Barkley Fall Classic 2014

WARTBURG Tennessee, September 20 2014

Geoffrey Baker describes the Barkley Marathons thusly:

In the fringe world of ultra endurance sports, there is an outlier: The Barkley.

With 59,100 feet of climb and decent [sic] over 100 miles, it’s considered the most difficult endurance event on the planet. In its 25[+]-year history, only twelve [fourteen, as of this writing – RWH] men … have actually been able to finish the race. No woman has successfully completed more than sixty miles on the course.

The race has no website.

It is not on any race calendar.

The entry procedure is a well guarded mystery. Ask a veteran how to enter and you are likely to be sent down a rabbit hole.

The race director lives under an alias.

There are no manned aid stations. You must carry everything you need to survive “out there” including a map and compass (no GPS allowed) to navigate the course.There is no official race start time. The race begins when the Race Director decides to light his cigarette.

I did not run the Barkley Marathons.

But when “Lazarus Lake”, the evil genius who designed the Barkley course, announced earlier this year that he would be putting on the Barkley Fall* Classic – an easier, more traditional race held on much of the same terrain as the Barkley – I had no choice but to sign up.

The trip to Frozen Head State Park was long, some 500 miles from The Aerie. It was a pleasant drive through the mountains surrounding I-81, though. The weather was turning ahead of the leaves. The traffic was not too bothersome, mostly big rigs carrying the nation’s lifeblood down one of its eastern arteries.

I arrived at the American Legion hall in Wartburg, Tennessee late Friday evening. I was a little unsure about which entrance packet pickup was behind, and I wandered around aimlessly for a bit until I heard a lady call out “Are you from Maryland?”

“Virginia,” I replied, confused until I remembered I was wearing my race shirt from the Rosaryville Off-road Half Marathon. It turned out that my new friend was from Annapolis. We chatted very briefly, then she directed me to the basement, where packets were being handed out.

Pickup was very smooth. An efficient volunteer handed me a bag and said “There’s a compass and an emergency whistle in here. Make sure you bring them tomorrow.” Uhhhh, dude. I might need a compass and an emergency whistle. Well, you paid for that kind of a race, why are you surprised when that’s what you got?

I rooted through the bag, and sure enough, there they were. I had stolen The Boss’s large capacity race vest and had plenty of room for these items, so I made a mental note to stow them in the vest when I got back to the hotel.

The rest of the night was uneventful. I went to the hotel, called The Boss, prepared my gear, took a shower, and headed to bed early.

I was back at the AL hall at 0500 the next morning for the pancake breakfast. It was good. When I was about halfway finished eating, K. from Annapolis hailed me with a hearty “Virginia!” We chatted a little about DC area commutes – We are both pretty fortunate by area standards; I get to my office by bicycle and train, she by foot – and about the race.

We were soon joined by B., who as a local had solid experience on the Frozen Head trails. We picked his brain as best we could, then we all wished each other well and headed out for the short drive to the park.

It was dark at the start area. I texted The Boss that I was safely on site, then set about making sure my gear was ready, shoes were tied, etc. I repeated these last steps over and over; aside from my regular OCD, I knew I’d need to give myself every possible advantage if I wanted to finish.

The race is a nominal 50 km, with a cutoff time of 13 hours, 20 minutes. That alone should give you an idea of the difficulty. You also have to figure in, though, the course designer’s cruel penchant for lowballing mileage. The actual race ended up being somewhere north of 35 miles.

There were echoes of the real Barkley at the start. Laz blew the conch at 0600, indicating one hour until the scheduled 0700 start. At the true Barkley, the start time is unknown until the conch blows.

We made our way over to the starting area, some 250 nutjobs awaiting the lighting of Laz’s cigarette, which would start the race. I looked around and saw several people I recognized only from getting to know them online through the ultramarathon mailing list I subscribe to: Dan B., Keith D., Joe F.

Joe, an outstanding runner in multiday events, was there to observe and volunteer. Dan is over 80 years old and holds the record for the worst performance ever at the real Barkley – something like 8 miles in 36 hours. Today he would turn back at the top of the first climb and only get 10k or so in. Still, he won his age group.

And then we were off. I was in the back, so I only learned we’d started by the motion of the runners around me. Suddenly we were running down the road towards the fabled yellow gate, and even though it was only the Baby Barkley, still, I was there. As I crossed the start line I followed the example of runners ahead of me and gave Laz a clumsy handslap.

The road was easy. Maybe a mile of it until we reached the yellow gate. Our path took us off to the left side of it, but some runners could not refrain from quickly going over to lay a reverent hand on it. Pffft. Fanboys. I just ran on.
The fabled yellow gate

Very soon we were climbing the first set of switchbacks. They were long. Like, real long, but not as steep as I’d feared, and not terribly technical. I settled into a pretty good hiking rhythm, just keeping my place in the conga line. Very occasionally someone would zip past or fall back, but mainly we all held our places.

Bib numbers had been assigned in rough order of ultrasignup rank. Mine was 243, near the bottom. I quickly took an interest in finding runners with numbers near mine, in hopes that they might set a pace I felt comfortable with. I noted one participant a few positions ahead of me in the conga line whose number was 248, and resolved to stay near him.

We continued up the switchbacks. My shoes were a half size too large, and they were loose. Near the top of this first climb I was ascending a particularly steep, winding section, and my foot somehow came out of my shoe, which then proceeded to start to tumble away from me down the mountain. Averting disaster, I turned and snatched it up. I lost only a few seconds sitting on a rock and replacing it.

Then a long descent. It was reasonably technical, but not too bad. My splits show that I was slow here – some 18 minutes per mile. Then another long, grinding series of uphill switchbacks.

Maybe two-thirds of the way up this section I heard someone near me call out “Sniper!” I looked ahead and there was David Snipes, a fixture at VHTRC events around my local Northern Virginia. He was hiking alone up the switchbacks, and the group I was with was slowly gaining on him. As we reeled him in, and one-by-one passed him, he was looking at us with mock indignation. “Really? Really?

“Can I get by? Thanks, buddy,” I said as I passed him. Then a beat later he called after our departing queue “How y’all doin’ – Kilians?” I was later very sorry to see that David was in the one fourth or so of starters who failed to finish.

Soon we found ourselves at the first aid station, mile 8 or so. The volunteers were local high school athletes, earnest and eager to help. I got some calories in me and headed out, feeling pretty good. There were not many runners behind me at this point, but there were some. I felt like this first segment was not as difficult as I had feared it would be – I had taken the Baby Barkley’s first punch and was still in the fight.

Then there was a long, rolling section along Frozen Head’s North Boundary Trail. After a while we came to one of the colorfully-named landmarks from the true Barkley, Son of a Bitch Ditch. It really wasn’t that bad. Down, across, and up. Then nearly as far as The Garden Spot before we took a right and headed down Coffin Springs Trail, then onto some jeep road on the way to AS 2.

On this jeep road section I caught up to #248, whom I’d targeted earlier. It turned out he was from Fairfax, Virginia, just down the road from my home in Manassas. We chatted a little bit, both of us expressing some desire to drop at AS 4, which was a short walk from the finish area, then I got up ahead a ways.

Carl L., a veteran of many attempts at the true Barkley was one of those manning AS 2. As the group I was with arrived he was saying something to the effect of “Y’all are OK on time now, but you don’t want to fall any further back.” I thanked him for this advice, and for his assistance, and headed on out towards Fodderstack.

