How Backyard Ultras and Timed Events Can Fix Failure Points

I had the privilege to help crew for CTS athlete, Chris Murphy, at Big’s Backyard Ultra this past October. It was quite the spectacle seeing some of the ultra world’s best compete against each other in the last man/woman standing format. It was humbling and awe-inspiring to see runners head back out loop after loop fighting sleep deprivation, 40-degree temperature fluctuations throughout the day and night, and the highly competitive field push each other way beyond their preconceived limits. I ultimately left that weekend realizing how an athlete could use a Backyard or Timed Ultra to make personal breakthroughs and solve failure points that have afflicted them in past races.

Backyard Ultra Basics

Backyard Ultra Events have exploded in popularity over the last few years thanks in part to their straightforward setup. The objective is to complete a 4.167 mile loop (24 loops equals 100 miles) in under one hour for as long as you can. If you do not complete the loop and make it back to the finish line/starting corral at the top of the hour, your day(s) is finished. The rote execution necessary to keep competing allows runners to reach distances that had previously plagued them and truly find their limits. Is every runner going to eventually run 354 miles over the course of 85 hours like Harvey Lewis’s record-breaking performance at Big’s Backyard Ultra in October? Probably not, but a runner can use the simplistic setup of a Backyard Ultra to achieve their own PRs, solve past hydration and nutritional failures, figure out pacing strategies, and learn successful ways to stay maintain a neutral to positive mindset late in races.


Having an effective crew can streamline time spent at aid stations, keep the runner mentally engaged, and problem solve before an issue derails a race. The beauty of a Backyard Ultra is that the runner can see their crew every hour. Backyard Ultras have basic aid station fare available to everyone, but each runner has their own personal aid station tent. Within that area, the runner can have anything and everything they want. A cot and sleeping bag for when they want to try and get that quick nap, a camp stove to cook their favorite food, a wardrobe of extra shoes and clothes, and all of their preferred nutrition and hydration products.

There is no overthinking and overpacking drop bags scattered throughout successive aid stations on the course. The crewperson is not frantically navigating sketchy forest roads and stressfully racing to the next aid station. The “hurry up and wait” mentality is replaced with “relax and wait.” The crewperson has more than enough time to prepare the aid station for the runner’s return, so that the runner and crew can have a stress free environment to get in calories, address problems, make gear and clothing changes when necessary, and have the runner optimally prepared for the next lap.

CTS Athlete Chris Murphy’s Setup at Big’s

Figuring Out Nutrition and Hydration

Nausea and/or vomiting was cited as the second highest problem for finishers and the highest problem for nonfinishers in Marty Hoffman and Kevin Fogard’s 2009 study that explored the issues that affected runners at the 2009 Western States and Vermont 100 mile races. There is a multitude of reasons that can cause stomach issues during an ultra. Among those are inadequate training, poor pacing during high temperatures, failure to stick to a plan, and not properly hydrating. 

In a typical ultra, runners can map out their nutrition and hydration plan before the race or set a reminder on their watch to remind them to eat and drink. But maybe a runner miscalculates the time between aid stations and runs out of food and water. Maybe the day was hotter than expected and the runner needed to be carrying a third bottle. Or the runner simply loses the concept of timing and frequency in how much they should be eating and drinking. A race being at high elevation could also affect the runner’s ability to consume calories. 

Backyard Ultras take out the guesswork of estimating time between aid stations and keeping track of how much the runner is fueling. Environmental conditions will stay somewhat relative throughout the 4.167 mile loop as there will be no extreme elevation changes. The weather will of course change throughout the day, but the temperature should ebb and flow within a range that the runner and crew can make necessary and gradual adjustments throughout the day. 

Nutrition goals can be as simple as eating two gels on each loop, drinking one bottle, and eating some type of real food upon returning to the aid station. The crewmember can easily keep track of how many calories the runner has consumed, what food options are working, and adjust hydration and electrolyte goals as the temperature changes throughout the day and night. 

Is the runner able to execute a successful calorie and hydration plan for a 50k but struggles when going beyond that 6-8 hour timeframe? Use a Backyard Ultra or Timed Event to simplify the process and test out different strategies to see what works and what does not.



“I went out too fast,” is a common talking point in reviewing an ultra performance. It’s completely understandable to go out too fast due to the runner being excited to finally race, the palpable energy at the start line, and feeling fresh off of the taper. But going out too hot can come back to bite the runner throughout the rest of the race. You gain little to no advantage in “racing” each loop at a Backyard Ultra. There is some strategy at times in getting back to your aid station for a little extra time to take a quick nap or make a gear change. But the runner will be better served to keep their pacing steady throughout. For some runners, the goal will be to go for a set distance and stop when that is achieved. Other runners will be competing and attempting to be the last woman or man standing. 

A Backyard Ultra is not the format to chase a time PR at a certain distance or to win your age group. There is little utility in completing a loop in 40 minutes versus 55 minutes. Again, sleep strategies do come into play, but the runner will put themselves in the best position for success if they keep their pacing steady so that they can fuel consistently and expend their energy evenly throughout the race.


Another considerable factor at a Backyard Ultra is that you can run with people for nearly the entire event. In a standard ultra, runners eventually spread out and can be running by themselves for hours. Running by yourself for miles can be an advantage in sticking to your own personal race strategy, but it can also be a hindrance in terms of losing focus, getting down on yourself, and subsequently slowing down. Running with others can lower your rate of perceived exertion thanks to the company and distraction and also make for a more memorable race experience.

