Cloudsplitter 100 – My first official 100 mile finish
(Feature image from Paxton Walker Allgyer), I will include more pictures later, but know I only took 4 pictures the whole race.
This report will not be a traditional report, there’s so much to discuss and cover and I will not be filtering any of this. Maybe you find I am not the person you thought I was. Maybe you will find that I come across as an overachiever, or pompous, overconfident… or even humble, too modest, or even ordinary. Whatever you may think, the one thing you cannot say is that I wasn’t strong; mentally and physically. In any endurance event, there is usually a cut off, making there exist a physical barrier to move past. You can’t necessarily be slow or doddle time about. There was a debate I read recently on a forum that was between whether or not a 100 miler is anything more than mental. I can confirm that you definitely need a certain level of skill and speed to accomplish the feat. That’s not to say the mental aspect isn’t a huge factor in finishing, more about that later.
Ever since I started this running business, I have always looked to how I can push my physical boundaries. I looked for the next thing, and nothing would satisfy me. I did a half marathon basically to really do one correctly. After that, I decided to “continue my training” to complete a marathon. I had a severe lack of knowledge of how to run or train correctly early on, and was on the board line of winging it. Eventually, I was running marathons without training properly and without consequence. I was at a dead end. I started doing triathlon, I found this helped cross training tremendously. I did a half ironman my first year of tri-ing, and a full the year after. I wanted to feel accomplished when I crossed that finish line, but it wasn’t quite there…I had basically done everything in the race in training, and there was no high on race day. It really is what people call a glorified training day. I kept doing these larger efforts, and more often, back to back, hitting up those webpages sometimes hours after finishing the race looking for the next event. I did a half marathon two weeks after Ironman (this was not smart) and PR’d my marathon distance just a month post Ironman. I’m not saying any of this is a good idea or wise AT ALL, it was just my personality.
I did my first 50k that year of Ironman as a training run for the Blue Ridge Marathon three weeks later. I didn’t think twice about the distance only being a few miles longer than the marathon. I hadn’t done dozens of marathon, no, I had done what, 6 or 7? I wasn’t scared. I know no finish is promised, but I started just expecting it for that distance. The following year I did my 2nd 50k ultra…it was horrible due to the weather, but my feelings about the distance didn’t change. I had accidentally signed up for my first 100k a month after that in Zion (50k was sold out). I wasn’t that nervous going in because mentally if I failed to go the 62 some miles, I knew I could go 50k and that’s what I came for anyway and I was bound to fail at something at some point. I ended up finishing, even bogged down with a sinus infection. Yeah, it hurt. But it was another spring board. I had skipped the 50 mile distance in-between in this process. Talking with some friends after Zion 100k, I figured why not use my training from the 100k to head towards that big 100 miler? Seemed like a good idea, I just had no real idea how to go about it, and I was super bad with getting in runs by myself (I needed that accountability if this were going to happen).
I hired Scott as my coach, and with a micro sized training session, I signed up and trained for Habanero Hundred in Texas in August. At this race I failed, DNF’d my first race, from severe skin issues and complications. Not that my heart wasn’t in it, but I understood a little better that I needed to pour more of myself into it. I couldn’t pick an easy 100, if such a thing could ever even exist, or I felt like I’d be cheating myself. I signed up for the Cloudsplitter 100, a completely terrifying course on paper in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia.
The Cloudsplitter 100 is a little known 100 miler. Contrary to what it may seem, 100 milers sell out fairly quickly, making late or last minute sign ups nearly impossible. I think the 100 miler topped out with a total of 50 people. I am not a big race person, meaning I don’t typically enjoy races with tons of people in them. This was good. Average finishing times were between 33 and 39 hours for the 40 hour cutoff race for the previous year, which was the only year times could be compared to since the race location had moved from Kentucky to Norton, Virginia in 2017. For perspective, 30 hours is usually the max time allowed to finish 100 miles in other races. I honestly thought I would be with a few people at the start between the 100 miler and 100k runners. The race offered a 25k, 50k, 100k, and 100 miler. The course was branched, as it made it’s way south, turning east and doing a few out and backs along this path, and then returning to the trunk to go back south and do two short loops before returning back to the start. There was never more than 6 miles between aid stations (which with one having to shut down later on in the race due to weather made the longest stretch a lot longer). The course was mapped out to have 26,000 feet of gain and 26,000 feet of loss and somewhere between 100 and 103 miles, littered with stream crossings, some of which should be dried out. Mother nature had other plans for those.
I had managed to grab a pacer, Sonja, you all should know from Zion, for some of the course, but being able to have a pacer from 34 miles to the end, I needed one more. I struggled and reached out to find another, but was fruitless. Eventually, I asked the race director and they put out word, and I found a kindred soul Sheri who lived not far away. I figured that Sheri would pace me from mile 43 or so to mile 80ish, the parts I needed to go fastest, as she also provided experience having paced a girl last year to her finish on the same course. I had Sonja start up with me for the first 10 miles and finishing off the last 20 (had the most climbing). The stage was set and I prepared.
As per usual, I had my pre-race freak out session, but this time it was because I lived in flat Wisconsin (sorry guys, I know the driftless area is out there, but it’s still too flat). I drove out of my way to find the toughest and hardest climbs I could find and they just didn’t provide what I think my legs needed. Trails were closed down due to all the rainfall and flooding we had had recently, so I couldn’t practice super technical running at all. I considered driving the 13.5 hour drive home to Virginia to go train instead…I wasn’t nailed down to Wisconsin or anything. The idea grew on me and I was off. I trained along the Blue Ridge Mountains, getting in super technical trail running, and good hard descending practice along the roads. I started getting all sorts of niggles…the one in my right foot that I got some time when I did the solstice challenge? Yeah, still not gone. It was frustrating as my peak training came to an end with some knee pain and my feet felt so fragile. I took a few days off. Before I knew it, race day was on me. October 13-14, 2018.
