Grindstone 100

If you want a quick recap of Grindstone, see below. If you want the whole story, I got that too!

Grindstone Facts

  • 101.85 miles
  • 23,000 feet of gain/23,000 feet of loss
  • Out and back course
  • Start/finish location- Swoope, Virginia. That’s 1 hour west of Charlottesville.
  • 8-hour drive from Nashville
  • 6:00pm Friday night start

Quick Recap

The goal I told everyone for Grindstone- 22 hours.

My ambitious goal that I only told Kyle and Marcelle- top 5.

Training had gone about as perfectly as it could. I was feeling strong and confident. The first 70 miles were going great, and I was in the top 5. Then the last 30 miles happened. Naturally, I slowed down as one is wont to do after running 70 miles. But I couldn’t rally and keep pushing to maintain my top 5 position. I eventually dropped from 4th to 7th over the last 30 miles. Minus the sluggish finish, I am super pumped with that result and excited to take on more technical and mountainous races in the future. With this training block and race result, I feel like I finally caught a glimmer of my top end potential with this hobby.

Story Time

This is where I start the race report with a compelling quote that actually took place during the later stages of the race. This quote would highlight something absurd or difficult that would hopefully make you gasp in shock or chuckle in amusement. With the hook fully set, I would then rewind back to the start of the race and eventually bring us back to this “epic” part of the race.

But I don’t have a harrowing tale of triumph nor did I find existential enlightenment. Running 100 miles is supposed to be hard and it was. I don’t mean to sound like 100 miles isn’t a big deal like Karl Meltzer when he says, “100 miles is not that far.” And I don’t think he’s being flippant either. It’s just that it is 100 freaking miles. Yeah, it’s going to be hard. But don’t make a bigger deal out of it than it is. You’re going to have to problem solve and persevere. Don’t be surprised when you want to cry and quit. Just keep moving.

I’ve learned that I need this clear and simple mindset for long races. Delight in the highs. Get through the lows. Just keep moving and enjoy the opportunity to experience so many different emotions. I am far from harnessing the ability to stay resolute and not dwell on the negative emotions towards the end of a long ultra. This mental and emotional challenge continues to drive my interest and curiosity for ultrarunning.

Training

Training for Grindstone had gone just about perfect. Kyle and I were able to get out to Frozen Head and the Smokies for several big weekends to replicate the long ups and downs of Grindstone. People would be surprised at the amount of elevation gain you can accumulate while training in Nashville, but the hills of middle Tennessee are not enough to have one truly prepared for a mountain race with climbs and descents of several miles and thousands of feet. This training block was the most enjoyable I’ve had for any race. I love the Smokies and getting out for so many long days in my all-time favorite place with one of my best friends was awesome.

Pre-Race

The least exciting part of this race was the 8-hour drive from Nashville to Swoope. Marcelle and I left Nashville around 4:00pm on Thursday and stopped in Johnson City to stay at Kyle’s parents. This made each driving day around 4 hours.

We arrived at the start/finish area just as the pre-race briefing was starting. Per usual, there was no illuminating information to be gathered during the pre-race briefing. Just a reminder about some tricky navigational spots and to thank the volunteers. They did have some awesome door prize giveaways including some Salomon packs, Black Diamond headlamps, and Z-Poles.

We now had three hours until the 6:00pm start. I spent some time organizing my crew bag for Marcelle and then laid down and attempted to nap. I wasn’t able to doze off, but it was refreshing to lay down for an hour and let my mind rest.

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Start to Dowells Draft (0-22)

And we are off! Kyle and I started towards the front and kept a comfortable pace. There were about 2 miles of doubletrack that allowed everyone to get relatively spaced out so that there was not a bottleneck effect once we hit the singletrack.

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Typical Ryne and Kyle pose. Photo- Marcelle

The race crosses into a state wildlife management area for a 3-mile section towards the beginning of the race. Per their regulations, no ribbons, signage, or trail markers are allowed. There were distinct white trail blazes to follow so navigation wasn’t that bad. Well, it wasn’t that bad until I completely blew past a nearly impossible to see blaze 90 degrees to the right. Before that hard right turn, you are running a fun section of gravel road. I kept motoring on the gravel road until I heard Kyle yelling for me. I have no idea how, but he saw the turn we were supposed to make and got me back on course. We didn’t know it at the time, but the lead pack completely missed this turn as well and wound up running an extra mile.

Not too long after that, we were exiting the wildlife management area and once again had pink ribbons guiding us along.

We hit the first aid station (mile 5.1) and soon began the climb up to Elliott’s Knob. The first couple miles are a gradual climb on nice singletrack. Then you hit a gravel road for the last 2 miles, and it was steep! I couldn’t help but think that this was going to be a terrible downhill at mile 90. Thus started the pattern of making mental notes on the sucky sections that would have to be repeated in reverse on the return trip.

Kyle and I punched our bib atop Elliott’s Knob (mile 10) then started the quick downhill back to the main trail. I opened up my stride and soon found myself back on the rocky singletrack. I could hear someone behind me and yelled asking if it was Kyle but got no response. The Grindstone Gauchos were now solo in their quest to the finish.

The long downhills and technical sections of Grindstone suit my strengths as a runner. I usually get passed and gapped while hiking uphill but will pass others on technical and/or downhill sections. The next 5 miles to Dry Branch Gap aid station at mile 15 were perfect for me. There were lots of rocks that I tried my best to just keep my momentum going and dance my way through. Then a 2.5 mile downhill that I tried to coast without braking or going too hard. I passed several runners and caught up to the lead pack as I entered the aid station at mile 15. I was in seventh place. The top 10 were all within 6 minutes of each other. It was here that I heard the lead runners quickly chatting with Clark Zealand (race director) about their missed turn.

I was in and out of the aid station quickly. I was walking a runnable hill in attempts to let the food settle that I just stuffed down my throat. Chris Roberts, going for his 5th finish, piped up behind me that this was a no walking hill. He passed and I latched on to his pace. I had read several of Chris’s race reports in my research before the race. His past 3 Grindstone finishes had resulted in two fifth place and one sixth place finish. I knew that if I really wanted to go for a top 5 finish, then I would need to be matching his pace early.

Once again, the steep sections of this course were unpleasant and being filed away as downhills to not get excited about on the return trip. I did say earlier that downhills were my strength. That is true. But the steepness of some of those downhills after having 80 miles on your legs was foreboding. I stayed at my own pace on the climb and let the group of runners pull away. Climbing isn’t my strength. No need to push it here. Just wait for the downhills and I can reel them back in.

A nice thing about running at night is that you can gauge your competition quickly and easily by their headlamp. I was losing time on the climbs but closing the gap a bit on brief flat sections.

Finally cresting the climb, it was 4.5 miles of fun downhill to the aid station. I started moving comfortably and catching back up to and passing the runners in front of me.

Another runner and myself entered the aid station to raucous cheers. I thought their level of enthusiasm was strange. Wait, are we in the lead? I quickly found Marcelle, Sara, and Abe. I swapped bottles, my headlamp, stuffed my pack with gels, and was off. I was a bit dazed entering and leaving this aid station. It felt like the long downhill had just ejected me into the aid station. I was not prepared for the aid station circus. It was sensory overload with all the people, lights, and cheers upon entering the aid station. My crew did not mention to me that the other runner and myself were in the lead, but I inferred that we were from their surprise and excitement.

Dowells Draft to North River Gap (22-37)

I left this aid station thinking, What the hell? How and why are you in the lead? You’ve got 80 more miles. Slow down. I took my time over the next 5 steady uphill miles to regain my composure and settle down. Knowing that I was in the lead had left me feeling like I had been working too hard and slightly panicked. I was more than happy to be passed by a few runners and eventually came out of my mental low spot upon cresting the steady climb.

The next 10 miles were a mix of runnable jeep road and technical downhill single track with two aid station stops. I caught back up with the lead pack on the jeep road section. We were all running in sync and enjoying each other’s company. I was thinking, Man, this is so cool. Here we are pushing each other at a nice pace at mile 30. Then bam! My toe caught something and within a few seconds, I had hit the ground, rolled, and popped right back up. I’ve heard of people falling so hard they didn’t know which way was up. That’s sort of what happened. I was instantly back on my feet but oriented towards the opposite direction. I paused, realized the group of runners I was just with were now behind me, turned around, and caught back up.

Not too long after my ninja roll, the group hit Lookout Mountain aid station (mile 30.8). I left the aid station with Holden Rennaker (eventual third place finisher). He too enjoyed the technical sections, and we did a good job of working together to move efficiently through the rocks and soon found ourselves at North River Gap (mile 37.1). But not before I fell one more time. No graceful ninja roll this time. Holden stopped and yanked me back up to my feet. I love the kindness of trail runners.

Holden, myself, and one other runner arrived in second through fourth place. The top 8 were all within the 13 minutes of each other exiting this aid station.

I spent a little too much time in this aid station and Sara did a good job of getting me out. I changed into a dry shirt, swapped bottles, and loaded up my pack with more food for the longest section between crew stops.

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The night is dark and full of terrors. Photo- Abe

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Sara- “Alright, you got 30 seconds!” Photo- Abe

North River Gap to Turn-Around (37-51)

This section is a long but steady climb to the turn-around with a few flat and downhill sections. I was mentally prepared to grind it out to the top and was not surprised to get passed and gapped by a few runners on this section.

I finally reached the Little Bald Knob aid station (mile 45) which signaled the long climb was over. The next 6 miles to the turn-around would be steady ups and downs on jeep road and pavement.

It was a little chilly on the ridge, but I was surprised that I never needed to put on my jacket. I usually run cold, but I stayed comfortable with just a t-shirt, arm warmers, and gloves.

I punched my bib atop Reddish Knob then began the gentle 2 mile downhill on pavement to the turn-around. Now was the time to assess how far ahead the lead runners were as they would be making their return trip back from the turn-around. Paul Jacobs (eventual winner) looked fantastic and had a 2 mile lead on me. The next 4 runners had less than a mile on me. Now in 6th place, I was feeling good and hopeful that I would be able to make some time up on the long downhill.

Turn-Around to North River Gap (51-65)

I caught up to the guy in front of me as we hit the Little Bald Knob aid station (57.5). An aid station worker said we were in 4th and 5th. Had I miscounted the runners ahead of me? Were the volunteers wrong? I don’t know. I do know that I had some of the best zucchini bread muffins at this aid station and that was all that mattered at that point in time.

The guy ahead of me was moving well out of the aid station, but I eventually passed him on the long downhill. He was super cheerful and hollered encouragement at me as I moved past him. This section from Little Bald Knob back to North River Gap felt like it took forever. It also seemed like the night would never end. I was ready for the sun and ready to get my head and waist lamp off.

I finally made it to the aid station and my crew just as the sun was coming up. Man, was it nice to take the lamps off! I once again took too long at the aid station, but I was desperate for human interaction and enjoyed sitting down for a few minutes.

Side note- No matter what the 100 miler is, everybody always says something along the lines of, “It will be so nice when the sun comes up. You’ll get a second wind!” Spoiler alert, there is no magical second wind when the sun comes up. You’ve still been on your feet for hours. Now you can just see better.

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Do I have to, do I have to, do I have to wait and linger? Photo- Abe

North River Gap to Lookout Mountain (65-71)

My aid station lingering allowed Holden to catch back up to me. The information on placement from earlier was correct. I left the aid station in 4th with Holden and his pacer close behind. He must have got briefly lost or stopped to use the bathroom, because he was ahead of me at the turn-around. Motivated by his arrival, the morning sunlight now lighting the way (but no magical second wind), and finally turning on my music had me moving well on this section. Perhaps a little too well.

Lookout Mountain to Dowells Draft (71-80)

I made it to Lookout Mountain aid station feeling great. They told me the guy in front was maybe 5 minutes ahead and stayed a while to eat. Sweet! I made up some time. I’m gonna go catch third place! That didn’t happen.

