talk about a race that left me defeated.
The lead up: The journey to this race started in early December when my name did not get picked for Western States lottery. I needed to pick a new race to secure my ticket for the 2023 lottery. It gets tricky when 7 years has passed without being picked and not wanting to repeat races. I hadn’t raced on the east coast since 2018 (Vermont 100 solo). This race seemed to fit the bill.
Minnesota had a record snowfall year and me being new to the city, I was unsure which trails I could use in the winter months for running. This meant that between November and April, I had been on the trails maybe three times. I did Zumbro 50 miler Easter weekend and that didn’t really instill much confidence in my lack of trail time. I ended up with a good performance (First Overall Female) but I knew I needed a ton of work in the next 6 weeks. I was concerned about the almost 19,000ft of gain and loss, and the rocks. The whole course description seemed intimidating.
I had secured crew and my friend Cari would be my pacer, taking on the last 35ish miles with me. She would be driving out with her partner Jake and meet us Friday night before the race start Saturday morning.
Getting There: We had decided we would make the drive out and camp along the way. This is not a new concept for me. I have actually camped the night before for all but one 100 mile race. Planning to leave Wednesday and essentially get as far as we could. The plan was to get into Fairfax, VA by Thursday morning to see a friend of mine who had a baby a month prior. The truck was ready with an air mattress in the back, and the roof top tent on top. We left town, dropped the dogs off and got on the road about 11:30am with about 1,000 miles to go. We started listening to an audio book called “Endurance- Shackleton’s incredible voyage.” This would become a key piece in the race to come. Also, it’s fantastic and I highly recommend it.
We made a stop shortly into our journey, to surprise a friend and co-worker of Chris’s. It was a perfect situation to get more coffee. However, I did take full advantage of the mattress in the back and was able to rest and get some sleep as Chris drove. I believe that there was a couple hour stop at a rest area for him to get some sleep and we rolled into Fairfax around 9:00am Thursday morning. We got some breakfast and then went to go see Pam.
Pam had been a client of mine for years and has become a dear friend of mine. I saw her last year almost to the day for her wedding, and here I was meeting her month old baby! This visit was very important for me and I channeled her friendship during the race.
We have arrived: After leaving Fairfax, we had about a 2 hour drive to the campsite we chose for Thursday night, Big Meadows in the Shenandoah National Park. After being in the car for so long on and off, a shake out was necessary.
We knew that Appalachian Trail ran right by the camp, and neither of us had been on it before. So, we decided to run and get our feet dirty on some trails. It was a little slow going and there were rocks to navigate, but we had a great time and flushed out the day plus of car time.
We made salmon and shaved Brussel sprouts on the camp stove for dinner, being aware we were in bear country. After eating and feeling like it was a little too early to go to bed, we scrounged up some fire wood to make a little campfire. It was small, but put out some heat. The campground sat at about 3,800 ft above sea level, and it was a little chilly.
The next morning we slept in, made camp coffee with eggs and bacon over the camp stove. Packed up camp and headed to the start/finish area where we would be camping. You could check in no earlier than 9:00am, so we took our time. After a stop in Luray for some more coffee and groceries for dinner we arrived late morning.
Race Prep: We were the first to arrive, and got our pick to set up camp. After getting the tent up, it was time to organize the drop bags. This also meant recalculating estimated times to be at each aid station. This is helpful for the crew, and myself to know what to put into the bags. Estimating the dark, and having lights available is really the crucial part. There are 15 aid stations in total, nine of which crew can access. They were going to be at six of them, thus only needing six drop bags. I didn’t want to have a bag where they couldn’t retrieve it. There were large gaps of time where I wouldn’t see them or have access to my bags, so making sure I had enough fuel to get me through was key. The bright side was that with so many aid stations, the options for additional food if needed were there. My plan was to fuel primarily on Spring Energy. Using Saltstick electrolytes supplemented with Liquid IV. As we know though, a well thought out fueling plan hardly ever works out like you thought it would.
After getting the bags ready and dropped off, it was time to check in, get my bib and the tracker they would be using. The race meeting was held at 4pm, so we had time to get a small shake out run in beforehand.