It started with a drive down to Roanoke, VA, eating at my favorite pre-race meal at Ichiban. I drank sweet tea and had a good time. I was stuffed. Three hours later down interstate 81, we arrived in Norton, myself, my sister, and my mom, meeting up with Rich and Sonja who had arrived there earlier from the Knoxville airport. This was my first time in Norton, the smallest city in Virginia. (“city”) The giant sign was lit up and greeted us as we headed to settle in at the Days Inn in town. The city was fully booked up, whether for the race or for the changes in fall colors (which hadn’t actually happened yet). I got all my stuff for the race separated and explained it all to the crew. This time, I would try and use gels for as long as I could before switching over to purely soda and fruit chews/candy. I had little time to worry about the impending bad weather.
Cloudsplitter put out an incredibly detailed forecast the day before with a Skew-T plot and everything (weather nerd here). The forecast for Saturday morning was supposed to clear up from the rain the night before, chilly, possibly near freezing, a complete 360° from the previous weeks where it had been in the mid 80s and sunny and oh so humid. This was our first cold snap of the season. I roll my eyes every time, it has to be me. The temperatures at the top of the mountains would of course be much cooler and could have different weather. I was fully aware, but not until Sunday night did I realize the full extent. Saturday was supposed to be pleasant (to most but not me), temperature in the 50s (like I said, complete 360° from the 80s I had been training in), sunny. Depending on cloud cover, Sunday night temperatures could be cooler or warmer (still in the 30s/40s), with a chance of rain. Sunday daytime weather was supposed to be rainy possibly. I didn’t have a lightweight rain jacket, but said screw it, and had Rich bring my super duper heavy rain/wind proof jacket I had worn for OPSF 50|50 earlier for my birthday ultra. Cause everyone makes the same point, “when have you ever been too hot?”
I packed up various Inknburn pullovers and tech shirts. I packed up 6” shorts from them and decided to wear a new (yes, new, never worn) pair of long black shorts I had ordered from Earth Groove and a shirt I had made longer for my race to start with. I borrowed a base layer from Sonja, which I never ended up taking off, from Craft. I also had some calf sleeves I had worn to several races before since 2014, and my socks from Zion to start off with and a brand new pair of Olympus shoes from Altra. I would later switch to the lone peaks. I had so many socks ready to go.
The night before, as expected, I slept very little. In bed by 11pm. I hadn’t slept well all week leading up, my mind constantly thinking about everything from the course, to the weather, to logistics. I would say I got somewhere around 4-5 hours, which I consider pretty good for me. I got up slightly before the alarm. I put on everything and headed out with my drop bags and the crew. We got there earlier at the start which was at the farmer’s market, and indoor building that was heated. I didn’t know how I felt about starting and ending a race entering and exiting a building. I hit up the port-o and applied 2toms glide everywhere. It was cold. I think it was about 37°F at the start. Inside, I treated my feet to more 2toms and the powder as recommended by Golden Harper from Altra (big thanks to you man, this helped so much), and stuck those back in the traveling laundry basket that was my crew’s stuff they would take to the major aid stations. The beginning was pretty uneventful. I was just ready to get out there and get this thing done already. The build up was so intense and I just needed to be out there and going. I skipped on taking my ipod due to the rain and heavy fog that would probably prematurely soak it. I knew the start would be fully of energy buzzing from the racers and I wanted in on it. Or so I thought. All racers from every distance went off at the same time, 8am, which I was so thankful it wasn’t before 8am like a lot of 100 milers. I wanted to space out when I had my music so to say…
The start of the race there was a prayer, which really touched me…I needed that. Then the old southern rifle was shot and we were off. It felt so classic for the area, it was a nice touch. I was already holding back emotion. This is what I signed up for. These were my mountains, though three hours south, there weren’t going to be surprises (I was convinced, and was pretty much right about this actually), and I was confidence in my paces I needed to hit to make it in on time.
I had three goals:
A) Finish before the sun sets the second day, about 35-36 hours after race start, I wanted this more than anything.
B) Finish in 38 hours; all my paces and times were scheduled for this.
C) Finish before the 40 hour cutoff at any cost.
I’ll be referring to these A,B, C goals in this write up.
I knew the first mile was all road, I also knew the first 5 miles were all uphill from the start. I pushed in the first mile because I knew this was a key place to make time. I know in an ultra, you don’t need to start out like a banshee, but I knew pacing on this course was going to be impossible due to the mountains. I gave up on starting out easy and “saving some for the end” before I even started. The road heading out was smooth, and well, went up much more than I anticipated. I still managed a really good road mile with the increasing elevation. The road went immediately up into the trail. The trail was steep, and solid single track. No passing, but I had a good position in with people. I had wanted to converse and talk, but I guess I was with the wrong crowd and kind of missed having my music here. I felt pretty alone in the moving mass uphill. The trail was slick slightly. Did I mention that Hurricane Michael had just passed through on Thursday? It didn’t hit this area as badly as Roanoke, but it still pounding out some good rain. The ground was saturated and damp. With the climbing, I realized I was slipping out of my shoes. I hadn’t locked them down enough. I put up with this for about 0.5 mile, but then just stopped and retied, getting behind literally everyone. Now in the back of the pack, I headed back up the trail.
Poles out immediately, I started the massive almost 1000 feet/mile climb, slick and calf stretching. I was nervous about this climb, and was well aware of it beforehand, about it burning out my muscles or burning too many matches heading up (it’s an all or nothing kind of hill where you either make it up or you just slide backwards pace). But it was fine. There was even someone excited to see us complete the first hard piece of the climb up to the first aid station taking pictures. I was smiling. The trail headed downhill for a steep section, and then rose back up to meet the first aid station at mile 4.88 (apparently at 5.25 though). I took a cup of coke and headed back out and throwing out of gel pack I had taken. I was on point with everything.
This next section I do not remember much of at all, having a talk with a fellow crew of people doing the 100 miler too (a girl named Holly, and two other guys, all of which who had done hard 100s like Grindstone and Cruel Jewel), they seemed very smart and knew what they were doing, almost like they were on vacation with this race. This part of the course wasn’t as technical and was wider double track. Very moist though as we entered the dense fog. We were already splitting the clouds, I joked with myself. The next hard climb up we were met with pictures again too! Still smiling. I was doing exactly what I needed to do at the paces I needed to do them. It was getting chilly…
Along some road section, I passed by an ambulance, and they said, “I’ll give you a ride to the top for $100!” In which I replied, “No thanks, but maybe I should, that’s cheaper than a regular ambulance ride would be!”