This out-and-back section was some three miles each way, and mostly jeep roads. Not far into it I saw Leonard M. coming up behind me. I knew his name as another true Barkley veteran – he even has a hill on the course named after him – and I recognized him from my DNF at this year’s MMT, when Caroline W. greeted him at the aid station where I had dropped.

“You’re Leonard, right?” I asked him, and he graciously allowed as he was. I introduced myself, and he was very willing to grant me his mentorship. Leonard had a great deal of facts and figures about the rest of the course, and how fast we could expect to complete each segment. He seemed to do very little, if any, running, depending instead on a metronomically consistent power hike. The terrain was pretty easy around here, so eventually I decided I should run a little and get up ahead. Leonard would have no trouble catching me when things got steeper and more technical.

At one point the jeep road crossed a somewhat larger road, and there was a gate separating the two. There was no good way to get around this gate – I don’t remember why now, must have been rocks or something on either side – and so we had the choice of up or under. My legs groaned in protest as I ducked under, and I remarked to someone near me that getting past this gate was the hardest part of the course. I was wrong of course; I’d have to go under it again on the way back with even more wear on my legs. And even that was not the worst – Rat Jaw was still looming.

This out and back was a good opportunity to see who was ahead of me and who was behind. There were, of course, far more of the former than the latter. I remarked more than once to runners heading outbound with me that there were a lot of low bib numbers coming towards us hung on wasted-looking runners.

Near the top of the jeep road I thought I heard someone call my name. It confused me for a moment until I realized it must have been B., from breakfast. He was heading back inbound with a small group. He looked strong.

I chatted briefly with a tall, older racer here. I thought he may have been Ed Furtaw, many time true Barkley participant and friend of Laz, but apparently he was not. We both complained about the hills a little bit, and then I said something like “Well, we all knew what we were getting into when we signed up.” “Not me,” he said, “I’m from Iowa.” I laughed a little bit, then eventually power hiked ahead.

Soon there was a turnoff onto trail. I asked someone coming towards me how far the turnaround was, and she said about a half mile. This was not terribly inaccurate. The trail was steep, but not too technical. Most people coming the other way were running. After what seemed like a long slog I finally saw the sign for the turnaround up ahead. I made sure to walk all the way past it, impulsively kicked the back of it, then headed back down the trail at a mild jog.

There were more people behind me than I expected to see. I saw Leonard very soon after turning around. Then not far after that I saw the fake Ed Furtaw, and I impishly told him “just a mile to the turnaround!” I doubt he was fooled. Number 248 was hanging in, not too far down the trail. There was a fairly steady stream of people approaching me for a mile or so after the turn.

I finally saw K. from Annapolis, but she was way behind. Maybe a mile and a half from the turn. She said she’d gotten turned around after AS 2, and found herself on Rat Jaw before realizing she’d gone astray. She would have to push hard to make the cutoffs, and in fact I regret to say she wound up among the DNFs.

A couple miles further on and it was time for Rat Jaw.

Rat Jaw is one of the true Barkley’s signature climbs. It’s nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. This is not hyperbole. It really is nearly a mile of mostly 40% grade through a field of saw briars grown over your head. There were several runners paused at the bottom, preparing their anti-briar methods: Duct tape, calf sleeves, heavy gloves, etc. I rested a moment, relaced my shoes, then dived in.

It was tough. The temperature was up to some 80+ degrees, or at least felt like it. In the first section the briars were formed into a kind of tunnel system. We had to duck down and crawl up through them while trying to find footholds in the crumbly soil. a few times I started to fall back, and had nothing to grab onto except palm-shredding briar plants. It was a hot, sweaty, scratchy slog. At one point the tunnels ended and the plants became more upright. Around here there was a downed power line that people were using to haul themselves up the monstrous hill. Eventually we came out to a kind of plateau.

It looked like the top was near, but there was no beaten path through the briars. I wound up following a guy who claimed to have some experience at the true Barkley. He led a little group over to the left into the woods, and I followed. This group would wind up fracturing a few times. Each time some would go farther into the woods and some would turn back. I was always in the group that turned back – I felt like the true path should go through the briars as much as possible, so I didn’t want to stray too far from that briar patch.

Eventually we came back to Rat Jaw proper not far from where we left it. After struggling a short distance up the hill we saw the fire tower at the top, and knew we were near the end.

Finally we popped out of the briars, and the course markings directed us up the fire tower. Leonard was here, having used his Barkley skills to somehow get ahead of me on Rat Jaw. I climbed the fire tower and got a mark on my bib from the volunteers at the top. Then it was back down and a short run down a jeep road to AS 3 (the same station as AS 2).

Rat Jaw souvenirs

Rat Jaw souvenirs

Carl L. was still here. I advised him that my group had gone a little astray back on Rat Jaw, but he said it was OK as long as we generally followed the course and did our best to stick to the intended route. He did say, though, that several people had gone seriously wrong on that climb and wound up coming into the AS from the wrong direction. He had told them they’d have to go back and do it right. Apparently only one runner acceded to this plan; the others said “Nah, bro,” and continued on. Carl had gotten their bib numbers, though, and he said they were DQed. I hoped they were not the cells that fractured off from our group.

From here to AS 4 was some easy running – 4 miles of lovely downhill down North Old Mac trail. I was feeling a little wiped at this point, and I wasn’t sure I would have the sack to continue on when I got to the aid station. AS 4 is less than a mile from the finish, but there is another 10 mile loop to do once you get there. I told myself “All you have to do is start down that loop when you get there. If you start, you will continue.” The time cutoff for AS 4 was nine and a half hours. I was pretty safe to make this time, but there was some tough trail in the next segment, if I didn’t drop.

I was making pretty slow time on this easy trail until someone came up behind me keeping a measured running pace. “I’m Terri,” she said, passing me, “excuse me if I fart.”

“That’s OK,” I replied, “it wouldn’t be the first time today. And, to be frank, it would restore a certain karmic balance.”

She laughed, then I asked “Are you Terri D.?” and she allowed as she was. I recognized her as the wife of the race director. I asked her if she minded if I paced with her for a while, and she kindly agreed. We enjoyed some conversation, then caught up with Leonard near the aid station. He was, of course, hiking, so I slowed to chat with him for a while and pick his brain about the final loop. Eventually he told me that I was walking too slow, and I should run or let him pass. I chose the former and hustled to catch up with Terri before the AS.

Laz was manning this AS and chuckling at us poor lost souls. I was just a couple minutes over nine hours here, some 25 miles in, so I had plenty of time to go on. “Are you going to continue?” Laz asked with a grin. “Darn right I am!” and out I headed. My strategy turned out to have been sound – once I got just a few meters down the trail it was unthinkable to turn back. Very soon, though, the final climb was looming.

Terri had told me that we were facing seven miles of climb. Laz had said that it was five miles to the next aid station, but Laz lies. The truth, I figured, was somewhere in between. Chimney Top is not a seven mile climb, it turns out, but it feels like one.

It is just unrelenting. Switchbacks upon switchbacks, punctuated by short, sharp ups. It doesn’t end, but at least it’s not too steep. Well, until you get to the last mile or so. That’s pretty steep.

I usually do OK on heavy climbs. Today, though, I was about done in. Once we hit that über-steep trail to the summit my heart rate would skyrocket whenever I took more than 20 steps or so without resting. So I took the hill 20 steps at a time, punctuated by 20 – 30 second rests leaning back against tree trunks. I had dropped Leonard and Terri at AS 4, but they both passed me before I made it to the summit, Leonard at his rock steady pace, and Terri doing a marginally faster version of my walk-rest-walk pattern.

