6 am race start for 300 ultra runners . .I am in the back!!!
Living a whole life in one day. What a long strange trip its been!!!
Refueling stop at Kennedy Ridge Trail at mile 30.7
Serving sweaty stinky runners since 2003!
Race Director Gill at the 5:30 am briefing
The eleventh hour (5pm) Mill Creek Trail Sherando, VA Mile 42 (67K of the GEER 100K)
I sift through my bag of running tricks. 1. IPOD, check-on and in use, 2. magic salt tabs, check just took them, 3. Expresso Hammer Gel with caffeine, check just ate one. 4. Perpetuem fuel drink check, Damn, I am fueled, hydrated, and IPODed. I am wet, alone, and feeling miserable and over 20 miles from the finish.
My sane brain develops a plan. Walk slowly to Mile 47.7 and meet dad, and jump into a warm mini-van back to the hotel. After a hot steamy shower have a nice dinner and then catch the Penn St Iowa game that starts at 8pm. We will all have a few cold Coors Lights with Paul and Jen and be in bed by 10pm knowing I did my best. I wallow around in self pity and mull over this plan. Why not? I have done damn well out here. I have gone 42 miles up and down mountain trails in 11 hours. I munch on a soggy WaWa soft pretzel. It is getting dark, it is cold, and the weather is getting worse. You are just one man on a Cold Mountain.
12 hours earlier 5:00 am RACE START – SHERANDO LAKE, VA September 26, 2009
I park the car at Lake Sherando Pavillion and close the door. Man, it is dark out! The air is misty wet but warm and still at 55 degrees. In an hour there will be not quite 300 trail runners toeing the race starting line. The majority opt for the half marathon or even the 50K race distances. 88 of us masochists are signed up for the full monty or the 100K. The course will navigate over 15,000 feet of elevation change with three major climbs up to the Bald Mountain Summit at 3500 feet. The technical course is marked by flags, but it is possible to get lost, fall, or encounter wildlife such as black bear. In fact the prior week to the race, I conversed with David Snipes, aka the grim trail sweeper, several times about the seriousness of the mountains and trail running. Last year he escorted several “flatlanders” off the mountain which took several hours.
Disclaimers aside, for those fashionistas out there, yes I am compression geared up. I have donned an Under Armour compression long sleeve shirt, a Cannondale pocketed bike over shirt, 2XU compression shorts, and my signature 2XU white compression calf guards. An IM hat and ASICS GT2140 trail shoes round out the ensemble. One by one the runners flick on their light sources, either flashlights or headlamps. I have opted for a Princeton Tec headlamp. It weighs only 78 grams and throws a bright beam for 7 yards all around me into the George Washington National Forest.
The Beach Pavillion is the Start/Finish which most of us 100Kers will see only in the dark. Race director Gil explains the course markings with the orange flags, and that two flags indicate a turn or intersection. The course will have 13 aid stations along the 100K and we should send our prepared “Drop Bags” in the U-haul out to four places on the course.
Right at 6 am we hear a “GO!” and we are off like the wind. Well, more like a leisurely jog. (Each stage capsule notes the time I started the titled stage, the ending place, the stage mileage increment and the time cutoff required to finish the stage or be DNF’ed.
6am Stage 1- Start to Slacks Overlook (Camp Marty) Miles 0 to 5.7 (Time cutoff 7:38am)
The pace is comfortable as we head one mile down the paved road to the park entrance. We exit into the woods onto “single track” or trail for a one mile 900 foot climb up to Torry Ridge. Running by headlamp is strange but with runners all around me I feel more than safe. We enter the single track and wisely the line walks up the trail. When I say trail I should say rocks with dirt. Footing is difficult and one must judiciously choose where to put your foot down on a solid dirt surface between rocks. In fact, the majority of the run will be like this. So to average a 4 mph pace or 15 minute miles is actually not a walk but moving along at a decent jogging pace. Until you have tried it, it is hard to fathom how trail running is that much harder than road running. I glance up the hill hoping to catch a string of headlamps. Runners around me nervously chatter and compare prior races, experience, and whether they are 50K or 100K people. I chat with a 59 year old who just completed Ironman Lake Placid. His name is Gary Baum and originally thought this run was in late October. Oops! We both compare IM notes and wonder what the hell we are doing out here with these trail types.
