Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Ultra Race of Champions 100K
After 6 hours of running, I struggle climbing the single track thru the mist up to Bald Mountain Summit. The Slacks and Torrey Ridge Trails are technical with sharp, small rocks which could easily turn an ankle and my legs are rubbery. This rocky single track from Sherando Lake is an endless hike of suffering. The air is thick and misty warm in the low 60s. I finally hit the summit jeep road and I force my aching legs into a jogging shuffle toward the 25.9 mile Bald Mountain Overlook Aid Station back out on the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Through the mist, a fleeting shadow floats by on the edge of both my consciousness and the muddy dirt jeep road. Is that the race leader Michael Wardian already at mile 48 at just over six hours in? I mull this over during the 15 minutes it takes to hit the Blue Ridge Parkway or “BRP”. Here at aid, I refuel and feeling refreshed start moving along again running at an 8:30 pace for the first time in hours.
It is 1pm and I am racing the inaugural Ultra Race of Champions 100k (UROC) near Charlottesville, VA at the Wintergreen Four Season Resort. Of the 173 race starters, nearly 100 will DNF, so six hours in, few brave souls remain behind me on the trails here even just at mile 27. So all that can be done is to speed up from here and try to move up in my place in the field.
The 1st UROC is a reincarnation of the Great Eastern Endurance Run 100K which I ran in 2009. The course offers a variety of terrain, twists and turns along the whole distance. In reading the race reports of several of the elites, runners are generally impressed with Francesca Conte (Fran) and J. Russell Gil (Gil) ‘s organization and format of the race that incorporates single track trail, gravel and jeep roads, and Blue Ridge Parkway fast pavement. Enough fast elite runners have shown up to push the pace and claim the two spot prizes for the first to the highest point (5.5 miles in) at 4000 ft. and first to the 33 mile aid station. This may be why a few start quicker than they should have.
According to 4th place Comrades Ultra Marathon (South Africa 100K) finisher Ian Sharman, “It was also a great social event with established ultra legends making cameos (Scott McCoubrey and Dr. David Horton, famous for his “Horton Miles” that are like CZAR miles for my Highlanders!). Also present are a good selection of established fast guys (Geoff Roes, Dave Mackey, Mike Wardian, Dave James, Ian) and newer blood showing their stuff (Matt Flaherty and Jon Allen running particularly well). There was even one of the select 10 finishers ever of the Barkley Marathon (Jonathan Basham), the hardest ultra race ON THE PLANET! If you don't believe me, then this may change your mind.”
For a recap of the UROC elite men and female races, irunfar.com has a summary and provided excellent coverage, as does the race website. However, here is my trail ultra recap and hopefully I can entertain with an amazing story to tell!
Friday afternoon has me driving the six hours from NJ in a rain storm to just south of Harrisonburg, VA (home of the JMU Dukes) to access the BRP near the Whetstone Ranger Station at mile 29. I drive parts of the BRP course north to mile 13 and the turn down Reeds Gap to Wintergreen in time for the pre-race briefing. I check into my condo, grab some pasta and prepare my two drop bags for the course. I am asleep by 10 and prepare myself for the day of running ahead!
7:20am Saturday RACE START:
The weather has been humid with torrential rain the previous day, but the start has overcast skies and cool conditions. I manage a quick conversation with Michael Wardian hearing about his recent Badwater 3rd place finish, and I also introduce myself to Devon Crosby Helms, the female race favorite. I also catch up with old friends James Brennan “JB” fresh off his Vermont 100 finish and will be running and IM age grouper extraordinaire Alyssa G. who will be manning the Sherando Lake aid station with pal Ryan J.
Before we know it the gun signals the separate elite start at 7am. The parade lap of a 200m loop goes past the small crowd then off down the trails.
The course in profile has almost 13,000ft of ascent, given the frequent switches between easy trail, technical/rocky/slippery sections and roads. The very few flatter sections should also allow for a real increase in pace, and while most don't know what to expect, my local knowledge from the GEER two years ago will evidence itself 12 hours from now.
Twenty minutes later the gun goes off again for the 150 or so non elite “citizens” to head under the start banner, and onto the ski resort traversing the slopes. The speedier rabbits including buddy JB press ahead and string us out. Then a half mile into the course, I am confused. We all should be conserving energy for the long journey ahead. Instead, as we enter the woods I observe almost all of the runners ahead of me madly pin wheeling their arms and screaming out like on drugs at a Phish concert. WTF? Then the runner 15 yards ahead of me shouts. “Yellow jackets!” OWW! Mutha f___ker!
