wasn’t willing to make the trip. Some other teams had this issue, too. It’s hard to get eight reliable and solid commitments. It didn’t take much convincing for me to pick up an extra lap on the course to cover a portion of their mileage. As a result, I combined a “red” loop and “green” loop back-to-back in the heat of the day.

Easy singletrack

Easy singletrack

Now, about the trails. Being from the area, I’ve mountain biked and run these trails for many years. They are absolutely great and I wish I lived closer to them. If you live in a flatter area, then the climbs are going to be challenging, no doubt. If you compare it to the other nearby trail areas, such as Coopers Rock State Forest, the climbs actually seem easier because they are shorter, more gradual, and less rocky. These trails definitely have roots, logs, and rocks. So if your definition of a trail is a rail trail or service road, prepare to have your mind blown. Most are narrow singletrack, which people either love or hate.

Yes. That's a trail. 

Yes. That's a trail. 

To a beginner, there will be brief times that the technical features will require you to walk, perhaps rating it a 5/5 difficulty at those moments. Otherwise, I’m sure many beginners could consider the courses a 3/5 or 4/5 in difficulty overall. An experienced trail runner can run nearly 100% of these trails and would think of them as a 2/5 or 3/5 most of the time. They always seem more technical to me on a mountain bike than while running.

In a single loop, none of the climbs absolutely require walking but as multiple loop fatigue sets in by midnight, just about everyone is going to walk a section now and then, especially in the darkness. The smaller rocks started to have a mud coating, making it harder to recognize the prominences, day or night.

The plan

The plan

As much as I wanted to run super hard, I tended to hold back at times. There really wasn’t a method to assess where your team was “placing” as the event went on. Clearly, competition, as I know it, is de-emphasized. A slight bummer for my uber-competitive self but I knew that was coming at the outset and just wanted to trail run.

I was really looking forward to the night running because I don’t get to do that as much as I would like on these real trails. Unfortunately, I was still a bit dehydrated from my earlier two hot loops and had to fend off some mild stomach cramping during that loop. The spinning, lit disco ball in the pines trail section was a nice touch. I heard a lot of people stopped there for a while and hung out.

The Pines

The Pines

I would encourage runners to bring the brightest headlamps that they can find for the night portion. It is safer, especially for a beginner. I use a Petzl Nao and never wished for more light but had several comments from the dim light carriers on how bright it was. And always carry a second light source.

After finishing the night loop, I took a 1:30 AM garden hose shower that felt much colder than the one I had earlier, when it was 85 degrees. A brief snack and then I was off to snooze for about four hours in “Hotel Cassell,” the biggest tent east of the Mississippi River.

Hotel Cassell

Hotel Cassell

The random disco ball is just one of the indications of a festival vibe. Many camp areas looked like Pinterest exploded as night began to fall. Glow in the dark, Christmas lights, and flags were common. After all, you need a decorative theme when you have team names like Bros and Bras, Pour Life Decisions, Team Sloth, and Compassionate Strangers.

It was great how all three of the courses came together in the final 1/4 mile on a gravel road where several of the participants were camping. There was a ton of encouragement from those fellow runners every time I came through.

I really appreciated that this was a family-friendly event even though I didn’t bring my family. The music was turned down as darkness fell - in case you needed to get some sleep. Nobody was annoyingly drunk. There weren’t any crazy, obnoxious people vying for attention and I’m pretty sensitive to that sort of behavior.

Pinterest balloons

Pinterest balloons

The format of the event is intriguing and presents an extra challenge if you are accustomed to single run events. It’s about dosing your efforts appropriately. Which also relates back to hydration and nutrition. Lots of people can run their first loop without excess stress. Add in the fatigue from a lap or two with darkness and then you have more of a challenge for most everyone.

I especially liked the fact that the relay runs from Friday into Saturday. That way there’s time to recover on Sunday before returning to the daily grind where your coworkers will continue to wonder what the heck is mentally wrong with you.

One thing I noticed was the point on Saturday morning when many of the participants seemed to identify with the total experience of the event. There suddenly becomes a sense of community once a little struggling begins. You begin to sympathize with the other runners that rolled an ankle, fell down, bonked, or survived the night’s lack of sleep.

This is always a hard task for any company or product, but getting people to feel a sense of unity can be very powerful. I would say that Ragnar accomplishes this and follows in the footsteps of businesses like Ironman. Impressive for a relatively new organizer. I don’t think it coincidental that the amount of Ragnar branded clothing floating around suddenly increased the next morning.

The finisher medals are pretty cool in that they link together to form a message but individually they each function as a multitool. Better in theory than in practicality but hang it on your fridge and have a conversation piece that most finisher medals don’t offer.  