After a mile of climbing we crest the hill onto Torry Ridge. We are able to run, albeit in a single line and in some places the trail is all rock, and no dirt which is nuts to try and run with some exposed ridgelines. The pace is agonizingly slow which is a blessing. Why so slow? A climb affords me a view of the ten runners ahead and there he is. A large man with a fat Camelback hydration thermos and a flashing red light reflector. Passing him would be like passing a semi on a winding mountain road. Oh well, the race cannot be won at mile 3. After an hour at 7am the dark fades into light but there is no sunrise due to the cloud cover. No views today.
We arrive at the first aid station (Camp Marty) at 7:30 am, or 8 minutes before the 7:38 time cutoff (BTC). Technically if you fall behind the time cutoff a horn blares, and you are pulled from the course and labeled Did not Finish in the Results. I dread the DNF status. I am chomping at the bit to run but am also glad I am holding way back.
At Camp Marty like each aid station there is a tailgating tent with all the typical ultra food, Water, Gatorade, PB and J, M&Ms, bananas, oranges, ham and cheese, potato chips, boiled potatoes, and pretzels. See the salt theme? Losing sodium and magnesium over a one, two, or even a four hour run reduces your performance. An hour of normal sweating can strip 100-400 mg of sodium. Over a 14 hour period salt imbalances can be life threatening. So during an ultra managing your body’s electrolytes and salt levels is critical. Without replacing key electrolytes your body cannot retain water and you will become dehydrated. Worse is if you overhydrate or drink so much water you suffer from hyponentremia , which in extreme cases can literally cause death, by having diluted your bloodstream too much.
I stop briefly and grab some gels, a water bottle, and a bag of Perpetuem powder out of my drop bag to make a liquid nutrient source. The powder is a nutrient source that provides, fuel and also is replacements of all sorts of electrolyte nutrients such as potassium, sodium, magnesium etc. It digests easily and provides ready fuel. Perpeteum will be a key to any success for me by maintaining a balanced electrolyte body environment all day long.
7:35 am Stage 2 White Rock Trail Mile 5.7 to 7.7 (Time limit to reach next stage 8:12)
The running group has thinned out as the 50K jackrabbits are long gone. I pass a couple of pokeys pokes and fall in with Shelley who lives in Charlottesville and works at Starlight Brewing. We chatter a bit about brewing beer, and how he got into that line of work. We cross several creeks and waterfalls descending the trail. The footing is still tricky and one almost has to hop to make sure you hit a non rock spot to land your foot. Before we know it we pop out at the Blue Ridge Parkway and cross over to aid station 2 White Rock Trail at 8:10am.
8:10 am Stage 3 White Rock to Priest Mt. Overlook Miles 7.7 to14.5 (Time BTC 10:09 am.)
I joke with the aid station guys that we are right on the Time Cutoff line and he jokes back it is OK, but the underlying sentiment is get out of here and start moving. I grab a couple of OREOs and I am off. I do not want to spy David Snipes, AKA the Grim Trail Sweeper this early. He is the one man trail sweeper and he will run with you at the time cut line and if you cannot keep up with him you must stop at the next stage and self DNF.
The next 2.3 miles to mile 10 is on the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs through the Shenendoah National Park 20 miles north. Ah, pavement running . .of course right down the road is a big old hill and I wisely shift down to a power walk. A tall swift ultra runner catches me. The hill ends and we both set of at a brisk but comfortable jog. After 2 miles running together we turn off the BR Pkwy. State Road 814 is an out and back 4.5 mile gravel road that first descends from 2500 feet to 1250 feet and the Priest Mountain Overlook Aid Station. Then of course we have to climb back up!
My new friend Mike is a financial planner by weekday, but by weekend he is an ultra race hunter. He has run 50Ks, 100Ks, 100 miles, even run relay events as a solo team. He has run 72 hour track runs. He has crewed Badwater. He has run and hung with Dean Karnazes . . if you have to ask . . . .Though my ultra knowledge is limited, the fact I am Badwater and Dean conversant brings credibility with Mike. We start what is a 35 mile conversation. We talk about running, races, work, money, food, the Seminoles, girls, family, hey when you have all day together you can hit a lot of subjects you name it . . .For me, Mike is a wealth of trail knowledge. For Mike, I am a newbie but someone to talk with and pass the time and the miles with. We cover the 7 miles to Priest Mountain aid station in just over an hour at 9:15 am one hour BTC.
9:20 am Stage 4 Priest Mountain to White Rock Miles 14.5 to21.2 (Time to complete 12:05 pm)
I grab my drop bags and reload my pockets with gels, fill up my water bottles, and repowder with Perpetuem into my water bottle. Mike says he is going to pee. I chat with the aid station crew a minutes and look for Mike. He is gone. I recall something I read. You can lose oodles of time in the aid stations being social. Mike may be a new friend but he is gone. I set out up the mountain gravel road but the grade approaching 7-9 percent reduces me to a walk. I spot Gary Baum, and he is complaining again. We have exhausted our IM talk and all I hear is “this hurts, that, the other, this is hard “etc . . .negative karma big time. .I cannot have that this early.