Had I been running too hard for the first 70 miles? Or had I just run that previous 6 mile section too hard? Had I not been eating enough? Or was I not mentally strong enough to power through and just keep pushing? I’m not sure. I don’t think I had been running too hard. I honestly had felt comfortable most of the day, especially after dialing it back around mile 20. I could have eaten a little more. I think the main culprit was a lack of mental resilience. I had been dreading certain sections in those last 30 miles, and I let that negativity get the best of me.

My music selection did not help either. My run playlist had too much Linkin Park. I was hoping to rage and be able to run hard fueled by my angsty high school music. But all I could hear were the dark lyrics, which only made me sad and did not make me rage.

Not too long after leaving this aid station, Chris Roberts ran past me on a flat section that I was walking. I’m sure he said something snarky or encouraging, but I didn’t hear him with my music on.

Then a couple miles later Holden and his pacer zoomed by making it look effortless. One day I’ll have that much energy left towards the end of a 100 miler.

I got my last trip and fall in a mile before the aid station and it was a doozy. I now had a nice cut on my knee and blood oozing down my leg. It didn’t hurt too bad and the blood made me feel cool. And that’s why we do this, to be cool?

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Knee wounds, so hot right now. Photo- Abe

Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (80-87)

Having run 80 miles is quite the accomplishment. But knowing you have to run 21 more miles to finish is terrible. That’s a standard weekend training run left. Rather than just get to the next aid station, I could only think about the total distance to the finish. Yet another example of my lack of mental fortitude.

I ate some pickles and potatoes hoping to rally. But it was just a slow and steady hike uphill, then a downhill shuffle to the next aid station.

I hit the Dry Branch Gap aid station at my lowest point of the day. I was moving slow and still had 14 miles to the finish with a big climb and lots of rocks, followed by the super steep gravel road downhill off of Elliott’s Knob. If quitting was an option I would have. But that option did not exist. In one more attempt to rally via food, I ate some gels, potatoes, and pickles. It was too much, too fast. I didn’t vomit, but the thought of eating anything else for the remainder of the race made me want to.

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I’m over it. Photo- Claire

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All the potatoes and pickles. Photo- Claire

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The crew chief can’t bonk either. Photo- Claire

Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (87-96)

Marcelle finally kicked me out of the aid station and my quest continued. The last big climb of the day awaited.

It was around this point that I realized how nice it is to do most of this race in the dark. In the daytime, you can see just how long the climbs are. But in the dark, the limited beam of your headlamp keeps you oblivious!

I finally made it to the top. The downhill sucked, but I survived. Then a little under 2 miles to the aid station, I had somehow managed to catch up to someone. Wait, what? Do I have anything left in the tank? It was a steady downhill, which I could still move decently on, and I slowly caught up to him as we made it to the aid station. Could I finish strong and work my way back to 5th place? Spoiler alert, no.

Falls Hollow to Finish (97-101.85)

The guy ahead of me left the aid station 30 seconds ahead of me. I turned back on my music (Foo Fighters, no more Linkin Park) and was gonna see what I had left. Not much. I could shuffle the flats and downs, but not much was happening on the uphills. He pulled out of sight for good over the next 2 miles. I made peace with that and just kept on moving. Then about 3 miles from the finish, some guy I hadn’t seen all day goes blazing past like he’s running a 5k while I’m picking my way through the creek bed trail cursing life. Good for you man. Way to finish strong.

I kept on moving. The lake finally came into view. Then the gravel road back to the finish. Then the finish line. I did it. I was able to keep moving just quick enough to sneak in under 21 hours.

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DONE!!! Photo- Claire

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She’s the best. Photo- Claire

Post-Race

I finally plopped down in a chair to take my shoes off and had two epic blisters like I’ve never had before. There were blisters underneath each of my second toes. I don’t know how, but they weren’t causing any pain and had not bothered me all day.

I’m very happy with my end result. I did not achieve my ambitious goal of top 5, but 7th place is still pretty good. I liked going without a pacer. Maybe it would have helped to have a pacer with me to push me or keep me on a better eating schedule. But I liked the challenge of going at it alone. I’m looking forward to battling the mental woes during my next 100 miler. It will take discipline to stay focused on the next mile or aid station rather than getting overwhelmed by the total distance to the finish. I also need to work on continuing to push myself towards the end. Of course, I’m going to be exhausted and feel terrible, but I could have ran more in those last 30 miles.

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That’s not normal. Photo- Marcelle

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Recollecting on the stupidity. Photo- Marcelle

Thank You

I’m so thankful that Marcelle was able to hang out with Sara and Abe for most of the race as Kyle and I were hitting aid stations around the same time. Knowing she had company meant that I felt less of a burden for her being out there on her own. Sara and Abe were also able to help me out at several aid stations. Spending the weekend with the Jacobson crew made it much more memorable. Kyle got it done in 22:53 for 13th place. Well done! Shout out to Claire, Marcelle’s best friend from college, who drove over from Richmond to crew with Marcelle for the last 15 miles.

I’m so grateful to have the support of Nashville Running Company and Spring Energy. Lee has done a fantastic job of building a strong running community in Nashville through his small business, and I’m honored to represent his store. From making gels in his kitchen and passing out his concoctions from the trunk of his car at the end of group runs in Nashville, Rafal has quickly grown Spring into the premier running nutrition company. I’m definitely not worthy of continuing to be an ambassador compared to the list of ambassadors he has now, but I’ll always be using Spring for my training and racing. Throughout the race, I consumed 50 various Spring gels in all.

And the biggest thanks to Marcelle. You know how much I care about this silly hobby and how important running is to me for my mental health. You always encourage me to get out the door for a run when I feel bad about leaving you behind.

Strava File

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Go team! Photo- Claire

 

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Pinhoti 100 Miler

I could frame the outcome of Pinhoti one of two ways. Option one- I went sub 24 in my second 100 miler, shattered my preconceived notions of what I was capable of, and had a great race. Option two- I had a disappointing race in that I felt amazing for the first 69 miles but then slowly faded from 7th place to 19th place over the last 31 miles. I like to think of myself as a positive person and will look back on Pinhoti from the perspective of option one.

I made it to the start line in excellent shape, no injuries, and most importantly, freaking pumped to spend a long time in the woods. If you aren’t excited to run 100 miles, then it’s not going to be very fun! I’ve been down to Pinhoti twice to crew, and the familiarity with the race helped to ease pre-race nerves. Todd and Jamie Henderson have put this race on for the past 11 years, and their organization and support from the community makes this a special race.

Goals

In making times goals for a race, I will typically find a runner’s Strava file that is similar to me in terms of ability and make splits based off of that. I’m not sure why I started this habit. I guess it gave me something to do in the last two weeks of tapering. I’ve noticed an unhealthy attachment to these time goals and splits over my last few races. I would determine the success of the day based on my finish time, rather than being grateful for the opportunity to forget about all of life’s distractions and relishing the challenge of getting myself to the finish line as quickly as possible.

The goals I created for Pinhoti focused more on the process rather than the outcome. Those goals were; be patient, be grateful, eat 300 calories an hour, and find my limits. I told my crew that I didn’t want to know my place or what I was on pace for. My watch would only be telling me the overall chrono and mileage to the next aid station. I eliminated all possible scenarios in which I could get distracted by the outcome and deviate from my process goals.

Race

My crew consisted of Marcelle, Kyle, Beth, and Dany. Kyle would be running with me from 69 to 85 and Beth would pace the last 15 miles to the finish. The weather was absolutely perfect for the weekend. Lows in the 30s and highs in the 60s with sunshine and blue skies. The leaves had just started to change and the kaleidoscope of red, orange, and yellow leaves punctuated with the stands of green pines and clear blue skies made for an absolutely gorgeous day.

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Start. Photo- Gregg Gelmis

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All-Star Crew

I ran the first 18 miles with Brandon Sullivan and a few other runners which served as a good check on keeping the early pace easy. I exchanged bottles at mile 18 with my crew, took my music, and was running solo for the next 22 miles. My barometer for effort was that if I couldn’t easily eat 300 calories an hour, then I was going too fast. Like clockwork, I was able to eat a Spring gel every 20 minutes and graze on potato chips and fruit at aid stations. I had zero issues with my stomach and no problems with getting food down all day. The consistent dose of calories made my energy levels extremely stable and allowed me to cruise at a steady effort.

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Early miles with Brandon. Photo- Gregg Gelmis

Dany, my coach and running partner, eagerly waiting at mile 13.

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Always say yes to potato chips.

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Dany requesting to go run with me.

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Mile 18 crew stop. I would see them again at mile 40.

My right calf started feeling tight around mile 20. I would stop to briefly massage it or alter my gait to alleviate the tightness. This would help momentarily, but I was mildly concerned as my calf had never given me any issues in that spot before.

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Right before mile 27 aid station. Photo- Gregg Gelmis

I arrived at Mt. Cheaha, mile 40, to my crew who was surprised to see me. They had just arrived and were in the process of getting everything set up. I had passed 15 people in the last 22 miles and was feeling amazing. I told them I didn’t want to know my current pace or place, and they hesitated for a moment in responding. I knew I was moving well, and they wanted to share just how great I was doing but they kept mum. I drank some coffee, reloaded on Spring gels, and continued to press on. I regret not putting on calf sleeves here or taking extra time to massage my calves. The tightness had been coming and going, but I knew it was an issue that needed to be addressed. I wanted to keep moving and told myself I would take the time to problem solve at mile 55 when I would see my crew again.

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Dodging tourists on Cheaha. Photo- Gregg Gelmis

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Mile 40- Mt. Cheaha

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Barely put a dent in the jumbo size bag of Costco potato chips.

I continued to move with relative ease and still had no trouble consuming 300 calories an hour. I got a little lonely on this section, but a string of Missy Elliot songs helped to lift my spirits. I made it to my crew at mile 55 and took my time to situate my pack with clothes for the cold night, eat a quesadilla, and tape my calf. The tape helped my calf but the pain gradually started to radiate up into the hamstring tendon.

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Mile 55- Thankful to see my humans again.

I caught up with a runner leaving this aid station and we played cat and mouse over the next 15 miles. We would briefly run flat sections together, he would pass me on the ups, and I would pass him on the downs. It’s always interesting how the camaraderie plays out late in an ultra. I think we were both being competitive with one another but also enjoying each other’s company.

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The waist and headlamp combo worked perfectly.

The frequent change in terrain was good for my calf and was not bothering me to the point where I was actively thinking about it. I arrived to my crew at mile 69 still feeling great. I predicted low spots would become frequent as night drew near and that there would be a noticeable drop in my ability to continue moving at the same level. But honestly, I still felt great and was moving well. It was a revelatory experience to feel so good for so long. Unfortunately, this is where the wheels started to fall off.

Kyle jumped in here to pace for the next 16 miles to 85. The next six miles included the infamous climb up to Pinnacle and even more famous Pinnacle aid station. Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS) always has music blasting from their perch on top of the mountain. Kyle and I could start to hear music three miles below from the aid station! The climb was a doozy, and I think the continuous uphill gait aggravated my calf to the point of no return. The terrain for the next 10 miles was a mix of runnable jeep roads and rolling single track. It was challenging to run any flat or uphill section without compensating, but I could still move okay on any downhills.

We would hit one more aid station, Wormy’s Pulpit (I don’t know how it got its name), at mile 79, before arriving to crew at mile 85, Bull’s Gap. The section from Wormy’s to Bull’s Gap felt like it took forever. The aid station mileage provided by the race had been mostly accurate all day with some sections only being off by a few tenths of a mile. Wormy’s to Bull’s Gap was supposed to be 6.1 miles but my watch had the section at 6.9. That extra .8 felt like an eternity. It was getting to the point in the race where silly things like the aid station being further than expected is an abomination.

Kyle and I finally made it to mile 85 after what felt like forever. I was definitely hurting and took my time to sit down and gracefully vent (at least that’s how I remember it) about how much that last section sucked. I knew Jenny Baker might be at this aid station and was praying that she wouldn’t be. She is a stickler for stern love and I had a feeling she would try to get me in and out of the aid station as quickly as possible. Her stories of crewing for her husband Franklin are only funny if you are not her husband.