If you don’t like trails, the Ragnar folks also organize a road relay version of their events that require driving and unfortunately, roads. Gross. Trails and camping in one spot are where it’s at, people.

Overall, I accomplished big things this weekend at the Ragnar relay:

  • Ate over one-half jar of Nutella.
  • Ran about 20 miles on very awesome east coast trails.
  • Moderate soreness in really weird places.
  • Slight nipple chaffing.

Do you have what it takes?

Team RWB Mid-Atlantic

Team RWB Mid-Atlantic

Medal test

Medal test

Kanawha Trace 25K Race Report

Earlier this week, I was struggling to decide what race to do this weekend. There were several quality trail running events in the area, including: Lost Turkey Trail 50K and 50 Miler, Appalachian Front Trail 50K, Run with the Deer Flies 25K, and this race, the Kanawha Trace 50K, 25K, and 10K.

My wife and I argued throughout the week on how to appropriately pronounce “Kanawha” because she claims the “wh” is silent and I refuse to admit this is possible. What do you think? If you think the “wh” is silent then I don’t want to hear from you. Otherwise, please get in touch.

On Friday, I finally committed to entering the 25K at the Kanawha Trace. I knew I wouldn’t be able to push a 50K and be happy with the result. In the end, I’m glad that I decided to do the 25K. For a while now I’ve wanted to get into one of the southern WV trail races that WV Mountain Trail Runners has a hand in, so I was expecting a well-run event.

I wasn’t interested in staying overnight nearby so the 9:30 start time of the 25K allowed me to drive in on the same day. The 50K group had already started at 7:30. Packet pick-up was at the Arrowhead Boy Scout Camp. Even having signed up late the night before, the crew had my packet prepped. They’re on the ball. The race shirts were great quality and a nice shade of royal blue. No weird colors here!

The logistics were a little confusing, since I’m not from the area, in that there was a shuttle bus ride to the official start line about 4 miles down the road from the camp, so you still need to account for that extra time required. And mentally prepare yourself for a slightly muggy school bus ride. Being late July in these Appalachian hills, thunderstorms and humidity rule.

The start is in a residential area of Barboursville, WV and requires just over one mile of paved road running before getting to the real trails. When I finally arrived at those trails, I received a big punch in the face. The course immediately begins climbing over 300 feet in about three-fourths of a mile. The hillsides are steep in that region and require frequent switchbacks to the keep the task even somewhat reasonable.

Having started with the 10K runners, I had to make it a point to run my own controlled race and not get caught up in competing with the high school boys doing less than half of my distance. Even still, I watched several of them fade back to me in the first three miles because there is just so much climbing early on. And they probably aren’t accustomed to racing distances beyond their 5K cross country meets. I remember those days. The days before I was old and #dadstrong.

It was much easier to keep track of the people in each event because of the varied race number colors. The 10K folks had yellow while the 25K’ers had orange. The 50K racers had white numbers but the only time I encountered them they were heading the opposite direction from me. These colors coincided with the flagging and signs used along the course, minimizing possible confusion. Smart.

Apparently it had rained the night prior because much of the course was wet. At the bottom of one early descent, I watched a 10K racer bite it right in front of me when he stepped onto a chunk of wet, filmy sandstone. I nearly stepped on him. He didn’t stay down too long, but that had to hurt.

Just as I was arriving at the second aid station at mile five, I downed the banana I had been carrying, which the crew managed to catch in this photo. Intense, right?! Well, anyway, check out that sweet piece of singletrack. 

Mile 5 marks the split of the 25K and 10K races. Shortly thereafter I descended a steep and slick ravine on paths that resembled game trails. The trail was nothing less than challenging and ultimately resulted in my butt hitting the muddy ground. As I reached the next valley and wooden bridge crossing, I came upon two beagle dogs in the trail. They were apparently scared of me and started running away on the singletrack. They ran in front of me for what seemed like a mile, serving as an unexpected pace crew and welcome distraction. Thanks beagle dog crew! Hopefully they went back home, wherever that may be.  

It wasn’t too long after that where I encountered a less helpful dog. It was a sizable mutt somewhere along a gravel road. I thought I was going to have to defend myself as it was lunging, snarling, and displaying its white teeth. Crazily yelling at it must have worked. Good riddance.

There was rarely a time in this course that I felt like I was running in a valley or along a ridgeline for long - the terrain was frequently fluctuating. This race has a little of every possible scenario: long steep climbs and descents, short steep climbs and descents, long gradual climbs and descents, gravel road, paved road, wooden bridges, singletrack, off-camber, game paths, clay mud, sandy mud, doubletrack, switchbacks, freshly mown grass paths, gas line right-of-way, rock drops, giant rock overhangs, cliffs, large loose rocks, timber roads, several log jumps, and a couple of local residents’ yards.