Apparently, the elites were threatened by our presence and set a trap of stirred up nested bees as they whizzed by! I floor it through the rocky mud as runners around me scream out. I see no bees and think I am OK. Then I feel a sharp pin prick on my lower back! “Dammit!” I fan my shirt from my waist hydration pack, and several bees fly up and out! Several runners now stop around me and complain about calf stings.
I press on. “What a start!” At the first climb at mile 3 I slow to a speed walk to collect myself for the 650 foot climb up to the summit. For the elites, the first 'King of the Mountain' prize of $200 is at the summit at 5.5 miles mark at 4000 feet. No prize for me by racing here except for a DNF, so I continue my power hike.
After the climb we emerge on the Summit Resort road and climb some more then descend toward the Mountain Inn. This race is going to be interesting, trail, pavement, up, down, repeat. The course clearly allows different runners to exhibit different strengths and the continual changes in the running surface and gradient already shows a lot of back and forth between runners. In leaving the Wintergreen resort there is an early 1,500ft downhill, mainly on road that I hammer with Orla Kasburg, a former Penn Track Captain and current U.S. high school steeplechase record holder. We cruise by runners ahead of us in the field. While I suspect this would hurt later on I try (unsuccessfully) to restrain myself to merely to 10k pace.
After three miles down at the bottom, we now face a near one mile climb up the road to Reeds Gap Aid Station at 9.3 miles. To say this road is steep is a misnomer. To compare it to something like Birch Hill near my home is not adequate. The road sign states that trucks are prohibited as the grade is 15%. The field hikes up the road that is so steep I feel like each step is going backward. How the hell are we going to run this section back down at mile 60?
REED’s GAP to Sherando Lake
After the hike, I quickly get myself in and out of the aid station and hit the pavement ahead of Orla. I hook up with Jennifer, a marine recruiter with a camelback running her first 100K at age 37. We pace at around 9:30 per mile for the first of the five miles into White Rock Gap Aid.
Whoosh, there goes Orla! Jen and I run all but the uphill road portions, and we hit White Rock aid at mile 14 in decent shape. I again race in and out of aid quickly (Thanks Mike Melton!) and head down the easy single track trail from the BRP to Sherando Lake aid station at (17.6 miles). Here is the first out and back section where I see the 50K leaders catching us and passing even though they started 45 minutes after us!
Sherando Lake to Bald Mountain
I circle the lake at mile 18 and feel the deadness of my legs and a slight left leg twinge. It is 10:30am and just 3:15 minutes into the race. Oh, boy, Tim time to eat and hit the salt! I have not been pressing the pace too much but now also decide to slow it down and save my legs before any worse cramping occurs. I know that on leaving the lake here we face the biggest climb of the day. I stop to chat with friend Alyssa and load up on food, potatoes, and a whole PB and J to go. This picture is at mile 19 on the Sherando Lake Earthen Dam.
I retrace my steps up trail and across the earth dam to just short of White Rock Gap. Here is where the fork is for the 50Ks to head for home just when the climbing gets tough! At the fork, I bear right while two guys head left and they tell me to be brave. I tell them I am a fool. They say that most brave deeds are also foolish! I slow my pace to a hike here at mile 20 as the mist shrouds me into my own trail prison miles from home, miles from aid, and miles from the finish.
I'd not felt great all day but my strategy is still not to press and keep at a gentle pace to hope that I could capture some magic later on back on the pavement sections. I do not know why I think this is possible after at least five hours on the road and trails. Not like I had run longer than 5 hours in training, marathons or any effort since GEER 2009. However, unlike most other races (New York Marathon, Jersey, and more) I feel no cramping or stomach GI or bonking, just a general sense of malaise or lethargy. So I pressed on as the way to deal with it, being passed every 15 minutes or so. I was OK with this figuring I was still ahead of roughly half the 100K field, and I was sure that plenty of others were hitting their own really big walls, or even turned around for home at the tempting 50K fork.
The climb up Bald Mountain is on the rocky single track from Sherando Lake is an endless hike of suffering. The air is thick and misty warm in the low 60s as I finally hit the summit jeep road toward the 25.9 mile Bald Mountain Overlook Aid Station. Through the mist, a shadow floats by on the edge of my conciseness and the dirt track. Is that the race leader Michael Wardian already at mile 48?