I was so excited to get to High Knob Recreation Area (High Knob Rec Area), which was the first aid station I would see my crew at mile 9-10ish, I was even run/hiking the uphill to the area on the pavement section we had heading up when all of a sudden a car that passed us contained my sister and mom going the wrong way. They had the window down and smiled back, as I yelled at them they were going the wrong way. I didn’t think much of it since I had no idea where the actual roads went and thought they were just heading there then. I pressed onward. I hit the top of High Knob and declined a quick trot up to view the tower off the trail since it was so foggy I wouldn’t be able to see anything anyway. The trail headed steeply down into the recreation area just 1.7 miles later. The moderately technical single track dumped me into the High Knob Rec Area, which seemed pretty sparse, but a wide area in a parking lot. I looked desperately around for my crew, to see Rich and my mom and sister there…but I was wasting time and refilled my bladder myself with water and grabbed one orange. I was pretty underwhelmed with the food they had there. Once I confirmed the crew was not there, panic set it. They had all my nutrition I needed for the next 10 miles. I would not have my electrolytes, or candy, or soda… I downed another two or three cups of soda and headed out of High knob in a fit of rage and worry. It was too early to be screwing up nutrition. I knew that would hurt me. I had nothing more on me other than a spare gel and a few more candies which I now had to space out in the next section. I had my phone on me, and I could get a signal and called Rich. I was so mad.
I told him all about it. He was told by my mom that I had already been there and they had just missed me, but confirmed it was a huge miscommunication. This lost me some time on the trail too since I was there trying to talk quickly before I lost signal out from high knob rec area.
The trails around the High Knob Rec Area were very nice. It was starting to get sunnier. The whole course, the weather had been gloomy. I tried to focus on the positives. I didn’t look at my watch much the whole race to be honest, but tried very hard to not think about the miles, but rather the aid stations and how far I’ve knocked off on course. Next stop was Edith’s Gap. I wasn’t looking forward to this aid station much thinking it was going to be a very small stop with water and some volunteers since it was literally in the middle of no where. But when I got there, holy crap.
They were putting up Christmas lights when I arrived, it wasn’t even close to dark (mile 15.5). They had trucks around and two tents (much like every other aid station in the race), one cooking up food, a powerful generator humming in the background (this sound would eventually become a very comforting sound), a roaring fire with chairs set around it. It was like a trail fairy tale. It was magical. The aid station people were so friendly and hype about the runners coming through. There were even thick thick yoga mats off to the side I assume for cat naps and stretching. Wow, just wow.
I took in Tampico drink (a new one for me, but oh so good, similar to sunny D) and soda. This was the only aid station with that drink, but it was a nice touch! My knees were getting so cold. I warmed for a hot minute by the fire and took off. The trails past Edith were mildly technical but became calmer as you went towards the next aid station, Bark Camp Lake (major/crew) at mile 19.8. The sun shone through, and I was happy. About a mile from Edith, I came across a gravel road. I knew there were a few “roads” along the trail, and was happy to head on down the trail here, literally down. I was making such good time. I was, from my knowledge, ahead of my pace goals, putting time in the bank. When I reached the bottom of this one hills, I encountered a wide puddle. I had been ok at keeping the feet dry so far, so I continued to try. I saw the right side had this dark mud that looked firm since no other foot steps looks like they made impressions in it. I headed straight across to sink ankle deep in the mud. Once I stopped my forward momentum across the mud, I realized that no one had come this way. I continued forward for a bit looking for trail marker or streamers…I found none. There were two guys behind me by a few minutes. I stopped and waited for them. I asked when the last time they had seen a trail marker. The look on their faces were in shock as the realization that they could be lost crossed their faces. We gathered around and checked out this one guys’ phone to see if we were on track. That would be a no. So we headed back up the hill, ugh. We came across two more runners and yelled at them they were going the wrong way! They became shook too. As a massive group, we made our way back to the trail, which was reasonably marked, but it wasn’t completely obvious. I panicked and at the front of the group, back on the trail, I pounded down the hill when I went flying.
My right ankle caught….something. The leaves had been falling covering the trail making it hard to see what’s under them, and whether root or rock, I caught hard and at a higher pace than I usually keep on the trail. About 5-6 feet in front of me on my left shoulder and hip I hit HARD and slide downhill a bit. I carefully got up thinking I was hurt, I had to be with that kind of fall…my very first trail fall. I physically squeezed my arm and hip, and nothing hurt! I was amazed, as the group behind me asked if I was ok in hurried voices. I didn’t even think about my ankle, maybe it was because I was cold, I don’t know. I had been 16.5 miles so far. Too soon to have issues. I got back up and kept running, although felt kind of off from the fall. The trail rose and fell a lot more during this section than others. I kept to my planned paces.
The last part of Edith’s to Bark Camp was very steep, short, but steep, and technical. Afterwards, it was a nice pine like forest with a few wooden bridges that were completely non technical with rhododendron groves surrounding the lake area. I felt this trail was one or the other; it was either super technical and hard, or really non technical and peaceful, and hardly anything in-between.
The segment landed up in Bark Camp Lake, just about mile 20. I saw my crew for the first time and yelled at them in anger. I realized I didn’t have time to be mad or the energy and used the restroom there, reapplied 2toms, changed socks and more 2toms to feet. The whole camp was a confusion as it was the first time I had crew and had to play catch up. This was not a great time to have learning experiences at mile 20. Too many blankets, too many choices, nothing was ready. I got my pack refilled (sticking with just 1 liter of water per refill to help with weight) and tailwind back in place. I picked up more candy, took in a lot of mountain dew voltage. Eventually, I was just thankful to be back on the trails. I felt like I wasted a lot of time here. It would be more streamlined later, and was thankful I had a crew at all. I relaxed more when I heard I was several hours ahead of my planned pace, I was still maintaining close to a 30 hour finish time (which I knew wouldn’t last, but I would hold that for as long as I could). The next trail section I would only pass by once, Bark Camp to Little Stony. I was keeping a confident enough pace that I could make it back to Bark Camp before dark and getting a headlamp. According to my pace charts, I was supposed to take a headlamp before leaving for little stony, but I decided it would just be excess weight I didn’t need. From memory, I knew this section was the flattest of the course. It was not wrong.