Runners also develop a strong bond with one another throughout a Backyard Ultra. There is a competitive edge to most runners in that they want to be the last one standing, but the camaraderie that develops throughout the event causes each runner to push and support one another to keep going. Harvey Lewis, Chris Roberts, and Terumichi Morishita would no doubt credit each other in each runner’s ability to crest the 72-hour mark and go beyond 300 miles at Big’s.

Put It Altogether

The simplistic nature of Backyard Ultras allows every runner to finetune critical ultrarunning skills. A Backyard Ultra may not be your idea of an A race, but you can use a Backyard Ultra to better learn about yourself as a runner, solve and correct issues that have plagued you in past races, and reach distances that have previously eluded you.

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Pinhoti 100 Miler- Round Two

Significant mental, emotional, and physical fatigue is guaranteed to hit each runner late in a long ultra. One of my biggest struggles has been staying mentally and emotionally engaged late in an ultra when I no longer have a shot at achieving my A-goal. Instead of pivoting to my B-goal, I spiral into an intense period of self-loathing. This negative headspace mars my experience from one of pride and gratification in completing the race to an experience defined by a mix of self-doubt and negative self-worth. My finish at Pinhoti this year would mark a significant achievement in successfully overcoming the late race mental demons by shifting my mindset to a healthier narrative.


I raced Pinhoti in 2018 and was having a perfect day that felt nearly effortless until mile 70. Unfortunately, a painful bout of pes anserine bursitis flared up and reduced me to an awkward mix of jogging and hobbling over the last 30 miles. Originally on pace for finishing around 19 hours, I slowed dramatically and finished in 21:39. The 2020 edition of Pinhoti was a shot at redemption after my unsatisfactory finish in 2018.

Pinhoti doesn’t get enough credit for how pretty it is. Photo- Chihping Fu

Start to Adams Gap (0-55)

Everything was going well through the first 55 miles of the race. I was running at a comfortable effort, and I arrived at Adams Gap in third place. The only surprise through the first half of the race was the sporadic rain from miles 10 through 50. The forecast was projected for a high in the mid 70s. Not a terrible forecast but definitely warm and muggy for November. I went back and forth from liking this pattern of intermittent rain and thinking it was cooling me off, to then hating it for the unpleasant humidity that lingered. I left mile 55 feeling good and was looking forward to the mental boost Brian would provide in pacing me over the next 20 miles. 

“Wear less and go faster.”- Matt Sims. Photo- Zach Andrews
Izze, potato chips, pickles=always delicious.
Leaving Cheaha Lake, Mile 43. Dany was ready to go. Photo- Zach Andrews

Adams Gap to Pinnacle (55-75)

Brian did an excellent job pacing. He kept me distracted and entertained while also reminding me that I was continuing to move well. Earlier in the day, Marcelle informed Brian that I could sing all the lyrics to “Ignition” which led Brian to fact check this statement. Singing this song in its entirety several times and breaking extended periods of silence with, “Toot toot, beep beep!” was a highlight. 

While I was still managing to run at a fair pace, I noticed a subtle shift in my energy levels. I was accounting for the expected fatigue, but there was a noticeable uptick in my perceived exertion. Maintaining a consistent effort was becoming more challenging. I felt a brief spike of energy after taking a gel or salt pill but that boost would pass too quickly.

In hindsight, I did not properly account for the high humidity earlier in the day and my consequent higher sweat rate. I was drinking enough water, but I needed to increase my sodium intake. Jason Koop’s sodium recommendations from Training Essentials for Ultrarunning targets 600-800 milligrams of sodium per liter of fluid. My post race food and hydration analysis showed that I was needing at least 200-300 more milligrams of sodium per hour. I believe my high rate of perceived exertion in contrast with my low energy output over the second half of the race was attributed to my sodium deficiency. 

The five mile climb up to Pinnacle was once again the crux of the race for me. In 2018, it was on this climb that caused the bursitis in my calf/knee to become seriously painful and finish the last 25 miles on a jog, hobble, walk regimen. 

Feeling low and aware of the upcoming climb to Pinnacle, I downed two caffeinated Speednut Spring gels within an hour. I’ve had some legendary caffeine highs from this humorously named Spring gel. Each gel is 250 calories with a high fat content. This was not a wise decision, and my stomach had a difficult time processing the dense calories. My stomach never quite settled back down for the remainder of the race and getting in solid calories over the last 25 miles was a struggle.

I finally made it to the top of Pinnacle and took my longest sit of the day. I changed my socks and tried to drink and eat as much as I could. Thankfully, Izze’s were still going down well. I sat there slightly dazed and forlornly contemplated the fact that I still had 25 miles to go. 

Pinnacle to Bulls Gap (75-85)

I had been running Appalachian Anton style all day sans shirt but finally needed a layer after sitting atop the windy ridge at Pinnacle for 10 minutes. I was starting to shiver and knew it was time to start moving. Alondra was now pacing me for the last 25 miles, and I was worried it was about to be a shit show. I was no longer feeling peppy, and I had concerns about my ability to consume calories for the remainder of the race. Knowing I needed to move faster to warm up, I gave a loud whoop, started running, and was surprised to be feeling a little better after the mini break.