Sure enough, Jenny was there and she responded to my proclamation to sit down, “Okay, but not for long.” I was no longer in race mode, and taking the time to converse with Marcelle, Beth, Jenny, and Kyle was a welcome interaction with someone other than myself after such a long day of solitude. Feeling better after the short break and some coffee, Kyle swapped pacing duties with Beth. Only 15 miles to go!

I paced Beth on this same section when she did Pinhoti in 2015. She was able to knock out 12-minute miles, and I was hoping I could mirror her strong finish. But no dice. The tightness from my calf was now mainly isolated to my hamstring tendon and was severely altering my gait. It was hard to generate and sustain any momentum. Beth was merciful in that when I tried to “run” she would hop up and down enough to where it seemed like she was actually running too. I got passed by several people that I had passed earlier in the day. I was so happy for them that they could still move well, but also slightly jealous that they were passing me at what felt like the speed of light.

I made it to mile 93 where Franklin and Jenny had just met their runner at the last crew spot. I wanted another break to sit down. Jenny started rubbing my leg and Beth delivered me a plate of potatoes and salt. Only in ultrarunning do you get two good looking ladies to provide such service at 3 AM in the backwoods of Alabama.

Staying there was only prolonging the inevitable, so Beth and I finally set off for the last 7 miles to Sylacauga, the Marble City. In the race swag bag, there were a few advertisements from the city of Sylacauga, and they were very proud of their marble city. This became a joke throughout the weekend. I thought I finally had spotted this famous marble on the jeep road and pointed it out to Beth. It turned out to be a plastic grocery bag. While pacing Beth on this same section in 2015, she thought we ran past a dead baby turtle. It was a leaf. Judgment is not to be trusted after 90 miles.

It was a slow and painful 7 miles to the finish. I was dreaming up scenarios for Marcelle to come pick us up and take us back to the hotel. It felt like we were averaging 30-minute miles, and the thought of being out for another three and a half hours was heartbreaking. I finally asked Beth how far we had gone as my watch died right before the last aid station. It felt like we hadn’t even made it two miles. She responded that we had gone three and a half. That was a welcome surprise and momentarily lifted my spirits.

The slog continued and we finally hit the last two miles of pavement. Barking dogs cheered, or possibly jeered, us along as we neared the stadium. Marcelle, somewhat scarily, emerged from the shadows to walk the last few minutes with us.

I hobbled across the finish line in 21:39. Good for 19th place. I was grateful to be done, and even more grateful to Marcelle, Beth, and Kyle for all their help.

Takeaways

I made it to mile 69 in 7th place with an average pace of 11:08. The last 31 miles were covered in a blazing 16:49 pace. Being so close (does being 31 miles from a perfect race count as close?) to having a perfect race has only left me wanting to get back to the 100-mile distance. It’s an enormous test that requires months of preparation and challenges us to buck up when everything is telling us to slow down or stop. In a world where life is pretty cushy (I am very grateful I can say this as I know people all over the world cannot), it’s nice to experience some discomfort and see how we respond.

I’m still not sure what caused my calf issue but will be proactive in getting it healed up and stronger for the next time.

Thanks again to my all-star crew. Y’all were perfect in having everything ready for me and always telling me what I needed to hear. Thank you, Spring Energy, for the support. I had close to 50 various gels throughout the day and was able to continuously eat them with steady energy and zero stomach issues. Thank you, Nashville Running Company, for the gear and shoes. I love representing a store that has built such a strong community of runners in Nashville.

Strava

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Done.

 

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SCAR

The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run, SCAR, follows the Appalachian Trail along the spine of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The route is 72 miles in length with around 18,000 feet of climbing. It’s a classic route that I’ve wanted to do the past few years.

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Depending on which direction you go, the start and finish locations are Fontana Dam and Davenport Gap. Crew spots are minimal with the popular stops being Clingmans Dome and Newfound Gap.

I would be traveling north from Fontana Dam to Davenport Gap and see my crew at the Fork Ridge Trail junction (mile 36), which is right off of Clingmans Dome Road. The Fork Ridge junction would be much less crowded, and I wanted to make things as easy as possible for my Dad and Kyle. I would be solo for the first 36 miles, and Kyle would join me for the last half.

After thorough split analysis from previous SCAR completions by other runners, I settled on a goal time of 18:15, which meant I needed to average just over 15 minutes a mile. That time would be on the faster side for SCAR, and I wasn’t sure if I was entirely capable of such a goal. I would have to work hard and could not afford any mistakes in pacing, hydration, nutrition, or mindset. As each day neared, doubt crept in that I was in over my head with such a lofty goal. I told very few people my time goal in fear that their surprised reaction would create more unease within my mind. I had to remind myself that it’s just running. Finishing in 18:15 would be awesome. I would be disappointed if I didn’t come in around that goal, but a finish regardless of the clock would still be incredibly satisfying.

Kyle and I drove over to Fontana Friday afternoon and camped at Cable Cove Campground. The plan was to leave the campground around 3:45 am and start at 4:00 am. Kyle knows me well and suggested we leave a little earlier if I wanted to start on time. I have a propensity to double check things and am often fiddling with my pack, tying my shoes, or shuffling through my car while my friends slowly inch towards the trail ready to start a run.

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Good idea to leave earlier Kyle. Photo- Kyle

Kyle took a quick picture at the sign marking the park boundary, and as I turned around to start, the enormity of what was about to happen flooded my mind. Wait, I’m doing what? How many miles? How long will this take? This is stupid. Before I could change my mind and convince Kyle that we should abort the mission, call Marcelle and Sara and tell them to meet us at Dollywood, I muttered, “Oh, God,” hit start on my watch, and took off.

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Let’s do this!? Photo- Kyle

The early morning song of a whip-poor-will punctuated the early morning quiet as I ran up the brief section of pavement before entering the forested tunnel. Upon hitting the trail, I quickly settled into a steady hike. My mind was calm and content. I was no longer overwhelmed by the fact of traveling 72 miles through heinous terrain from sun up to sundown. I was about to traverse my favorite place in its entirety and that was thrilling.

I had broken the route down into various sections and carried my goal splits with me. The average distance between sections was around 6 miles. It’s much easier to comprehend an ultra-distance when you compartmentalize it into shorter segments rather than thinking, 70 miles to go… 50 miles to go… etc.

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The day was beginning to break as I neared Mollies Ridge (mile 10.3) and I was already 24 minutes ahead of pace. I figured fresh legs and cooler morning temps would put me somewhat ahead of pace in the earlier sections. But not that far ahead! I felt that I was not working hard and keeping my effort honest. I told myself to take the next section even easier.

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Rare stretch of smooth trail.

The temperatures were perfect and remained pleasant all day with surprisingly low humidity given the forecasted rain in the afternoon and it being the Smokies. My two brief wildlife encounters for the day, a pair of wild hogs and a black bear, occurred separately on the section between Mollies Ridge and Spence Field. Both were ideal in that they heard me coming, and all I saw were their rumps trotting off in the distance.

I reached my first planned water stop of the day (mile 17), which was a piped spring a few hundred feet down Bote Mountain Trail. I was now 29 minutes up on pace even after intentionally slowing down after leaving Mollies Ridge. I began to think this could be a special day as I honestly felt like I was keeping my effort comfortable despite being so far ahead of my projected pace.

Hiking Trails of the Smokies describes the section from the Jenkins Ridge Trail junction to Miry Ridge Trail junction as such, “It involves very strenuous climbs and constant losses of altitude. Nearly everything you gain you will ultimately lose, except for the wonderful views and the experience of traveling one of the least hiked portions of the Appalachian Trail.” Based on this description and the accounts of other’s, I expected the absolute worst for this section. It did not disappoint. Steep pitches of trail, exposed roots trying to snare a toe, loose rocks of all size, and knife-edge strips of ridgeline trail make this section especially ornery.

The terrain was relatively smooth from Derrick Knob to Silers Bald Shelter, and I was able to mix in some sustained running. I stopped for a quick water refill at Silers Bald and then began the climb up to Clingmans Dome. I hit Clingmans at 7:56 and was now 43 minutes ahead of pace. I would see crew in 4 miles. I felt amazing and was looking forward to some coffee and a cheese quesadilla.

I arrived at my crew stop where they had everything prepared for me. I spent 12 minutes (felt a lot shorter at the time) eating and reorganizing my dry bag of emergency clothes. Scattered thunderstorms were supposed to roll in around noon but the day was clearer than forecasted. I was prepared for rain and cold but decided to ditch some layers that were overkill to shed some weight while keeping only the essentials. Kyle and Dad worked to refill my pack and water bottles while I ate a heavenly cheese quesadilla and drank a cup of coffee.

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Crew goals. Photo- Kyle

My nutrition and hydration had gone according to plan up to my first crew spot at mile 36. I arrived with only a handful of chips left in my pack when I reached my crew. Getting food down had been easy and my energy levels never dipped. I ate 21 various Spring gels, 7 Electroride, one cheese quesadilla, and about 300 calories of potato chips in the first 36 miles. That’s about 3,100 calories and an average of 350 calories an hour. Ultrarunning is really just an eating contest.

The original plan was for Kyle to start running with me here. But he suggested that I leave my pack, so they could get it refilled with gels and emergency clothes, and I run the next 4 miles to Newfound sans pack. He would then start running with me there for the last 31 miles. That sounded like a great idea to me, and the next 4 miles were bliss without the extra weight.

I rolled into Newfound 42 minutes later, took a bathroom break, changed socks, finished my coffee, and took off with Kyle for the last 31 miles. I left Newfound a little under 10 hours overall and 40 minutes ahead of pace feeling great and would now have the benefit of Kyle running with me. I thought I could make up more time on the “easier” section. The climbs in the last 31 miles are much more moderate in grade compared to the first 40 miles. It’s essentially a 50k with around 5,500 feet of climbing from Newfound and a big downhill to the finish.

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Straddled the Tennessee, North Carolina border all day. Photo- Dad

I don’t know if I was going too fast from the start or that 40 miles and 12,000 feet of climbing were starting to catch up to me. My level of energy over the last 31 miles had more lows than highs. My power output on the climbs was no longer there. I had been hiking the hills with relative ease but now my heart rate would noticeably spike and my breathing become labored.

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Just left Newfound. Photo- Kyle

Jeff had sent me a text of encouragement the day before with the last note saying, “Nothing is permanent.” I had repeated that to myself incessantly throughout the day knowing that what felt like my all-time high of running over the first 40 miles would eventually come to an end. I wasn’t disappointed or didn’t have a pity party now that my level of perceived exertion was higher, I just kept working and repeating, “Nothing is permanent.” The lows would also not last forever.

Kyle and I had run this section two years ago going the opposite direction so I sort of remembered it. What I didn’t recall was the lush green moss lining the trail for extended stretches and the many views.

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Kyle took a quick side trip to Charlies Bunion while I kept going. Photo- Kyle

Claps of thunder rang off from the North Carolina side of the mountains and brief periods of rain came down. The rain was pleasant to cool us off, and we never needed our raincoats or became cold.

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The Tennessee side. Photo- Kyle

I kept stuffing gels down my gullet in hopes of restoring the steady flow of energy, but it would only come in waves.

It was a slog on the climb up to Mt. Guyot. There were brief stretches of downhill that I could shuffle, but my pace was slowing. I knew there would be a long downhill after cresting Mt. Guyot and was able to manage a decent pace going down following Mt. Guyot. I was so thankful that I still had legs to run the downhills.

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Nearing Mt. Guyot. Photo- Kyle

My last landmark on my split chart was Cosby Knob Shelter (mile 65). Kyle let me know I was still up on pace by about 40 minutes. I had stopped checking my split chart in fear of seeing all the time I had lost. I was moving better than I thought!