Chris and I head out on the road in the direction we thought the race would start. The roads and the scenery were gorgeous, the trail rolling and full of beauty. We ran on the road with little shoulder as people started heading toward camp to check in.
We arrived back at camp with about 30 min before the meeting started. We chatted with our camp mates a bit, come to find out I knew one of them. Well, internet knew one of them. But we were able to meet in person unbeknownst to us we parked near each other. Hi Geoff!
I love the pre-race briefings. You usually learn a bit about the history of the course, the people who have earned their 5, 10, or even 20 time buckles. Oddly enough the course markings and the information about the course seems to be overshadowed by the pride this race and its participants(volunteers) have.
The biggest take aways from the meeting: One guy fell and broke a rib and bruised 3 more and finished. One guy was sick for more than 6 hours and still finished. There are indeed people who have run the race 20 times. There were over 150 volunteers. Everyone who knew this race there said ” You’ll have fun, but there’s a lot of rocks.”
We wrap up the meeting, with myself keeping in mind that the course markers are yellow tape in the trees. Two markings on the side of the trail where to turn and red tape blocking off trails that are a no go.
I go to lay down and rest while Chris makes dinner on our camp stove. My usual plan is to rest/sleep as much as possible the day before knowing that sleeping the night before can be tricky and being up for 20+ hours.
I was able to rest and I think actually nap. While we were eating our steak and brussel sprouts we noticed that there were an abundance of ticks. The ones with the white dot on them. We found out later that those are the Lonestar ticks and they are the bad ones that give you the thing were you can’t eat meat! Needless to say we were very careful leading up going to bed. After we were finished eating I had laid my clothes and gear out in the back of the truck for the morning.
Since we had no cell service for a few days we were unsure when Cari and Jake would be arriving. We climbed up top around 7pm to get as much sleep before the 3 a.m. alarm. About 8:30 I heard Cari’s voice outside. They had arrived! We tentatively planned the morning with them, knowing I would see them all at mile 12 of the course. Most likely not Cari and Jake until then. They drove from Indiana all day and needed the rest, and a 4 am wake up wouldn’t be ideal.
RACE DAY: The alarm does indeed go off at 3, even though the race didn’t start until 5 a.m. We started making moves by a quarter after, making coffee and oatmeal for my breakfast. A couple bathroom stops and beautiful crisp morning with a sky full of stars, it seemed like it was gonna be a day.
By 4:30 a.m. Chris and I made our short way to the starting area for the mandatory check in before the race. Here we are about to embark on a journey together. Every runner with the shared excitement of a race, the trepidation of what’s to come and the knowledge of past experiences flooding our mind. We were here together, making a choice. How we handle what’s to come is on each of us alone.
It’s go time. A quick “see ya later” and a smooch to Chris before I line up and get in the group of anticipation as they count down to the start. 209 runners begin together. I had no idea what was in store for me.
The beginning: We run the road, some of what Chris and I ran the day before, but you take a right basically running on the backside of the camp for about 4.5 miles until you turn into the trail at the first aid station. Which is just a water stop. In this space people are making their moves as to not get stuck on the single track. I chatted with a few women here and learned that this was a pretty coveted east coast race. There were volunteers at that turn directing us which was nice.
This next section was a fun single track with some smaller rocks until you started to climb. Also chatting and playing leap frog here with a few other women. The trail starts to show what is to come, rocky ridge line and much slower moving than anticipated. My mantra for the race was to Be Patient. The word was that if you had legs int he back half, you could make up some time. I wasn’t going for a time today, just finishing was the goal.
I was super excited to see my crew at Edinburg Gap 12 miles in. A little bit of road to finally be able to run. Topped off fluids, grabbed some more Spring and I did notice that I was already getting tired of the sweetness. This could be a problem later. I was about 30 min off my projected time, not bad but there was a ton of climbing and race left. Knowing that I wouldn’t see them for another 20 miles, I prepared myself for these next few sections.