Hmmnn this is a 4.5 mile hill climb . . .I did a 1.5 mile climb in the R2C14 relay. I can run a little here and there. I jog a bit, keeping the HR low. I climb, I rest, I run a bit more. I pass a few here and there. Then around the next switchback I see tall swift Mike. I jog up alongside and he smiles, but I can tell is a bit surprised to see me. It is a challenge for me to walk and keep up but hey it beats running. I am the walking puppy dog keeping up with its master.
At the top four miles later we see the Trail Sweeper heading down to Priest . . We joke with him that we will not see him again today! He says “I hope not!”
Back on the BR Pkwy we resume running. There are Paul and Jen we are supposed to meet later! They are celebrating their 15th anniversary this weekend and Paul has agreed to “pace” me in later today. A “pacer” is someone who volunteers their Saturday to unofficially run 10, 20, even 30 miles on trails with a cranky tired ultra runner. A pacer deals with a runner who complains about everything, and tries to quit or slow down and rest whenever possible. A pacer is charged with motivating, cajoling, conning, bribing, coercing, scouting, lying about how great you look, anything to get their runner to the finish. A friend is a friend but a pacer is a friend for life!
We retrace to the aid station where two hours ago I was just 2 minutes BTC. Now we are over 2 hours BTC and feeling confident with 21+ miles under our belt. A third of the way done AND ONLY 10:30 IN THE MORNING! YIPPEEE!! The weather is high 50s, overcast and no wind, ideal. The last 14 miles on gravel and pavement have been perfect running conditions. The fact we will have less than 7 miles of the remaining 40 on flat firm surfaces is of no import. The fact the rain clouds are gathering is irrelevant. I am over four hours in and am in a full blow runner’s high. But the storm clouds are gathering.
10:30 am Stage 5 White Rock to Slacks Camp Marty Miles 21.2 to 23 (Cutoff time 12:34 pm.)
I refill my water bottle. I will repowder my Perpetuem at Camp Marty in 2 miles. I am fishing for my Electrolyte magic pills when Big Mike offers me one of his SUCCEED S! pills. S! has 240 Mg of sodium and has a buffered release. I would need 6 of my pills for the same content. I pop one in, and then head behind a tree to pee. I look up and Big Mike is gone again. Damn he moves fast out of the aid stations! I lumber out onto the trail and glimpse him disappearing around a bend. I hustle to catch up. We start climbing up the trail. Fast 50K runners are hauling down the trail at us now. Half marathon runners too, much slower and picking their footing much more carefully. The contrast between 50Kers and half marathoners is noticeable in their body types and footing approach. However, anyone undertaken a trail race of any distance has balls. Running a trail half marathon tis like a road 20 miler any day, so hats off to all these runners regardless of distance.
We reenter Camp Marty and are 90 minutes BTC. I am greeted by the best Ultra Crew ever, Mom, Dad, Jen and Paul. I get a hug, and check in with the race time official. I repowder my Perpetuem add water and grab potatoes and salt. I tell dad I have hooked up with this guy Mike who is ultra man and he is mentoring me. My dad points and says is that him? I look around and there goes Mike disappearing up the trail again. “Dad, gotta go!” I feel bad. Not because I got up at 4am, am 23 miles and 5 hours into a trail run, but that my folks have been waiting for 2 hours and I am gone after 2 minutes. Well, you know what CREW stands for, “Cranky Runner, Endless Waiting.” My crew rocks!! I am a comfortable 1 hour and 34 minutes BTC. All is well in my little trail ultra running world.
11:00 am Stage 6 Camp Marty to Bald Mountain #1 Miles 23 to 25.5 (Time to reach 1:17 pm.)
From Camp Marty we retrace up to the Torry Ridge trail run earlier. A sharp turn takes us up to the top of Bald Mountain. Walking up trail 50K runners barrel down at us one after the other. Their turnaround to head home is just ahead. A 50K gal with a British accent and nice legs comes up behind me passes and Mike cabooses right on. I drop back a bit as the banter borders on shameless flirting. “Well I have a tent pitched here at the campground.” The climb is steep and we actually traverse a boulder field. Finally, we reach the peak and the Bald Mountain Jeep Road (BMJR) I have another name for it, . “The wet, muddy, rutted, puddled, rocky, bear infested track.”