Wow this section was so flat I was worried I wasn’t getting enough gain here and it would come back to haunt me later. I was having a little more issue with footing here, as the stream crossings increased from a few to every few feet I’d be at a stream crossing. These were not as hard to navigate as the ones between High Knob Rec and Edith’s (more about that on the way back soon), but the amount of them slowed me down a lot. Apparently these were usually dried up, but with the hurricane and recent rains, these were absolutely not dry. This race was going to test me on everything and anything. I actually enjoyed this section almost the most. The sun was coming through the trees, the streams were very clear (not muddy or full of stones like Table Rock 50k, also affected by a hurricane, Florence). I rolled my ankle a few times here, but nothing serious. I came to the aid station quickly, it felt so fast. Checked in and was told to head out up the gravel hill to retrieve a page from a book at the end. I laughed SO hard at this. It felt like the Barkley. Earlier in the race, I passed by a cut out section of the mountain heading up for powerlines that reminded me of the power lines section rumored to be in Barkley joking with the fellow runners that I was glad I didn’t have to run up that! I didn’t get any chuckles back, but I thought it was funny.
I headed up the gravel road, kind of sad I didn’t get to see the little stony waterfall (but apparently the whole mountainside was gonna collapse so glad we took this route instead), and with another girl from France (she was awesome), talked our way to the bucket that held the small paperback book. With no trail markings up there, we weren’t sure we were going the right way for a bit when the hill started to go back down (wasted a little time here), but eventually another guy came and told us we were good. I wanted to get the page that corresponded to my bib, but the pages 26-54 were taken already (I was bib 33). I grabbed page 69, nice. Still fits in with my 3’s. Ran back down the gravel road to the aid station. I asked if I could keep the page. I showed it to the aid station ladies (soooo friendly at their small aid station), and put it away in a plastic bag I had brought for my ipod I had now forgotten about. I stuck with the french girls for a while, but then had to leave her as we went back to Bark Camp. I viewed several mushrooms through this section. I hadn’t taken any pictures, but I wasn’t about to start. Each time I was crossing a stream, though, my feet would seize and cramp up like they would in tennis. I knew this was harmless, but I took up some extra salt I had been carrying with me anyway in 20 minute increments. The small cramps in my feet were annoying, but they were runnable. This would continue into the night until they stopped randomly.
My knees were very cold, and it was slowing me down now. I needed pants at this point. I was convinced that it was warm out by now. I got off course a little heading back to Bark Camp, ugh, at least it was only about 0.25 mile, and right before the aid station too. I arrived back at Bark Camp, so thankful to see my pacer Sonja waiting and smiling ready to move out. The sun was lower now, I had hit 50k now roughly 9 hours in, way ahead of my 12 hour goal for the 38 hour finish.
Crewing was much more streamlined now, and I grabbed my headlamp, using the bathroom and doing the 2toms on schedule. Changed socks and exchanged shirts. I put on my Altra winter tights at this point. It might have been overkill, but it really wasn’t. I started shivering in camp and asked what temperature it was. Rich said it was 43. 43?!?!?! Are you serious? It must be cooling fast! Rich said, no, it hadn’t gotten that warm that day. Many sads! I soon headed out with Sonja, new gloves on for the night. Sunset was at 6:56pm. It was past 5:30pm now. Dark came swiftly.
The first repeat of this trail, Bark Camp back to High Knob Rec, was new, it was in the dark, it was with Sonja, it was just different. I didn’t remember anything about this trail. Why? My body wasn’t tired then. This time I felt fatigue set it for whatever reason, come to find later it was probably from my fall. The climb out of Bark Camp was so steep, it was slick too. Heart rate was put on high. I pushed a little, Sonja being like a little jack rabbit quite like I expected, heading up and down with such ease. I know I know, fresh legs, but the course was hard, tired or not. We scaled a few hills a little faster, watched our footing carefully coming down as it got super dark and rain began…or I think it did. From nightfall Saturday/Sunday on, the rain was on and off, light and heavy, every kind of rain…even the big old fat rain. Then we hit Edith’s gap, hearing the generator out in the distance, such a beautiful sound. Sonja got some food I believe, and I took in some orange juice and I think this is where I also ate a sausage pattie. Oh did I mention Edith’s Gap aid station also had fried potatoes?! They were the only ones who fried theirs and it was amazing. My only pro-tip would be to add more salt next time. So perfect. I got some apple juice and headed out. The section from Edith’s Gap and High Knob Rec was to become my very own soul sucking section.
The dark made it very hard to navigate the very technical sections of this trail, although from my knowledge was never very steep. I remember the elevation profile, colored with the different percent grades, black being the highest. And although the section that hit here was not mountainous, the hills were small and mighty with many black markings. I couldn’t figure out what corresponded to those little black markings in this section until now. Every single stream crossing that occurred in this area had a massive steep climb in and out, very much so going beyond any 18% max percent grade (I’d say 40% in a lot of places, where I would say if you didn’t have poles, I couldn’t figure out how you’d get up the now super slick slopes leading out of the stream crossings). Not only were the stream crossings technical and difficult, although not deep at all if you cross them right (whew), but they were not always straightforward or straight across. I figured I wasted a good hour to two in total in the race figuring out where the trail went during some of these, especially in the dark, and even with two sets of eyes. My feet wanted to get wrecked out here. Before this stream segment let me go back slightly to the at least half a mile of moss covered medium sized rocks…as my friend Shana would say, a lovely rock garden. I tried to put that positive spin on it, because I hated this so much. It was SO much work just to navigate it since there was no space between the rocks to put your foot and not every rock was stable, or large enough to put a whole foot down with confidence. This will haunt me.