The downhill to Cosby Knob started a pattern of waterbar step-downs on the trail that were extremely disrupting to sustaining a downhill running rhythm. On fresh legs, it would be easier to get in a groove and sort of flow on such a section. But my legs were no longer fresh, and there was no rhythm to be had. Take a step, slow down, gingerly step down, repeat. I knew if I could lengthen my stride and keep myself from braking with every other step that it wouldn’t be near as bad. But I just couldn’t override my brain to take the risk.

We reached the junction with the Low Gap Trail, and I could faintly smell the barn. I’ve run up from Cosby out to Mt. Cammerer several times to watch the sunrise and am very familiar with this section. Steady climb for two miles with brief stretches of flat and then all downhill to the end. That downhill is littered with more annoying waterbar step-downs but at least each step would be closer to the finish.

Being on a familiar stretch of trail and nearing the end, I had to fight the dangerous “you’re almost done” mindset. It would be around two hours until the finish, and that’s still plenty of time for things to go wrong. It started raining on us again briefly, but it stopped after a few minutes. The rain was once again refreshing. We hit a flat stretch of trail, and I told myself to go faster than a walk. I started “running” and couldn’t hear Kyle’s cadence quicken behind me. Am I going so slow that he can walk and easily keep up? I turned my head, and he was merrily walking along. I couldn’t help but laugh.

It was time for headlamps about 6 miles out. I kept glancing at my watch and realized that if I stayed on my current pace, I would lose almost all of the cushion I had maintained all day. I wasn’t too worried because we had been climbing for a couple of miles and my pace should have been slower. I was hoping to gain some time back on the downhill. But, waterbars.

I was moving so slow in the first mile of the final descent. The waterbar step-downs were significant, there were loose rocks of varying sizes everywhere, and traveling by headlamp made for tricky navigation. I cautiously moved downhill for the next mile and stole another glance at my watch. If I didn’t pick it up, I would lose nearly all of my cushion and come in close to 18 hours. That would have been fine. Great, actually! But after being ahead of my goal time all day, I really wanted to go under 18 hours, dammit. A switch flipped, and I took off. I didn’t care if my knees hurt. I didn’t care if I tripped and fell. I didn’t care about anything except getting to the finish as quickly as possible. Thankfully, there were very few waterbars left once I decided to just go. Everything started to feel better as I could lengthen my stride out and stop braking with every other step.

I kept glancing at my watch counting down the miles. 3 more miles, 2.5, 2, 1. Come on, where is the finish!?

I thought we were close, and I asked Kyle to go ahead so he could get a picture of me finishing. He darted around, and 30 seconds later I was finished. 17:41:28.

Strava Data

Ecstatic and relieved to be finished, I sat on a rock and all the memories of the day flooded through in an instant. Starting at the other end of the park in the dark. Climbing up by headlamp. Sunrise. Bear. Rocky and steep trail. Smooth running. Clingmans. Coffee and quesadilla. Flying down to Newfound. Slow climb out. Thunder. Rain. Moss. More rocks. Slogging away. Waterbars. Dark. Downhill fun. Done. “Isn’t it crazy when we do this long and stupid stuff, that when it’s over, it all felt like it happened so fast?” Kyle laughed and agreed.

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Done! Photo- Kyle

Thank you, Dad, for driving over from Knoxville to help shuttle the cars. That was a big help! Thank you, Kyle, for giving up a weekend away from your beautiful family to get me to the finish. And thank you for running an extra mile and a half to get the car at Big Creek and drive back up to get me (I was worried about leaving the car at Davenport because of vandals). Thank you, Marcelle, for always encouraging me to get out the door for a run and never making me feel bad for being gone to train and chase my goals. Thanks to everyone for all the encouragement and well wishes. Thank you, Nashville Running Company, for supporting my gear obsession and building a great running community in Nashville. Thank you, Spring Energy, for real food products that work. 39 various gels and 12 Electroride. No stomach problems all day!

Kyle’s Instagram. He takes some cool pictures.

It was a near perfect day I’ll never forget!

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Thru-hiker art. Photo- Kyle

 

Posted in Adventure Runs | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Bighorn 100

The 2017 edition of Bighorn, which takes place in the Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming, served up some of the worst conditions in race history. Extended rain turned the course, already famous for its muddy sections, into an absolute mess that was unrunnable for 40 miles. One person I ran with in the beginning later sustained a concussion from a bad fall in the mud. Scuttlebutt at the aid stations and on the internet also indicate one runner broke their ankle and had to ride out on a horse, while another broke their nose from a fall. Bighorn is advertised as “wild and scenic.” It was indeed scenic and perhaps a little too wild.

Last fall, I decided to run Bighorn as my first 100. Wanting a summer 100 and Hardrock qualifier, Bighorn fit the bill. A strained quad/groin from overzealous training sidelined me for a couple of weeks in March and served as a blessing in disguise. I had a heightened sense of anxiety in preparing to run 100 miles. If I was going to run further than I ever have before, then I needed to run more miles in training than I ever have. I kept pushing the envelope in training, and the early warning signs of doing too much began to creep up. My legs were constantly tight, I would have some days with little to no energy, and my daily runs were more stressful than enjoyable. In 3 consecutive weekends, I raced a hard 50k, did a seven and half hour long run in the Smokies, and capped the last weekend off with an intense 50k training run. I went for an easy jog on the treadmill the following day, and my right leg was extremely unhappy. Being forced to take two weeks off to let my quad and groin heal up made me realize that I would never make it to the start line if I kept going hard every week. My training shifted from trying to hit a high weekly mileage goal, to keeping the mileage consistent with focused blocks of accumulating vert. With my new approach to training, the mini freak outs became less frequent the closer I got to the race. I felt fitter than ever and confident in tackling 100 miles.

Jeff volunteered to fly out and serve as my one-man crew/pacer pretty soon after I had signed up. He would be the perfect pacer to keep me moving and would entertain zero thoughts of dropping. We flew into Billings, Montana the Wednesday before the race and made the two-hour drive down to Sheridan, Wyoming. We stopped for a quick detour at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and enjoyed the experiential history of artifacts and battle sights. A quote from Sitting Bull resonated with me, “You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.” While my 100 mile run is, of course, trivial compared to defending your ancestral land from a government reneging on their promises because they want to mine for gold, I hoped I would not make myself a slave to a warm aid station and the allure of dry socks.

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This van would have definitely got stuck in the mud. Photo- Jeff

Friday morning finally rolled around after poking around in Sheridan for a few days. The race started at 10 AM to fair temps and an overcast sky. The heat that pounded the runners last year would not be a factor this year. There was a chance of rain, but the forecast was not dire. It seemed conditions would be just about perfect.

The first 13.5 miles to Dry Fork aid station had a little over 4,000 feet of ascent. All that climbing served as a perfect governor to keep the effort level low from the start. I caught up to the legendary Andy Jones-Wilkins right before the aid station, and we would go on to run the next 27 miles together. Jeff helped to refill my bottles, reload my pack with Spring gels, and I was quickly out of Dry Fork. I would not see Jeff again until mile 48 at the turnaround where he would then pace me all the way back to the finish.

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Climbing up. Photo- Emile Baizel

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Pretty flowers and ominous clouds. Photo- Sunaad Nataraju

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I think I was burping. Photo- Jeff

The section from Dry Fork to Footbridge (mile 30) was the best bit of running all day. Wildflowers of purple and yellow surrounded us as we ran with the canyon walls towering above on either side. The terrain was gentle and rolling with perfect footing as the rain had yet to start. The clouds were still hanging around and shielded us from the sun. Everything was going perfectly.

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Cruising through the flowers.

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About to descend the Wall.

We neared Footbridge and the infamous Wall. Heading down into Footbridge, the Wall is a steep and fun technical descent. I really enjoyed this rocky section and rolled into the first-class establishment that is Footbridge. Two kids on radios messaged in each runner’s bib number as the aid station neared, so when we rolled into the aid station somebody was handing us our drop bag. I changed out of my shoes and socks while a volunteer delivered me an avocado, potatoes, and boiled eggs.

During the pre-race briefing, we were told that the majority of the mud would start around Spring Marsh (mile 40) and continue all the way to the turnaround. Being an out and back, you would then run through all that mud again, so there was no point in changing shoes and socks at the turnaround. The plan was to change into the S Lab Ultras, which had a little more grip, for the muddy sections from Footbridge to the turnaround and back down to Footbridge. Then change back into the cushy Sense Pro Max for the last 30 plus miles of mud-free terrain.

I left Footbridge with the usual surge of adrenaline that a busy aid station provides. The trail was rocky and paralleled the raging Little Bighorn River for the first few miles. It was a steady 18-mile climb with a little over 4,000 feet of gain to the turnaround. Still feeling strong, I was looking forward to settling into a rhythm of hiking the ups and running the flats. The real fun was just about to begin.

The rain started not too long after leaving Footbridge. I read many race reports and received first-hand advice to be prepared for cold on the climb from Footbridge to the turnaround. I left with a dry bag that included a long sleeve wool shirt, dry buff, gloves, and the Patagonia Airshed Pullover. I also had a raincoat (Patagonia Alpine Houdini) in my pack from the start. These two shells worked perfectly and were indispensable in battling the wind and rain.

It was still warm as the first bit of rain started, and I did not want to stop and fiddle with my pack to get the Airshed and gloves out. Not stopping to layer up at that moment almost cost me my race. My t-shirt was soaking wet and quickly cooling down my core body temp. The wind was getting stronger, and my hands were starting to go numb. Shielded from the wind, I stopped in a patch of trees to throw on the Airshed and gloves. I noticed a big difference immediately, but my wet t-shirt was keeping me from gaining 100% warmth. I hit the Elk Camp aid station at mile 43.5 soon after and threw on my jacket as well. A focused 12 year old served me some warm mashed potatoes and broth. Galvanized by the warm food and additional layers, I was ready to charge up the last 4.5 miles to the turnaround.

The mud was getting ridiculous. With each step, I slid a few inches one way or another searching for traction and ankle deep puddles began to cover the trail. The night was settling in, and I was about 2 miles from the top when I finally had to turn on my headlamp. Headlights from vehicles emerged out of the darkness, and I knew I was getting close. I ran the last flat mile on the road to the aid station ready to eat some warm food and change my base layer.

It was triage in the aid station. I have never seen anything like it. Runners were covered in blankets, huddled around heaters, and staring off into the distance with dazed and blank looks. Volunteers were yelling for chairs and delivering quesadillas and broth to runners all over the place.

A crew was doing everything they could to get their runner back out.

Crew- “What if you keep the down jacket on and double up with two Houdini’s?”
Runner- “No. I’m done.”
Crew- “Leave here and make it to Footbridge before you decide to drop. We will be there and you can drop there if you want to.”
Runner- “No. I’m sorry.”

Despite being on my feet for 48 miles and battling the cold, rain, and mud for the past 3 hours, I felt amazing. Seeing nearly all of the other runners shivering and dejected gave me an extra boost knowing I felt so great.

Jeff had my drop bag and helped me refill my pack with food. I was so glad to get my soaked base layer off and put on the long sleeve wool shirt. Jeff reminded me to take my time here and get some food in me. I munched on a quesadilla, black beans, and broth. After 15 minutes of eating and getting warm, we charged out into the cold night.

Me- “I hope you’re ready to get muddy.”
Jeff- “Is it honestly that bad?”
Me- “Dude, it’s insane.”

The warmth of the tent was hard to leave and the frigid wind immediately pierced us upon exiting the aid station. It actually snowed up at the turnaround overnight. The mile of road back to the trail would be the last bit of sustained running over the next 33 miles.

We quickly hit the trail and began splashing through the puddles and skating on the mud. Jeff was laughing like a little kid at how awful the trail had become. We went on to hike the 18 mile descent (yes, hiking downhill!) back to Footbridge.

We went through periods of laughing at the mud and cursing the mud. In all my planning before the race, this section was going to be a fun downhill to run. I was on pace for around a 25-26 hour finish after reaching the turnaround in 12 hours. I figured there was no way we could travel faster than 3 mph in these conditions. Would I finish closer to 30 hours? Beyond that? When people asked me my goal time leading up to the race, I told them I thought I could go around 27 hours if I had a great day. I would also add that if it took 34 hours, then that’s what it would take. I had said this so many times but it had never entirely resonated with me. The reality started to set in that it may actually take 34 hours. Yikes.