We pass a runner with a sophisticated waist mounted hydration gel holder contraption that looks like a Batman batbelt. Kevin is a veteran ultra runner from Woburn, MA with seven 2009 ultras also under belt . We glide past and at 11:35am we hit Bald Mt. aid station #1 at 1:32 BTC.
11:45 am Stage 7 Bald Mt #1 to Kennedy Ridge Miles 25.5 to 31.2 (Stage time BTC 3:29 pm.)
This is our first of three climbs up Bald Mountain. We are now at 3500 feet of elevation, or 2000 feet above the Priest Mountain Overlook 10 miles earlier. Rebecca and Alyssa “man” or should I say “girl” up this station. Both have legit “trail cred” having completed the 50K and the 100K GEERs the last two years. Alyssa was 4th overall last year and completed IM Louisville sub 12 hours (kickin my ass BTW!). But today she dutifully refills my water bottles and Rebecca takes my trash and forces a cup of soup into my hand. I powder up with Perpetuem, pop another S! and I am ready to go.
I look up for Big Mike. Surprise, surprise, he is gone again . . . MAN! I jog out onto BMJR and IM Gary comes with. I stop to walk a bit at mile 27 to bring my HR down and Gary notes this is a flat section. I note back that the BMJR is a rocky and huge muddy puddle pool that cover vast stretches of the track so much that you have to traverse around in the woods. But I say to Gary, “Flat section? “Yeah so what? ” Gary states, “Gotta run the flats, there will be plenty of walking later”.
He is right, I man up and jog again. I round a turn and “whoosh” A runner comes right at me. The 50K runners have already turned around so he must be a 100K guy already looping BACK UP TO Bald Mt #2 at mile 40. Well, OK I am at mile 27 so he is at least 12 miles ahead of me. Wow! I am processing this info when I spy Big Mike cresting the next hill in the distance. I motor up and catch him just over the top. He smiles and resumes storytelling about being a race director, and what it is like to run a 72 hour track ultra in the middle of an retired dot comer’s estate in the Arizona desert and how he drove there to run from his home in Florida over HIS CHRISTMAS VACATION!
We keep running and start our descent down the Kennedy Ridge to the Coal Road 4 miles away at mile 31. My crew will be there waiting. The wide trail is rocky but runnable and all downhill mile after mile. Mike and I watch our footing but are running well. We then hear this maniacal laugh and Boston Bat Kevin sans fannypack swoops down the trail from behind us. Mike and I comment on how his quads will blow up soon. Shoot, my quads are feelling it with this downhill at mile 28!
We pass a kid with an IM Louisville finisher hat, like mine. His desperate look tells me he has given up. He whines that his quads are burnt up and shot. I try to come up with something positive to say as we glide past. I cannot. This race is brutal and this hill trail is rocky and brutally straight down mile after mile, dropping from 3500 to 2100 feet. Deep, back in the darkest part of my mind I know we will retrace all these steps up the mountain later on in the race. So much later on in fact from mile 51-57 under the cover of darkness that I am not even worried about that yet. That is 6 hours from now for crissakes. Mike and I are gabbing away when a swift runner materializes in front of us. He glides up the trail effortlessly like a deer and slips by us without a word. I turn to Mike. “He must be lost?” Mike thinks a minute. No that is the race leader, Mark Lundblad. “ I say that can’t be right that would put him at mile 52 and it is has only been 7 hours since race start. That can’t be right? I know there is a $500 prize for a sub 10 hour finish, but come on, he is only 14 miles away? OMG! Amazing!
We pop out of the woods at mile 31 and Dad is waiting. We chat and I hear that the second place runner ran the wrong way and DNF’ed. Also there was a bear sighting on the Kennedy Ridge trail, and a female DNF’ed. Talk about trail race gossip!
Dad asks if I want to change clothes or grab a poncho. I say no and he says I look great. I stop by the van and give Mom a hug. She tells me how good I look and to keep eating. Do I have the best crew or what? Of course, Big Mike is long gone by now. That guy is a lean, mean ultra running machine and I set out to chase him down once again.
1:30 pm Stage 8 Kennedy Ridge to Stony Man Trail Miles 31.2-34.2 (Next stage BTC 4:23 pm.)