I went off course slightly in two different locations but for the most part I found it to be very well marked. The color coding was super helpful and the signage at intersections plentiful.

As fatigue set in, I began catching myself wanting to hike on some of the climbs where I would normally trot slowly, so I knew I needed to bring in some calories soon. But I also realized I had only packed a banana and a gel, underestimating the toll of these crazy climbs. It became clear why the total elevation gain of the 50K and 25K are only 1000 feet different: there’s a ton of climbing in the beginning of the 25K course. Taking the gel too early would be just as disastrous as taking it too late.

It was during mile 9 that I ran under a really neat rock overhang where I was imagining a family of American Indians several hundred years ago seeking shelter from a summer thunderstorm. And eating. Mostly because that’s what I wanted to do. Good thing there’s an aid station at mile 10.

Taking my sweet time at the 10-mile aid station in favor of surviving what had clearly become a toughman challenge, I took a gel with several cups of water and put a cup of ice in my hat. That mix made me feel like running again for a couple miles but I was definitely feeling heavy fatigue by the time mile 13 came around. Thankful that the climbs at this point were brief as I rolled along a ridge, the focus became holding my technique together and trying to use the terrain advantage to negative split. I knew there should be a big descent not long before the finish.

As I finished that descent and the end of mile 15 approached, I must have let my guard down a little. There was a brief climb and a quick descent toward the Mud River where I stepped onto a large, wet, cambered rock, only to fall hard onto my right wrist and leg. Unlike the first fall, that one hurt and took some of my skin with it. I don’t usually fall in trail races and now this was number two for the day. Clearly it’s a bit of a technical course and the recent rain had made it more treacherous.

The low blood sugar bonk had kicked in by the time the last mile came along. My form had degraded as a result but I knew from the elevation profile that there were no more climbs or descents. Please, no more! Stubbornly focused on keeping my core stable and arms from flailing, I could finally make out the pond at the Boy Scout camp through the trees.

In the end it was 16 miles in 2:19:01 to win the 25K race and barely set a new course record. The new record was my ultimate goal, so I was very happy with that result. Plus, my wife won the women’s 10K! Congratulations to her! Maybe she will start saying the "wh" in Kanawha.

The volunteers greeted me at the line with this wild, wood finisher medal and custom crock.

As usual, the WVMTR folks put on a great event. Check it out next year if you can. I’m sure most of them will never read this but events like this are successful because of the volunteers and race directors. Thank you!

 

Highlands Sky 40 Mile Trail Run: Best Race for Anyone with Achy Feet

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

Super tame section of Canaan singletrack

The neverending boulder fields, rock-strewn trails, endless bogs, and cold stream crossings will provide your feet with the nice, soothing care that they deserve. I wish I lived closer to the course so I could run it after work on days when my feet are a little achy.

Seriously though, this is a brutal course, at least through the beginning miles. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, the point-to-point course traverses the Canaan Valley and Dolly Sods areas in the Monongahela National Forest.

Despite doing my homework by asking prior competitors about the terrain, stalking Strava segments, and searching YouTube, I could have known so much more about the course. There is no substitute for experience and having never done the event it’s hard to know what to expect. But that’s also part of what makes the challenge more exciting.

Pre-race

The pre-race dinner at Canaan Valley Resort was great. There was a nice variety of carb-heavy food and local craft beer from Mountain State Brewing. Several high quality door prizes were given away. I won coffee from Sweet Bloom Coffee Roasters and as of this morning I've decided it's the best coffee I've ever made at home. 

Most racers stay at the resort but I ended up staying at the Timberline Ski Resort, which I would see around mile 35 in the following day’s run. I awoke at 4:00 AM and began the typical race morning preparation with the special hotel rendition of my classic breakfast sandwich: 1 everything bagel, 4 slices of bacon, and 1 egg. After a banana for dessert I was on my way out the door.

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Bacon makes you faster not fatter

Start

My wife and I drove down to the starting area in Laneville, WV, arriving around 5:30 AM. It was a little chilly for standing (because I’m a wuss), but perfect for running. The forecast was calling for very nice sunny and slightly warmer weather. Wish I could duplicate that for every race. I’d heard rumors that the top competitors started out hard and fast to avoid a bottleneck at the trailhead. That was definitely true, as I was running around 7 minutes per mile on the paved road until we hit the trail around mile two and there were runners in front of me going even faster.

