Chasing 42

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Race Report: Umstead 100

I relish in the logistics involved in planning for a 100 mile race. I’d almost go so far as to say that I’ve grown to love the build-up so much that it negates any nerves I might have leading up to race day. That was definitely the case this time around as I spent the week prior forcing myself to fully taper with short, comfortable runs to keep the #chasing42streak going. After the trials and tribulations of Grindstone last fall, both the epicurean and I were due for a relaxed, pleasant race experience, and Umstead delivered in spades! The location was wonderful, the weather was gorgeous, the day ran smoothly, and the volunteers and race staff were fabulous. I truly couldn’t have asked for a better race experience 🙂

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We packed up the car on Thursday after work, dropped Baxter off at daycare, and piled into the car with Looper. I knew we’d hit some rush hour traffic heading south on 95, but we wanted to tackle a portion of the drive that night so that our trip down to Raleigh the next day would be relaxed. We made our way down to Fredericksburg, VA and settled into a hotel for the night. It was pouring rain when we woke up the next morning, and I couldn’t help but have flashbacks to my water-logged trek at Grindstone. However, I stayed positive and we headed down the interstate and made our way to Raleigh, NC and to Umstead State Park. We arrived around 1pm, checked in, and found our way to the cabin I had reserved. It’s rustic charm was bolstered by the fact that it was literally steps from the race course. Having the indoor space to spread out everything and get settled made the evening that much more relaxing. We found a late lunch in town that afternoon, and then made our way back for the pre-race meeting. Afterwards, we made our way back to the cabin and sat out on the porch, watched the sun set, and then settled in for an early bedtime. I was quite pleased to be able to get a full night of sleep before the race!

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The alarm went off at 4:30AM the next morning, and I quietly got out of bed so as not to wake the beautiful epicurean. I began to get my pack squared away via the light of the headlamp, ate a small breakfast. We made our way up to the starting area around 5:45AM and the the camp was buzzing with pre-dawn excitement! My training block leading up to this race had been the strongest I had ever had, and I was filled with the excitement of possibility. After a brief moment, the RD sent us on our way into the darkness for the first of eight 12.5 mile loops. The shorter distance meant I’d be returning to see the epicurean regularly and she could relaxing at the cabin with Looper in the interim.

Loops 1 & 2

Going out too fast has always been my achilles heel, but I was committed to being patient and getting a sense of the course. I rode the slight rolling hills and let my breathing guide my pace as I ticked off the early miles. I was able to switch off my headlamp after 30 minutes or so, and watching the sun rise over the wooded landscape was a breath of fresh air. The entire course is made up of relatively wide biking and running dirt paths and my fears of the previous days rain creating a muddy mess were quickly alleviated. the first decent climb popped up around mile 4, and I was happy to power hike up it, and was greeting to a small lake near the top of the rise. There were several unmanned aid stations sprinkled throughout the course, which meant I only had to carry my hydration vest with one 500mL soft-flask. It was refreshing to not be weighed down by a full bladder and I knew I’d appreciate it even more later on. The mid-loop aid station emerged at around mile 6.85, and the full spread of food and drink that greeted me was a beautiful sight, as were the wonderfully helpful volunteers. After my first visit, I left with added confidence and a smile on my face. Several smaller but steeper climbs followed along the rolling path, and I forced myself to walk them and saved my energy for the downhills and flats. This strategy served me well and I was making the final climb up Cemetery Hill before I knew it. I made the turn down into the camp, and the epicurean’s smiling face greeted me. She quickly refilled my water bottle with Tailwind, tossed me another pack of honey stinger chews, and collected my headlamp. Efficiency was the name of the game, and she was on her game! I rolled up to the start/finish area and logged my first loop in 2:06, which felt well within my ability for the 12.5 mile loop (1000 feet elevation gain).