I am very used to large slick rocks, and loads of smaller rocks, but I had no real practice with moderate or medium sized rocks. I remember watching the winner of the 100 miler grace over the rock garden with such ease…these are life goals. This entire section would take me hours even though it was only 10k in distance. I felt bad remembering how long it would take me to do the same distance at Habanero. I would take Habanero any day over this section between High Knob and Edith’s Gap. I hope that speaks volume to this. I finally reached High Knob, but during the last section, the toll of water crossings cashed itself in, and my ability to run downhill was diminishing quickly. My knees still hurt, and my shins were starting to become painful. Sheri was waiting, and I would have a new and different experience now. With Sheri, we marched back out from High Knob Rec (2nd out of 3 times I’d be there) and back to Edith’s Gap and then onto Bark Camp for the final time. I was pretty negative right then just because I was cranky I was only at mile 42 some and not even half way and had to go back through the trail that I had just come from with a million struggles with. At the aid station, I had switched socks, to double up for the return trip knowing how many stream crossings I had to get through, and 2tom’d and fueled up with some potatoes again (not really feeling it). I was pleased in the bathroom there that I had no chafing in areas yet. I had not hit any low points yet, but I was getting more and more upset at the trail and the technical aspect was taking a mental toll, and a huge physical one…more to find out later.
It was a new experience being with Sheri, and I was blessed to have her around. We talked a lot and kept my mind busy, still no music for me. She told me about how she didn’t use a watch anymore, as I switched my own watch to UltraTrack mode since I was now running low on battery (I’d pick up my charger at Bark Camp). I started naming the trail sections, such as rock garden, and endless streams section…the bridge section, started counting bridges, etc. Edith’s Gap came up, taking forever to get there as rain fell and the trail became more dangerous to travel. More apple juice here. And more fire. So thankful for those chairs and fire. This final time I saw one runner who had dropped. The look on his face was so defeated and I felt so bad for him. My heart cried out to him. I didn’t say anything.
Back on the trail, I was trying to be more positive as I only had about 4 miles to go before Bark Camp. The trail seemed less technical now. Arriving back at Bark Camp again, now the middle of the night, I sent Sheri to wake up Rich and Sonja (mom and sister went back to sleep in the hotel). I had some chicken broth here. I was now dead last from what I remember. I tried not to feel bad about this as I was still ahead of my 38 hour finish goal by an hour or so, but I was moving slower. I switched socks and did the usual, though this time switching shoes to my lone peaks. Picked up my heavy winter weatherproof jacket here I think (it was either here or at High Knob, my memory is fuzzy), it was just too cold and too rainy. If I overheated, that would be a first anyway. And guess what? I never did. This was my 3rd and last time at Bark Camp. I was so glad to leave for good and every step I took towards High Knob Rec was the last time I would traverse any rock there. Stupid rocks.
What happened next shouldn’t have affected me so, but it did. As I was charging my garmin with my portable battery pack (via USB), I heard a beep and my heart sank and I wanted to cry knowing exactly what that beep meant. My watch had shut off. Without skipping a beat, I unplugged the charger (had charged to 92%), and returned the watch to my wrist and started a brand new running activity from mile 0. I had made it 53 some miles before the reset. Nothing to do now but continue on. I had so badly wanted to see me hit triple digit on my garmin at the finish. Deep down, I knew this wasn’t going to happen. Deep down, I knew this would happen where my watch would restart.
I worked my butt off with Sheri, piece by piece going through the dark trail. The last time through the endless stream section was the hardest it seemed, as the climbs in and out were so badly traveled in the rain, there was no gripping the slopes. I tried to keep in the positive, for Sheri’s sake anyway. We arrived at High Knob Rec for the last time around dawn. The air was heavy with moisture and clouds. The fog wasn’t different from the previous morning. I wasn’t tired. I just wanted to move on. Sheri wanted to switch clothes, so I waited on that. I got some V8 in me and some more mountain dew. I got half a grilled cheese somewhere in here, but I can’t really remember when it was forced on me. I still wasn’t hungry, but this was nothing new. I put on new socks, which I think was the last time I would mess with my feet. So far I had no blisters, nothing was wrong with my feet at ALL. But I knew this was sucking my time up now and I wanted to keep my purchased time. The lone peaks were treating my feet good so far, the lower stack height really helped, as much as it could, with the navigating of the rock gardens. I didn’t noticed the less cushion as compared to the Olympus, which was real nice…I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. The lone peaks were a little bigger overall than the Olympus so I knew I could get away with two pairs of socks if I needed to and was anticipating for my feet to swell more than they ever did during the race. I took some Excedrin from Sheri at some point in here. I trusted her judgement.
I was now almost on pace with my 38 hour finish at this point, the 100k point. High Knob Rec was around mile 63-64. All my mileages from this point on are going to be estimates or based off my map I drew from the race site since my garmin had reset. Once Sheri was ready, I changed gloves to fingerless and was off again on a new path. A little climb back out of High Knob Rec to High Knob Tower, and I knew I was fading somehow. It wasn’t mental, I should have a renewed energy; the sun was rising (or rose, it was too cloudy to tell), I had gone further than I had ever gone in my life…it was downhill for MILES here! But it wasn’t good.
I ran as fast as I could, only keeping a 13:50 pace (no walking) down the gravel road from High Knob Tower. It was freaking downhill for 6 miles! Easy! No, not at all, something was wrong. My ankle hurt really bad and the bottom of my right knee also hurt like they were connected. I managed a few ok-ish miles heading down to where the road split off the course to the double track trail leading to Devil’s Fork Loop aid station. Just about to the bottom, I started having severe pain and issues running down. No limping, I just couldn’t hold myself back from gravity pulling me down. Something was wrong. But I hadn’t done anything to my knowledge.