Finally, the summit. The trail turned down and I was pretty sure I had a finish in the bag.

AS 5 turned out to be 6 miles from the previous aid station. Not too bad for Laz miles. Here I met Mike D., another mainstay of the true Barkley. He told us it was 3.5 miles to the finish, and I regret to say that I did not receive this news as graciously as I should have. “Is that an honest 3.5 miles?” I asked, “Because they’ve been stretching the truth all day.”

“It’s 3.5 – I don’t lie,” he firmly replied, and I went so far as to ask his name (I didn’t know it at the time) so that I could curse it later, should the finish be farther than advertised. Mike, I would like to offer you my most humble and abject apologies – the distance was just as you said.

I left this aid station in the company of two young ladies, who would accompany me until we reached the trailhead. This section was a little bit of a death march. It was easy downhill, but we were not doing much running. I learned that one of my companions, M., had chosen this race as her first ultra. “That’s … uhh … psychotic,” I said.

“No, that’s badass,” T. corrected me. “Ah, yes. That’s what I meant.”

When we got down to a mile to go to the trailhead, per Mike’s promised 3.5, T. started frequently asking me for updates on our remaining distance. “I’ll tell you when we’re down to half a mile,” I told her. She replied “OK”, but still couldn’t keep from asking for updates now and then.

“Half a mile to go.” “Woot!”

“A quarter mile.”

“There’s a sign.”

“There’s the trailhead. And there’s Laz.”

He was waiting for the last few finishers to come through. It was nearly dark, but we didn’t have our lights out – the finish was just a few tenths down the road. I let the girls get up ahead and walked over to shake Laz’s hand.

“I hate you so, so much,” I told him, and he laughed. I doubt there was anything I could have said that would have made him happier.

The girls were fast on the road. They declared their intention to wait for me and finish together, but I insisted that they go on ahead. “I want my DFL,” I told them (I would proceed to fail in this aim – there were some eight official finishers behind me).

I knew I would easily make the 13:20 cutoff, but as I neared the finish area I realized that I could do a little better – 13 hours was quite achievable.

I broke into a shambling parody of a jog up to the turn leading to the finish line, whereupon I broke into a pathetic attempt at a sprint. There were loud cheers, which I welcomed. I crossed the line in 12:56:16 – a personal worst at the 50k distance** by some five hours, and a time of which I am very proud. Anybody who wants to tell me that’s slow had better run it themselves first.

I watched the last few finishers come in, then headed out in search of much needed food. Before leaving I saw Leonard and thanked him for his help out on the trail.

I stopped and ate some fast food, went back to the hotel, called The Boss to let her know I was alive, took a shower, then crashed hard.

The drive back to Manassas was pleasant. Autumn was finally in the air, and satisfying memories of an ambitious goal achieved carried me home.

Humble and sincere thanks are due to the following people:

  • Terri D. for pulling me down North Old Mac. I’d’ve had a much harder time making the cutoff had I kept at my own leisurely pace on that section of trail.
  • Steve D. for directing the race, and giving us all the chance to experience a taste of the Barkley course and achieve something epic.
  • Carl L., Mike D., and all the other volunteers for making the whole thing possible. No way I was getting around that course without aid.
  • Leonard M. for his kind and patient mentorship.
  • Everyone else I shared a word with before the race or on the trail.
  • Lazarus Lake for recognizing that people will rise to the challenge they are presented with, and for presenting us so many challenges to rise to. Thanks, Laz. Thank you, man.

You may also enjoy this report from Kimberly D., another BOP finisher (but at least she beat me).

*Even this is obfuscation and misdirection. The race was held in the final days of Summer, 2014.

**Actually more like 36 miles, with some 12,380 feet of elevation gain

Miles this race: 31 (officially)
Miles raced this year: 241.9

Hyner View Trail Challenge 50k 2014

HYNER Pennsylvania, April 26 2014

If you are looking for Δz, Hyner is your course. The 25k race has some 4200 feet of climb, and the 50k adds another 3300 or so, for a total of 7500. Almost a mile and a half of total up.

The 50k race subsumes all of the 25k course and adds a separate 25k loop in the middle. I’ve done the 25k version three times before, so I knew what to expect for the first 8 miles and the last 8, but the middle 15 was going to be new ground.

The 50k started at 0700, two hours before the shorter race. The start is a mile over road to the trail head, followed by a mile or so of easy, flat trail. It lulls you. It sets you up.

Around mile 2 you see a sign: “Humble Hill”, and the path turns up. And up. And up. Nearly a mile of hands-on-knees, nose-to-dirt, sweaty, wheezing trudge gets you to a brief respite where you can run a little before round two – another near mile of death march up to AS1 on top of the mountain.

When I ran the 25k they always had somebody ringing a cowbell up there, but I reckon the ringer hadn’t gotten set up yet, or maybe they figured that the 50k runners were more serious and didn’t need the encouragement. I don’t mind saying, I’d’ve liked to hear some cowbell. The aid station volunteers were great, though.

I headed out of AS1 pretty quick, and on down the first descent, almost back to the level we started at. A few more small ups and downs brought us to Johnson Run, with its myriad stream crossings. Don’t bother to try to keep your feet dry, just slosh through and roll on.

Halfway through this section was the split-off for the 50k course. We turned right and went up a mild, muddy hill before turning left onto Sledgehammer. This was a monster. Not quite as steep as Humble Hill, and it was nice, smooth double-track, but it just doesn’t ever end. It was a straight line to infinity. I kept thinking of a passage from that children’s book, The Phantom Tollbooth – “‘Just follow that line forever,’ said the Mathemagician, ‘and when you reach the end, turn left.'”

“Does this hill even have a top?” I asked a woman I had caught up with, exasperated. She grinned and expressed her own doubt of the proposition. I got a little frustrated at this point and set off at a strong hike, passing several tiring racers. It felt like we’d been on this hill for hours, but finally we took a right turn and a little more climbing brought us up to AS2.

There was a little more climbing here, though gentle, then quite a bit of easy downhill running. Around mile 11, some three miles past the aid station, there was a simple cache of water on the ground. Just a few cases of bottled Deer Park or something. Someone said that it was seven miles to the next AS, so I filled my carry bottle and took a deep draught from the cache. A few more miles of down brought us out to Ritchie Run.

This was basically a mirror of Johnson Run. Many, many foot-soaking stream crossings followed by a long upward grind. I was ready to be done with it long before it ended.

We finally came out to the next AS, but they were out of water! They had a few drops of Gatorade, some oyster crackers, and three tiny cups of soup. The soup was nice, but, dudes, when you are 10 miles past the last real aid you really hadn’t ought to run out of water. At least the weather was cool.

After this was some easy trail running and then a few tenths of a mile of road. Back on the trail again and up to the aid station at the top of Sledgehammer. It was only about a mile and a half from the previous, waterless AS, and I was a little concerned that maybe I’d missed a turn somewhere. All the runners I was with seemed to think we’d stayed on course, though, so I eventually accepted that I hadn’t missed anything and set off to get my revenge on Sledgehammer.

Now this was more like it. It was great to pound this downhill, though it still felt like it took all day to traverse. I was psyched to join back up with the 25k course, and I was passing suckers all the way down that hill. Near the bottom I said to a woman near me “Man, how did I ever get up this hill?” “I know, right?” she replied, smiling.

Back through the muddy section and then I could see some of the slower 25k runners down below on the course. I dropped back onto the Johnson Run section of trail and started picking my way forwards through the hikers.