Frustration started to set in the closer we got to Footbridge. Jeff and I would try to run but then lose traction after a few steps and then slip sideways and wildly catch ourselves. Jeff took one nasty fall in which I had enough time to hear him hit the ground, turn around, and see him continuing to slide a few feet down the side of the trail. I was holding out that the conditions would get better near the turnaround, but they only worsened.

Jeff broke a long period of silence.

Jeff- “How you doing?”
Me- “I’m just getting really frustrated with this shit.”

Airing the frustration out loud was mildly cathartic.

Me- “But hey, (forced chuckle) what can we do?”

The smell of campfire and the lights from Footbridge eventually came into view. Finally! It had taken me 5 hours and 14 minutes to climb the 18 miles from Footbridge to the turnaround. The muddy 18-mile descent had taken 5 hours and 24 minutes.

The original hustle and bustle of Footbridge was no longer. It was 4 in the morning, and the volunteers were still going above and beyond, but the long day and night in the rain was wearing on them as well. A volunteer delivered my drop bag and took my order. Similar to my last stop at Footbridge, I was quickly delivered a plate of potatoes, avocado, and boiled eggs. The sense of urgency I previously had in each aid station had vanished. Sitting down felt nice. Not concentrating on every step and making sure I didn’t fall was a welcome reprieve.

Jeff snapped me out of my stupor and I went about taking off my shoes. The mud had nearly caked the laces to the point where I couldn’t untie them. A gracious volunteer nearly pulled me out of my chair trying to take off my mud infested knee high compression socks. I washed my feet in a tub of water, slathered on some RunGoo, and welcomed the foreign feeling of dry shoes and socks.

Me- “I don’t want to do this for another 34 miles. This may actually take all 34 hours.”

Jeff later told me after the race that he was thinking the exact same thing upon leaving Footbridge. But being a good pacer, he didn’t say anything.

The thought of sliding around in the mud for another 50k with zero running sounded awful. But dropping was not an option. I had invested too much time, money, and effort into training for this race. I was going to finish.

We had stopped long enough in the aid station for a chill to set back in. Thankfully, the climb up the Wall quickly warmed us up. The eternal optimist in me had a flicker of hope that the mud was going to get better. It did not.

We were a little halfway up the Wall when the sun started to peak through the rain clouds. Jeff and I turned around for an epic sunrise that would accompany a John Muir quote and spark renewed motivation in us to keep going. But the dang rain clouds didn’t even allow for a beautiful sunrise.

I’m usually the bird geek pointing out different types of birds, but Jeff pointed out a nighthawk circling around and dive bombing into bogs for its morning breakfast. All the other birds were waking up and starting their morning songs. The sunrise was disappointing but the merry band of birds made up for it.

We approached Bear Camp aid station (69.5) which signaled the Wall was almost over. The mud was super slick at the steepest parts, and we were falling backward with each step. Desperate for any aid, I grabbed a Hobbit hiking pole to help reach the top.

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Limited edition Hobbit trekking cane. Photo- Jeff

The next 13.5 miles would have been runnable if for not, you guessed it, the mud! A pity party was slowly starting to creep in.

Me- “You know David Horton’s mantra, ‘It can’t always get worse.’ It honestly feels like it keeps getting worse.”
Jeff- “Well it’s not raining anymore. The wind isn’t blowing. It’s light out again. And you can’t beat the scenery.”

I had never fully understood that mantra until then. Jeff said exactly what I needed to hear and saved me from going to a bad place.

Jeff had been taking a keen interest in the different types of mud like some sort of scientist. He kept me distracted and entertained with his classifications of different types of mud. The final tally of mud categories, ranging from beef soup to caramel taffy, totaled 9 by the end of the day.

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“No more mud!” Photo- Jeff

We approached the last climb back up to Dry Fork aid station and continued to work against the mud. Jason Schlarb randomly ran by going the opposite way. Jeff and I guessed he got tired of waiting at Dry Fork to pace someone and was running back to find his runner. He was gliding effortlessly on top of the mud (But how, was he wearing cleats?) with his mullet blowing in the breeze. He bellowed sternly and quasi-inspirational, “The sun is coming! Hang in there!” And just like that, the sun slowly started to break through the clouds for the first time all morning.

We finally made it to Dry Fork aid station, and the finish remained 18.5 miles down the mountain. 18.5 miles felt so far away after averaging 20-minute miles for the past 11 hours. Maintaining that pace would mean another 6 hours until the finish. We were closer to the finish than we had been all day, but the thought of trudging through the mud for another 6 hours was overbearing.

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Almost to Dry Fork. Photo- Jeff

I wanted to sit down, take the time to eat some food, and take a mental break from the mud. All the chairs were taken by other mud caked runners. I continued to pan right and left hoping I missed sight of an empty chair.

Volunteer- “Do you want to sit down?”
Me- “Yes.”
Volunteer- “There is a warm trailer right outside and you can go sit in there.”
Me- “Oh, thank goodness. Thank you.”

Jeff and I walked over to the trailer, which had a nice 3 foot clearing to climb into the trailer. I was too apathetic to laugh or curse having to jump up and in the trailer. I sat there drinking coffee and eating potatoes calculating whether or not I would be able to make it to the finish before the cutoff.

Me mumbling to myself- “It’s probably around 2 o’clock. That means 6 hours to finish. If the mud remains horrendous then the best we can do is 3 mph which puts us at the finish pretty close to the 8:00 PM cutoff.”

I actually did not know what time it was. My watch was in my rear pocket and I did not feel like fiddling with it and getting it out.

Me- “What time is it?”
Volunteer making pizza- “It is…10 o’clock.”
Me- “What!? It’s only 10!? Wow, I thought it was around 2!”

I was ecstatic. I chugged the rest of my coffee, and we hopped off the precipice of the trailer to continue marching towards the finish.

We had a short climb up a dirt road before hooking back up with the single track that would take us all the way back to the start. We would then continue past the start and run 5 miles of dirt road back into town to get our money’s worth of 100 miles.

Bighorn also has 52, 32, and 18 mile races that start on Saturday and run on the same trails. One report said that a bunch of people got off the bus for the 32 miler, saw the terrible conditions, turned their bib in, and climbed back on the bus for the ride back to town.

The 18 mile race had just started behind us as fresh and jovial runners passed by. 100 mile runners had white bibs and caked mud covering their posterior to identify their different race distance. I was slightly annoyed with the 18 milers prancing by in their clean shoes and proceeding on to chew up whatever bit of decent trail was left. But so many runners passed by with praise and admiration for those running the 100. It put things in perspective that I was currently 85 miles into this quest through the mire, and I was still moving.

The clouds had finally parted and the beautiful blue sky had reappeared. And the trail was finally runnable! Yeah, there was a little mud but it was mud you could actually run through.

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Yay running! Photo- Jeff

Jeff volunteered to take the lead and we started passing a bunch of 18 mile racers. It was euphoric to actually open up our stride and run. The coffee had kicked in, the sun was shining, and we were running. The muddy nightmare was over.

We rolled into Upper Sheep Creek and were 12.5 miles from the finish. I was finally warm enough to take off my two shells and gloves. I pounded some potato chips and downed a caffeinated gel for the last short climb of the day. The last 12 miles would then be flat or downhill.

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Last climb of the day. Photo- Jeff

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All downhill from here. Photo- Jeff

My legs still felt good and we ran the long descent at a decent clip passing several 18 milers and a few 100 milers. The exertion of actually running, the warming temperatures of descending lower, and the sun being out made it a little warm. I continued to sip water but did not want to bother with eating while running downhill. I started to heat up and was no longer sweating.

We reached the road for the last 5 miles of flat running back into town. I was starting to feel a little weird after overdoing it on the descent. I put ice in my hat and shorts and was sprayed down with water at the aid station.

Jeff- “You’ve got 58 minutes to go under 28 hours. So that’s 12 minute miles with a little extra time.”
Me- “We can do that. Let’s run/walk it in.”

The run/walk strategy was working for about the first 2 miles and then I hit the wall. I finally had my first hallucination.

Me mumbling to myself- “Is that a? A dead baby armadillo? Oh no. Just a stick and some pine cones.”
Jeff- “What’s that?”
Me- “Oh, nothing.”

I felt hot but also cold. I felt loopy and was starting to get tunnel vision. I was staring off into the sky, zoned out, and then remembered where I was and what I was doing. Any effort greater than a walk felt like I would pass out. I was quiet for 5 minutes as all these thoughts were swirling internally. I didn’t know how to verbalize how I felt without worrying Jeff or myself.

Me- “Dude, I do not feel good.”
Jeff- “What’s up? Hot, cold? When’s the last time you ate?

Jeff helped me problem solve. At first, I thought I was too hot so we poured water over my head. I then quickly got the chills from the water and strong crosswind. He then made me put my jacket on and forced me to eat. I slowly came out of whatever it was and managed a measly shuffle for the last half mile.

Jeff ran up ahead to get a picture of me crossing the finish line and I was by myself for the last few minutes. I tried to soak it in and think back to the whole day. The high of getting to mile 48 and feeling like I could turn around and do it all again. The mental lows of trudging through the mud for hours on end and wondering if I would ever reach the finish. Being grateful for Jeff coming all the way out to experience the muddy madness and for being the perfect pacer who never pushed me too hard but always had the perfect response to keep me going. I got choked up as I approached the finish line but was too emotionally and mentally wasted to do anything other than cross the finish line.

28 hours and 15 minutes later, it was all over. I did it. I felt empowered like never before. I could do anything. Except take my mud encrusted socks and shoes off.

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Finished. Photo- Jeff

Bighorn is a first class event. The volunteers braved the awful conditions day and night and catered to the needs of all the runners perfectly. Many of the aid stations were so remote that supplies had to be hiked in or ridden on horse or ATV. Yet, almost every aid station was stocked with warm food and had everything a runner could need.

I lost count at some point but consumed around 50 Spring Energy products along the way. I had zero stomach issues all day.

And big thanks to Nashville Running Company for their support. I’m glad to be on the race team for the store that helped me get my start into trail running.

Only 175 of the 373 racers finished the 100-mile run for a finisher rate of 47%. Kudos to every single runner, crew, and volunteer who was out there.

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Thanks Jeff for being the best pacer ever.

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Jeff’s legs post race.

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Stillhouse 100k

The Stillhouse 100k is an out and back of the Upchuck 50k course that runs along the eastern rim of the Cumberland Plateau. I kept telling myself, “Oh, it’s just Upchuck twice. It won’t be that bad.” False. A more reasonable approach would have been, “Damn, I have to run Upchuck and then turnaround and run it again. This is gonna suck.” I prefer a more optimistic “it won’t be that bad” mentality for any race or long run. It keeps my mood light and enjoyable, rather than dwelling on the negative and not enjoying being out in the woods. This naive, hippy approach works perfectly for a 50k because the pain and fatigue from pushing the pace usually sets in late with the finish line only a few miles away. I know I can power through for another 15-30 minutes and then eat all of the almond butter I want.

Stillhouse would be my fifth race over the 50k distance. There has been a distinct pattern at my four previous 50 milers, which goes like so. I forget about the magnitude of the distance with my “it won’t be that bad” approach, am surprised when the pain sets in, realize I still have a long ways to go before the finish and turn into a sulky mess. I shuffle along until I cross the finish line, realize it didn’t hurt that bad, and regret not pushing through it.

My goal for Stillhouse was to eat the whole time, have fun, and finish feeling strong. During my sulky mess stage, I always stop eating and of course slow down even more. Have fun is always a goal. I spend too much money on gear, races, and travel to participate in this hobby and not have fun. Finish feeling strong didn’t necessarily mean busting out 7 minute miles at the end. I wanted to be moving at a pace that wouldn’t be classified as shuffling. I accomplished goal number one and was pumped to stay on top of my nutrition all day. Goal number two of having fun was successful until around mile 40. Finish feeling strong definitely did not happen. I could barely manage a shuffle. Plodding or trudging would be more accurate. An average of one for three gets you in the Hall of Fame. But this ain’t baseball.