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The second loop was more of the same as the cool forest air whispered through the trees. I was focusing on keeping a calm and relaxed demeanor and really enjoying my time out on the trail. I had been training for this race for the last 3+ months, and this was the reward. This loop sent us back out of camp the way we came, and down and out-and-back flat spur for the first 3 miles or so. This would be the route we would take for the rest of the race so I had plenty of time to bond with the nuances of the trail. Ironically, I would come to resent this flat section and wish for the rolling landscape that would follow. Who am I, and what did I do with the flatlander?! The remainder of the loop flew by without incident, and I felt like I was out for any other Saturday morning run. I rolled into the start/finish at 4:12 elapsed and feeling great with 1/4 of the race in the bag. I stopped to visit the epicurean and she topped off my water while another nice spectator randomly offered to help me apply some sunscreen. It was a reminder of just how much of a family the ultra community truly is, and I rolled out for my third loop with high spirits!

Loops 3 & 4

The relatively groomed trails on the course meant full-blown trail shoes were overkill of a sort. So, I went with a lightweight, comfortable pair of Hoka Clifton 2s. Once I added my trusty dirty girl gaiters, my feet were quite happy. Luckily, this happiness persisted for the entirety of the race, and my feet were blister-free by the end. What a pleasant surprise! The temps did begin to rise a bit towards the end of the 3rd loop, and during the 4th loop, and the sun added some heat in the low 70s, but it was far from uncomfortable. I was focusing quite a bit on hydrating and made the decision early on to drink at every aid station, as well as cool my wrists and head if need be. This proved to be an excellent strategy, and the ice cold water at each of the aid stations was a treat I looked forward to every time. The volunteers were clearly refilling the coolers with ice pretty frequently, and I was thankful for their dedication. Aside from the heat, everything was firing on all cylinders, and the next two loops flew by rather smoothly. I arrived at the half-way point in 9:01, and my legs were still feeling really good. I was alert, had plenty of energy, and wasn’t feeling overly hungry or thirsty. In other words, I was in a best-case scenario at the half-way point, and was doing my best not to get too excited or get my hopes up. I still had 50 more miles to go, and a lot could happen in that time!

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Loops 5 & 6

By this point, I had mapped out the route pretty well in my head, and knew the distances between key points on the course, including the aid stations. This made it really easy to set small goals between these points and focus on my running during those intervals. The sun was on it’s downward path by the 5th loop, and the temperatures slowly began to cool. I had definitely settled into a rhythm at this point, and I knew when to walk and when to power hike without really even thinking about it. This would normally be the point where my quads begin to get a bit tight, but my legs were still feeling relaxed, and my feet were quite pleased with my shoe choice. Although my nutrition was still working, I was definitely reaching a saturation point with the honey stinger chews. Ironically, I had moved to using them when I dialed back my sugar intake and GUs and Cliff Shot Blocks began to taste too sweet to me. Now the Honey Stinger chews were beginning to taste too sweet to me as well. Luckily, I had plenty of solid food options at the aid stations, and began to eat more fruit, salted potatoes, and cookies. This, combined with my trusty Ginger Ale, made for a strong nutritional combo. My pace was slowing somewhat, but I was still moving really well and feeling confident. I completed the 6th loop around 8:15PM, just as the sun was setting. The epicurean was in high spirits as she checked in to see what I needed. I claimed my headlamp, along with more Tailwind, and some ginger chews, and set out once more. I was only a hair over 14 hours in, but only had 25 miles left to go. My energy was  high, and it became a bit harder not to get overly excited.

Loops 7 & 8

After a mile or so, I flipped on my headlamp and set out into the darkness. This was a far cry from the exhaustion as I set out on the second night at Grindstone, and I was at a loss. At this point, the 250+ runners were spread out pretty well along the 12.5 mile loop, and I found myself mainly running alone. However, I had a very pleasant conversation with a badass blind runner and his guide as they expertly navigated the terrain. We shared some great stories over the course of a few miles, and we arrived at the mid-point aid station together. After a quick refueling, I bid them good luck, and headed back out as they took a moment to rest. This would normally be the point at which the smaller climbs begin to seem more daunting, but I was still climbing swiftly and bombing down the descents at a pace I probably had no business going. I had spent the last few months focusing on training on the downhills and strengthening my quads, and it was quite gratifying to know that the work had paid off. I made my way into the start/finish at 17:20 at the end of the 7th lap, and I let the excitement of the final loop begin to well up inside me.