I enjoyed giving out advice to the 25k runners as I passed them. Many of them wanted to know whether we were already on the second big hill shown on the elevation chart, and I felt very elder-statesmanlike handing out reassurances that this was the case. A lot of people were stopping to rest on the last push out of Johnson Run, but I kept up a pretty good power hike. I admit to getting a little vicious glee from telling people what was waiting for them on the following climb. Then out to a short runnable section before another aid station at the top.

Then there is a long, rocky downhill where I must have gone around like 30 people. Very few of the 25k racers were running here, so I was constantly calling out to pass. I made sure to express gratitude to those yielding the trail for me.

This section eventually bottomed out and it was time for the SOB. This is a killer at mile 11 of the 25k; I learned that it is much worse at mile 27. There is a long steep approach, riddled with switchbacks, that just grinds you down. I was still passing many people here, but I was really dreading the short, sharp shock of the SOB proper. It’s steeper than it looks. I had to stop to rest halfway up.

One more aid station at the top of this monster, then out for the final push. I saw a few 50k runners here – passing some, getting passed by some – but mostly I was reeling in the 25k people. I passed one perky-looking couple and couldn’t resist tweaking their spirits a little: “Only eight miles to go!” I called out. “Nooooooooooo!” said the woman, and I immediately relented, “No, no, it’s only three and change.” I think she forgave me.

A little more dorking around on some fire roads and a little single track, and then I hit the final grinding, quad-shredding downhill of Huff Run. This punishing section always seems to go on forever, but at least it’s mostly runnable. I continued passing a few people here and there.

At the bottom of Huff Run is a bridge, and from there I know it’s less than half a mile out to the road and then a mile back home. At the intersection with the main road back to the finish there are some cars coming from my right, but I think I can get across in front of them. I power out into the road, and some lady yells “Watch it!” “I got them, they see me,” I reply, and make it safely across. Probably a little risky, but I didn’t want to give back even a few seconds waiting to cross.

If I hustle I can make it in under eight hours. The slowest 50k I’ve ever run, but also by far the hilliest. I manage a weak jog down the road and up the final hill, and finish in 7:58:xx. I accept my finisher’s medal and collapse on the ground in the finish area.

Eventually I get up and partake of the excellent food and beverages this race always provides. As I’m gathering my strength to head home, Steve C., whom I met at the VHTRC’s Magnus Gluteus Maximus 50k in December, comes and sits beside me. We had talked about this race at the MGM, and I’d been wondering if I’d see him here. He’d finished in some 7:20 and was waiting for his buddy who’d come up with him. We talked a little about MMT, where he will be volunteering this year.

I also saw Gary P., whom I’d met earlier this year at the 모자, but I didn’t talk to him. He is also registered for MMT.

This race was a great experience, but it felt a little unsatisfying traveling there and back alone. I don’t think I’ll return unless I can convince The Boss and/or some friends to go with me, although if I lived closer I’d never miss this event.

Miles this race: 31
Miles raced this year: 185.8

EX2 Rosaryville trail half marathon 2014

ROSARYVILLE Maryland, March 23 2014

EX2 Adventures puts on a good race, and today was no exception. The aid stations were well-run, the course was well-marked, and the post-race food was satisfying.

I had registered for this race in anticipation of running it with The Boss and two FotBs. Unfortunately they all wound up dropping out for various reasons – injured, work conflict, untrained – and I had to run alone.

But not completely alone, of course. This was a trail race, after all, so even a curmudgeonly loner like me was bound to get drawn into a conversation or two. I met H., a nice man who told me his friend had flown him to the race in his personal plane and they were continuing on to New York after the finish. I met a young lady who was running the companion 10k race who told me she had run a 50k the week before – I could not resist trumping her story.

I knew I would be exhausted from the previous day’s run, but I was even slower than I expected. I walked almost all of the ups, even the mild ones. I didn’t mind too much, though; I was enjoying being out on the trails. The only thing that (mildly) annoyed me was the volunteers at the last aid station insisting on trying to tell me how well I was doing despite my demurrals. I actually felt like I was doing pretty well given that I’d run 50k for time the day before, but they didn’t know that, so it just felt patronizing.

I admit that I have a phobia about being too far BOP and, a fortiori, DFL. Part of this is a desire to avoid being the reason for volunteers and race crew to have to stick around waiting for the last finisher to straggle in, but to be honest the larger moiety is probably an inadmirable distaste for being perceived as slow.

It’s a little odd – I think I have even more respect for the slowest finishers of most races than I do even for the leaders. They are out there trying something that tests their ability to the limit; it doesn’t matter that their limits may be more modest than those of others. I’m not sure, then, why I care what other people think of my own performance.

I did manage to come in ahead of some 20 people, finishing 95th out of 115 people (plus one DNF) in 2:38:47. I felt pretty good about this, considering.

In any case, I was too spent from the previous day’s effort to enjoy the race as much as I’m sure I otherwise would have. I feel like I wasn’t able to form many lasting memories of the day. I’d like to do this race again when I’m fresh, and with an uninjured Boss.

Miles this race: 13.1
Miles raced this year: 92.7

HAT Run 2014

HAVRE DE GRACE Maryland, March 22 2014

The HAT Run or, as it’s known in our house, the 모자 is a very popular 50k race. Entry is capped at 500 and fills up within a few hours. The race is popular for good reason.

The course is beautiful, mostly single track trail but with some road and open, grassy field sections thrown in. There is a fair amount of elevation gain (the website claims almost 10,000 feet, but my watch recorded a paltry half mile or so).

I had been concerned that the trails would be a sloppy mess. There had been several inches of snow just five days earlier, on top of many similar accumulations throughout the winter. Amazingly, though, a few days of bright sun and warm temperatures had dried the trail out beautifully – there was only a very few small muddy patches, and the stream crossings were not more than ankle deep.

As I was receiving my packet from a kind volunteer I saw someone reaching across me to grab some bib-pinning safety pins. This turned out to be the famed zhurnalist Mark Zimmermann, whose site is one of my favorite places to read race reports (and more!). I would see Mark again at the finish, just as I was leaving. I called out “Looking good, Mark!”, and he expressed appreciation for the sentiment although I’m sure he had no clue who I was.

The HAT Run course consists of one small loop of about 3.6 miles followed by two identical longer loops measuring some 13.7 miles each. At the end of the first loop I noticed that we were running directly under the finishing arch. “That’s a little too much of a tease,” I complained to the woman beside me, earning a grin and a nod. In the end we would go under that arch three times, with only the last time counting.

There was an aid station set up in the start/finish area, since we’d be through there three times, but I skipped this the first time through. It was only some four miles to the next AS, and since the weather started out cool I had plenty of water left in my bottle.

There were three aid stations on the big loop, the last one being a couple of simple, unmanned jugs of water. The first two were actually only some 50 feet apart as the crow flies, although separated on the course by some 4.1 miles. The GPS track from my watch shows the pinch in the course in the northernmost area. Both of these aid stations were serving up what instantly became by far my favorite ultra food ever: freshly cooked french fries. They were hot, crisp, salty, and invigorating. I just completely fell in love with those fries.

I learned in this race that every ultra runner in the area loves the VHTRC races. It seemed like everyone I spoke with had run BRR or MMT, or was planning to run at least one of them this year.