One of the reasons I wanted to do Stillhouse was the midnight start. I like night running and a midnight start just sounds cool. Jeff, Kyle, and I arrived at the start/finish around 10:30 to mingle and make sure everything was squared away. We had been crashing at my aunt’s in Chattanooga since midafternoon and planned on getting some rest. However, we were all too jazzed and managed only a 30 minute nap.

As midnight neared, it was cold and hovering around 40 degrees. Chilly to be standing around but just fine for running if dressed properly. The one and only Cary Long was mildly concerned with his layering system and kept asking everybody for advice on what to wear. Runners continued to mill around as the start approached. Co-RD Chris Luberecki gave us a brief speech that warned us of heavy leaf litter (they actually used a leaf blower on some parts of the trail to make it discernible) and soon we were off.

It’s a steady two mile climb up a road before hitting the Cumberland Trail and all its rocky glory. I quickly settled in with John Brower, and we would run the next 20 miles together. We chatted for a bit in the beginning but soon settled into a quiet groove in which we worked together perfectly to keep moving steadily along. When a brief section of solid ground gave way to the many rocks and leaves, I would steal a quick glance at the sky and marvel at all the stars with Orion always dominating my attention.

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Rocks and leaves await. Photo- Victoria Brunner

The south has been in a drought for the past two months, and I was surprised to hear the steady flow of water as we carefully descended into Soddy Creek. There was barely a trace of water a month ago during the running of Upchuck, but the few showers from the past week had quickly replenished Soddy Creek. Forest fires were actually burning on this part of the trail a month ago, which forced a reroute of Upchuck. The smell of the burnt forest faintly lingered. I was curious as to what the damage would look like in the day time.

The always soothing sound of flowing water grew stronger as John and I carefully made our way down the mini boulder field to the Soddy Creek bridge crossing. I paused for a second to look back up the ridge from which we just descended and was amazed at how high up the stream of headlamps glowed from other runners. With our headlamps only illuminating a couple feet in front of us, it was impossible to have perspective on the big climbs and descents that lie ahead of us in the dark. I later realized during the daytime how much of a mental advantage not knowing what awaited provided.

After a quick and steep climb out of Soddy Creek, the trail becomes more runnable over the next several miles. Sections of pine forest litter the trail with soft beds of pine needles, which make this a fun section to run. John and I settled into a good rhythm and hit the brief road section quicker than expected that leads to the first aid station at mile 12. The bright flashing lights of the gas station advertising deals of packaged soft drinks and 100% gasoline off of Highway 111 clearly came into view upon hitting the road. I took a right turn on the pavement towards the aid station, which was tucked just outside of the woods a half mile down from the gas station. The gas station still seemed far away and I quickly realized John and I were running down the on ramp to Highway 111. We laughed, corrected our mistake, and arrived at the aid station in a few minutes.

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John and I fueling up. Photo- Victoria Brunner

John and I left the aid station together and continued running with each other until I pulled off for a bathroom break around mile 20. I soon arrived at the Retro Hughes Road aid station just as he was leaving. I took my time to refill my bottles and take some solid food for the next section to the turnaround. The next eight miles would be mostly downhill to the turnaround and I was looking forward to flowing down. I lost focus for a second on the flat trail leaving the aid station and rolled my left ankle pretty good. I had to walk for a few minutes before it was okay to run. Thankfully, my ankle was fine for the rest of the day, but I was scared of rolling my ankle again and the downhill section was more timid than rhythmic.

The top three passed me on their way back as I neared the turnaround. They were about 20 minutes up and I was feeling good at the moment and wondering if I’d be able to close the gap over the next 31 miles. I arrived at the turnaround at 6:31 to many familiar faces. It looked like John had arrived a few minutes before me and was just about to head back out. The ultrarunning community is the best. I had no crew, but I was quickly catered to by seasoned ultra-wives Katy, wife of Nathan Holland and volunteer coordinator for the Rock/Creek Race Series, and Sherrie, Jobie Williams’s wife. They grabbed my drop bag and were asking what I needed, while David Pharr was delivering me chips and guacamole. I downed the chips and guacamole, reloaded my pack with food, took a ziplock bag of potatoes for the trail, and was off.

I left the aid station full of energy and was determined to catch John who left a couple minutes before me. It would be light in an hour and I was looking forward to ditching the head and waist lamps. Jeff and Kyle passed by with no sign of Jobie, they all planned to run together and said he had dropped off the back a while ago. I passed Jobie five minutes later, and he said he was already worked. It would be so easy to drop out at the turnaround knowing exactly how tough and technical repeating those 31 miles would be on tired legs. I hoped he would persevere and leave the turnaround determined to finish.

I worked my way back up the eight mile climb as the sun was coming up. It was cloudy over the distant ridge to the left and the sun was turning the clouds into a beautiful hue of purple and orange. It was more hiking than running up the climb, and I worried John was starting to pull away. He was only a few minutes ahead as I arrived back at mile 39 and the Retro Hughes aid station. Veteran Chattanooga ultrarunner, Ryan Meulemans, was working the aid station and asked how I was feeling. I hesitated in giving my answer and he said, “Just say you feel great.” I laughed, thanked the volunteers, and left determined to close the gap but the wheels slowly started to fall off.

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Winner, Nathan Holland, making it look easy. Photo- Victoria Brunner

The aforementioned mental cycle kicked in. It started to hurt and I folded. My brain was telling me, “Hey, you’ve been on your feet for a while. Why not just walk?” I didn’t even argue back. There were brief moments of snapping out of it and running but those didn’t last long. I would take off running and be completely aware that I wasn’t hurting that bad. There was general fatigue and soreness but nothing excruciating. All my motivation was completely gone. I had stuck to my goal of eating all day, and my stomach was perfect. I had no excuses, and the only thing holding me back was my mind. I was not prepared to deal with the pain and shutdown. It then became a cycle of being pissed off at myself for not having the want to or mental fortitude to push through, and then being angry with myself for being angry at myself.

I kept the walk and plodding pattern going and thought for sure someone was going to eventually catch me. I kept looking back but no one approached. After a while, two people were ahead of me on the trail and I thought they were hikers. I caught up and realized it was one of the guys who had been in the top 3 with his son pacing him. The runner was moving even slower than I was and looked absolutely spent. He said he was wasted and would eventually drop at mile 49. I was thankful to not be that physically depleted and had a new spark of energy.

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“Someone with a camera. Run.” Photo- Victoria Brunner

Back at the Highway 111 aid station and 12ish miles from the finish, I found out John, now in third place, had opened up a considerable gap on me. There was no shot at catching him, and my tiny spark of energy quickly faded. It would be 12 more miles of wallowing in mental despair. I thought ahead to my next big race. “There’s no way I can run 100 miles. I’ll never be ready to run 100 miles. 100 miles is stupid. I wonder if I can get my money back for Bighorn.”

I descended down into Soddy Creek and the last climb awaited. The climb took forever, and I kept thinking I had reached the top. But the trail kept wrapping around the ridge and climbing even further up. I was officially over it.

This is the section where the forest fire hit and the damage didn’t look that bad. The ridge was scarred black, but the innumerable amount of rocks probably kept the fire from leaving worse visual and physical damage. And the firefighters also worked their tails off to stop the fire on the steep terrain.

I eventually made it to the road for the last two miles of pavement to the finish. Miraculously, no one had caught up to me and I was still hanging on to fourth place. I kept looking back for Kyle and Jeff to catch up over the last 10 miles but they never did. I was running 13 minute mile pace down the road, feeling sorry for myself, and not taking the time to celebrate running 62 freaking miles. I took one last look back a quarter mile from the finish, and I finally saw Jeff and Kyle closing in. They caught up and we ran to the finish together.

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Jeff felt good enough to moonwalk in. Photo- Nathan Holland

I had been stripped down to my core and was none too happy with the way I responded. I turn into a worthless state late in a long effort and it’s all mental. I’m looking forward to some time off and getting back at it next year to address the mental side of things.

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The coolest story of the day was the guy who finished last. Gregory Griffin was on his way to just sneaking in under the cutoff and then had to hustle to beat the train less than a mile from the finish. He crossed the tracks 15 seconds ahead of the train and then made it to the finish after being out on the trail for 19 hours and 56 minutes.

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Gregory Griffin happy to beat the train.

I recently joined the Spring Sports Nutrition Team. They make their nutrition out of real food and put it in the size of a regular gel packet. I had 25 of the Spring gels throughout the whole race. I’ve never been able to take 25, or anywhere close to that, of anything during a race or training. I never felt nauseous or got tired of the flavors. They use only real food for ingredients, have no sugar, and taste great. The company was started by runners and is based out of Nashville. Spring Energy

Huge shout out to Brian Costilow and Chris Luberecki for putting on a great race. It was the first and sadly last year for the Stillhouse 100k. The aid stations were awesome, and the course was perfectly marked. Many people were worried about getting lost with the midnight start and the heavy amount of leaves on the trail. I heard no stories of anyone going off course and had no trouble at all staying on course myself. It would be cool to see this race back on the calendar.

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Yong Kim cruising along. Photo- Victoria Brunner

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Tennessee geology. Photo- Victoria Brunner

 

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San Juan Solstice 50 and a Road Trip

Summer is fun. As a teacher, I get two months of freedom. Even better, my wife Marcelle and I work at the same school so we have the exact same schedule of days off. This makes planning vacations and weekend trips infinitely easier.

I started looking for a summer 50 last December. I wanted to go somewhere out west where we could have a fun vacation around the race. One January training run, Jeff Davis mentioned I should apply for the lottery for San Juan Solstice as he planned on running the race for the second year in a row. I initially considered this race but was scared away by the altitude. But it is pretty easy to say yes to anything during a run.

Not soon after, I registered for the lottery and got in. I quickly began dreaming up a summer road trip out west around the race.

Pre-Race Road Trip

Marcelle and I spent a day in St Louis on the drive out from Nashville visiting a friend and also spending way too much time at the Forest Park Zoo. Then we had a Clark Griswold Vacation moment in Kansas when I got the car stuck in the mud camping. On to Leadville where we camped for two nights exploring the big mountains and visiting a friend.

Next up, Lake City for a week to settle in for the race. Two more nights of camping before trading the domesticity of the tent and car for a luxurious lakeside cabin with Jeff, Lori, and Conrad.

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Leadville mountains.

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More big Leadville mountains.

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Creek crossing! Hike earlier in the week with Marcelle.

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Hike up Cataract Gulch.

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Pre-race shakeout approach of Handies Peak.

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Camping is hard sometimes. Especially when you’re lazy and don’t use all 4 stakes.

Pre-Race Feelings

My biggest fear of this race was the altitude. The course is above 10,000 feet for a little over 34 miles. I had no idea how my body would react. Would I be able to get food down? Would I be able to keep my heart rate at a steady level? Would I be throwing up? Would I be struck by lightening on the Continental Divide? Would I get lost and die? The last one was a dramatic and outlandish fear but an actual question on the race’s FAQ page.

I had been at altitude (8,500-10,000 feet) for 7 days. 6 of those days I had hiked or ran at easy efforts ranging around an hour. In hindsight, I probably did a little too much. But it’s hard not to when you have quick access to some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

I was noticeably breathing harder on all the hikes and runs. I felt like I had a pressure in my chest that slowly shrunk each day but never fully went away. I gained confidence on each excursion that I would be okay during the race. Yeah, the altitude would make things more challenging, but I would eventually make it back to the finish.

I felt that Jeff and I had an unspoken agreement to stay together during the race. This was confirmed the night before the race when he posed the question of us staying together. Neither of us were approaching this as a race. It would be stupid to try and race this coming from sea level, and the course is too dang pretty to run with your head down focused on a time rather than marveling at the surrounding beauty.