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My legs were definitely tired as I made the climb out of camp for the final time. I resented the flat out-and-back more than I should have, but gave myself permission to walk a few segments, encouraged by the fact that I wouldn’t be returning. I was counting down the miles more now than ever, and allowing myself to enjoy this final victory lap of sorts. I crossed the small bridge at mile 4 to begin the climb, and quickly realized that my headlamp was the only breach in the dark in all directions. I never once felt tired, but I began to hear sounds in the woods, and I sent my headlamp into the darkness where it was met with numerous pairs of glowing orange eyes. I was power-hiking up the long climb and trying not to get too freaked out by whatever was clearly tracking my movements. I didn’t have the energy to move any faster, and I “may” have let out a few screams into the darkness to try and scare away whatever had taken an interest in my movements. I eventually moved past this section, but the irrational fear stayed with me for much longer.

I rolled into the mid-point aid station for the final time and treated myself to some delicious broth, which was equal parts warming and hydrating. Luckily, I was moving quickly enough that I never got cold, and remained comfortable in my short sleeve shirt the entire time. I set out on the final 5+ miles and was energized as I crested the top of each hill and ran down each descent, my quads still feeling strong. I rounded the corner into the final straight-away, stopped briefly at the last aid station, and then pushed on. Plenty of folks were passing me in the opposite direction, heading out for their next loops, and it was nice to see more people again. I reached the camp, and began to slowly run down towards the finish as hearty volunteers cheered me on in the dead of night. The camp was lit up, and the cheers energized me as I made the last small climb and crossed the finish line.

I was all smiles and quickly spotted the epicurean, who reminded me to turn off my headlamp 🙂 The RD came out and handed me my buckle and I was a bit in shock. I crossed the finish line in 20:26, which was well beyond what I had hoped for, and a PR by more than 2 hours! I happily took the opportunity to make my way inside hear a warm fire and it felt glorious to sit down for the first time. The french toast was delicious, and the hot coffee was long overdue. After resting for a bit, the epicurean and I slowly made our way back to the cabin. i gave myself a quick wet-wipe bath, and then curled up in my sleeping bag. It was 3AM, obviously late, but I was lying down to sleep. I had no expectations of being able to do so, and it was an opportunity my tired legs relished!

I was sore the next morning as we loaded the car, and made the 8 hour drive (damn traffic!) back, but “20:26” kept popping into my head and I couldn’t stop smiling. You never know exactly how a race is going to play out, and I’ve come to expect the unexpected, which made this smooth, comfortable, and challenging race that much more special. This was truly what #chasing42 is all about, and I have the buckle to prove it!

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Race Report: Grindstone 100- Part II

Did you think I forgot about you? Decided to just leave you hanging? It’s more likely that last week was simply a perfect storm of projects at work. However, it’s fitting that you are now curling up to read this the day after Halloween, to keep the fear factor going. Ok, so it’s not THAT bad, but it was certainly an adventure!

Our story left off at N. River Gap aid station, and that’s truly where things got interesting 🙂

N. River Gap (AS #5) to Little Bald Knob (AS #6): I knew this climb would be daunting to some degree, but I had apparently missed the “Grindstone Grind” nickname when I was reading old race reports. It was well after midnight by the time I set out on this climb, which meant it had been raining for almost 24 hours already. I gathered pretty quickly that this was a challenging climb under the best conditions and a downright slog under the conditions I was now facing. I took some solace in the fact that everyone was in the same boat, but this didn’t do much for my morale once I was out of earshot of the aid station and plunged into the darkness.