This section is all gravel road. No it is still a hilly bitch but this is more my bag, baby! I finish eating half a P and J, suck on my Perpetuem nutrition drink bottle and pop in the IPOD. Three Dog Night launches into Try a Little Tenderness. My body responds. I pass, one, then two runners. Up ahead on the straight road I see Boston Kevin and yes further up there is Big Mike. I am rockin’ out and U2’s Bad is blaring. I keep up my pace passing right by Kevin and sneak right up to Big Mike. This time he is a bit surprised to see me. We run together the next mile to the Stony Man trailhead station. It is 2:10pm and we are a solid 2 hours and 11 minutes BTC. We grab some football scores, FSU is going to lose to USF! Also I eat bananas, cookies, and grab a whole PB and J to go. We are off together quickly. TOGETHER!!! I am finally getting this aid station thing down after 35 miles.
2:10 pm Stage 9 Stony Man Trail to Bald Mt #2 Miles 34.2 to 40.7 (BTC to next stage 6:22 pm.)
In the Guide to the GEER, this stage was advertised as the most difficult climb comprising six miles from 1250 feet up to the 3500 foot Bald Mt. summit. We are walking, but while Big Mike may be walking, I am power walking to keep up. My HR slowly creeps up there. I finish my food and realize I have to slow it down or I will perish. Mike slowly pulls away and then I am alone. It is mile 36 and I have not been truly alone out here before or even out of sight of other runners yet today. I pop in the IPOD and try to find energy, resolve, mental fortitude anything to allow me to keep moving one foot in front of the other. I need to hunker down and focus. I eat some pills, and know my belly is full of fuel. This tiredness is not a lack of fuel bonk. I am hydrate and am still peeing as I walk.
This is mile 36 and my body just has never dealt with this before. I think to myself, “I am at mile 36 now, OK 62 miles in total, , , ,Hell that is “just a marathon to go!” I think about Dean Karnazes in his book Ultramarathonman running 18 miles to a marathon, running the race, and then running 18 miles home afterwards. I grin ear to ear. I have been running 8 hours and now I am at the start of a marathon, which BTW is straight up a trail for the first five miles! I find this hilariously funny!
I shout up the trail to Mike who I cannot see but know is up there. “Hey Mike! Only a marathon to go!” He laughs back. Now I am physically exhausted but mentally positive and strong. I am going to do this thing! I pop the IPOD back in and hunker down for the climb. Around the bend there is Mike waiting for me. He says, “The only thing more stupid than walking 4 miles up a hill at mile 36 of an ultra is doing it by yourself when 100 yards behind is someone to talk to.” He slows down his pace and we walk up together to the far end of the BMJR. Here we both run a bit again. Little by little, Mike pulls away. (Mike tells me this later) “On my way into Bald Mt Aid Station #2, I was just minutes ahead of you and three black bears crossed the trail about 30 yards in front of me. The bears looked to be a mama and two cubs. They were there and then were gone quickly. Nevertheless, it was cool to see them!”
I am jogging, walking, and traversing puddles pools on the BMJR. Mentally I am OK, but physically I am working very hard. Plus here on the mountain top it is raining steady. As I arrive at Bald Mt #2 at :4:15pm, I see Big Mike getting ready to head out. Chasing him down is secondary to some rest and refueling. Boston Kevin is here too changing into dry clothes. Good idea. I grab my drop bag, fill up my Perpetuem bottle and swap out my wet jersey for a dry one. A poncho would be better but mine is with Dad 7 miles down the mountain at Turkey Pen Trailhead. Oh, in case you don’t know, Rebecca and Alyssa are awesome!
I am forcefed Chicken Noodle Soup and told how great I look and how well I am doing. There is a roaring bonfire going near the tent despite the pelting rain. So here at mile 40 and at 4:20 pm I am 2 hours BTC. I have been running for over 10 hours. I am in a dry shirt under a dry tent with warm soup and hot aid station girls. Deep inside my brain says “You have to go!” It is damn hard to leave. Kevin is sitting down and is going nowhere fast. (Everything I have read about ultras screams “Beware the chair!!”) You never want to get up again. I stall another minute. Alyssa relays directions to me for the second or third time. She is gently telling me I need to go. The first step into the dusky rain is the hardest. Then I disappear down the trail into the dusky cold wet mountaintop rain.
4:20 pm Stage 10 Bald Mt #2 to Turkey Pen Trail Miles 40.7 to 47.7 (Time BTC 8:30 pm.)