I had my usual breakfast of a banana, 2 Lara bars, and a couple scoops of nut butter. This pre-race breakfast always left me full. Almost too full. But I always felt the big breakfast left me satiated throughout the race. The full stomach early on led to problems getting food down that essentially lasted the whole race.

We left the Town Park at 5 a.m. and would loop back after 50 miles and 12,856 feet of up and down respectively.

Mile 0-3: Gravel road with steady incline. Runnable.

Feeling good. I like this easy pace.

Actually my stomach is still really full from breakfast. Hopefully that goes away.

A guy runs past using poles.

Are those ski poles?

I am confident I made the right decision in not bringing my trekking poles. Having my hands free will make me eat more consistently.

Everybody is getting spaced out pretty well. Shouldn’t be a conga line once we hit the single track.

It’s starting to get a little brighter. Wow, the mountains are so pretty.

Mile 3-9: Single track and multiple creek crossings. Roughly 4,000 feet of climbing.

Geez, I still feel full. This needs to go away so I can start getting some calories in.

Traffic slows upon hitting the single track and starting the multiple crossings over the next mile.

So much for no conga line.

Oosh, that water was cold. Kinda refreshing.

Come on people, let’s cross these creeks a little faster.

Dang, that was really cold.

Holy cow! That one was really cold.

Alright, I think that was all of the crossings. Time to hike a little faster and warm up.

More crossings ahead.

Oh, two more to cross.

Pretty sure that was it. Now the hiking will get steep.

The long climb truly begins.

You know, what’s the difference between hiking and power hiking?

Holy cow, I feel like my heart is gonna beat out of my head.

Still so full but need to eat.

Dang dude, that’s a lot of spandex. Is this UTMB?

I wish I had my poles.

Look at the mountains. They are beautiful. That’s why you’re doing this. Let that distract you.

Screw this. Why do I pick races with obscene amounts of climbing?

Approaching what seems like the crest with another huge peak in front of us.

Me- “Are we going up that?”

Jeff laughs somewhat maniacally, “Yep.”

Me- “What the eff? You’ve gotta be effing kidding me!”

Mile 9-10: Above tree line and running along the ridge.

Oh, thank goodness. Jeff was wrong. We don’t have to go up that mountain.

Whoa, this is pretty. I take back everything I thought earlier. Totally worth it.

I need to eat. My stomach sort of feels better.

I look at my watch.

Whoa, I just went 3 hours without eating. Not good.

I’m gonna stop and take pictures. Perfect excuse to stop moving.

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Jeff crushes mountains for breakfast.

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Mile 10-16: Single track. Big descent. Fun running.

I feel much better after the bathroom break. I think I can start eating.

Maybe not. This is technical. Gotta focus. I’ll eat later.

Starting to catch and pass a few runners.

Woo hoo!

Oh hey, it’s spandex dude again.

It feels good to pass people.

Just about to the bottom of the descent.

I recognize this from the hike Marcelle and I did on Wednesday. We are getting close to the aid station. And crew!

I’m glad Lori and Conrad are here. I always feel bad when Marcelle is crewing by herself.

Me- “I think I’m gonna change my socks at the aid station. They are still wet from the creek crossings.”

Jeff- “No, we should keep moving. They will get wet later.”

Geez, Jeff. You’re such a drill sergeant.

Mile 16: Williams Aid Station

Marcelle- “Give me your trash.”

I hand over two empty Clif pouches.

Me- “It’s been hard to eat. I’ve only had 200 calories.”

Marcelle- “Ryne, you need to eat. Eat now.”

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Rockin’ the Anton outfit. Photo-Marcelle

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Conrad cheering for love. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 16-18: Gravel road. Flattish. Runnable.

Always a nice pick me up to see Marcelle. I’m feeling better. Time to start eating.

Hey, that’s Dakota Jones. I wonder who he is crewing for. I’m gonna try to be funny and ask if we are on pace to break his course record.

“Dakota Jones thought I was funny. Or he’s just really nice.”

He was probably already on the Divide and halfway done at this point. How the heck?

Yes! My stomach is feeling better. I’m gonna be able to catch up on calories.

Mile 18-22: Jeep road. 2,000 feet of climbing.

I remember this climb isn’t supposed to be as steep as the first one. Should be able to hike up at a good pace.

Damn. My stomach is hurting again. I can’t get this food down.

Jeff has been aware of my stomach struggles throughout the race and is offering me any of his food to see if it sounds good. Nothing does.

Jeff- “Don’t make me force feed you.”

Okay, I get it. I have to eat.

Slowing down and starting to get passed.

There goes spandex guy motoring on past. Man, it sucks to get passed by people. Especially when they are wearing nothing but spandex.

I’m gonna put my head down and grunt it out.

Where did Jeff go? Geez, I’m moving slow.

I hope he left me for good and runs his own race. He’s looking good today.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Eat the gel and keep going.

Conrad called the gels baby food the other day. That was funny.

I feel like a baby.

Geez! Will this climb ever end?

I would wear spandex for the rest of my life if I could just make it to the top of this climb!

Is dropping an option? No! You will finish no matter how long it takes!

I’m gonna have to get my headlamp at mile 40. I probably won’t finish until the 9 pm cutoff.

I really want my freaking poles!

Oh good. There’s the aid station.

Mile 22: Carson Aid Station

Ginger ale sounds really good. (gulp) Oh my gosh. It’s so good!

This aid station volunteer is being so helpful.

Jeff pops out of nowhere.

Jeff- “Ryne, where’s your drop bag?”

Where the hell did he come from? He didn’t leave me. What a friend.

Volunteer hands me a cup of potatoes.

These potatoes are already mashed. Wow, what service!

Salt is the best thing ever.

She is seriously packing me saltine crackers in a ziplock bag. What a goddess.

The world needs more aid station volunteers. There would be no wars.

Mile 22-31: 1,500 feet of climbing to the Continental Divide. Some miles hovering at 13,000 feet and then steadily drops down.

I feel like a new person! I am revived!

Wait, I had these same feelings after the last aid station. Don’t get cocky.

Whoa, those are some big clouds. Hopefully they stay away.

These views above tree line are so worth it.

Hey! A marmot!

The mountains go on forever. This is awesome.

And there are so many wildflowers.

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DCIM100GOPROGOPR0420.Jeff is still feeling good and regularly putting distance between us but always keeps me insight.

I’m trying to keep up Jeff.

Oh cool. I see the lake, which means the cabin is on the other side. Ha. We’ve been pointing at the mountains all week saying we would be up here. And now we are. Funny.

Still moseying along the Divide.

When do we drop down below 13,000? I wanna be able to breathe again.

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Just keep hiking. Photo-Jeff

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0442.My head is starting to hurt. Geez, I’m complaining a lot today.

This is kind of peaceful up here. I like it.

We should be getting close to the yurt aid station.

I wonder if it’s like a Dothraki yurt from Game of Thrones?

There’s the yurt. Aw man, the aid station is outside of the yurt. Not as cool.

Who put all this mud here? My feet were finally dry.

Mile 31: Divide Aid Station

Did they just seriously ask if someone wanted sweet or white potatoes? Best aid station ever.

Ginger ale is the nectar of the gods.

Potato chips sound good.

I shove a handful in mouth.

Wait no, chewing is hard right now.

Mile 31-40: Flattish running and runnable downhills. Double track and jeep roads.

I try to tell Jeff for the third or fourth time to go on and run his own race. But he again ignores me and changes the subject.

Why doesn’t he just go on? He’s gotta be tired of herding me around these mountains.

I never wanna do Hardrock. How do they cover 100 miles of this terrain? Those people are insane.

I definitely want my poles for the last 10 miles. I wish I had them all day.

Alright, you’ve got a steady stream of food in you. Suck it up and pick up the pace.

I try to quicken the pace ever so slightly.

Whoa, body didn’t like that. Got light-headed.

This happened about 5 more times.

Suck it up and be stoic like Jeff.

Well, I need to be safe. Maybe I should tell him I need to walk for a bit. No, man up!

Another lightheaded spell after trying to speed up.

Screw manning up.

Me- “Hey Jeff. I’ve been feeling lightheaded the past hour. I’m gonna sit down at the next aid station and reset. I’m gonna finish but it may take a while. Go on without me when we get there.”

Jeff- “How are you doing on salt? Here, eat half of this Nuun tab. It won’t taste good but it will help.”

I take the Nuun tab expecting the worst.

That’s a little bitter. But also good. My body must really need some salt.

Start to come out of the lightheadedness.

Whoa, feeling better.

Why didn’t I tell him earlier? I should have used common sense. Of course he would have a solution.

This downhill is kind of fun.

Me- “How you feeling?”

Jeff- “My knees are starting to hurt a little.”

I weaseled a complaint out of Jeff. Ha! He is human!

I hear people! There’s Marcelle!

Mile 40- Slumgullion Aid Station

I made it. Only 10 miles left. And I won’t need my headlamp to finish.

Ginger ale and potatoes are the best things ever. Also salt.

Me- “Where are the poles? I definitely want them for the last climb.”

Marcelle hustles to grab my poles for me, while Lori is holding Conrad on her hip and talking to Jeff.

We have the best wives ever for supporting our crazy adventures.

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How I felt climbing. Photo-Marcelle

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How I felt not climbing. Photo-Marcelle

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Poles! They make everything easier. Including standing. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 40-46: 1,500 foot climb and then rolling terrain. Single track and farmland.

This is steep. But I have poles! Everything is better with poles!

Wow, this is really peaceful. These aspen groves are so cool.

It’s so quiet. And calm. This is wonderful.

This kind of reminds me of farms in Tennessee.

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Just like farms in Tennessee. Including the 10,000 foot peaks. Photo-Jeff

Trippy, almost done with the race thoughts are stirring.

Me- “Do you ever forget where you are sometimes? You’re just running and aren’t thinking. And then it’s like, “Oh yeah. I’m running in the freaking San Juans! This is awesome!”

Jeff is nice and entertains my dopey thoughts.

Jeff- “Yeah, I guess.”

Me- “Like just then, I was thinking how this reminded me of Tennessee. There are the rolling hills. Open farmland…”

I realize we don’t have aspen groves in Tennessee and am about to point this out so I don’t sound like a complete idiot.

Jeff- “Yeah and don’t forget the aspen groves.”

Set myself up for that one.

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These Aspens inspire deep thoughts. Photo-Jeff

 Mile 46: Vickers Aid Station

Feeling good. I smell the barn. Top off water, stash the poles, and let’s go.

Aid station volunteer- “Only three more miles and it’s all downhill!”

Mile 46-50. Downhill and single track.

Wow, crazy to think back on the day. I honestly didn’t think I would finish on the climb up to Carson.

Who put all these mini mud bogs along the trail?

Walking up a tiny hill.

I know I shouldn’t have believed the aid station volunteer. This is not all downhill.

And who chopped down all the trees to perfectly be across the trail?

Slowly reeling people in.

It’s nice to pass people.

Spandex guy! I caught you in the end. Ha ha!

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Finally, the downhills. Photo-Jeff

Coming out of the trees with views into town.

I see town, but it looks so far down. Ugh.

This is steep. Dang this is just a bunch of huge shale.

We have made it to the roads and town! So close!

Jeff is looking back and saying something to me. I see a sign pointing the racers in the right direction.

What is he saying? Oh Jeff, you are about to hit the sign!

Jeff plows into the sign but gracefully catches himself.

That’s too funny, but I don’t have the energy to laugh. I’m glad he’s okay. Must tell Lori about it later.

Another turn and more pavement.

Where is the park? I want to be done! I want to see my wife!

I hear people. We are close!

I did it! We did it!

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I need to work on my finish line face. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 50: Finish Line

I’m laying on the ground trying to fathom the day and how people run 100 miles.

Me- “How do you run 50 more miles?”

Jeff- “You keep running.”

Well, he’s not wrong.