Bald Mountain to Whetstone Ranger Station
15 minutes later I am through the aid station thanks to GEER 2009 aid station angel again aiding my efforts, Rebecca Phalen and her Chicken Noodle soup and positive vibes! Now I am on the paved Blue Ridge Parkway. I am refueled refreshed and moving at 8:30 pace for the first time in hours. The food is processing and I tentatively set out at a slow jog. The road and a downhill grade beckon and my jog turn into a cruise through the fog. Here Geoff Roes , Western States Winner and Ultra Icon, cruises by, working hard. I shout encouragement and he does the same back, sweet!
I now pass one, then two more runners. The third is a slight African-American woman doubled off in cramps. She looks forlorn and helpless. I stop and give her some water and ask her how she feels. Her look tells the story. I ask her how much salt she has taken in. She looks at me strange. I give her two S Caps and wish her well. I am again off running 8:30s now as the race leaders continue to sail by me on the opposite direction. I pass the three female leaders including Devon Crosby Helms who ends up taking second. Her great race report is at http://devoncrosbyhelms.com/
I hit the gravel Spy Run Road on a steep descent. I open it up now down the steep gravel to 7:30 pace and spot five more males ahead of me. I whizz be on the flats as they stop to walk. I hit the ups and walk but I have now gapped them enough that they do not pursue. I feel strong all the 7.7 mile way to the Mile 33 Whetstone Aid moving up the field. I pass David Goggins Navy Seal and IM Kona stud, then also spot bud JB running the uphills right behind! He is rockin this race!
Whetstone Ranger Station Out Dragon’ (OUT and) Back Trail
It is 2:45 pm and I am seven and half hours and 33 miles in. The suggested time to complete this section is 2 hours and 10 minutes for the 8.2 miles. I load up on Dew, potatoes, salt, and top off my water with no aid to be had on this stretch. I also mix a Perpetuem for the long out and back “Dragon’s Back Trail.” As I leave aid I feel lethargic again. I walk the initial uphill section and am re-passed immediately. I have no energy and no will to run. The trail is not steep, not that rocky, just twisty and rolling, never flat. I try and run the dips but then a small hill always reduces me to a walk. Coming back at me the runners predominate look is that of defeat. This is the point of the trail when many of the elites also suffered, such as Dave Mackey 100K US reigning champion who walked back to Whetstone on his way to dropping. Even 'Mr. Barkley', Jonathan Basham, who persevered through 59 hours of hell at the Barkley Marathons went out too fast, looked tired here and vomited on his way back to Bald Mountain but never quits and did not here either!
With 34 miles in and still 30 miles to go I am concerned. Runners, both elite, and everyman are DNF’ing after this section. I slog all the way out on the ridge with the fog prohibiting any views from either side down to the valleys. I retrieved the password “Quadzilla” to prove I made it out, and noted my water is almost gone. I still have a long 4.1 mile trek back hence the way I came. My morale is down and I pray that Andrew Aurbach (Bach) my best man and pacer today has managed to hook a ride to Whetstone Aid in time (Bach does arrive at Wintergreen Resort by 3pm and in time for the 50K race awards and managed to snag a ride with a 50K runner all the way to Whetstone.)
Now at 5pm the elites have all made it to the finish in about 10 hours or so. I still have roughly a marathon to go having also been on the trails for those same 10 hours already! Down the Dragon’s Back Trail the fog and mist is rolling in. My water is gone with the little I have left used to wash down pretzels sticks. The flour provides some boost and I manage to jog the flatter trail sections. I pass two slower runners and a headcount of outbound runners note that there are only 15 or so behind me. That means that nearly 50 runners that were behind me have already dropped out and did not even attempt this out and back dragon’s back trail!
I notice one of the runners behind me that runs when I run and walks when I walk. I make up a game to try and ditch him. For the next two miles I pick up my pace and work at it. Out of water, food, but not hope, I think to my upcoming arrival back at Whetstone Aid. Headlamp for the night, and salt are my primary needs. Salty Lamp, Tim, Salty Lamp. Also, I crave more Mountain Dew. Salty Dew Lamp, Salty Dew Lamp. I repeat so I can remember to get the aid I need! After nearly three hours after I had left at 2:45 pm. So much for the suggested 2 hours and 10 minutes! Exiting the Dragon's Back Trail and excited to see my pacer!
At aid Bach is waiting for me! Awesome! While it is his “Riggo” birthday this weekend, he has chosen to celebrate out here on a misty mountain for 22+ miles of running! I hit the Dew, and salted potatoes hard. I also remember to grab my headlamp. It is 5:45 pm and the aid station will close at 6pm for outbound runners. One more shot of Dew and an S Cap and we hit the pavement. My trail shadow glides in behind me to aid. The three of us set out on the BRP road up the hill to Whetstone Pass. Having my pacer is like a third wind. Bach relays stories of the finish, and the 50K awards ceremony. It is misty but not rainy. The lethargy of the last three hours is evaporating. It is 6pm and the 17 hour midnight time cutoff to “buckle” looms.