My disappointment in myself was mounting to a head. Along the mushy grassy road I couldn’t run, I started breaking down, and hard. I used my poles to try and cushion each step I had to take down. I cried, and I cried hard. Mile 68 I hit the lowest of lows. All the blame, and all the pain, everything broke me down to my core. I managed to basically crawl to the Devil’s Fork Loop aid station at mile 70 where they immediately helped me to a chair. Sheri concluded that the calf sleeves needed to go. I didn’t care, I told them to cut them off. I believed anyone and everyone. I just wanted the pain to stop. I was boarder line panic attack at this point. I got in some coke. I ate a few small potatoes, but eating quite frankly sucked the life out of me. My ankles were completely swollen, but I expected this as it was the longest I had ever run by now and I had been on a very hard course. The calf sleeves had already cut into my skin at the bottom. Still crying, I left the aid station to start on the Devil’s Bathtub loop…the thing people dreaded the most, rumored to be the worst part of the course. The loop, which I would do twice, was pretty non technical at first, and this calmed me down. I was coming out of that low, and my legs were feeling slightly better, the pain was still there, but in the backseat.
The uphills were my saving grace now and I put every single fiber of my being into the climbs. Devil’s Bathtub was a 6-7 mile loop that was very technical. The start was ok, and I tried make up as much time as I could during that section. I stumbled, rolled ankles, and feel backwards from my foot being caught between two stream rocks into the water pulling my good ankle out of place. I was so mad. The trail headed back down, and down and down…how much down could there be?! Usually I don’t complain, but being technical and my body unable to sustain decline anymore, it made things so much more difficult. The rocks grew in size and number like an army against my finish. I had to take some sections slowly I felt like I wasn’t moving, and I got upset all over again, not making any progress despite putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t moving! This got far worse later. Sheri gave me some Excedrin starting the loop and I had hope it would improve something.
There were so many more streams here, but they were different. I could get away with crossing the other kind where I wanted to, and the rocks under water were not too slick (not like algae covered ones I’m used to in the mountains of Virginia), but these were not the same. They weren’t even granite. They were these bright white to tan colored rocks and they were slick as glass. I felt blessed that I was navigating this in the day time, the night time would be a mess. Along our trail, we encountered many others doing the 100 miler who said they’d be lost for up to an hour at a time during this loops. I never got lost on this loop, I blame the daylight, but it wasn’t easy to navigate and find the right trail. If I had done this loop earlier in the race I would have had a TON of fun doing it, it was a great section I thought from waterfalls, intense stream crossings, beautiful views! This was definitely the most scenic section of the entire race and I had kind of wanted this kind of scenery the whole time. I missed having to climax a mountain and not have an overlook…
The longer we were on the loop, the more technical it became. We came to one section where we forded a river like crossing to climb up a rock to hold onto climbing ropes cause the footing was very sketch there. I almost fell here I admit, I was so upset still. I didn’t get to see the Devil’s Bathtub up close, and barely got a passing glance so worried about time, but I probably would take the time to come back to the area and see it for real. The water was cold, every time, but what had been a curse, was actually helping numb my now lacerated feet. I could tell my tender sections from Habanero had not fully healed over and properly toughened up (as much as my non callousing feet will toughen anyway…the “callous” skin I had gotten from Habanero fell off at 50k specifically). Sheri started singing the buckle song, whatever that entailed. I focused on what she said. I needed to not be in my own head or body. The pain was unreal now and I didn’t think it was from the number of miles on my feet.
The end of the loop before we arrived at the Devil’s Fork Parking Lot (not to be mixed up with the Devil’s Fork Loop aid station, a minor one) major aid station with crew waiting, was a very pretty part of the course. Some of this would have been runnable if run was still in my dictionary, even when wet as it was as more rain fell. The Devil’s Fork Parking Lot aid station was a little out and back from the loop, I had wondered if I was lost. Up the hill and then down the stairs, I found my mom smile up at me ready to help out, Sonja getting ready to head out with me. I used the bathroom and applied 2toms, but no shoe stop, there was no point anymore. There were too many streams, and I just needed to manage wet feet now. I was mentally ok with this. I was at mile 77 or so. I had done 24 miles on really bad feet at Habanero, I could do 50k on these feet. I was convinced. Sonja took me up and out. I hadn’t kept up with my nutrition with Sheri, I dunno what I was thinking. I needed to get more in. I focused in hard. 30 miles left. I could do that in my sleep. The fact I had to do a second Devil’s Bathtub loop didn’t loom as hard as I thought in my head, and actually felt like one of the shortest sections mentally.
Then it began. The big climb out of Devil’s Bathtub loop. It was steep, like it had been in my first 50k, although the grade would vary; it would be super steep for 0.1 mile, to even out, but then back to super steep, and it would repeat this. I would think I would see the end of the hill, but when I would get there, I could see it would keep going up. I knew I couldn’t be more than 1.7 miles, the next aid station, Devil’s Fork Loop, was only that far away. I kept my head down and did my best power hike, hiking one of the miles in less than 27 minutes! Compared to the 33-35 minute/miles it was taking me to climb Zion’s Gooseberry Mesa, or my first 50k in Virginia, I was pretty proud. I didn’t stop. I wouldn’t stop. My legs were ok with up, and I managed my heavy breathing so I wasn’t completely maxed out and had to stop. I felt like I was redlining my heart rate the whole way up this as I chased down Sonja. Her key phrase was a bright and cheery “catch me!” She was so light and fast…
The nightmare climb was over. I reached the aid station and they said they were shutting down. They said they would not be here when we came around again….again? I have to go up that again? Well ok, this does have a lot of gain, and I knew this would be hard. I mentally accepted this fact and pressed on mentally. The heavy rain had made it so that they had to get out while they still can or risk being stuck there. It turned out that they did have to be pulled out with tractors later. I felt bad, but I greatly appreciated each and every one of them, they helped me in a very bad spot. I refocused, I needed to get done with this loop before dark, we had no headlamps. Sonja had so much faith in me. We didn’t talk, it was always a game of cat and mouse…chasing her down, being yelled at to keep moving. She forced me run, uphill or downhill, it didn’t matter, the runnable sections had to be run. I never got mad at her, I understood what she was doing. I felt so slow. I started tripping up on sections. My feet cried out every. Single. Step. Every step I took that touched the balls of my feet was a shock of pain. But it never got worse. I had to grin and bear it. I did. When I think about how strong I am mentally, I think about this very stretch…I didn’t stop because it hurt, I didn’t quit, I never thought about quitting, it had to be done. Every fiber of my being told me to stop. But my body kept going when I told it to without question. It longed for a hug from Rich, to cuddle in bed and be warm again, seeking comfort in that image…I became closer to Rich without even being with him. I thought about hugging my mom at the end. I wasn’t even sleepy, just the comforting images I put in my head…
I drank more. I noticed I had not swelled up in the hands at any point in this race, and had a proud moment I finally got my electrolytes right. I never cramped badly. Another proud moment for me. Nothing nutrition wise was going badly except that I was not getting nearly enough between miles 40 and 80. I tried to get random things in, but just taking in at aid stations wasn’t nearly good enough and something in the future I have to fix if this is going to be a thing I try again.