Aid 3-5: All I remember from aid 2 to Woodstock Tower and the 8 miles were the big rocks with steep climbs getting up to the top, slow moving and not much leeway on the downhills as they were full of hardly runnable rocks and a steep decent. The view at the top was stunning and just seeing that brought a much needed smile to my face.
Filling up fluids and making sure to eat, I was onto the Powells Fort another 6 miles. Again the footing was the same and the terrain not much different. I think this is where I met a couple guys Phil and Adam. Talking the normal race chat: Where are you from, why this race, have you done this one before, etc.
I remember coming in Powells knowing I was behind on calories and needed to take some time here to eat. It was getting warm and you could tell it was going to be a longer than planned day. I ate some plain turkey, cheese, pickles, and potatoes. I was excited about this next section because I got to see my crew at Elizabeth Furnace the next aid station.
Aid 5-9: I had so much energy coming into this aid station. It was full of life from the volunteers and my crew. I was so happy to see them. I ate a bunch of food here and joked with some volunteers who suggested taking that photo of Chris and I. I knew there was some climbing coming up and it was getting warm, thankfully we were in the shade of the trees. That also meant the flies were abundant, not biting but annoying!
I left Elizabeth furnace with a ton of energy, which fell flat real quick. I knew I wouldn’t see them again until after the halfway point at 54 miles. There were stream crossings and a hillside spring where I dipped my hat every chance I got. Aid 6 was Shawl Gap and originally my crew wasn’t going to be there, but decided to head there anyway. Which was great, I had some coffee and came in in a calorie deficit and hot. I had 2 or 3 freeze pops and took some food to go.
Leaving aid 6, I met up with a few other runners who I failed to get their names. One was attempting his first 100 miler ever here and the other was doing this one for the first time. We talked about the heat, and wouldn’t you know it, it started to sprinkle. This was welcome as it cut the humidity. This section was almost all rolling road to the next aid station.
Learning from one of the runners I was running with on the last section that we had some climbing to do between Veach Gap and Indian Gap, a 9 mile section. I remember this is section as it started to rain harder, which I don’t think was as hard as it seemed, the leaves on the trees seemed to magnify the sounds. We kept climbing and I was solo here, I had a good stretch of a steady grind that I felt good on, which opened up to a runnable ridge line. It was the first and only time in the whole race where I was feeling good and confident. The rain was coming down and I knew I had to make up some time, worried that I would hit darkness before Habron Gap where my lights were. I felt like I was flying here, really enjoying it.
Coming into Habron Gap at mile 54, I was soaked and needed food. I changed my top and sport bra. Grabbed my lights. Sat down and ate mashed potatoes. I was already letting the biggest climb of the race coming out of this aid station get to me. I remember thinking to myself that I was only halfway, how could I do this for another 50 miles? Chris said to me, “Don’t get in the bottom of the boat.” This was from the book we listened to on the drive, essentially meaning: don’t quit, you got this. This phrase was uttered by us at other times throughout the race.
One of the volunteers here knew me. He said hello, and I knew I knew him. But from where? It came to me after I left the aid station. His name was Brian, and we met at Vermont 100 in 2018 when myself, him, and another guy were running the 100 miler solo. We met up around mile 20 and ran the entire remainder of the race together!
One of the only things getting me through the next almost 10 miles was knowing I would have Cari joining me.
Aid 10-15: Boy was I glad that I had someone to now share this run with. I had come into Camp Roosevelt in a bad place. My left knee had been bothering me the whole race. I had moved between, ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Aleeve by this point. I was feeling really burdened by my slow pace and the time everyone on my team was spending out there, awake. I did run with two other ladies coming into Camp Roosevelt Heather and her friend (I am so sorry, I do not remember her name). I led the way and was actually able to run quite a bit. It was so great creating a little lady group!
Leaving Camp Roosevelt to Gap Creek I was about six miles. We re grouped with Heather and her friend, creating a welcoming space. There was mud from the previous evenings rain, creating a slippery mess ontop of the rocks. The never ending rocks that were so big and relentless on the climbs. The rocks that were just as big on the downhill, making running in any sort of way impossible.