I got to talking for a while with G. when I noticed that he and I were wearing the same model shoe – the Altra Olympus. G. will be running his second MMT this year, and I tried to pick his brain a little in support of my own first attempt on it. He warned me that there were very few runnable sections, but then he went on to say that he probably ran about 50% of the course. He also told me that he was planning to run 45 miles around his native Philly the day after the 31 miles of the HAT. Up until that point I’d been pleased with myself for planning a half marathon as a HAT follow-up; now I started to doubt whether I had anywhere near the training needed to achieve an MMT finish.

G. got up ahead of me for a while, and with about four miles left to go I found myself running alone for some time. I eventually caught up to S., a guy with a French-sounding accent who I later learned had finished shortly behind me at last year’s BRR. We ran together for a couple miles, eventually falling in at the end of a conga line of some 5 or 6 runners muddling their way up a hill. We stayed with that line for a little while, hiking a few ups and running a few flats, but it was moving just a little slow for my taste. I finally took an opportunity to zip around to the left as we went up yet another hill, noting with some surprise that G. was one of the conga line constituents.

I picked off a few more runners as the trail opened up into a sunny, grassy field. Then came a screaming, paved downhill where I really opened up the pace, moving up another place or two.

Then a little more single track before the course opened up and headed out through fields and road to the finish. Third time though the arch was the charm, and I finished in 6:38:45. I was pretty close to finishing in the top half of the results; I was in the top half if you include DNFs.

As long as they keep serving those french fries this will be a hard race for me to skip.

Miles this race: 31
Miles raced this year: 79.6

Instant Classic Trail Marathon 2014

CHESTERFIELD Virginia, March 15 2014

“I’m like a bad penny,” I said to Columbia as I came up behind, “I keep turning up.”

I’d met him in the first quarter mile of the race, before the field got separated out. I was asking someone else if they knew what the trails were like. That person didn’t know, but I heard someone call out that he thought they were mainly fire roads. I made my way over to chat with that latter guy a little more. We discussed the race course for a little while, then he asked where I was from. “Manassas,” I said, “you?” “Columbia Maryland.”

We ran and chatted for the next couple miles. The brutal winter had destroyed my already questionable fitness, and I knew I needed to keep a slow pace if I wanted to have any hope of a strong finish. The race’s elevation chart tended to confirm this analysis.

Instant_Classic_Elevation

The trails actually turned out to be a mix of fire roads, double track and a couple miles of gorgeous, flowy single track, which put me in mind of the good old BROT and was by far the most joyful section to run.

We started out running in the 8:30 to 9:00 range. I knew I needed to back off of this pace, but the weather was perfect, and the course was beautiful. I could never have imagined it during my sedentary years, the idea of running being too pleasurable to stop or even moderate my pace, but the legs will have their way and so I spent a few miles telling Columbia to go on ahead, as I was going to slow down a bit, but never actually following through.

Eventually we got to the first truly hilly area, and I was finally able to persuade my legs that I needed them to walk the ups. Columbia got up ahead here, but the walking break had the desired revitalizing effect, and I caught him again before too long.

This pattern repeated itself several times over the next six or seven miles. I’d get dropped on the ups, and then catch up where the course was flat or down. He’d always greet me with a hearty “Manassas!” He was usually running with a group when I caught him and there’d be introductions all around. I met D., who was running this race as part of a double this weekend – he would go on to run sub-four at the Shamrock Virginia Beach Marathon the next day. I met a young lady from Northern Virginia, apparently running her first 26.2, who was introduced to me as “Prancer”.

After mile 9 or 10 Columbia put enough of a gap on me that I couldn’t catch him before the next uphill. At around mile 11.5 I saw him at the race’s sole out-and-back section, he some 50 yards past the turnaround, and I the same distance short of it. Then he was gone.

I chatted with several other interesting runners, though. Most of them were ultra runners. One young woman had recently run all three days of the West Virginia Trilogy – a 50k on Friday, 50 miles on Saturday, and a half marathon on Sunday. She said the trails were breathtaking. Several people I spoke with had run the Bull Run Run, or were planning to. I pimped it every chance I got.

I continued walking the ups and running the downs. Through the first 15 miles I was keeping just over a 10 minutes per mile average, which would put me under my ambitious goal time. I was at 18 miles in the neighborhood of 3:04, and was cautiously optimistic about a sub-4:30 finish.

In every previous marathon I’ve run, I’ve found myself crashing in the last 6 miles and getting passed by huge waves of runners. Today was the opposite. Buoyed by my run-walk strategy, I was passed by no one after about mile 12. In fact I was methodically picking off exhausted runners ahead of me. I must have passed around ten or twelve people in the last ten miles, in a race with fewer than 100 finishers.

Eventually I saw a familiar figure just rounding a curve up ahead. I upped my cadence a little and eventually caught up to Columbia for the last time around mile 20 or 21. He had had to take a pit stop at the last aid station, and was complaining of fatigue and cramps. I was slowing too, but I tried to convince him we could still bring it in under four and a half. He wasn’t buying in to this plan though. We ran and chatted a little, and then I got up ahead.

I got to the last aid station and declared “This must be the finish line!” This got a chuckle from the volunteers. “No, but you’re getting close. A mile to go, or maybe 1.2.” “It’s 1.13 according to this,” I replied, pointing to a helpful sign nearby. “I’ll take every hundredth I can get.”

I generally hate walking in the last mile of a race, no matter the distance, and I tried to adhere to this philosophy today. They’d thrown some of the nastiest hills in the last few tenths here, however, and I wound up giving in and trudging up them. Soon enough I found myself crossing the bridge back to the finish area and spied the finish line up ahead. With a few hundred feet to go there was one runner between me and the arch, and I set out to take him. He looked a little beat, and I passed him pretty quickly, but as I started my finishing kick across the field my calves started seizing up with cramps. I managed to grit my teeth and hold off the cramps for the 100 or so yards to the finish, and the pass was not reversed.

I missed my ambitious goal, but did better than I expected to. My time was 4:37:10, 38th out of 94 finishers, and the first time I’ve finished in the top half of a marathon field.

I hung around to watch the later finishers. Columbia came across the line some ten minutes after me. “My name’s McArdleRay,” I said, offering him my hand, “What’s yours?” “DavisSteve,” he replied, shaking it.

There were several noteworthy things about this race. Among them:

  • Before the marathon started, the race director announced that we had a Guinness world record holder in the field. Laurence Macon holds the record for most marathons run in one year with 157(!). Laurence finished DFL today, but he’s got nothing at all to prove.
  • The signage was amazing. At every turn – and at occasional places with no turns – there was a laminated sign on a tree or stuck in the ground with the current distance to the hundredth of a mile for both the full and (where applicable) the half marathon.
  • They had an unusual chip timing system. You crossed the finish line, then walked down to the end of the chute, where a volunteer waved a sensor on a paddle over your bib. This added some 20 seconds to my net time, but, meh, it’s not a PR type of race anyway.

This race is beautiful, well organized, and very well supported for its size. The marathon field is small, but there were around 2 or 3 times as many in the half. I hope to come back in the future.

Miles this race: 26.2
Miles raced this year: 48.6

Stalking The Boss at the MCM

I ran the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011. I don’t want to run it again; it’s far too crowded. Maybe if I get fast enough (or slow enough) that I’m not packed like a sardine in the middle of the bell curve I’ll consider it.

The Boss, though, is determined to run it until she beats her goal time. She missed it by just a few minutes this year. Right after the race she said she was done with this course, but that only lasted a few hours. She’s planning to run again in 2014.