Strava

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Picked up a lot of parenting skills for the future from this family. Photo-Marcelle

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“Conrad, there’s going to come a day when your dad starts taking you into the mountains for crazy adventures. I hope you will be ready.” Photo-Marcelle

Post-Race Road Trip

We had two more nights in Lake City at the cabin. Jeff and I were both feeling relatively okay after the race and wanted to explore one more trail before we parted ways. Of course the trail Jeff picks to run two days later has 1,500 feet of climbing in the first mile and a half. But I brought my poles from the start this time!

Marcelle and I headed to Durango to explore and camp for two days, while Jeff, Lori, and Conrad went to spend the rest of their vacation in Ouray.

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All-star ultra wifey. Crushing Animas Mountain in Durango.

After Durango, it was a quick detour to El Malpais National Monument for one night of camping and exploring.

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Sunset from the Sandstone Bluff Overlooks.

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We saw 33 rabbits in 12 hours. Photo-Marcelle

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La Ventana Natural Arch. Photo-Marcelle

Then it was off to Albuquerque for 6 nights to visit Marcelle’s best friend Claire. I managed to get in some fun runs in the mountains outside of Albuquerque.

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Top of South Sandia Peak.

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The last stop on the journey home was 1 night in Fayetteville, Arkansas to break up the drive.

All in all, we spent 21 days on the road. We saw so many beautiful and mesmerizing vistas, and made many unforgettable memories with friends. Maybe I can convince Marcelle into making the summer road trip an annual thing. If gas prices stay low.

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Running the Art Loeb

The Art Loeb Trail is 30.1 miles in length and totals around 9,000 feet of ascent and descent respectively. Scott, Jobie, Mark, and I would be traversing from north to south, which had a little over 8,000 feet of climbing and 9,000 feet of descent. Strava data with elevation profile and cliff notes of important info including water sources at the bottom of the post. Traveling north to south allowed us to get more of the difficult navigating out of the way first. The first nine miles of trail goes through the Shining Rock Wilderness and are unmarked due to being a wilderness area. We would also have the luxury of running directly back to our campsite at Davidson River.

Start from Davidson

About to head out from Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. Photo- Jobie Williams

We got a later than ideal start, around 10:30 am, from the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. We lingered around camp that morning without a sense of urgency, and the drive from Davidson River Campground took a little over an hour. A discussion broke out on the drive over whether we would need headlamps or not. The days are longer now. And it’s ‘just’ a 50k. We should be fine. Mark was the only wise one to pack his.

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Everything is wonderful 10 steps in. Photo- Daniel Lucas

We said our goodbyes to Billy and Daniel who would be heading back to do some hiking around Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. Unfortunately, they were nursing some injuries and wouldn’t be joining us for the 30-mile trek.

The first four miles were a steady climb of 1,500 feet along secluded single track. We all settled into a nice hiking pace and came upon a group of backpackers at the base of Cold Mountain before we knew it. The backpacking group of seven was a part of the Outdoor Academy and being led by a single instructor. We pointed out which trail would take them up to Cold Mountain upon their inquiry. It was the job of the six students to navigate, and their instructor seemed slightly disappointed that they asked us for directions. To which they quickly responded that they were just using their resources. One guy in the group could have passed as Scott’s younger twin.

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Scott’s ginger twin, second from left. Photo- Jobie

The next five-mile section steadily climbs and follows the ridge through the Shining Rock Wilderness. It was nice having Mark with us who was familiar with the trails, and we navigated the somewhat tricky sections with ease. We were afforded some gorgeous views along the ridge from a few rock ledges.

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Look, trees.

After leaving the Shining Rock Wilderness, there is a brief section of trail with views of the mountains on either side. This is a short preview of the serene views to come from atop Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob. The expansive views were quickly replaced by the trees as we started the climb up Tennent Mountain. I was leading the climb up with Mark close behind. There was an unmarked fork of the trail where I stayed left. I kept going and reached Tennent Mountain and then realized Mark, Scott, and Jobie were no longer behind me. Tennent Mountain is a grassy bald, so I could easily see the trail leading up to the mountain. Mark arrived about a minute later, but Scott and Jobie were nowhere in sight. Mark said he had not seen them coming up behind him.

Me- “They should be up soon. Do you think they took a wrong turn?”

Mark- “Um, maybe. But it all leads up here so they should be here eventually.”

We waited for about 15 minutes and thought that Scott and Jobie had gone down to the spring just off the trail. So we made our way down to the spring, refilled our bottles, and still no sign. Mark and I debated if they had kept going or were waiting for us somewhere. We decided to circle back on the trail in hopes that they were behind us and finally ran into them. They had stopped for a Jobie photoshoot and a sandwich break. Reunited and no longer concerned if day hikers had been accosting them over their short shorts, we pressed on for the second half of the run.

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Nice place for a picture. Photo- Jobie

The first 12 miles included big views and many technical sections that were not entirely runnable. It was hard to get into a rhythm due to these technical sections and stopping to admire the views didn’t help either. The rest of the trail was predominately forested single track that looked relatively harmless on the elevation profile I was carrying in my pocket. There were two 1,000 foot plus descents with a lot of little bumps that I harmlessly described as rollers. The terrain, according to Mark, would also become less technical. All of these factors led us to believe that we would soon settle into a rhythm of challenging yet runnable terrain until we arrived back at Davidson River. The mountains took note of our lax attitude and delivered in kind for the final 18 miles.

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Mountain Crusher Mark

Being above 5,000 feet, we enjoyed a brief section of trail through a spruce and fir thicket. We then quickly started big descent number one. The descent was super technical and switch-backed all the way down to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We could see cars driving along the Parkway way down below as we descended, which put into perspective how quickly the trail dropped off the side of the mountain. The trail continued to drop after crossing the Parkway and became thickly littered with leaves for the next few miles. The trail was easy to follow, but the heavy leaf litter caused somewhat precarious footing and prevented us from truly taking advantage of the runnable grade.

We finished the long descent and began the first little “roller” of a climb. Note to self, climbs of 500 feet in half a mile are not rollers.

Water is not frequent along the Art Loeb, but there are a few springs spaced about 8 miles apart throughout the length of the trail. After the half-mile climb, we quickly dropped down to the Deep Gap Shelter and refilled on water at a questionable spring. It was a dirt ridden trickle that I passed on drinking until arriving at a better spring at Butter Gap. We could see the huge climb that awaited as Pilot Mountain jutted up directly in front of us. We dropped down into low gear and began the power hike up. The trail perfectly switch-backed up the mountain and reminded me of all the hard work that goes into creating trails in such steep terrain.

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Up Pilot Mountain. Photo- Jobie

The peak of Pilot Mountain had beautiful views off both sides. There is a great view of the iconic Looking Glass Rock to the east, while the mountains undulated seemingly forever in their hazy hue to the west. A quick glance at the elevation profile told us we were about to head down big descent number two, which lost almost 2,000 feet of elevation over two miles.

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Looking Glass Rock. Photo- Jobie

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View to the west.

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“I love the Art Loeb Trail this much!”

The leaf litter wasn’t as bad as before, and we could manage somewhat of a quicker turnover going down. We actually passed another runner and his dog going in the opposite direction taking on the Art Loeb in a single day. Realizing the time of day and the need to keep moving, none of us chatted for long and carried on.

We now had about 13 miles to go upon reaching the bottom of Pilot Mountain. The remaining half marathon was a net downhill with a few climbs thrown in. Everybody seemed to still be in good spirits but had switched into finish mode. Mark was a little less cheerful and was taking extended breaks from his usual permanent smile. Scott was no longer referencing a movie or TV show every mile. And Jobie’s camera remained stashed in his pack. Art Loeb had us right where he wanted us.

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Are we there yet?

We passed a lot of backpackers for the next few miles heading up the trail as we were shuffling down. Seeing a backpacker carrying enough stuff to last for a week with a look of disgust and struggle on their face always brightens my mood, admittedly somewhat sadistically, knowing my little vest of food and water is infinitely lighter.

Butter Gap Shelter marked our last reliable source of water and eight miles to go. There was a large pack of Boy Scouts setting up camp for the night as we pulled water from a pipe. We took our time getting enough water to last us for the final push. I can’t recall our conversations but do remember thinking that we seemed a little drunk and delirious. Scott had another movie reference left in him.

Scott- “We are chipping away at this thing like Shawshank.”

The elevation profile indicated a few more of those “rollers” and one biggish climb left. There was nothing rolling about those last eight miles. It was up and down, with the ups being quite steep. After a few miles, I stopped at a trail intersection to wait on Scott and Jobie. Mark said he was gonna keep moving. The long descents were zapping his quads. I had the elevation profile out studying the remaining five miles hoping against common sense that we were closer to finishing than we actually were. Scott and Jobie shuffled in with fatigue fully set in on their faces.

Scott- “What ya thinking? How much more left?”

Me- “I’m trying to figure out if we have started the last big climb or not.”

Jobie- “What do you mean last big climb?”

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Last big climb.

We pressed on and soon after Scott hollered that Jobie needed to sit down for a second. I was getting a little worried if we would make it back with enough light and wondering if an epic bonk was stirring for Jobie. I decided to keep going so I could grab some headlamps at camp and meet them back up the trail with some Coke for fuel if they had to death march the final four miles.

I soon passed Mark who was trudging along. The last four miles would have been really fun to bomb on fresh legs. I made it back to camp about an hour later with a little bit of daylight left.  Billy was working on an awesome fire, while Daniel was cooking up a feast. I grabbed some lamps to meet the guys back on the trail hoping they would not be needed.

Luckily, they all marched in minutes apart after I drove the short distance from our campground back to the trailhead. There was little jubilation in finishing. Just utter relief to be done.

Jobie- “That took 10 freaking hours to do a 50k!”

We got back to camp and Billy couldn’t wait to hear stories of the suffer-fest. Jobie (Joe-Bee as Billy pronounces it) had many words, none too glowing, to describe the Art Loeb Trail. Billy listened the whole time with a wide grin on his face.

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Trail sage Billy. Photo- Jobie

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Glad to be back at camp. Photo- Jobie

The rest of the night was filled with some of the best food I have ever had. The beet salad, pan-seared avocado, sweet potato soufflé, wild Alaskan salmon, and steak filet quickly lifted our spirits. Daniel enjoys cooking and really spoiled us.

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Breakfast the next day. Photo- Jobie

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Chef Daniel. God of camp food. Photo- Jobie

All in all, it was an unforgettable weekend with friends in the mountains. Good conversation, excellent food, and a humbling experience that only the mountains can offer.

4/16/16

Traverse Beta

  • Have a map app that can show you your real-time location. It is very tricky navigating in some spots, especially through Shining Rock Wilderness. I highly recommend the Gaia app.
  • Have plenty of water. Springs and streams are spaced out but those sources can be dried up. Water sources below going south (Davidson River) to north (Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp).
    • Streams (Starting around mile 6)- There are few streams over the next few miles. Sometimes they are flowing, sometimes they are not.
    • Butter Gap Shelter (Mile 8ish)- Coming out of a pipe to the left. Easy to find. There is a small creek you cross right before Butter Gap. If water is flowing, I would fill up there. It can barely be a trickle from the pipe.
    • Gloucester Gap (Mile 12ish)- Take a right on the dirt road for 250 yards to a piped spring. You are about to make the big climb up Pilot Mountain, go fill up if you are running low.
    • Deep Gap Shelter (Mile 14ish)- On four separate occasions, I have never found a reliable source of water here. I could be completely missing it.
    • Blue Ridge Parkway (Mile 16.5ish)- You cross the Blue Ridge Parkway and could stash some water here.
    • Black Balsam Road (Mile 18ish)- You could also stash some water here. Or go left down the paved road for half a mile towards Ivestor Gap Trail to a piped spring. Water has always been flowing well here even when other sources are dry.
    • Shining Rock Gap (Mile 22ish)- About 100 yards down to the right.
    • Streams (last 3.5 miles)- On the final descent you will pass a few streams on the trail.

 

Strava- Art Loeb Run

Jobie’s Instagram with more awesome pics.

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