I think it was at Gap Creek where I had some cold coffee and this amazing Ginger Carrot Chowder soup. That was life! There was another 9ish miles to the Visitor Center Aid Station. That was the beginning of the downward spiral. On these climbs I started to throw up, but nothing was coming up. I was eating minimally as everything even the ginger chews were tasting so sweet. I could still eat, but I was really only eating at the aid stations and It wasn’t enough. I started moving really slow here, apologizing to Cari about it. I would rest and put my hand on a rock or a tree, but there were worms/millipedes everywhere!
At one point I hit my head real hard on a tree because I was looking down at the rocks. Those demoralizing rocks. Every climb seemed to suck the soul from my body, I felt deflated. I couldn’t run downhill because the rocks were the same or it was so steep that I was afraid to lose my footing. Plus, my knee was only getting worse. Quitting was never an option and it didn’t cross my mind. I was going to finish no matter how long it took me. That aspect became daunting for sure, but I wouldn’t let this course win.
Coming into Aid 13 Bird Knob, is a blur. This was a no crew station. I filled bottles and took some food to go. The climb to get there was the highest point on the course. It sure felt like it took forever to go the 3+ miles there. Cari was fantastic about providing positive feedback and came with some really good interesting animal facts to lift the mood.
Aid 14 Picnic Area mile 88. I came into here meeting my crew crying. I was in the biggest hole I have experienced. I was behind on calories, I had been hallucinating, the sun was now up. 12 more miles seemed like it would never happen. I was able to eat and drink some coffee. I had tater tots here and they were amazing. It was like I had never tasted something so good in my life! I was really hoping this all would help the hallucinations. Taking 4 hours to get to the finish was a realistic possibility.
The next time I would see the crew would be at the finish.
I knew there was more climbing before we got to the final aid station at Gap Creek II, mile 96.8. Fun fact: The hallucinations did not stop. It got to a point where I would ask out loud, “Is that really there?” “Is that a person?” I saw a conversion van on the side of the road-there was no van or road. I saw a snowmobile encased in a plexiglass case, animals, fireplaces, and many more things that have since slipped my memory.
Coming into the last aid Station there was a bit of runnable trail along with some road. I was disappointed in myself that I couldn’t run it like I knew I could. Any downhill non-technical road was really difficult for the knee as well as the bottoms of my feet. The constant pounding and impact of the sharp jagged rocks, had done a number on them.
The End: The almost 4 miles to the finish was on road, rolling roads. I looked at the time and I remember saying to Cari leaving the last aid station that we had an hour to finish before 30 hours. If the road stayed like this and I pushed, we could do it. We made the last turn on the road behind the camp and with about .8 to go we re-entered the woods. Fun joke. I pushed here with 5 min, I thought we were right there. We were not. Over numerous brides and rock filled single track we finally popped out of the woods onto the road leading into the camp.
Cari was congratulating me, I was trying not to cry. As we rounded that corner to the left and saw the finish line, in that moment I hadn’t seen anything so glorious. I crossed the finish at 30:08:07. 13th woman, 52nd overall out of 141 finishers. Chris immediately came over for a hug and a kiss. I got my handshake, buckle and blanket from the race director and my finisher photo. Fuck, it was time to sit down.
Thank you doesn’t quite cut it for these people.
Chris, holy cow what an endeavor crewing your first 100 mile running race. I am forever thankful our “type A crewing a type A” worked out. I never had to worry that you’d be there or wonder if you had what I needed. Your support got me through some dark moments out there. It only gets better from here. I love you, thank you.
Cari, well what can I say? It takes a real friend to drive across the country to “run” 12+ hours on an extremely difficult course managing a delirious runner. I am real glad that our friendship has grown since I moved to the cities where opportunities like these are possible. Thank you for your never ending positivity and perseverance. I can’t wait to return the favor in September.
Jake, glad that the third time ever meeting, you stepped right up and helped without question. Stayed up all day and night without complaint. I appreciate it and you, thank you!
Thank you to all the volunteers out there.
Fueled by Spring Energy, Saltstick, Honey Stinger and all the wonderful Aid station Food.