I spent a fair amount of time out on the course in various places trying (and mostly failing) to catch a glimpse of her. I had some good experiences anyway:

  • Watching the front of the race come through was sublimely awesome. The wheelchair and handcycle division came through first, of course. The leaders were freakin’ flying. I didn’t care so much about them. Soon after, though, mixed in with the first elite runners, came the real stories – the men and woman who’d lost multiple limbs and were using this race to prove to themselves that they could still do epic things. Or maybe that they would now do epic things for the first time. Screw you, fate, screw you, war. I was standing at the bottom of the first hill, just after they made the turn off of Lynn Street onto Lee Highway. Some of them were already struggling. One seemed to be having mechanical issues, a problem with his chain. One guy was missing both his right arm and right leg; he was on a strange four-wheeled contrivance, but he seemed to be managing OK. Several people seemed to hit an impasse, unable to continue, almost falling back, but were caught and aided by others. Somehow they all managed to recover and continue inching up the hill and out of sight. Only 24 miles to go.
  • Soon after this the main mass of runners started coming through. I saw near about every type of runner imaginable. I saw old men who must have been in their eighties, eyes a’twinkling. I saw people running barefoot. I saw a woman holding a bloody rag to what appeared to be a fresh wound on her head, but still moving determinedly. I saw people so overweight that I knew they’d be flirting with the time cutoffs all day, but they were giving it all they had.
  • Then there were the families following in the Team Hoyt tradition, God bless them. I couldn’t keep my eyes dry, I admit. They aren’t completely dry as I write this, I admit. Those kids, those parents. What a truly awesome thing.
  • I saw Tim Stanley around mile 9. He is one of the Bull Run Run streakers, having finished all 21 versions of that event so far, along with Tom Green* and Frank Probst. Tim was wearing the same purple shirt he has worn at every BRR. He doesn’t know me from Adam, but I called out to him “Tim Stanley, tear it up!” He looked over his shoulder, trying vainly to recognize me. I know what he was probably thinking: “Do I know this guy? I must, why else would he know me? No time to think about it, have to just start calling out a response and hope his name comes to me before I finish it.” He wound up drawling an extended “Heeeee-eey . . . maaan!” It was awesome.
  • I saw an older guy wearing a Duke t-shirt and I yelled “Go Heels!” He started to react like “Thanks, man!” then realized what I’d said, and what he was wearing, and he laughed. He was a good sport.
  • I saw several people from The Boss’s training group. Rachel T. was running with her husband Robert. I know Rachel is kind of fast, maybe about a 4:15 to 4:30 marathoner, but they were on more like 5:30 pace. I called out to her and gave her the “what gives?” gesture, shrugging with hands slightly raised and out to the side. She responded with a grin and a mock-exasperated gesture at Robert who was happily, obliviously trotting along in front of her.
  • I was waiting around at mile 25 in a last ditch effort to finally succeed at seeing The Boss. This is the death march zone. When I got there the 4:00 to 4:15 runners were passing through, and there were already a lot of people walking. Later runners were looking pretty haggard. I started calling out encouragement to them, but I felt a little awkward and self-conscious. I saw one girl who was really looking beat down and I hollered “Looking good!” Then after she passed I turned to this Asian dude standing near me and said “but not really, though.” Kind of a jerk thing to say but he laughed and we got to talking. He was waiting for his girlfriend to finish. He had finished in like 3:09; his girl was a sub-5 runner but she had stayed out late the night before, or something, and he was expecting her in maybe as late as 5:00 or 5:15. We got to talking about his prior running exploits and he allowed as he had run across Tennessee this past summer. “Oh, was that the Vol State?” I asked, shocking him a little. The Last Annual Vol State 100π mile road race is small enough that I had been able to stalk everybody in it while it was going on. Turns out I already knew the name of this guy I’d randomly struck up a conversation with – Sung Ho Choi. The world is always smaller than you imagine.
  • I saw Gene P. and coach Bruce W. from The Boss’s training group in this same mile 25 area. I forgot Gene’s name for a second after he recognized me and I was reduced to pathetically calling out “Hey, uh, Glenn! Uh, Gerry! Uh, uh….”
  • I finally got to see The Boss when she came by the mile 25 marker. I ran along the sidelines with her most of the rest of the way, but I got stymied by crowding near the finish line and didn’t get to see her go under the arch.

*Tom is a minor legend – he was the first person to complete the “Grand Slam of Ultrarunning” back in ’86. I nipped him at BRR and came in well ahead of him at the Rosaryville 50K this year. Surely he was taking it easy and he’s got 16 years on me, but still: come at me, legend!

Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 miler 2013

BOALSBURG Pennsylvania, October 20 2013

    • Fallback goal: Finish
    • Ambitious goal: Don’t be the last finisher
    • Dream goal: Finish in under 11 hours

“Nuh-uh, they don’t have races that long!” says co-worker K. when I explain why I’m gimping down the hall. “Oh, I assure you,” I reply, “they do.”


I was undertrained going into the Tussey mOUnTaiNBACK 50 miler, as I always am for marathons and ultras. I was a little concerned about the 12 hour time limit, but I had done some research into comparative finishing times at this race versus the BRR 50, and it looked like people who’d run both tended to finish a little faster at Tussey. I’d finished BRR in 11:07, so I figured I should be able to sneak in under the time limit even given my questionable fitness.

Pre-race

The weather is perfect on race day. The day before the weather report had been showing rain all morning for Sunday, but when the sun rose there was nary a drop to be seen, and this condition held throughout the day. The temperature was in the low 40s, maybe even dipping down into the 30s, but it was slated to rise up to maybe 55 or so. I thought I might wear two shirts while running, but just before the gun I ditched the long sleeves and went with just a very thin tech t-shirt. This turned out to be the right decision; I was comfortable most of the day.

Tussey Mountain is a little unusual in that it is both a relay race and an ultra. All of the relay teams and many of the ultra runners had support vehicles, which shared the course with us, each vehicle leapfrogging ahead of its runner to meet them at the next aid station/transition zone. This got annoying very quickly, but mostly was not a big hindrance. The support crews also felt the need to shout encouragement at all the runners, which was nice, but having to acknowledge each “whoo, go ultra!” with a wave or a fist pump or a salute got old in short order. This would go on throughout the race.

As we line up to start I spot a sixty-something-looking Asian lady and I think “as long as you don’t pass me I am good”. Then I see a kind of hippie-looking dude, probably late fifties, pony tail, skinny legs. “I’m beating you for sure.” The Asian lady would pass me at around mile 25, loping along at a steady pace as I suffered through an extended walking spell. It would be ten miles more before the hippie dude was to pass me.

Leg 1Leg1-elev

After a brief downhill start, the next three miles were all uphill. At each mile marker I stopped and walked for one minute – this was my new strategy for preserving my legs, which always fail me in the latter half of long races. I felt a little goofy when I was the only one walking 10 minutes into the race, but I found that I didn’t lose any net position to any other runners. When I started back running I would leapfrog all of those who had passed me during the walk breaks. The first mile passed very quickly, and the next two only slightly less so. I had barely broken a sweat when we crested the hill and arrived at AS 1.

Leg 2Leg2-elev

An easy four mile downhill. Time to get some cushion in the bank. I do easy mid-eights all the way down. I chat for a while with a couple young men who I think were doing their first ultra, or at least their first 50M. They tell me it looks like I’ve done this before, and ask me about my run/walk strategy. “One minute walk at every mile marker,” I tell them, “but I’ll probably skip it on this downhill.” I run past them and don’t look back. I am on pace to finish in eight hours, but I have no illusions that this will last. The fastest time I will let myself dream about is 10 hours, but I don’t really give this number any credence either.