Nonetheless, I was falling off pace to achieve my A-goal of going under 20 hours. I was still in third place and this helped in keeping the self-defeating narrative at bay. I kept reminding myself that I was still managing a decent pace despite my lack of calories. I also thought back to how painful the bursitis in my knee was in 2018, and that I was not dealing with that pain this time! I kept highlighting these positives with Alondra and tried to ignore the thoughts of wondering how far back fourth place was.

We were less than a mile from Bulls Gap, mile 85, when a runner went flying by us. “Don’t worry, I’m just a pacer,” he said. It was alarming how fast he was running. Alondra and I were trying to figure out if he was just out for a run and waiting on his runner to get to mile 85 or if he had left his runner because they were injured. Several minutes later a lone runner passed and confirmed that it was his pacer who had passed us moments before. Dang. I was now in fourth place. I was disappointed but not surprised given how much my pace had slowed over the last 10 miles. 

Alondra and I made it to Bulls Gap a minute later. The guy who just passed me was making his way out of the aid station. It was frustrating to finally get passed. But it was even more disheartening to be in such a depleted state and see the other guy moving so well and with such a sense of urgency. The negative self-narrative was starting to build as I sat down and took my time in trying to down some much needed calories.

At Grindstone and Hellgate last year, I slowed significantly over the last several miles to then be passed by other runners finishing strong. In each of those races, and now this one, I had been having a great race but failed to properly take care of myself. My failure to properly execute my hydration and nutrition plan resulted in my inability to finish strong. The frustration mounted as I sat there venting and drinking some liquid calories. All of a sudden, another runner had now come into the aid station. Damn it! I was now angry and the negative self-talk exploded. Here it was happening again. I was getting passed towards the end of a race, because I had failed to be disciplined and take care of myself. But rather than be defeated and sulk, I hopped out of the chair ready to go. I was not going to drop from third to fifth over the last 15 miles without putting up a fight. 

And then, as Alondra and I were about to leave the aid station, I learned that second place had recently dropped out after spending a considerable amount of time at this aid station due to stomach issues. So our contingent of third through fifth place was actually second through fourth place. I was back in third place with second place having just left the aid station and fourth right behind me. What a whirlwind of emotions! I went from being dejected, to angry, and now supremely focused and motivated. 

Bulls Gap Aid Station. Photo- James Falcon

Bulls Gap to Finish (85-100)

I left the aid station telling myself I would give it everything I had to hang on to third place. I realized I didn’t have much left to give and that it was a real possibility that I could get caught by the runner behind me. Everything was aligned perfectly for me to repeat the self-defeating spiral that has plagued me towards the end of previous races. But this time was different. I turned my thoughts to my crew and how I didn’t want to let them down. Marcelle, Brian, and Alondra had been out there all day with so much genuine enthusiasm in supporting me. I knew that they were rooting for me to go under 20 hours and finish in the top three, but they were not going to deem the day a failure if I did not meet those goals. It was only me who was going to view the day as a failure. 

I was able to move well over this section thanks to the runnable miles of gravel road, newfound determination to hang on to third place, and Alondra’s calm encouragement. I enjoyed the juxtaposition of Brian and Alondra’s pacing styles. I was wanting to benefit from Brian’s playful personality from miles 55-75 while I would still have the mental capacity to appreciate his jokes and wit. Then Alondra’s calm and determined presence would be perfect in getting me through the last quarter of the race when it becomes primarily a battle of will. 

Minutes from reaching the last aid station at mile 95, the runner behind me had finally caught up and passed me. I was now in fourth place. I was fighting so many emotions. I wanted to cry, scream, and laugh all at the same time. I lost all the motivation that had been fueling me over the last 10 miles.

I made it to the aid station and dejectedly sat down for a few minutes. I drank as much ginger ale as I could manage. The toll of the day abruptly weighed down on me. The emotional and physical energy I had expended over the last 10 miles in trying to stave off the runner behind me left me spent. I wanted to just walk it in.

Those last five miles were some of the most emotionally and mentally intense miles of my life. But having Alondra there made a huge difference. I have so much respect for her and didn’t want to let her down. I knew she wasn’t disappointed in me. But I also knew that she would be doing everything she could to get to the finish as fast as possible if we were in opposite roles. I thought of Marcelle and Brian waiting at the finish. Instead of letting that pressure and fear of letting them down make me feel like a burden and a failure, I used it to push me. I also felt all the frustration from all the races where I’ve been passed towards the end and used this to fuel me. Those last five miles were slow and not pretty. But I am so proud of them. I was pushing as hard as I could. Again, it wasn’t fast, but I didn’t succumb to the usual late race pity party. 

I finally made it to the finish line. I felt so much pride and relief in being done that I began to cry. I had successfully fought through the negative emotions and redirected my mindset to keep pushing myself to the finish. Funny enough, those tears quickly stopped as the dried up salt around my eyelids poured into my eyes from the tears and stung like crazy. 

I finished in fourth place with a time of 20 hours and 43 minutes. I missed out on a top three finish and my A-goal of going under 20 hours. However, the most significant and personal aspect of my race was that I had successfully battled through the late race mental demons that have so often plagued and infuriated me.

Lessons Learned

Lesson #1: I have to work on my nutrition and hydration. I’ve always prided myself on having an iron stomach. I have never thrown up during a race or had intense nausea ruin a race. But I’ve developed a false sense of reliance in my ability to maintain a steady dose of calories throughout an entire race. For Grindstone, Hellgate, and Pinhoti, I have failed to keep eating the requisite amount of calories over the last third of the race due to a lack of discipline in continuing to eat and drink while dealing with slight nausea. I also need to stay on top of sodium replacement, so that I remain mentally vigilant and also allow my stomach to keep efficiently processing liquids and calories. 