It’s relatively common to hit a low spot or two during races of this distance, and I’ve certainly had my fair share of “screw this” moments. Typically, though, they come a bit later in the race. This time, my legs were still feeling fresh, and the rest of my body was coping with the distance and the time on my feet just fine, but the mind was challenging me. At one point during this climb, as I was slowly pushing my way up the mountain, I exclaimed out loud “it’s 3AM, pitch black, the only thing I can see is illuminated by my headlamp, I’m soaking wet, stomping through more mud than I’ve ever seen, climbing up a mountain, and I’m all alone…why am I doing this?” I kept moving forward, my trekking poles slowly becoming my saving grace, and eventually could only laugh at the ridiculousness of my situation.

I eventually made my way to the top of the climb, but that simply meant that the flat land became a marsh. I plodded along through ankle-deep water and mud, getting colder and colder as my speed decreased. I had avoided pulling out my rain shell thus far since the rain had been light enough that I was wet but not cold. However, once my pace slowed down on the climb, I started to get quite chilled. I eventually stopped and struggled to pull out my shell and put it on over my pack because I didn’t have the dexterity in my fingers to take everything off and re-situate it. Luckily, someone stopped and helped me get my shell on, for which I was eternally grateful. This last section of the segment seemed to take forever, but I could not have been more happy to see the next aid station. I rolled in, having warmed up a bit, and filled myself with mashed potatoes, cookies, and some broth, all of which tasted delicious. I spent a few precious minutes warming myself by the fire, but knew I needed to be on my way. I had come close to entertaining the thought of dropping during that climb, but arriving at the aid station, and knowing that I would be reaching the half-way point soon was enough to restore my confidence. I thanked the volunteers for their time, and headed out again into the darkness.

Just a little climbing :)

Just a little climbing 🙂

Little Bald Knob (AS #6) to (halfway point): The first section of this stretch can best be described as a series of muddy, rut-filled paths that had been dug up by trucks and other vehicles traveling up and down them over plenty of time. Deep ruts and rain make for some mighty impressive puddles and small bodies of water. I’m not entirely sure why I continued to try avoiding the large puddles since my feet were completely soaked (along with the rest of me) at this point, but I think it may have at least helped to keep me alert and moving forward. There were no significant climbs, but rather a series of rolling hills that seemed to go on forever. This was the only small window of time where sleep deprivation caught up to me a bit, and I did some sleep-walking, but it only lasted for about 45 minutes, which I considered a victory!

The rut-filled path gave way to a paved section of road that wound up to the top. I had been especially looking forward to reaching this summit, as the views at the top looked spectacular. However, it was still raining and overcast, so my wishes were not going to be granted on this particular day. I fell in step with another runner, and the two of us made the push up to the top, recognized that the hole punch we were supposed to find had long since been stolen, and we headed back down the mountain on the two-mile or so journey into the half-way point and the next aid station. This short paved section reminded me of just how long I had been on my feet already, and I was eager to return to the soft, marshy, muddy trails. Such hilarious irony! I rolled into the aid station and was greeted by the epicurean and others. To say that seeing her lifted my spirits after a night by myself would be a huge understatement! I eagerly traded my wet short-sleeve shirt for a dry long-sleeve shirt, replaced my rain shell, and even gingerly slipped on a dry pair of socks, even if they only stayed dry for a short time. The epicurean’s bag of delights also included a dry pair of waterproof mittens and the opportunity to hand off my headlamp for charging.

She had already been standing out in the rain at the aid station for quite a while, mostly to make sure she didn’t miss me, and seeing her was the boost of energy that I needed to set out on the journey back the way I came with the confidence that I could finish this race. That faith would be tested at one other point, but I left the halfway point in good spirits and back-tracked my way down the mountain.