The descent down from Bald Mt #2 starts 50 yards from the tent. At 1pm the 1500 foot descent on the Kennedy Ridge trail took over 4 miles. Now it will be accomplished in less than a mile and a half. The trail switchbacks on itself time after time. My quads and feet protest each step. Running is an impossibility. Even walking is quite painful. Stopping means the only way out is eventually back up or all the way down. I have achieved a new low. After 30 minutes to cover the 1.5 miles, I reach the Mill Valley floor. I am finished. The trail is flat, relatively rock free and canopied in trees to hold back the rain to a drizzle. Gary’s voice echoes in my head “You need to run all the flat terrain you can” Well the terrain may be flat, but mentally I cannot get there. I sift through my bag of running tricks. 1. IPOD on and in use? check, 2. Take some magic salt tabs?, check just took them, 3. Expresso Hammer Gel with caffeine? check just ate one. Damn! I am fueled, hydrated, and IPODed. It is 5pm at mile 42 and I am wet, alone, miserable and over 20 miles from the finish.
My sane brain develops a plan. Walk slowly to Mile 47.7 and meet dad, and jump into a warm mini-van back to the hotel. After a hot steamy shower have a nice dinner and then catch the Penn St Iowa game that starts at 8pm. We will all have a few cold Coors Lights with Paul and Jen and be in bed by 10pm knowing I did my best. I wallow around in self pity and mull over this plan. Why not? I have done damn well out here. I have gone 42 miles up and down mountain trails in 11 hours. I munch on the remains of my WaWa soft pretzel. It is getting dark, it is cold, and the weather is getting worse. You are just one man on a Cold Mountain.
My brain inputs me into a scenario with Jude Law, Nicole Kidman, Natalie Portman, and Renee Zellweger. The movie version of Cold Mountain 2009 GEER style. Where do I fit in? Am I a soldier? An AWOL? A hero to save a heroine? These characters are fighting for their very lives against insurmountable odds and no aid stations or pacers. They have no choice. Why are you here, Tim? I think to Natascha Badmann at Kona 2007 not giving up on the bike even with a broken collarbone and a bad bike crash. “I remember my favorite Lance ism . Pain is temporary, quitting is forever. Why are you here right now Tim? To pack it in at 42 miles?
I push my weight forward. One foot, the other, I repeat this. Then I am jogging. In a few minutes I am running. The path fords the Mill Creek time and again. Just like the Watchung Reservation at home. Just like my training. It is wet, the trail is one big puddle, but I do not stop. I run for the next 45 minutes and 4 miles later at 6:05 pm I am close to aid station Turkey Pen. Here I have dry clothes including my magic compression tights, hot soup and the ultra marathoner’s most secret weapon. I look up the trail and there it is. Ok, under an umbrella, but with running shoes and ready to go. My secret weapon, Paul the pacer. We jog in together to Turkey Pen. I check in with race staff, and hit the dry minivan.
For the next 20 minutes, I am warm, dry and hanging with Mom and Dad and regrouping. I check the time. It is 6:25 pm and I am still over 2 hours BTC. Paul paces restlessly outside the van. Yes, it is time to go. I don my rain poncho over dry clothes and open the door to the rainy dusky gloom. 16 miles to home. Mom tells me how great I look.
6:30 pm Stage 11 Turkey Pen to Kennedy Ridge Trail Miles 47.7 to 50.7 (Next Cut 9:24 pm.)
We are back on the gravel Coal Rd for an easy 5K. (yeah right?!) Paul dashes off. I try to jog. Nope. After 20 minutes in the van the legs are going to fight me on this one. My will carries the day over my brain one more time and we are off at a slow shuffle. It is full blown dusk and raining quite hard. So hard in fact, that runners not equipped with changed clothes are DNF’ing all over. After this stretch of road, further running requires extraction from the mountaintop. I walk the uphill on the gravel road and curse the hill. Paul is eager beaver, but already wet without a poncho and in shorts. It is 50 degrees but the rain and dark are tough. It takes 40 minutes to cover a 5K I can run in half that time and I am wiped out once again.
7:15 pm Stage 12 Kennedy Ridge Trail to Bald Mt. #3 Miles 50.7 to 56.5 (11:10 pm cutoff.)
I thought mile 42 was tough but here at mile 50 is where the wheels truly come off. We see Boston Kevin and he is changing up just like I did 3 miles back. Despite Paul’s presence my mental toughness is fraying badly due to the rain, the approaching darkness, the 4+ mile climb back to the BMJR and 13 hours on the mountain that is longer than even any of my Ironman efforts. It is pitch black dark and raining hard. I am Charlie Sheen in the An Khe Valley in Platoon pulling guard duty on the 3 am firewatch.