Lesson #2: This race taught me how to use my support team to bring out the best in me when the day doesn’t turn out as planned. It’s only me who is ultimately upset about not meeting my A-goal. My friends are not let down in my “failure” to meet my A-goal. I am my harshest critic. Shifting my focus from myself to my support team can bring out my best during my most extreme times of self-doubt. The outcome and experience are ultimately defined by giving my best possible effort on the given day. And it’s important to remember that your best effort is a constantly moving target in ultras.


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Pitchell is the most fun I’ve had on a run. Ever. So many elements played a role, but the two main factors were the people I was with and my lack of usually meticulous expectations. 

Midnight start from Mount Pisgah.
Mount Mitchell finish.

This report is not a traditional race report with a blow by blow account. It focuses more on the lessons I learned and why this run was an all time day. 

Pitchell Logistics

  • Start atop Mount Pisgah then take the Mountains to Sea Trail to Mount Mitchell (highest peak east of the Mississippi).
  • 63 miles and 16k feet of climbing.
  • The route was conceived by Asheville runner, Adam Hill, in the early 2000s. A group of runners annually attempt the run every October. 
  • Starting at midnight is tradition. 
  • Crew spots are frequent as the trail crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway multiple times. You can essentially receive support every 5 miles. More frequently than that if you desire. 


Brief Recap

The day was primarily uneventful in terms of overcoming adversity and dealing with unforeseen drama. The weather was absolutely perfect, and we moved at a good pace all day. Kyle provided crew support every 5-7 miles. The frequent checkpoints were nice, but we definitely became less efficient at these stops as the day went on. 

We did take the wrong trail before reaching the Folk Art Center (halfway point) and added an extra three quarters of a mile. We remedied our error to be sure we did the route in its entirety and handled it with a, “Whoops, oh well,” attitude. 

Nearing the end, we had a shot to go under 15 hours as we crossed Highway 128 and began the last 4.5 miles to the top of Mount Mitchell. We were feeling the previous 14 hours of running, and it was warming up on the exposed trail as we tried to increase our effort level to see if we could break 15 hours. Alondra was needing to take walk breaks and dig deep, while Brian’s neuroma flared up on the steep and rocky climb to Mount Mitchell. To alleviate the pain, he finished the last half mile barefoot.

We finished in 15:04:30, which was good enough for Alondra to have lowered the women’s supported FKT by 90 minutes. 

Frequent aid station stops were nice.

Experience Versus Outcome

I will always remember this run for the pure joy that lasted from start to finish. Running Pitchell with Brian and Alondra taught me the importance of focusing on the experience rather than the outcome. It’s a concept I’ve always been aware of and aimed for, but it was fully realized and achieved during this run.

Running with Others

I have never been one to actively seek out a group run or plan to meet up with people for a run. Running has always been my outlet to disconnect, sort through my thoughts, and recharge. I don’t like feeling burdened to be at a trailhead by a certain time. I don’t want to run at a pace that is faster or slower than I want to go that day. I don’t want to spend the entire run overanalyzing what I’m about to say or have already said. 

Regular Trains of Thought while Running with Others

“Have I already referenced this article, story, or podcast before? I need to appear intelligent, cultured, and witty, but will fail to do so if I continually use the same material.” 

“Why did you say that, Ryne? You totally butchered that story/joke and made yourself look like an idiot.”

“Oh my gosh, this is the fifth time that _____ has told this story. Do they not remember telling me? Am I just another runner friend to them? I thought what we had was special.”

On the other hand, running with others can create unforgettable memories. Sharing a glorious run with someone else can amplify the awesomeness of the day. Grinding it out in grueling conditions with your friends can allow each of you to share in the hardships and thus experience the discomfort on a lesser level. A stronger bond is formed that leads to some hilarious memories that you can reminisce on in the future (just make sure you don’t repeat that same story over and over to the same person). 

I’ve run hundreds of miles with Brian and Alondra this summer, and each run has been a blast. Our running abilities match up well in that we stay mostly together throughout the run. There is no concern or pressure about having to wait for someone. Brian destroys the uphills as if he is running up an escalator, while Alondra and myself can barrel down the descents and catch back up. Our conversations range from the occasionally serious philosophical ruminations to mostly uninhibited and unsophisticated humor. We keep each other upbeat and share the load in keeping the mood positive. 

So for Pitchell, running with Brian and Alondra took away my usual angst I have when running with others, and their company kept me cheerful all day. I did have two brief low patches. The first was leaving the Folk Art Center and dwelling on the fact that we still had another 30 miles and lots of climbing left. The second low spell was during the steep and technical climb to Potato Field Gap. I was by myself for a bit after needing a second bathroom break and started thinking too much about the remaining miles. Each low was quickly mended once I got out of my own head and engaged with Brian and Alondra.

Expectations and Lack Thereof

The second element that attributed to Pitchell being the best day of running was my lack of methodical and obsessive planning. In the weeks leading up to any race or adventure, I scour Strava for data from other runners and then make a spreadsheet for nutrition and pacing purposes. It’s good to have an idea of how long certain sections will take in terms of planning out calories and hydration, but I usually hem myself into a certain pace that ultimately detracts from the experience. I become too concerned and focused on the numbers and don’t relish the beauty of where I am or bask in the simple act of propelling myself from point A to point B. 