Halfway to Little Bald Knob (AS #8): This section was relatively uneventful. I welcomed the daylight, even if the sun didn’t make much of an appearance, and the light, combined with warm clothes and plenty of fuel, gave me a nice boost of energy moving forward. I knew what to expect at this point as well, which filled me with that much more confidence. However, this wouldn’t be a true trail race without a few wildlife adventures. On the way back down the rut-filled trail, I came across two pickup trucks with hounds riding in the back in large boxes of a sort. As it turned out, this was the opening weekend of bear-hunting season in the area! Luckily, I didn’t meet any new friends, but I did manage to narrowly avoid stepping on a rattlesnake on the side of the trail. This close encounter certainly refocused my attention on the trail, and I spent a fair bit more time near the center of the trail. 🙂 I arrived back at the Little Bald Knob aid station for the second time, and in much better spirits. My nutrition plan had been working really well at this point, and I didn’t want to mess with what was working, so it was coke/ginger ale/ pretzels/ cookies/ potatoes once again. I left in good spirits, despite knowing that I now had to make my way back down the 7-mile Grindstone Grind!

Is that me, or bigfoot? You be the judge!

Is that me, or bigfoot? You be the judge!

Little Bald Knob to N. River Gap (AS #9): Everything looks different in the daylight. In this case, that meant being able to clearly see the swamp I had already waded through, and now had to slog back across, just to get to the muddy mountain. Any small portion of dryness on my feet was squashed out as I made my way across. Once I hit the trail heading down back to N. River Gap, I can best describe the experience as mud surfing! The trail was even more of a mess than on the way up, and my trekking poles came in mighty handy as I slowly picked my way down the mountain. I managed to fall only once, which I considered a fair accomplishment. After a mile or two, I fell into step with two other runners, and we made our way down the mountain together, which definitely helped with my energy and momentum. I no doubt moved much faster than I would have on my own, and pushed myself to hit the slope aggressively. By the time I rolled into N. River Gap, I felt like I was covered in mud, but it also meant hitting the 100K mark (or close to it), which gave me another mental boost! I met the epicurean, indulged in a delicious Going the Distance Muffin, and discovered a stockpile of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups to supplement my potatoes. I “may” have gone a bit overboard with the Reese’s, and that came back to bite me in the stomach a few miles later.

N. River Gap (#9) t0 Dowells Draft (AS #11): I had to do a bit of walking to get my stomach back in order but it was nothing I couldn’t handle. This section, from miles 65 to 80, involved some more decent climbing and descending, and it was a bit of a blur amidst the mid-afternoon light. I wasn’t sleep-walking by any means, but I was approaching 36 waking hours in total, so I focused my energy on putting one foot in front of the other, utilizing my trekking poles, and continuing to make relentless forward progress. I met up with a few different runners along the way, and that definitely helped to pass the time and miles. I knew that once I reached Dowells Draft, I’d see the epicurean, and then again at all of the remaining aid stations. This helped push me forward because I knew once I got to mile 80, I could happily mark my progress in smaller segments.

Dowells Draft to Dry Branch Gap (AS #12): Aside from the Grindstone Grind, this was hands-down the most challenging section for me. After fueling up, and leaving the epicurean in good spirits, I wandered off into the woods amidst the dusk light breaking through the tree canopy. It had finally stopped raining for a bit, and the light streaming down to the forest floor was simply beautiful. After 36 hours of fog, rain, and poor visibility, the beauty of this area was overwhelming to the senses. After about a mile of meandering along the relatively flat portion of the section, I began climbing. The sun made its departure, and I flipped on my headlamp for another night of darkness. I had been running for a bit over 25 hours at this point, and the darkness brought the first real signs of fatigue. I had been excited about the fact that the race began in the evening initially, because it meant I’d be running through the night on fresh legs. I wasn’t counting on running into a second night and my body began to revolt. Unfortunately, this drowsiness set in just as the incline increased, and I felt like I was climbing hand-over-foot. Under foot were slippery, wet, shifting rocks, and to the right of me was a sheer cliff face that would have caused vertigo if I had been able to see more than 5 feet in front of me. I slowly worked my way up the mountain, bracing myself with my trekking poles because my footing was far from sure, and I tried to concentrate on staying on the trail and not worrying about falling off the mountain! The climb seemed to last forever, and my foggy brain could not, for the life of me, remember running down this steep mountain face on the way out. I obviously had, but it had not given me nearly as much cause for concern. After quite some time, and many false summits, I found myself at the top, and was greeted by a flatter but just as rocky section of trail. I had, in part, motivated myself to keep climbing because I thought the aid station was at the top, so I was rather dismayed to find nothing but more rocks and darkness at the top. After another good chunk of time, I finally arrived at the Dry Branch Gap aid station, and I could not have been more happy to see people, and see the epicurean especially! At this point, I briefly sat down in a chair for the first time, and getting up was one of the hardest things I had done. I rehydrated, and ate as much as I could handle before departing, and took solace in knowing there was only one more aid station before the finish!