Sonja pushed the crap out of me. I earned every single step along the way. I cried out in pain often, fighting every urge to stop. Every step pained me so badly. She gave me some pain meds to help out. We returned to Devil’s Fork Parking lot one last time to grab headlamps and water only. I used the port-o, and we were off in record time. No time was spent here this time. Then the climb began again. I headed up first, and made Sonja apparently work to catch up to me. Since I knew how long the climb lasted this time, I paced myself earlier on a little slower, to maintain the speed instead of slowing down. I ignored my watch further, having no real idea what time it was. All I knew was that when I entered Devil’s Fork Parking Lot aid station the first time, it was 1:30pm on Sunday and I was right on time according to my 38 hour finishing pace. The panicked me. I lost so much time. This panic stuck with me for the next 16 miles….16 miles left, that was too many. I had the idea that once I reached Devil’s Fork Parking lot the final time I would only have 13 miles left, but my chart was wrong (I knew it was off by 3 miles at some point but couldn’t figure out where or when before the race). My actual map was correct, but my pace chart was wrong. The last major aid station before the finish was Devil’s Fork Parking Lot and the last time I would see my crew. It hurt that that was the last time. I was doing so much mental math, trying to figure out paces and times as the sunset on Sunday early with the clouds covering the sky and the mountains surrounding us pushing it down early (sunset was at 7pm, sunrise 7:37am). I freaked when I thought I couldn’t do it in time. But then I would calm myself down by saying 16 miles is half a 50k, and it takes me 9 hours to do a hard 50k, and I had 7.5 hours left. But then freak out again because this stupid hill would take me a long time since it took me almost 30 mins for one mile last time, and I would have to be doing 19 min/miles to make good time…ugh!! I had no idea where I was on course mile wise between aid stations. I would come straight into an aid station and ask what mile it was…
I made my way up the massive climb out of the Devil’s Bathtub again, reached where the aid station had been, and turned on the trail to head back to the finish. I vaguely remember I had written down the final climb was mile 87-96, but couldn’t remember the slope/grade. The climb out of Devil’s Fork kept going up from there, and was still rather steep, but it wasn’t just steep, it was slick. You could tell where the aid station volunteers had been trying to get out with the double track deeply dug into with tire groove tracks. I alternated going up between the very side edges of the trail to the middle where some sprigs of grass still survived on, sliding between the two. I thought how I wished I would have been able to run this section down when it was nicer, but I remembered vividly how hard on me it was to even maneuver downhills at all by that point and knew it couldn’t be helped. The steep uphill was rubbing on me mentally, it was a never ending hill, what the heck. Darkness was beginning to fall on us as the rain picked up again. It was so cold, even with the jacket. My knees hurt, but it was manageable.
Finally around the edge of daylight, we reached back to the gravel road where we went alllll the way back up to the High Knob Tower aid station. This whole section was over 8 miles, and felt like 12. The gravel made things easy to navigate. Nothing to think about, just power up and up and up. Uphill for 10 straight miles. I would run some of this off and on when I felt like I could without a whole lot of pain. I had the energy, but my ankle was so restricting. My feet cried more every large rock my feet found. Glow sticks happily littered the road, they were little fireflies in the night that made me smile. I remembered this section well. In the dark it was no big deal. It was a huge grind, but I didn’t mind. I yelled at Sonja angrily (not at her, but just cause I hated everything). She gave me some more meds, I had no idea what she gave me at this point.
After what seemed like an eternity, we reached High Knob for the final time. A small crew with a pick up truck was there with goodies. The volunteers were so warm and friendly, I could almost fill up on that alone. They didn’t take off, they didn’t “wrap up”, they stayed. I filled up on water, as I had been having to mooch off of Sonja’s for a few miles since I forgot the distance to the next aid was going to be so much further and my 1 liter wasn’t going to cut it. I was so glad to have water, this was the only time I felt actually thirsty, which subsided quickly after getting more water. Sonja was now force feeding me gels. Good on her. I hated it. I didn’t talk back. 4 more miles until Pickem Mountain aid station where the boy scouts would be. High Knob was mile 92. I was in the 90s. My small fire inside was fed.
Road was useful here, as the rain came down harder. Once we moved back on the dark trails, the double track trail was hard to navigate from the cars going up and down it. It was slick, and muddy, and crappy, but it wasn’t 1) worse than Zion, 2) worse than OPSF 50|50. In other words, it wasn’t impossible. I pushed through, the slick mud actually helping cushion my knees as they had been my enemy at Zion. It was indeed annoying and I didn’t remember any of this trail, it was dark. I questioned where we were every five minutes probably because I was so afraid one more time getting lost would cost me my entire race, I had come too far to be defeated by getting lost. Sonja scouted ahead every now and then, keeping me far away, checking for trail markers. The reflective trail markers were life savers for sure and every bright reflector brought hope to my heart. The long trudge through later brought us to Pickem Mountain aid station, the last aid station. The truck was sitting there. I am not sure we took anything more than coke, but it was so nice hearing people and having someone there, in the worst of it (rain, night, bad road conditions, even for volunteers). Checked in and we headed out as the wind picked up tremendously. I swear we were going to blow away. I was afraid for Sonja and thought she would get too cold. There was a short climb somewhere in here which I was very grateful for and made some good time for what I was doing at the time. I pushed. Then the bad part started.