Leg 3Leg3-elev

There is a short out-and-back section to get to AS2. On the way in I get a hand slap from some random guy. On the way back out I spot the two young men I’d chatted with earlier. The rest of this section is not very memorable, just flat and easy. I saw a small snake, long dead and its body driven down level with the surface of the road by passing cars. This made me sad; it seemed so improper, undignified. I wanted to grab the body up and at least fling it off to the side of the road where it could rest a little more peacefully. I wound up just running on.

Leg 4Leg4-elev

This was the leg where I’d planned to start doing some extended walking, and I adhered to this plan. I think it was on this leg that I met J., a very nice young woman from Ottawa whom I’d wind up leapfrogging most of the rest of the way. We chatted for a while. I asked her her time goal and she told me she was hoping to use this race as a qualifier for Western States. “So, eleven hours, then?” I asked her, and she nodded, looking a bit startled that I was nerdy enough to know this off the top of my head. I mentioned that at least the cool weather must be comfortable for her, given her origins, but she said it had been a warm year so far, so she was not really acclimated to the cold.

The first wave of relay runners had started an hour behind us, and I had predicted I’d see the first one passing me around mile 15. This turns out to be very close; a guy with the white bib indicating relay teams barrels past me at about mile 15.3.

Leg 5Leg5-elev

I don’t remember much at all about this leg. The splits from my watch show that I was keeping a fairly decent pace, even though I was probably continuing my “run one mile, walk one minute” strategy. I think it was somewhere in here, or maybe the previous leg, where the two young men from the early legs pass me. I offer them an encouraging word as they go by. I felt OK pulling into AS 5.

Leg 6Leg6-elev

Going into this leg I expected to walk the whole thing, and this is pretty much what I did, aside from a little running near the beginning, and a brief pride-jog into AS 6 at the end. I dropped J. near the beginning of this climb, but she’d catch me before too long. For most of the three miles of this hill I chatted with A., a nice guy who had done some three or four 50 milers, but was here for the first time. He claimed time goals that were similar to mine, but he’d wind up beating me by a little over an hour. When the grade of the hill started to level off he was ready to run before I was, and we wished each other well as he trotted up ahead. “That sucked!” I advise the volunteers when I finally reach the aid station, and we exchange grins.

Leg 7Leg7-elev

Most of the scenery so far has been undifferentiated – gravel road with trees lining both sides. Pleasant, but far from spectacular. This changes here in this leg. About midway through the trees open up onto fantastic vistas on either side. A volunteer whom I recognize from some previous aid stations is standing here near her parked car, admiring the view. “This makes it all worthwhile,” I say to her, and she indicates agreement.

I think it’s somewhere early in this leg where U., the lady I’d picked out as an easy mark at the start line, catches me then drops me like a hot squat. I want to try to hang with her, but I have no response. She trots easily ahead and disappears around the next bend.

But somewhere before the vista and the volunteer my legs start to wake up a little. I have a habit of counting steps when I get tired – usually I will count them in bundles of 100, but I don’t keep strict track of how many bundles I’ve notched. It’s just a way to pass the time while dividing the race up into very short segments. During this stretch, though, my focus narrowed down to sets of only four steps. “ONE two THREE four, ONE two THREE four,” over and over and over again. This had an almost hypnotic effect, and I kept up a steady running rhythm without stopping much to walk. Somewhere in this leg we pass the marathon distance and transition into ultra runners.

Leg 8Leg8-elev

I am starting to flag. J. catches up to me again and says I must be sick of seeing her. I smile and say she’ll drop me for good before too long. she expresses polite doubt.

The terrain here is not too challenging, but the cumulative distance is. I see a couple woolly caterpillars blundering across the road, and I toss them back off to the side – I don’t mind taking the time now. We pass the 50K distance before we get to the aid station. I am hurting pretty bad. My goals have been tempered – I vacillate between thinking I’ll be lucky to finish and thinking I may be able to eke out 11:30 and maybe avoid DFL. After partaking of the aid station I ask the volunteers how far to AS 9 and they tell me it’s only 2.9 miles. “That’s it? Pfft, hardly worth doing!” I am trying to keep my game face on.

Leg 9Leg9-elev

Death march. I am lit up, I am done. Nobody can run 50 miles. I’ll drop at AS 9. No, I have enough cushion that I can easily make the last cutoff at AS 10, but I’ll time out before I get to the finish. Maybe I’ll sit at AS 10 and rest for a while, maybe 30 or 40 minutes. Maybe I won’t want to get up and continue on.

I stop a few times and lean on my knees. I can’t finish this race, I am done. I pluck a few more woolly caterpillars out of harm’s way. I think not all of them are living.

This race has 12 legs and a time limit of 12 hours. One hour per leg, I had thought when planning my strategy. I figured I could probably build a two hour cushion over the first 4 or 5 legs and then try to hold on over the second half. I never got up to two, but I was hovering around 1.25 to 1.5 for a long time. I was still in that range when I staggered into AS 9, but this had been the shortest segment of the whole race. A volunteer calls out “What can we get you?” and I reply “You got an IV and a gurney?” She laughs, heartily and sincerely, and offers me a nurse instead. I later think I should have replied “That doesn’t sound too comfortable, but if that’s all you’ve got I’ll lie down on her,” but I am not that quick-witted even when I haven’t just run 35 miles.

The hippie dude I’d targeted at the start line passes me by while I am trying to snarf some calories and electrolytes. He looks pretty fresh, at least compared to me. He rolls on.

I ask the volunteer to confirm that the cutoff for AS 10 is 10 hours, but she is not sure.

Leg 10Leg10-elev

J. drops me for good somewhere early in this leg. We leapfrog for a little bit, she complaining of IT band issues and I of calf cramps, but I also have dead quads and soon I can’t answer when she pulls ahead. This section is mostly downhill, but it is a long, slow slog on my useless, dead legs. In desperation I take a couple of ibuprofen tablets – I’ve never gotten much benefit from them in the past, but I am willing to try anything to reduce the suffering.

The last mile or two comes out on paved road, and there are homes and lawns and fences. The change of scenery gives a sense of progress, and I start to feel marginally better. I meet up with guy who is also complaining of IT band problems, and I offer to swap him mine for a pair of quads, which garners a laugh.

As I hobble into AS 10 there are cheers from the volunteers and the relay teams waiting for their runners to arrive. I do what is becoming my standard trick: I extend my arms low, palms up, and wave them up and down in the universal “come on, let’s hear it!” gesture. Works every time – they cheer louder, and I pump my fists over my head in response. My mood improves another notch. I also realize that the mile markers now start with a “4”. Yet another notch.

A girl in her early teens is manning the aid station. I try to one-up my gurney joke by asking her if she has a coffin I can use, but this falls kind of flat. She offers me a chair instead. Avoiding my premonition I decline. “Thanks, but I have to keep moving.” This AS has Apple Cinnamon Hammer gel and it tastes like the sweetest nectar imaginable. I suck one down and take another for the road.

I am a little over nine hours into the race – I’ve got an hour cushion left on the “one hour per leg” schedule, and I think I’ll need all of it.

Leg 11Leg11-elev

“Oh come on!” Most of the aid stations have the elevation chart for the next leg posted on their table, and this is not what I want to see. A hefty 5.3 miles to AS 11, most of it uphill. “Yeah, but then it’s all downhill from there,” a volunteer reminds me, and I head out with a resigned “okayyyyyy”.