I had been so busy with work that I did not have the time or energy to dedicate my usual fastidiousness towards planning. Yes, there was a spreadsheet with projected times, but that was more for Kyle’s sake in meeting us at crew locations and less for me in providing a gauge on our effort for the day. 

The lead up to this adventure had the appropriate amount of planning, rather than an unhealthy and compulsive amount of preparation.

Funnest Known Time

I made a social media post about our run the day before that said we were going for the FKT (funnest known time). I was trying to be funny and was very proud of my clever joke, but that phrase stuck in my head for the entire run and was an effective mantra that guided my mindset the entire day. However, we were also attempting an FKT (fastest known time). We were fairly confident that whatever time we finished in would allow Alondra to claim the women’s supported FKT for Pitchell. We were aware of this goal throughout the day, but it never defined or altered the tone of the day. 

For me, the most fascinating aspect about ultrarunning is the role that the mind plays. The expectations before the run and then subsequent reactions to the course, personal performance, weather, competition, and unplanned surprises throughout the run play a fundamental role in how the day will be experienced and remembered. I’ve had several races and long runs in which I get sad and whiny towards the end due to falling off of a preconceived goal pace or when the fatigue becomes overwhelming. I’m not naive enough to think that every run will go perfectly. I acknowledge beforehand that at some point I will not be having fun, and I can actively break myself out of that funk by eating, drinking, or changing my mindset. Yet I still have those instances where adversity hits, my mood goes south, and I choose inaction rather than problem solving.

All this rambling is serving a purpose. That purpose is this; I learned an invaluable lesson in that measuring the value of the day in regards to the experience I have is the ultimate way to enjoy this silly hobby. Dedicating my energy and effort to meet a time goal that allows me to quantify my worth and success in comparison to my running peers is not fulfilling and will always leave me somewhat empty. Yes, I will continue to have time based and competitive goals. It is fun to train and strive for big goals, compete with yourself and others, and see improvement over time. But I will put more of a concerted effort into making my primary goals and objectives being built around the experience I am creating and having for myself, rather than arbitrary time goals. 

Big shout and thank you to Kyle and Mark. Kyle graciously gave up a day away from his family and a night of sleep to crew for us. Mark drove up early to Mount Mitchell and left his car there to assure we would have a way back down rather than hitching a ride or running an extra 6 miles. This also allowed Kyle to leave the crew vehicle at Walker Knob Overlook and run the last 10 miles with us. Thanks, Kyle and Mark!

I highly recommend Pitchell. It’s a classic route that perfectly highlights the beauty of the rugged Blue Ridge Mountains.

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Hellgate 100k

Hellgate 100k, directed by the legendary David Horton, starts at 12:01am on the second Saturday of December in Virginia. You are virtually guaranteed unpleasant weather that could present itself in the form of extreme cold, snow, ice, rain, or all of the above. The forecast in the week leading up to the race had steady rain starting Friday evening and lasting into Saturday morning with temperatures in the 30s to 40s. But that forecast was a week out and would definitely change to milder conditions as the day drew near. Right? Wrong. Horton’s prayers were answered and it was gonna be a cold and wet race.

All joking aside, Horton doesn’t want to see people suffer. He wants to see each runner overcome the challenging conditions and make it to the finish line having learned something about themselves. It’s not supposed to be easy. If it were easy, what’s the point? I don’t say this to sound sadistic or macho. Ideally, I would be perfectly trained and healthy for each race, execute my nutrition and pacing perfectly, and get to the finish line ahead of my time goal. It is extremely satisfying to have a day where everything comes together. But it is even more fulfilling to battle through adverse conditions, push beyond your preconceived limits, and make it to the finish line of a race in which you doubted your ability to do so.

I’ve had a few races where everything clicked, and it felt like a relatively effortless day. But those races aren’t the ones I reminisce on. I don’t call on memories of those perfect days when I’m struggling to get to the next aid station, and I’m questioning if I truly want to finish. I think back to those demanding days where I wanted nothing more than to quit and the times where I said I would never run again if I could just get to the next aid station and stop. In each one of those scenarios, stopping wasn’t an option. Sometimes it’s the sheer fact that there is no other option but to keep going, while other times it’s pride or the fear of disappointing loved ones that has pushed me to finish.

Completing Hellgate now tops the list of finishes I am most proud of. I slowed down towards the end and dropped out of the top 10 thus missing out on a sweet Patagonia puffy jacket. I didn’t finish under my time goal. I didn’t pass people in the last few miles with a strong finish. There was nothing sexy about my finish. The fact that I got to the point where I truly questioned my well-being in continuing the race and had to continuously problem-solve and persevere to make it to the finish line is a memory I will always cherish.


I carpooled to the race with Tim Hill, Alondra Moody, and Cole Nypaver of Knoxville. Tim, Alondra, and I would be racing, while Cole had so graciously volunteered to crew for us. It’s always nice going to a race with a group of friends to share the excitement and anxiety.

We arrived at Camp Bethel around 7:30pm with the rain already falling in a steady drizzle. The rain would not stop until 9:30am the next day.

Horton’s pre-race briefing was entertaining and not brief. Horton has a magnetic presence, and I could have listened to him talk about running for hours. We then had a couple of hours of downtime before leaving Camp Bethel at 10:50pm to make the drive to the start. I spent that downtime nervously reorganizing my crew bag and drinking coffee.