The trek down was super dangerous come to find out. Even if it was dry, this would not have been runnable. The steep climb at mile 2-3 at the beginning had come back to haunt me. So much rain had fallen that the entire slope was a slip and slide. There was no footing, no roots. Tiny little steps in the woods, around trees and taking in extra distance took up more time and distance, but I remained safe. I had to slide in some places, but was prepared for it. I tripped once here and it shot huge amounts of pain up my entire body and I screamed so loud. My right ankle was done. I wasn’t done, I didn’t care how much it hurt, but my body was preventing me from moving. I had less than 2 miles left…I didn’t care. I had to go. I had to just go. I forced every single movement attached to every step. I hurt so bad. This wasn’t normal. I had been so far beyond what I could handle for so long. I longed for the bottom of that hill. I searched for it. While on the way down somehow I passed one guy, probably at an aid station, and then we ran into another guy who just wasn’t quite all there…thinking he was going the wrong way. Sonja told him to follow us. Not sure if he believed us. I saw his headlamp start to come down which was comforting, but I had no time to wait for anyone. I was too close.
I reached the bottom of the trail and was back on pavement. The longest 4 miles of my life. Rich was there with a giant white pick up truck. The pickup truck had race workers in it, and they slowly followed beside me down the road. I fought all the downhills, resisting the pain as much as possible as Sonja explained what was going on to everyone. One foot in front of the other, I made my way downtown towards the lights in the distance. I never thought I would be fighting the cutoff. I asked how much time I had left when I rounded the corner to downtown after running up a bridge (the only uphill left), and had 52 minutes. I had ¾ of a mile left…
The trucks’ breaks squeaked alongside me, I didn’t mind. I was so touched by the support. As I made the final right turn down the sidewalks, the truck left me to go get the other guy who was behind me. A fire truck (passenger truck) wheeled down the road with cowbells going out the window. I pressed on as fast as I could. I could see the farmer’s market building. I saw my mom and sister waiting. I didn’t need anyone else in the world. I made the final right turn to the building off the sidewalk and I filled up inside. I might be crying typing this out. I can’t tell you how much pain I was in, and managed the worst and slowest jog, but the best I could bear to get across the finish line in 39 hours and 19 minutes. I had not slept, I did not stop. I faced so much. I was so numb when I crossed I was sure, but I assure everyone I was so overwhelmed with everything I couldn’t do anything. I accepted my medal and I tried to not break down. I wanted that hug from my husband who just wanted to give me things I needed other than a hug. I hugged Sonja, because I knew without her, I would not have made it on my own pace. She brought me beyond my limits for so long when I didn’t want to, when I was far beyond done with everything. I was so thankful to have her there. I hugged my mom, although I felt bad cause I was so dirty and covered in mud. I got my buckle. It was over.
I made it back to the hotel with a lot of help. I was walking decently after, although still in a lot of pain. I got a shower, and was only found to be chafed in one place that didn’t really matter anyway. My feet were destroyed in the same place as Habanero, probably due to Habanero still healing over. My ankles were cut into and I had huge red and brown splotches along my right ankle. As of now, five days later, I am extremely swollen from the knees down, fluid is just not moving out, and my knees hurt very badly. My ankles are really bad and walking is nearly impossible right now.
EDIT: After seeing a doctor and getting xrays and evaluation, I had torn my tibialis tendon, the tendon that connects your ankle to your knee, which explained every bit of the pain and difficulty going downhill during the race.
The day after I felt like a shell of a person. I had given everything and more. I threw up that evening after the race (guess real food was not a good idea afterwards). I actually got hungry for the first time around Sunday evening before the sunset sometime on the Devil’s Bathtub loop. I couldn’t function on my own, and I still have a hard time functioning without assistance. My soreness was limited to about 2 days, and then I was completely better, I am super surprised by this alone. The nerves on my feet were on fire for three days after. I consider this to be a normal thing that would happen. Over-stimulation for so long… For 100 milers, I had no idea what would happen after. I should have hydrated after better, this was a mistake for sure. I should have elevated my feet sooner. I have learned so much from this experience however. I feel my body was prepared for the distance alone, but I basically spent 84 miles on a badly injured ankle that I had no idea was injured most of the time. Adrenaline is one heck of a drug. Would I have done better if I had picked another 100 miler? Probably so, but what would it have meant to me? This race meant a lot.
The volunteers were of the elite kind. I even got word after that they were rooting for old #33 and followed me. There were people still around 40 hours after the start of the race at the finish. It was just as warm and welcoming as if I had been there sooner I’m sure of it. I had contacted the race several times beforehand with questions, and every time the race would respond via facebook within the day. This was my race, regardless of what went wrong and what went right. This was home for me. I may have finally found that meaning I had been looking for. I didn’t fight demons. I thought I knew what it meant to push physically, but I don’t think I did. I had to go beyond myself to accomplish this.
I am not depressed, I have no desire to head on over to ultrasignup. This has filled me up, and overflowed. I felt like I needed to get this from the standpoint that I had failed in Texas, but this wasn’t even close to the same event. Habanero helped for sure and gave me tools that I needed for this, and I was ready from a training standpoint, but it just wasn’t nearly what I had expected to happen. No hallucinations. No mental fatigue. My overnight brain is a champ. Everything was so different…
Not relevant, but the finisher medal was simply beautiful and the buckle was amazing. To get both is awesome. The race shirt was of the best quality, I was super impressed, and hope they never change that. The aid stations stayed up until the last runner passed through. Nothing was taken down ahead of time. The whole town was like a little cheer squad. I hope this race keeps attracting the right people who can appreciate the race itself and not for its UTMB points for instance (which I know a majority of racers were there for), whether runner or volunteer. This was the perfect first for me, and I will never forget it.
I don’t know where I will go from here.