The volunteer checking numbers at the front of the aid station directs me back onto the course and says “see if you can catch up to that next guy and give him some encouragement; he looked pretty rough.” I accede to this plan and trot off after the guy. Having a target in my sights improves my mood yet further, and I catch up to the guy in short order. “How you feeling, brother?” “Mumble wumble PAIN,” is all I hear in response. “Uh, well, hang in there buddy!” Lame, but it’s all I can muster.

I am able to do a little running here and there. I catch up to a relay runner and mention that I think she has the worst leg of the race – she gets the nasty uphill and the next runner gets four miles of down and the glory of crossing the finish line. She doesn’t seem to mind. We chat for a while, then she gets up ahead. I catch another relay runner, though, and I give her the same line about drawing the short straw and winding up with leg 11. She says that she mostly does half marathon distance or below, but she got talked into the 2014 Hyner View trail Challenge 25k. “Watch out for the first hill,” I warn her, “it will change your world.”

Something strange happens right about this time. We’re at mile 41 or 42. The upward trend of this leg is interrupted by a brief downhill. Without much hope or expectation, I try my running legs as the road starts to slope down and I find that somehow they’ve risen from the dead. I feel fresh, like I just stepped out the door. Was it the ibuprofen, the cheering crowd at AS 10, the Apple Cinnamon gel? Was it the ego boost from catching the relay runners? The good conversion? The paved road after so much dirt and gravel? I’ll never be able to say for sure, but I felt fantastic. I lean into the hill. “A wise man told me ‘don’t waste the downs’!” I call over my shoulder to the girl I’d been running with, and I am gone.

I know I will finish. Eleven and a half hours seems very doable. I am running even much of the ups, and power-hiking the rest. I catch up to and pass the relay runner I’d chatted with early in the leg. “You’re digging deep, sir!” she calls after me. “Got my fifth wind!” I run on.

There’s a long climb near the end, and I walk all the way up it, trying to save my energy for the final push. My legs are tiring only slightly; I still feel good. I might even beat 11:15. I run into AS 11 determined to just grab some water and go.

Leg 12Leg12-elev

I linger a little, grabbing water and some pretzels. My watch reads 10:15! There’s 4.2 miles to go, almost all downhill. Amazingly, the eleven hour goal is back on the table. It’ll take a gutty effort, but this can be done.

The attempt on 11 hours starts inauspiciously as I head the wrong way out of the aid station. I get some 20 yards away before I hear the volunteers calling me back. Oops. Reoriented and chastened, I head out the right way. I see the second relay runner I’d chatted with and call out “See you at Hyner next year!”

Near the top of the brief uphill that starts the leg I catch sight up ahead of Mr. Natural, the hippie dude I thought had dropped me for good. I steadily close the gap on him and catch him shortly before the mile 47 marker. “This is about to be the slowest 5k I’ve ever run,” I tell him, earning a hearty chuckle. “That’s right, man, but we’re getting there!” “Git ‘er done!” is the dopey thing that comes out of my mouth; I am giddy with having a goal, and from the effort required to meet it. “Gettin’ it done!” replies Mr. Natural to Mr. Clean.

Very soon we hit pavement. Two and a half miles or so to go. I can run this all the way in, I have to run this all the way in. The phrase that keeps running through my head is one I hate: “gut check”. But it keeps me focused somehow. Up ahead there is a cluster of three ultra runners that I might catch before the end. Stay under 10 minute miles and this is in the bag.

Two miles of down to go. Less than twenty minutes. I haven’t caught the cluster yet, but the distance is closing. Don’t stop to walk, you may not be able to start again.

One mile left. You can’t walk in the last mile, no matter what. It’s a done deal, I’ll finish under 11. The cluster is just up ahead. I converge on them and a female runner as we reach the last turn back to the finish. The woman is momentarily confused by two conflicting arrows at this turn, but I tell her that one of them is the one we followed at the start this morning. “Hey, you can do another loop if you want,” says one of the cluster runners to general laughter. The cluster and I are moving faster than the woman at this point, but as we pass I encourage her to push and get in under 11 hours. “I don’t need it,” she says. I’m not sure if she means that she has her WS qualifier already, or if she is just not hung up on arbitrary round number goals. She will go on to finish under 11 anyway.

Just ahead I catch up to the two young runners from early in the race. One of them is obviously hurting, stiff-leggedly hobbling down the course. “Been a while since I’ve seen you guys,” I call out, and they allow as how that’s the case.

There’s a short rise at the end, but we can see the banner over the finish line. The cluster pulls ahead and I let them go – I have my goal in hand. There are people lining the finish area, cheering. In the last 50 yards I break into huge, goofy strides, mugging for the crowd, which roars its approval. Then I sprint across the line, finishing in 10:56:20. I have met every one of my goals – including (by 2 seconds!) my standard goal of finishing in less than double the time of the winner – which means I set them too low. I’ll adjust them next time.

The aftermath

“Can I get a fist bump?” One of the cluster is walking over to me, and I offer him a clumsy bro fist. “Man, where did that come from? We thought you were dead!” I didn’t recognize them, but they must have passed me during my death march miles and seen how bad I was struggling.

I meet J. in the food tent. “How’d you do?!?” we ask each other. She finished in something like 10:46, achieving her WS qualifier. She congratulates me on my time and reminds me that I am now WS qualified as well. I tell her that I don’t want to run it, but she seems to think I should give it a try anyway. I will probably put my name into the lottery – there’s usually less than a 10% chance to get in, so I should be pretty safe.

The post-race food was delicious.

Back in my car, I took my time changing my clothes and shoes as the last few finishers straggled in.

It was a pleasant drive back to Manassas.

Heritage Half Marathon 2013

GAINESVILLE Virginia, October 13 2013

It was too freakin’ wet.

The temperature was nice, but there was moderate rain fading in and out during the entire race; my clothes were drenched within minutes of starting. People were dodging around puddles in the road for no reason. Your shoes are already soaked, what’s the point?

There was only one difficult hill but the constant rollers ground me down a little bit. I kept pretty close to an 8:00 pace through the first half or so, but fell off pretty hard in the last 10k, finishing with an average pace of about 8:22. I felt better than usual during the last 5k of this race. I was tired and slowing, but I never felt a strong urge to stop and walk, and my suffering index was lower than normal for that point in a half.

I’d been thinking that I’d be happy to stay under two hours, so I was quite pleased with my 1:49:32. Almost five minutes off my PR, but on this course, at my current state of fitness, I felt like this was a very good result.

The volunteers were fantastic. They kept great attitudes while standing in the rain for hours, and were very attentive to all runners.

Some recollections:

  • I saw Paul P. on each of the three out-and-back sections. He would go on to finish his first half marathon in a very respectable 2:22:xx
  • In the second mile I passed Andrew A., who’d worked an aid station with me at this year’s VHTRC Women’s Half. He soon caught up to me and seemed startled when I greeted him by name. I reminded him of our shared service and we chatted a little before he dropped me. I kept him in sight for a while, gaining some on the ups and giving it back on the downs, but he kept his pace when I fell off in the last five miles and came in some five minutes ahead of me.
  • In the last mile I kept leapfrogging a woman who would stop to walk briefly, then run past me while I kept a steady pace. She finished ahead of me and gave me an extended high-five at the finish.
  • At one aid station the young volunteers had a fantastic technique of running along with the racers to make it easier for us to grab their proffered beverages. This worked amazingly well, but probably wouldn’t be possible in a larger race.

Miles this race – 13.1
Miles raced in 2013 – 244.1