Dry Branch Gap to Falls Hollow (AS #12): This section started out like most, with a significant climb that just kept going. At this point, the racers were quite spread out, so I was very much alone on the trail, and left to keep myself company as I moved higher and higher up the steep incline. After a mile or two, I reached the summit of sorts, and visibility was almost non-existent. My headlamp simply highlighted the fog, and it was all I could do to make sure I was stepping onto solid ground as I moved forward. At this point, I began to have what I can only describe as the most intense feeling of deja vu I had ever experienced. I was absolutely sure I had been on that mountain before, and taken that exact path. To my knowledge, I hadn’t, so I know my mind was playing tricks on me, but it was an uncanny feeling. I was also quite exhausted but kept moving forward, even though I felt like I was going in circles and not actually on the course any more. In my sleep-deprived state, I was fully prepared to huddle up in a ball on top of the mountain and wait for morning because I felt like I was hopelessly lost. Just as I had begun to have these thoughts, I spotted another headlamp up ahead and I picked up what little pace I had left to try and catch it, assuming it was real. Luckily, it was real, and it belonged to a fellow runner. He and I commiserated about the climb, visibility, and the race as a whole, and worked together to get back down the mountain to the final aid station. There was no shortage of stream crossings, mud pits, and rocks intentionally placed to kill us, but we worked together and the time went by much easier. Together, we made our way to the Falls Hollow aid station, and I got my 4th or 5th wind just as we rolled in. I briefly greeted the epicurean, downed some ginger ale, and then the two of us were off into the night once more.

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Falls Hollow to the finish: The last 5 miles or so were some of the best miles of the entire race. The trail was relatively runable, the company was wonderful, and the great conversation helped the miles melt away. At this point, I knew I was going to finish, and it was a fantastic feeling. I may have been beyond exhausted, but I’m pretty sure I had a smile on my face the entire time. As we neared the last turn back into the Boy Scout Camp, we met a few other runners, and we all decided to trek in together to cross the finish line. After more than 32 hours, I crossed the finish line a bit after 2AM, and I was almost too tired to really be emotional. Clark, the RD, handed me my buckle and finisher’s shirt and congratulated me, and the group of us all shook hands and congratulated each other. As is the Grindstone custom, we hugged the pole near the finish, and that was that.

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The epicurean and I made our way back to the car and campsite, and promptly decided we had no interest in sleeping outside at this point, and agreed to find a hotel room. Sadly, after packing everything up, we discovered that every hotel in the area was completely sold out because it was the opening weekend for bear-hunting season. Yes, you read that correctly. Bear-hunting season. Good grief! So, we stopped at a gas station, the epicurean poured herself a big cup of coffee, and we hit the road for home. I definitely passed out for a portion of it, and spent the rest of the time failing to get comfortable and admiring the enormous blood blisters on both of my big toes. We got home around 9AM, I hopped in the best shower I’d ever taken, and then we collapsed into the bed until that afternoon.

So happy to be done!

So happy to be done!

I know this was quite the epic tale, so I appreciate you hanging in! When you’re out on the trail for 32 hours, a lot happens, and if I don’t get it out now, it will certainly fade from my brain. However, I can look down at the buckle on my desk and be reminded of my amazing adventure in Virginia, #chasing42!

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