Almost go time

Almost go time

We then began the long ascent from Laneville, WV up the mountain toward the Dolly Sods area. We made our way through multiple mountain stream crossings and large, unforgiving patches of stinging nettles. A pack of five guys formed in front of me going up that 6-mile climb, and the current leader was well off of the front. The pack of five eventually became a pack of three, as two dropped off behind me. I had to make the decision early to let them run away from me as I was pushing my heart rate well into heart rate zone 5 and I don’t even do that in the early miles of a road marathon!

Frolic in the ferns

After getting to aid station #2 one runner caught me and I dug deep to stay near to him as we descended into another large ravine. It’s not always the climbs that are hard on your legs. If it hadn’t hurt me so much I would have liked that descent more because it was laden with ferns.

Entering Dolly Sods

I did eventually catch that group and was able to stay in front of them for the entirety of the race. But in my efforts, I mistakenly pushed myself a bit too much, too early. The upper portion of the mountain became quite steep in places, enough to require use of the arms and hands to climb. I quickly learned that these were some of the most true and unforgiving mountain trails that I have ever raced. I came into the halfway point in second place, wondering how rough I was really going to feel by mile 30, knowing the early course had taken a toll. As an aside, I’m voting aid station #4 the best on the course for their high level of enthusiasm!

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Multitasking food, shoes, and socks with fantastic volunteers

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Friend Daniel Hanks shaving his legs at the halfway point

Road Across the Sky

Running the stretch of gravel road known as the Road Across the Sky, I could gradually feel my efforts catching up to me. It was difficult to run under 9 minutes per mile on a section where I should have been able to do 8 minutes easily. As a result, two runners caught me.

By the time mile 30 was approaching, I was definitely depleted more than I expected. Nothing like making a beginner mistake. I began hiking uphill sections where I would normally run.  

Those couple miles up to mile 33 were not fun, as the terrain was exposed to full sun and at over 5 hours into the event I was becoming emotionally and physically drained and that allowed yet another runner to catch me. Very demotivating. He was doing what I usually strive to do: negative split!

I felt like my nutritional intake was lagging behind and that contributed to my suffering. Speaking of nutrition, here’s what I ate and drank during the race:

  • 4 Gu gels
  • 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • 2.5 bananas, 2.5 liters of water
  • 3 oz. pickle juice, 3 dill pickle spears
  • 6 Oreo cookies
  • handful of plain M & Ms
  • handful of trail mix
  • 2 salted boiled potato slices
  • 12 oz. Coca Cola

Stupid knee

At mile 33 I started to have right lateral knee pain. I briefly forgot about it at aid station #7, but when I took off running again it reminded me of its presence less than 100 yards from the aid station. The intensity grew rapidly and substantially. I couldn’t even walk without pain and I was forced to limp. That was incredibly discouraging. I began to mentally prepare to walk the final 7 miles of the event, hoping to somehow hang on for a top 10 finish.

Butt Slide

But I actually didn’t have to walk that much as I began descending from the ridge. My inner Physical Therapist kicked in and told me to look for the fatigue-related running pattern changes. I noticed that I was disengaging my right quadriceps and allow my right knee to snap backward a little. The muscle just wanted to be lazy. And I know I have a history of landing with my right foot closer to centerline (i.e., crossing inward). I realized that if I just ran with the knee slightly more flexed and with a wider stance, the pain began to consistently subside.

All of my consistent strength training paid off because I had reliable quads on the steep downhill section affectionately known as “Butt Slide.” However, just out of the fear of pain returning I remained timid on the downhills and technical sections through mile 35. At one point the trail became less obvious I was wandering aimlessly for about a minute on that hillside. Trusting my directional instinct fortunately brought me back to the red flags on trail.

Road Race

I had recovered very well from the 2 miles of easier running. The flat gravel and paved road from that point on gave me hope that I could run quickly without tweaking my knee. As I approached the final aid station I could see one of the runners who had passed me on the Road Across the Sky. I downed 2 cups of Coca-Cola at aid station #8 and took off with a new motivation. It became a road race from mile 37 to 40. I managed to move up a place at the start of mile 38.

Finish

I ultimately finished up 4th overall, which makes me happy having never raced there before. That was definitely slower than where I wanted to be but the reasons were very clear to me. That course is a true challenge and quite beautiful. It would be great to run parts of it again while taking more time to stop and appreciate the surroundings. When trying to run hard there is so much time spent staring at the ground, hoping not to fall or twist an ankle. I will be back. 

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Happy to be done and excited to have run the final 7 miles

Thanks

Special thanks to Dan Lehman, Adam Casseday and the rest of the WV Mountain Trail Runners crew for putting on such an awesome event, really caring about the racers, and giving out some cool prizes. And a big thanks to my wife for driving my tired butt home and crewing for me. And thanks to Pearl Izumi for the sponsorship this season.