It was 8pm the night before the race started. I had a great training cycle and was in the best trail running shape of my life. But, my race was about to end. Pat Heine, my pacer Michael Heimes, and I were hanging out when a black bear wandered into our campsite and was staring us down. I was certain he was about to attack. After a few moments, Kym believed us enough that there was a bear in camp that she opened the tent to see. Luckily black bears are terrified by the noise of zippers, and it ran away. Crisis averted. Averting crises is a running theme to any good 103.7(++) mile run.
(Video by Pat Heine because mine was too blurry)
After a mostly terrible night of cold sleep I got up and prepared. Said hello to a bunch of friends at the start, and we’re off. I settled into the back of the chase pack for the first 4 miles up the road, running and chatting a little with Pat. We hit the first climb, and we took it about as slow as I can ever remember going up that climb. But, I wasn’t in any rush. The train continued to move slow over Short mountain until someone caught us and asked to pass. Shortly after that I decided that pace felt too slow, so I also headed off ahead. Coming into mile Edinburg Gap I felt like the first section was very easy, and I was right on target.
|Feeling less than stellar at mile 25. Photo by Paul Encarnacion|
So what was my target? Sub 24 hours. Again, after failing last year. I had a printout of my previous three year’s Aid Station arrival times, which I very briefly went over with Michael before being rudely interrupted by the bear Friday night. The plan was to cut a few minutes off each section, then bigger chunks over the last two sections that I normally struggle with. In execution, I only actually remembered a few of the times. I had hoped to be about 20 minutes ahead of my best when I got to Elizabeth Furnace, but I was struggling early. In my previous 300 miles on this course I had never had to step well off trail to use the “mens room”. I did so at mile 13, and felt like I needed to either puke or step off again for much of the next 15 miles. The humidity was getting to me early. Not a good sign. Also in my previous 300 miles on this course, I don’t recall ever actually falling. I fell for the first time in these miles. I was going down a steep hill and my foot got caught. In slow motion I was heading towards a rock the size myself, headfirst. Luckily I was able to get my hands up to push and tumble off the rock. Crisis averted. I don’t remember much else about this section other than getting passed by Kathleen Cusick just before Powell’s. Exactly where her and Amy Rusiecki passed me last year. When I got to Powell’s I was out of Tailwind. I had meant to pack more, but I forgot, and the excellent AS volunteers filled me up with Gatorade. They offered to also add ice, which was amazing. I was overheating and this was perfect.
|running into Elizabeth Furnace - photo Beth Auman|
On the long fire road out of Powell’s I was moving ok and killed the climb around mile 29 like I always do. At the top of the climb my stomach finally recovered, and I determined it was likely Tailwind that was causing me problems. Over the next few sections I tried to mix in Tailwind, but it never felt good, so I eventually bailed on it. I had planned on most of my calories coming from that, so I had to change course. More Gu’s than planned, and more Aid Station food than planned. It worked out.
|back on track at mile 33 - photo Beth Auman|
I got to Elizabeth Furnace and re-lubed and did everything I needed to do. I asked my crew if it was really hot out, or just me. They told me it wasn’t hot at all, but others had left without shirts. I decided to do the same. I cooled off a lot in this section, and that really helped me move well. I got into Shawl knowing I had a really good section. Without actually discussing splits/times, Michael would simply tell me I was in good shape with the times. I took a long AS at Shawl to tape my feet, and headed out shirtless with two handhelds and a shirt tucked into the back of my shorts. There were a few other people around me to chase, so the run to Veach went pretty well. I headed out to what I always find to be the hardest climb of the day for me. It’s around noon, and it’s always been sunny. The climb has a lot of sections exposed to the sun as well. I started the climb with 36 oz of fluids. Shortly into the climb I was crossing a very muddy section when I fell again. A harmless fall, except I landed on my water bottle, which shot out about 6 ounces of my precious water. The climb was hot and hard, as usual, and I was taking in a lot of my fluids. But, after I got to the ridge, the temps cooled down and shortly after that a light rain started falling. It was perfect for me. I put my shirt on and finished the section strong. Looking at the splits now, these 9 miles were 35 minutes fast than last year. I got into Indian Grave to a small group of runners, including Kathleen who was drinking a beer. I got out of there quick and she zipped by me and gave me someone to chase on these road miles. It was raining pretty good for this entire section, but it didn’t bother me at all. This was the first time I’d see Garry, who was coming down to help me/Kym crew again this year. Last year, the first time I saw him I was hating life. This year, I was all smiles.
|Actually running into Roosevelt with year with Garry|
At Habron I changed to a dry shirt, put on a windbreaker, and refueled. I also got an update on my kids. Colin pitched one inning, allowed one walk, no hits, and struck out the side. Kenslee won her soccer game, and scored the last goal “for my dad.” Probably my favorite part of the day. Within a half-mile of leaving Habron the rain stopped and I was hot already. I took off the jacket, but refused to have a bad section. At the end of this section last year I sat down and tried to convince my crew to quit. I absolutely was not going there at any point today. During the long climb I passed 4 or 5 people and ran strong into Camp Roosevelt. Looking at the splits, I was 47 minutes better than last year, and 24 minutes better in this section than ever before. When I got into Roosevelt I was again warm, so I took off my shirt for last few miles before sunset. Duncan Hollow was a muddy mess of a stream, as was the descent down the other side.