The drive to the start took around 45 minutes, and we all sat in Cole’s truck as long as we could in the heat and avoiding the rain. With 10 minutes till midnight, we left the oasis of the truck for the start line and awaited the adventure that lay ahead.

HG100k elevation.pngStart to Petites Gap (0-8)

We took off into the night at 12:01am. The wide jeep road allowed everybody to run at their own pace while also having several different conversations going on at once. I settled into my own rhythm and relished clicking off some quick and easy miles.

I ran right through the first aid station without stopping and then began the steady climb up the gravel road to Petites Gap and aid station #2. I enjoy climbs by headlamp, because you can’t see the top of the climb and psych yourself out about how long the climb will take. I was running this climb at a good pace in attempts to keep warm. The rain was steadily falling and showed no signs of letting up. I couldn’t tell if my raincoat was already soaking through or if I was just sweating so much from the uphill exertion.

I arrived at the aid station, quickly topped off one of my water bottles with Electroride, and crossed the road to singletrack.

Petites Gap to Camping Gap (8-14.3)

I left the aid station with a few runners ahead of me determined to keep their headlamps within sight. This descent was fairly technical with lots of loose rocks and leaves. I quickly abandoned my strategy of keeping the runners within sight and focused on just staying upright. The next 3 miles were probably the most technical all day with lots of leaves and quick turns. I ran this section with Dan Fogg who had completed this race last year and remarked that Hellgate could be boiled down to, “Run up a road then down a trail.” I remembered reading that in an earlier race report and that sentiment held true throughout the rest of the day. The race does have a lot of climbing, 13k feet over 67 miles, but a majority of that climbing is on very runnable gravel roads.

I arrived at Camping Gap aid station (mile 14.3) and topped off both water bottles with more Electroride. It would be about 9 miles to the next aid station. I still seemed to be sweating at a good rate despite the temperature being in the low 30s.

Camping Gap to Floyd’s Field (14.3-23)

I left this aid station with Dan and John Andersen. Dan and John had each set a new FKT on the Appalachian Trail through Shenandoah National Park in October. John set the new FKT on October 19 and then Dan lowered the time by 24 minutes a week later. So I was in good company leaving this aid station and happy with my effort level thus far.

I had a mini freak out soon after leaving this aid station as I went to put back on one of my waterproof mittens and realized I had dropped one! Thankfully, I caught my mistake quickly and found it within seconds after turning around to retrace my steps.

At this point, I wasn’t exactly comfortable but not terribly cold either. I was soaked underneath and any gust of wind gave me a chill. I was now at the point where I was taking off my Goretex mittens to ring out my glove liners every 15 minutes. Pro tip: make sure the sleeves of your raincoat go over the cuff of your gloves. I had foolishly not pulled my sleeves all the way down over my rain mittens and all the water from my sleeves was funneling down into my mittens and leaving my glove liners soaked. I didn’t realize my error until mile 30 and my hands got progressively colder over the next 15 miles. Oops.

The next several miles of grassy road was really fun to run as the terrain gently undulated and allowed for smooth running. I was fairly anti-social as I caught back up to John and Dan and only talked enough to exchange a few pleasantries before pulling ahead. I was enjoying this section and wanted to stay in my own rhythm.

I arrived at Floyd’s Field aid station (mile 23) quicker than expected and was excited about the fact that the next aid station meant crew and the almost halfway point! Floyd’s Field aid station is usually right off of the Blue Ridge Parkway but had to be moved up a mile due to the Parkway being closed.

I was continuing to push my effort to ward off the cold. I had another rain shell, a T-shirt, and waterproof gloves in a dry bag in my pack. I debated changing at this aid station but felt that the time it would take to change would result in losing too much body heat from standing still. I made a deal with myself that I would push hard to the next aid station, and then have Cole help me change into dry clothes.

Floyd’s Field to Jennings Creek (23-31)

I don’t recall much about this section. I just remember it having some fun downhill singletrack and that the rain and wind picked up significantly. My hands were now officially numb. I was having to ring out my glove liners too frequently and finally just put them in my short pockets with only my rain mittens to keep my hands warm. Again, put your raincoat sleeves over the cuff of your gloves!

I had a pair of unopened hand warmers in my pack, but it would have been useless to try and get them out as I don’t think I had the dexterity to deal with the zipper of my pack or the plastic packaging of the hand warmers.

I finally made it to the aid station and could not find Cole. I was stumbling through the aid station looking for him. A volunteer asked me what I needed, and I mumbled that I should have crew here. Right as the volunteer and I began shouting for Cole, Cole appeared behind me. I had walked right past him in my delirious state.

We quickly walked back to my bag. I told Cole I needed to change and get my hands warm. If I could get my hands warm then everything would be okay.

Taking off wet clothes is hard enough and not made any easier when you can’t feel your hands. I put on a new long sleeve top, raincoat, and Buff, then hustled over to the fire to try and get my hands warm before throwing on a new pair of dry gloves. Kudos to whoever got that fire going in the rain!

I had been able to get in nutrition as planned and was feeling great despite the wet and cold. I was using gel flasks, which was a lifesaver with my numb hands. The gel flasks required much less effort to operate than ripping open a gel wrapper.