Bach is sporting the minimalist Vibram Five Fingers. He is surprisingly spry in his step and has been training with hope to a return to the marathon distance. He promises to finish with me no matter what. At the crest of the hill I start a slow jog. Each step I feel better. The food and drink has refreshed me. I feel no different than 5 miles into a 10 mile training run. We increase speed. The runners ahead of us start to get bigger as we close the gap. After a mile we turn back onto the Spy Run Gravel Road. The downhill steepens. Bach asks can he stop to pee. I tell him absolutely I will keep going but he will catch up. I am now not only feeling good, I am feeling great. I see the three runners ahead of me including my shadow from the aid station.
I floor it to 7:30 pace and whizz by. I expect this surge to be temporary. Instead after a mile I still feel great. I keep up pace for another mile. I look behind me and Bach is hanging on about a quarter mile back suggesting, “don’t burn out!” I pass one then another runner. Three miles later I slow to a jog on the uphill. Bach catches up, just as a rancher to an unbroken colt that has been spooked. He calms me down. I power walk and power water and catch my breath. We walk the uphill and then again run the flats. Another downhill is to be had and again we hit the throttle. We pass another runner (carrying walking poles) and quickly we approach the Bald Mountain Aid at mile 51.
After taking nearly 3 hours to cover the 8.2 mile Dragons Breath section, we nail down this 7.7 section of road in less than half that time sub 85 minutes. At aid, Rebecca Aid Angel provides Chicken Soup and more potatoes and salt. Another runner is laid out here in a chair cramping and dejected. He says he covered the Dragon in 2 hours and is blown. This story appears to be a common theme with the DNF crowd.
White Rock Gap
We motor out of aid at now at 7:20 pm (12 hours in) and up the Bald Mountain Jeep Road. There are puddles but we power walk and are passed by some local kids and their Cujo-dog in a jeep that are amazed at our effort here at mile 51. I feel strong and Bach is turning out to be a great pacer. He is positive and supportive but also pushes me along when I slow.
Approaching the turn down the single track trail a headlamp sneaks up behind me. I am surprised that anyone can be moving as fast as us from the back of the pack at this juncture of the race. “Ranger” is a 6’4” inch Army Ranger who also took a wrong turn at mile 14 and ended up running seven miles and 2 hours “off course”. He then reentered the course 30 minutes in last place and has been movin’ up the field ever since. I quickly volunteer my course experience in knowing our route, and his Family Guy Stewie retort is countered by a Simpsons reference by Bach.
A team is established with Ranger setting the pace in the dark, myself keeping up, and Bach stubbing his toes on rocks and roots on the trail. “I’m OK” he says which becomes his mantra. The team makes amazing time and shares more comedic quips, such as Tim “What is the average airspeed of a swallow?” Ranger “African or European?” Bach “Laden or unencumbered?” Or “Bach are your toes OK?” “Tis merely a flesh wound!”
We pop up to Slacks Overlook to cross the BRP at Mile 53 and set out for the two mile plus rockfest trail White Rock Falls section.
The steep descent is rocky and slowly Ranger’s quick pace (He said he is used to running with a 40 lb pack!) permits him to gap us as Bach’s footwear suited for the roads and dirt, proved to be ill suited to the rocky steep rooty trails. Down goes Bach “I’m OK” and “My bloody thumb! Ouch” that hurts! Bach falls and jams his thumb, but he does not even consider quitting. The pace is slow as we navigate our footing in the dark.
Still, we breeze by two more sets of paired up runners and descend to the falls, traverse the stream and then climb up to the remaining road section of 8.5 miles. As we appear, the aid volunteers have adopted an eerie Halloween theme with costumes, jack o lanterns and candles. Ranger is now 20 minutes ahead of us already. I do a final refill of my handheld and am amazed at how strong I feel. Is 8.5 miles too much for a final push? I can't tell, but know the last three miles up the Wintergreen Resort (Birch Hill Road) hill will be a walk.
It is 9:15 pm now and we power walk the pavement hill again out of aid as I metabolized my potatoes, salt S-Cap tab, and Dew. The fog is heavy and we run all the flats and downs. Two of the cars that pass us belong to Rebecca and Alyssa who are handing out glow sticks. It is now 10 pm and we have over five miles to go!