|Gap 1. A wee bit of mud on my legs|
When I got to Gap 1 I changed socks, and picked up my pacer. Before the weekend, Michael and I had only briefly met once, after Stone Mill. We’re Facebook friends, and I know he’s a huge Bernie Sanders fan. I’m politically un-opinionated, so leading up to the race I joked with him when we ran I’d convince him how President Trump would Make America Great Again. We headed out of Gap 1, made the turn at the yellow gate and started up Turkey Pen Rd. We started talking about Trump and other things political, then, suddenly, I realized we hadn’t turned up Jawbone yet. There were no flags around us. Michael ran ahead, saw nothing, then ran back. I followed him back, knowing exactly where we went wrong. Eventually we got back on course and headed up the Jawbone climb. Looking at my Strava, we went just under a mile past the turn. 1.8 bonus miles. The guys I had passed in the previous sections? I had to now pass them again. Of all the places to go off course, I guess this was the least harmful. No climbs, runnable road, still daylight, not too deep into the race to crush me. I wouldn’t let it crush me. Sub 24 was still in sight. Crisis averted? We moved well along the Kerns Mt ridge, and got to the road to Visitors around 8:10pm. I moved well on the road, passing a group of kids likely high on some illegal drugs, and rolled into Visitors without needing headlamps. This was a goal I had somewhat joked about the night before. I never thought it would actually happen though.
Besides the first section, the only actual Aid to Aid split I knew was that in 2014 I got to Bird Knob in under an hour. I had lost time by missing the turn in the last section, so I didn’t want to lose any more time here. I climbed well, and passed a runner just before Bird Knob Aid Station. I had a chocolate covered donut, some tater tots, and headed out. The next 6.2 mile section always feels long to me. After an early climb, it’s largely downhill. In this section my watch died, and the games I play with myself to fool myself into thinking there’s more to go than there really are were useless. I just started to get really tired. Although mostly downhill, there are some small ups that I really wanted to be running, but simply couldn’t. I was exhausted. Eventually the Picnic Center Aid Station appeared and I moved on. Got a bunch of food, no one caught me, got out.
In the three previous years, by this time my quads are dead, or my feet are torn up, so I’ve never run the mile downhill out of Picnic. I vowed to run it, and I did. Slowly, but it was running. Kym and Garry met us at the 211 road crossing to give me a new watch. From this point I knew there was about 3.5 mile of climbing. I was actually able to run for stretches in the beginning. I felt somewhat invigorated, and moved strong. During a more technical section here we came upon an owl on the trail. It was just sitting there and didn’t fly away until I was almost on top of it. Twice it flew away, then landed on the trail 15 feet ahead. It stayed there until I got there, and did it again. It was cool and bizarre, and if Michael didn’t also see it, I’d have written it off as a hallucination. Eventually we topped out, and started heading back down. I hate this downhill, but I very slowly was able to run it. We got to the road to Gap 2 and I was able to run all of that (I think?). Looking at splits now, this section was 21 minutes faster than ever before.
We got in and out of Gap 2 fairly well and I climbed very strong up Jawbone the second time. Because of the missed turn the first time, I don’t have a Strava segment to compare, but I feel like I might have gone faster the second time up. I passed a bunch of people who were going up Jawbone the first time. Everyone was cordial, and I wished them well. After reaching the top, the next two miles or so are unrunnable, for me. We walked the downhill, and walked the technical trail from there. Just as I popped out on the road, I lost the masters title. Nathan Leehman passed me like I was standing still and finished 9 minutes ahead. The way he was moving, I knew there was no chance of catching him. But, as I looked at my watch I realized I had a slight shot at sub 23. When Michael picked me up at Gap 1, I said we will not mention a possible finishing time all night long. We were to focus on the climb we were on, the ridge we were on, the descent we were on. Never mentioning time. When we got to the road I said “Ok, now that we’re on the road, I can talk about it.” I then proceeded to tell him I thought I had a broken foot. Somewhere in the first twenty miles I stepped on a rock and my foot slipped and another sharp rock went right into the side of my foot. When I changed socks at Gap 1 it was all black and blue. Every flat step for the last 30 miles killed it. Rocky trail, fine. Flat running, pain. He convinced me I was fine. It was 2:15am, and he convinced me we could finish sub 23. We ran every step of the road, and partially up the campground road. Just like last year. I head Garry’s “woo-hoo”ing in the woods and knew I had it. The last quarter mile felt like it took forever, but I did it. 105.5 miles in 22:54.
Thank you to Garry for coming down again to help me and Kym out. She loves hanging out with you, and I love seeing you as I come into every aid station. You helped keep me eating and moving though the Aid Stations.
Thank you to Michael for spending a cold long night in the mountains with me. You just once questioned why I wasn’t going faster, and it was the perfect question for the time. No chance I move as well all night without you on my heels, and making sure I was taking in calories.