We slowly inch up the ridge trail I descended so many hours ago. Paul is not dressed for the elements and is cold in just shorts and a technical shirt. A mountain man runner looking more like a wet noodle shivers past us complaining and looking terrible. Paul pushes me and I fight him all the way up the trail. I pray that my Princeton Tec lamp holds up in the rain. Paul has a flashlight and we strain to find the course marking flags and now glow sticks.
An hour of trekking and Kevin pushes past us up the hill . .. The climb is cold, wet, long and unforgiving. Paul moves ahead to scout glow stick. I push one leg down and then the other with my hands. I eat banana and mashed up wet PB and J from my pouch. I eat caffeine gels. When Paul gets far ahead I am in my own dark abandoned world. Perhaps this is his plan to make me walk faster. After forever we reach the BMJR and begin to negotiate puddles. BMJR never seems to end. Now it is 9:45 pm or 2 and a half hours of mushing through the cold wet rain up a mountain. I walk the whole way and hate it all. Morale is at an alltime low ..I am now Charlie Sheen in the foxhole with Bunny Dillon waiting to be overrun by Vietcong. Paul reminds me that in the Marines, they would hike all night with boots, heavy packs, and no lights under the cover of darkness. Friggin Marines. I huddle under my poncho in my low morale foxhole.
For the umpteen time, Paul scouts up ahead for the mysterious Bald Mt aid station. From my fox hole down the dark trail I hear cheering. Alyssa and Rebecca are cheering me in. I rise out of my mental hole and smile and think, “we are only 8 miles from the end.” I can do this. I grab my aid bag and slink under the dry tent. The girls tell me how great I look and how well I am doing. They are lying but they are good liars and I want to believe. Rebecca points over to the mountain man who is sitting in the SUV over there. “I just DNF’ed him. He is borderline hypothermic, and yes Tim you are looking good.”
Chili is on the stove and in our bellies and we are warming up. The race director, Gil, exits the SUV and walks to us through the pelting rain. I tell him that this course needs some teeth more than rain and tell his Grim Sweeper that New Jersey Tim did not come all this way to Virginia to DNF goddammit! He laughs and I tell him how impressed I am with all his hard work. He is proud of himself and he should be.
Alyssa asks us if we want garbage bags. I am confused. We need to haul down trash? Rebecca explains to wear them to keep us warm. Paul says no, then thinks about it between shivers and says “yes”. I say why not? After all of my misery we head onto the trail still 1:52 BTC beeetch!!
10:00pm Stage 13 Bald Mt. #3 Miles 56.5 to Camp Marty 58.5 (Next Cutoff time 11:52 pm.)
The garbage bag poncho warms us up quickly. Paul wants to run the 2.5 miles to Camp Marty. I am afraid that if I try that I will fall face down in a muddy puddle pool.
We exit BMJR to the single track. I tell Paul I will lead. I am walking swiftly (relatively) down the trail and the quads and toes start whining again. I am not sure which sucks worse, climbing or descending. We are retracing our climb from Camp Marty. We traverse the boulders and continue down Torry Ridge. We walk and as the trail steepness eases my so does any low morale. Flat trail is SOOO EAASSY!!! We run the last half mile of single track into camp Marty as the chili kicks in. Still, it takes us 45 minutes to reach the aid station.
As we hit the parking lot, headlamps kick on. It is mom and dad. Do I have the most AWESOME CREW OR WHAT!!! I so want to stay and chat (again), but instead I hand my dad a fistful of gels, and my empty water bottles. That is what being a crew is about. Waiting forever to see your runner for less than five minutes then taking their trash. Paul and I grab a chicken soup from Big Marty and head out in under 5 minutes. It is 10:50pm and 3.7 miles home all downhill baby! We are two hours + BTC and Paul thinks we can be there by 11:30 pm.