The fog rolled over us again which means I can't even judge whether my work was paying off or not, but no one has caught us since Ranger. A couple of 8:30 minute miles feel a lot faster but still my legs are feeling solid. After five miles, the final aid station appears through the gloom with cow bells announcing our entrance. I stop for 30 seconds to refill my water and jettison trash and any excess food. I shout at Bach “I am Audi Five”. Within steps at the end of the flatter road I head steeply downhill from Reed’s Gap for the 700ft vertical in just over a mile on the 15% grade road top. The visibility is zero and my quads are hurting but I run on. “Bang,” there goes a toenail as my feet jam into the front of my shoe toe boxes step after step. I begin to worry if Bach can catch me after pacing for over 19 miles and four hours on the trails that include a bruised swollen thumb and stubbed toes complements of the descent down White Rock Falls.
Reeds Gap to Wintergreen Resort
However Bach’s Vibrams allow him to not only quickly catch up but pass my ass. I try and push for the descent and we are now at the bottom facing just three more miles, but straight up a road full of hairpins. Bach and I had agreed upon a Tour de France approach. Find a sustainable cadence that is not taxing and just maintain. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen minutes, I churn small baby steps that are barely measureable progress. I quiz Bach on how far to go, and he is extremely knowledgeable of the road, what is remaining and how to find the finish area in the fog. 25 minutes in finds us half way up the climb. Headlamps appear several hundred yards behind us. Around each bend the lamps get closer to us as runners are catching up. I try to walk faster. I cut off the corners. Still they approach. Bach relays to me, Tim it is OK if they catch us, as we are almost home.
“Really?” “Hell no!” On a false flat around a corner I resort to another trick. I ask Bach how he feels. He says fine. I say “are you fibbin to me?” He says no. I take off running at what feels like a three quarter sprint dropping Bach on the uphill. I keep this up for a quarter mile around the next bend. As I walk again on a steep portion, Bach catches up. The lights behind us are gone. “I had to break their will!”
We are now in the Wintergreen Village and getting close to the summit. We spy someone walking with a green glow stick. That has to be someone walking their dog, right? No - Another two runners and lamps! “Are they in the race I ask?” They appear to be deciding which way to go. Bach points out the way to me and we take off again. We pass the two startled runners while at a dead sprint. They look up and pick up their pace too, saying “Did you go up the hill like that?” We drop one of the two but the second hangs on my shoulder behind us for a few yards. Bach looks at me and says over the bridge and down the hill to the lot is the end, 400 yards tops. We jam the pace again, and turn into the finish at a quick pace. Bach then surprises yet again with his top gear. I find strength from somewhere deep and catch him and hit the tape together at 11:25 pm and 16 hours and 2 minutes on the clock, (the clock time started with the elites) and 45 seconds ahead of the second gapped runner.
Bach paces for five and a half hours for the final 22 miles. We pass 16 runners and are only passed once by Ranger. We finish in 61st place out of 79 finishes that includes the five elites pictured below. 173 toed the starting line, meaning less than 50% made it to the finish. At the finish, “my trail shadow” who we passed on the Spy Run Gravel Road is already at the finish indicating he must have taken a shortcut. I do not have the energy to question his Rosie Ruiz tactics, as he will always know he cut the course, however, I now consider that we came in 60th place!
The GPS of the gaped runner behind me tells the tale. He says, “Hey we actually ran 64.5 miles.” Friggin Horton Miles! After 30 minutes spent retelling our adventure and bonding with our fellow finisher, Race Director Gil and IronGirl Alyssa it is time to go. The thirty minutes after crossing the line fell like a minute but I need bed! As the clock strikes midnight Jennifer the Marine approaches the finish. The day of September the 24th is complete and so is our race. Bach turns to me and says “Hell of a way to spend my birthday eve of my Riggo year!”
Men's top five. L-R: Jon Allen, Matt Flaherty, Ian Sharman, Michael Wardian and Geoff Roes. For the full race standings and results click here http://www.ultraroc.com
Also there is a great interview with Mike Wardian telling how he got lost and blew a 15 minute lead with 12 miles to go! So the men's top five above was Geoff Roes (8:58), then Mike Wardian (9:20), Matt Flaherty (9:22), Ian Sharman (9:23) and Jon Allen (9:26). It was great to see the elites and famous runners like Geoff Roes have a good result. Better yet I am so proud of my effort with my pacer "Rockin the UROC" with a new 100K PR 2 hours and 24 minutes better than GEER in 2009!