I stood over the fire shouting at my hands to warm up. I knew that I would slowly start to shut down if my hands didn’t warm up. The fresh dry layers on my top half made me feel exponentially better but all the standing around was allowing the cold to sink back in.

There was a long climb out of the aid station, and I figured running uphill at a hard effort would warm me back up. Cole helped me get my gloves back on with hand warmers inside, and I headed out of the aid station in hopes that warmth would eventually return.

Jennings Creek to Little Cove Mountain (31-38.6)

My hands were not getting any warmer after a mile into the climb. Patches of ice had formed on the gravel road, and I would slip before I realized I was on the ice. Thoughts of turning around and going back to the aid station had been on my mind ever since I left Jennings Creek. I was not warming up despite the harder effort and flailing my arms about in attempts to get the blood flow back to my hands was not working.

I truly questioned my safety. Should I turn around? Is it irresponsible to keep going and become hypothermic? How would I get help if I did become hypothermic? I was having to walk through an icy section as I pondered these thoughts. Suddenly, my left foot hit ice and I hit the ground hard on my left hip. I laid there for a second as I did a quick assessment in making sure I wasn’t injured and also wondering what the eff had just happened. The ground was cold and laying there wasn’t doing me any favors. I hopped back up and hiked quickly uphill. A surge of adrenaline coursed through me and within minutes the feeling in my hands slowly started to return. I was warming up again. Emotion poured over me and I wanted nothing more than to get to the finish line. The urge to finish wasn’t to just be done with the race. It was more than that. I was ready to battle through whatever else the course and weather would throw at me. I would do whatever was necessary to finish.

Over the next 6 miles, I was able to run at a solid effort and caught up to two people as I made it to Little Cove Mountain aid station.

Little Cove Mountain to Bearwallow Gap (38.6-47.4)

The spike of adrenaline and strong running warmed me back up, but it was still raining and still in the 30s. I had another pair of unopened hand warmers in my pack and an aid station volunteer quickly got them out for me and helped stuff them in my gloves. I now had two hand warmers in each of my gloves. In a resolute manner, she told me that the next section was runnable, reminded me that it was almost daylight, and that I would be able to see my crew in 8 miles. The firm yet encouraging way in which she said all of these things was exactly what I needed. I became overwhelmed with emotion from her kindness and the fact that she was on top of this mountain at 7:00am in the freezing cold and rain. I placed my hands on her shoulders, thanked her, and took off before I started crying.

The next 7.5 miles had a mix of runnable downhill and uphill single track. It was finally light out again. And it finally stopped raining 9.5 hours into the race! This was a very pretty section with moss lining the trail that seemed to be glowing from all the rain. Ice had formed on some of the trees and served as a stark reminder of how cold it was. There were also some unobstructed views of the valley thanks to all the leafless trees.

I got passed by Travis Zipfel a few miles from the Bearwallow Gap aid station. That dude had looked like absolute death at mile 30, and I thought for sure he would drop. I told him he looked a lot better than he did the last time I saw him. “They rebuilt me at Jennings Creek. I’m going to go get 3rd place.” He zoomed on past like he had just started the race and would go on to finish in 4th place. I was amazed at how he had turned his race around. I would love to know what they rebuilt him with at Jennings Creek so that I could use it in the future.

Bearwallow Gap to Bobblet’s Gap (47.4-53.5)

I arrived at the second crewed aid station not needing a wardrobe change this time. I did need a change of gloves as my second pair of waterproof gloves were becoming saturated. But I had my sleeves over the cuffs of my gloves this time. Yay for figuring out how to dress in the rain!

Horton, with his signature booming voice and the tone of a proud parent, shouted at me that I was in 8th place and doing great. Cool! Cole helped me get everything situated for the last 20 mile section. After spending too much time swapping out my gel flasks, changing gloves, and standing over the fire, Horton then yelled at me, this time with the tone of a scolding parent, that I had been there too long and I needed to leave. “Yes, sir!”

My nutrition plan of getting in around 300 calories had been going to plan. So I thought. I didn’t realize until cleaning out my crew bag after the race that I had forgotten to take a gel flask of 450 calories at either Jennings Creek or Bearwallow Gap and also left a gel flask behind at Bearwallow Gap with 200 calories left. That doesn’t seem like a big deal, but that was 2-3 hours worth of nutrition that I thought I had consumed. I did not realize my mistake during the race and was consequently not able to correct the calorie deficit. This caused a significant bonk that I could not rally from over the last 15 miles.

This 6 mile section was predominantly uphill single track. It also was a pretty section of trail with more luminescent moss and lots of high flowing creeks.

I was moving okay, but there was a noticeable downshift in my ability to run for an extended period.

Bobblet’s Gap to Day Creek (53.5-61.5)

9th place had caught up to me just as I neared the aid station at Bobblet’s Gap. The next 2.5 miles were down a gravel road, and I did what I could to stay in front. I hit the dreaded Forever section and was quickly passed. The bonk had fully set in. The Forever section lived up to its name, and the next 5.5 miles of singletrack did indeed feel like they took forever. It did not help my psyche that I got passed by two more people.

Day Creek to Finish (61.5-67.2)

I had been eating what calories I had on me during the Forever section but nothing was helping. I was determined to pound the calories at the last aid station for one last rally before the last 6 miles to the finish.

I drank pickle juice, two cups of ginger ale, lots of potato chips, and an orange. I walked out of the aid station burping like crazy and laughing at myself for all the randomness I had just consumed. I managed to not throw anything up and kept my ultrarunning streak of no vomiting going strong.