10:55pm Stage 14 Camp Marty to Sherando Lake Miles 58.8 to 64.5 (Final Time Cutoff 1 am)
We depart down the steep trail. We are so close just 3.7 miles to go! 25 minutes later we have just reached the fork at 1.2 miles into the stage. I tell Paul that after the fork the trail is easy and we must have less than mile or so to a one mile run on paved camp ground roads. I try to run but after I trip three times on roots or rocks in just over five minutes Paul takes the lead and I power walk. I strain to see or hear the campground. WE are one hour in and now it is midnight. All we see is more trail, more glow sticks, but no campground. All I hear is Paul ahead of me, shouting out, big rock, root in the trail, watch the cliff on the right, rock, root, BIG ROCK. Paul is convincing himself more and more that we are lost. I am useless now and just focus on putting one foot in front of the other. Paul worries we must have taken the wrong fork miles back there. It is impossible that 3.7 miles is this far! He tells me to think, that is think really hard, like he is talking to a 3 year old. “Are you sure this is the right trail?” and ”You have not been on it before?” Someone has tossed a couple of glow sticks onto a side trail at a creek crossing. This adds to our confusion. Paul races ahead then returns, then races ahead again searching for a trail head, a camp road, anything. I am having doubts myself that we missed a turn. Then at 12:10pm after an hour + on this stage I hear Paul. “The road, the road”!! Paul is Tattoo from Fantasy Island and our plane is coming in!! He races back for me and now I know we will make it. We hit pavement. I LOVE PAVEMENT. My body takes over and breaks into a run. I cannot even feel myself at all. I am floating over the pavement. Paul cruises ahead like a dog nearing his home. After over 18 hours out here you would think I would be more happy. To be honest, I am happier to be about done than amazed at the magnitude of the achievement. After a short paved mile we run in together under the finish banner at 12:26 pm or in 18 hours 26 minutes that breaks down to 17:50 per mile pace. To a New Yorker who briskly walks the Manhattan streets everyday, they may think, shoot, that is just an easy all day walk. But you and I know better. . . What a long strange trip it has been!
12:30 pm Finish Pavilion Lake Sherando Mile 64.5
At the finishing pavilion, Jen, Mom and Dad greet me as a couple of other finishers huddle around the fireplace, including Boston Kevin. I am congratulated by Francesca, Gil’s wife. She hands me a handcrafted pottery finisher’s medal. Nothing fancy, but after all, that is what ultra trail running is all about. Save the flash for the Walt Disney Marathons. Alyssa from Bald Mt, is there too and hands me a blanket and a celebratory smile. I am so impressed that she placed 4th overall last year and is volunteering this year. Race Director Gil is here too. I tell him that there is no way it is only 3.7 miles from Camp Marty to the finish. He confides in me that it is really close to 6 miles which makes this race a 104K race or 64.5 miles but what are a couple extra miles of trails in the rain at midnight? So I have completed a 104 K race beetch!!, Speaking of a couple of extra miles, Mark Lundblaud finishes the course in a new GEER record of 10 hours and 1 minute, missing out on a $500 bonus for sub ten hours by mere seconds. Wonder what he thinks about those phantom miles?
I find a seat by the fire and Jen and mom bring me lasagna, and a bottle of coke. Dad is snapping pictures and is proud. My crew is so awesome. After 20 minutes I send an exhausted mom and dad on their way to the hotel and bed. Paul and I offer a ride to 24 year old Andrea Neagle, a marine reservist who finished just ahead of us. This is her first ultra too and she is one of just four females to complete the race this year. In fact, only 43% will complete the GEER this year. It is 12:57 pm and just one runner comes in after me and Paul. Well at least I am not last!!
1 am Epilogue
As the four of us hobble to the parking lot and the car, we spot the unmistaken bobble of headlamps. Paul checks his watch. It is 90 seconds until 1am, the final time cut off. All four of us release blood curdling screams into the night. Move dammit! Go! Run! You can make it! Go hard now!!! You are SOOO IN!!! We scream back the 50 yards toward the pavilion. Runners coming in!!! We hear the pavilion people start to yell back out. Then two garbage bagged runners emerge from the darkness across the lot. They head toward us and await further instruction. I give it to them “Move soldier!” “FOLLOW the glow sticks around the back of the pavillion”. Move it goddamit!! Paul checks his watch again, it reads 1:01 am. He shakes his head. I say, “Paul how accurate is that watch marine boy? “I aways set it a tad fast so I won’t ever be late.
Brian Cobb, 37, and Steve Hilmy of Bethesda, MD 48 make it at 19 hours flat and 19 hours and 30 seconds. I am so tired but so inspired to visually see these runners pick it up and respond to our urging after being 19 hours out there realizing their own dream. All the pain and suffering I have endured over the last 19 hours is melted away . . .That is until I take my next step toward the car.
I finish in 35th place of 88 starters and my GEER race is finally over! This is a day I will never forget. My finish would not be possible without the remarkable race support I leaned on out there from so many enablers. My trail suffering compadre Mike, my race crew, Dad, Mom, and Jen. Race Director Gil, Francesca, that trail sweeper Sniper, Alyssa and Rebecca (the Bald Mt. Girls,) Big Marty, the Glow stick dispensing team, and the other equally needed aide station staff that while I cannot name hooked me up. And finally my pacer Paul without whom I would be just another DNF’er right now.