If you have fresh legs, the last 6 miles would be so fun. 2.5 miles of runnable uphill followed by 3.5 miles of smooth downhill. If your legs are dead and your stomach is not happy with your recent choices, it’s still a fun section.

I jogged what I could on the uphill until pangs of dizziness slowed me back down to a walk. Dan from earlier in the race passed me on the uphill section and another chipper individual ran past me as I shuffled the final downhill. Bastards.

I finally hit the 1 mile mark that Horton spray paints on the road. The finish and a warm shower were now just a mile away!

I finished in 13th place and with a time of 13:14:29. What a day it was. I hit an intense patch of self-loathing from the Forever section to the finish. But the finish line replaced all those negative emotions with ones of accomplishment and happiness. I crossed the finish line and shook Horton’s hand having never been more proud of myself for finishing a race. I told him that those were the toughest conditions I had ever endured. He asked if I would have wanted it to be easier. I immediately replied no, and his face lit up in a smile. I had the exact experience that he wants every runner to have in finishing Hellgate; face immense adversity, problem solve, persevere, and will yourself to the finish line.




All the gratitude to the volunteers who work this race. They have to battle through the terrible conditions just like the runners. I heard so many stories at the finish of volunteers giving gloves, clothes, and jackets to runners who were too cold and wet. Thank you David Horton for this special race. It was an experience I will always cherish, and I will without a doubt be back. Biggest of thank you to Cole. You volunteered to crew for Alondra, Tim, and myself. Hellgate is probably the worst race to crew for with the cold and late night/early morning hours. But you served each of us with calm and poise and helped get us to the finish line. We couldn’t have finished without you. Thank you!


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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 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.


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.

Grindstone Elevation Profile.png

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.


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 is 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.


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


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 longing for the sun and ready to get my head and waist lamp off.

As I descended into the aid station and became more crotchety over being in the dark for 12 hours, I had a brief view of the distant ridges framed by a gap in the trees. It was that surreal time of daybreak when the night gradually gives way to the morning. The stars were still twinkling but the impending light from the distant sun was slowly causing their glimmer to fade. It was a fleeting moment of silent beauty that was further amplified by the ardor of journeying through the woods for 100 miles. It was a halting moment of serenity that made me grateful for experiencing the long night.

I made it to the aid station and was finally able to ditch the lamps. Man, was it nice to take them off! I once again took too long at the aid station, but I was desperate for human interaction. I sat down for a few minutes chatting with Marcelle, Sara, and Abe before heading out for the final 37 miles.

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.


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 71 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 run hard with my angsty high school musical preferences fueling the charge. 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. A Cage the Elephant song was playing through my earbuds with the chorus of, “If I stumble, will I fall?” How prophetic! I now had a nice cut on my knee and blood oozing down my leg. It didn’t hurt too bad, and the blood running down my leg made me feel cool. And that’s why we do this, to be cool. Right?


Knee wounds, so hot right now. Photo- Abe

Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (80-87)

Having traversed 80 miles is quite the accomplishment. But knowing you have to run 22 more miles to finish is egregious. 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 while someone was doctoring my knee. The man was very helpful and confident as he cleaned off the dirt and blood. He wasn’t concerned with the cut but thought it was a good idea to try and clean it up. Was this guy a doctor? I asked him. “Yeah. Well kind of. I’m an eye doctor.”

It was a slow and steady hike uphill, then a downhill shuffle to the Dry Branch Gap aid station. I hit my lowest point of the day. I was moving slow and still had 15 miles to the finish with a big climb and lots of rocks, followed by the super steep gravel road descent 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.


I’m over it. Photo- Claire


All the potatoes and pickles. Photo- Claire


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. 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? No.

Falls Hollow to Finish (97-101.85)

The guy ahead of me left the aid station 30 seconds ahead of me. I turned my music back on (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.


DONE!!! Photo- Claire

IMG_4796 2

She’s the best. Photo- Claire


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.


That’s not normal. Photo- Marcelle


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


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.


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.


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


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.


Always say yes to potato chips.


Dany requesting to go run with me.


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


Mile 40- Mt. Cheaha


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.


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.


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 a trivial matter like the aid station being further than expected felt like 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.


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.





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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.


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.


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 sunup 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 (notice the word mental in compartmentalize, this ultra stuff is mostly mental) 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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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. I resorted to music for a pick-me-up. I didn’t want to be rude and ignore Kyle with my ear buds in, so I played my music out loud. I turned my music off when we passed a few hikers. I get annoyed when other people have their music blaring on the trail. Best not to be a hypocrite!

My run playlist is rather eclectic. A Kesha song came on and I asked Kyle not to make fun of me. Being a gracious friend and pacer, he only laughed and passed on teasing me. The music helped for a bit but my phone eventually died. I thought about asking Kyle to sing for me, but I think I already knew what the answer would be.

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.


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.


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!


Thru-hiker art. Photo- Kyle

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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 that I would not succumb to the creature comforts of a warm aid station and the allure of dry socks.


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


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.


Cruising through the flowers.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


Last climb of the day. Photo- Jeff


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.


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.


Thanks Jeff for being the best pacer ever.


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.


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.


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.


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.


“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.


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.


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.


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.


Yong Kim cruising along. Photo- Victoria Brunner


Tennessee geology. Photo- Victoria Brunner


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