My race stats:
DNF due to missing the cutoff time by 5-ish minutes.
68 / 89th place.
Ultimate Direction vest and 8 oz. handheld (Tailwind); 1.5 liter Platypus bladder (Tailwind); Altra KingMT. trail shoes; Black Diamond Carbon Z trekking poles.
The race course:
This race course plus weather almost pushed me. One of the toughest races on the East Coast. I think of this race as two large sections: the first 50k, out and back of constant steep climbs and descents on a ridge, one after the other; the second 50k, fewer, but longer climbs and small water crossings. Total distance is 63.5 miles.
The total elevation gain is unknown (?). I’m guessing that the elevation gain is 12,000 ft + and the loss is 9,000 ft. 80% is single and double track trail. There are run-able sections, but nothing several miles long due to the steep, loose rocky terrain (unless you’re a pro). Rocks galore. During the steep ups and downs, trekking poles were handy, as the rocks slid under your feet. 10% gravel road. 10% Blue Ridge Parkway, which was rolling hills.
Aid station food and beverages:
[The food became warm, melted and gross from the heat.]
Pretzels, candy, chips, potatoes, tortillas with peanut butter and jelly, tortillas with nutella, bananas, oranges, Coke, Gatorade, water.
Josh, Stephen and I woke up from our cabin at Camp Blue Ridge, a Christian camp right at the race start, and began preparing for our long day. Josh said a quick prayer for us, praying for safety and my Runner’s Knee. When we were all set, we walked down to the start area and checked-in. The sun was still down, the temperature felt like it was in the 60°s (F). The weather was perfect. Once we checked-in, we stretched and took pictures. 5 minutes later, Josh and I were in the starting corral chatting with other runners. Stephen was crewing for us during the first half of the race. Someone wearing a Badwater hat was standing in front of us. I also noticed two H.U.R.T. 100 shirts.
I reminded Josh that entering this race was his idea, not mine. The runner standing directly to my right turned to us and said, “thank you for making me feel so unprepared,” as he was eyeing my heavy UD pack filled with water. He was holding a handheld. [Runners were warned about the heat, going up into the 90°s, at the pre-race briefing the previous day and told to carry an extra bottle of water.] I nodded and half grinned because I wasn’t sure what to say, we were warned.
The race director had us chant “UROC.” Then, a countdown started the race. Through grass and onto a roadway we went. As we ran single-file on the side of the road, we all fell into our unique paces. Elites were clocking about 6 minute miles, AMAZING! They wanted to get in as much course as possible before the heat hit. Josh was at an 8:00 minute mile. Me and about 6 other runners brought up the rear, 10:30-11:30 minute mile. We faced rolling hills as we were on the winding road. The hills were run-able, but some were long enough that runners decided to power hike in order to save strength for later. I ran up the shorter hills and ran halfway up the longer hills, then power hiked. And sometimes did intervals.
I sipped Tailwind every 20 minutes as I felt the heat beginning. The group of men running the same pace as me was were friendly and stuck with me, running when I did. Two of them were from Florida and were familiar with the heat (I was starting to glisten with sweat), however, they were not as accustomed to the hills. They were nice to talk with and it made the first 7 plus miles go by quickly. They asked about the course. It was all our first time participating in the race, but they haven’t seen the course. I was lucky enough to run the two hardest course sections a few weeks ago. I told them they would need their trekking poles on the Whetstone Ridge Trail.
Aid station 1. I knew ahead of time what I needed before tackling Whetstone. Stephen was there at the aid station waiting. I asked him to put together my poles as I pulled my hair into a loose bun, tugged my Buff up from around my neck into bandanna mode under my hat, and tightened my vest around my chest. Some runners grabbed things from the aid station and some didn’t before hitting the toughest part. I got some more water in my handheld and was off (to my doom). A 11.5 mile out and 11.5 mile back. I played leapfrog with people on the single track trail. We had different strengths and weaknesses on technical terrain.
There were stretches of rocks. I mentally told myself, “glide over the rocks.” – a technique that works for me. On top of trailrunning, I’ve practiced my footwork and being nimble at the gym, the work was paying off. I opened up a GU gel and vegan, all-natural gummies to eat. 3 or so miles into the trail, came the first steep climb.
I immediately had flashbacks from my training visit to the trail and cringed at how difficult it was. My breathing increased slightly and my legs worked harder. I used my poles. My first thoughts about dropping and self-doubt kicked in way too soon. Climbing was somewhat slow, it was a grind. Climbing gradually became slower and more torturous. My heart rate returned to normal about 30 seconds after completing a climb. The Whetstone Ridge Trail is absolutely gorgeous! Running a ridge line where you can peek through the trees on the left and right sides of you and see nothing but luscious mountains and blue sky is breathtaking!! The sun was becoming intense, coupled with the consistent elevation gain. Up and up. More up than down, it seemed. I focused on the trail in front of me and not much on the views, I needed to be focused on time.
Bugs were abundant. Mountainous terrain and leap frog with runners continued. I passed a tall, lean man, and told him he was doing a great job, that I was following him for some time. He replied saying thank you, but that he was just an old, slow man, enjoying listening to a Ginger Runner podcast through his headset. [He passed me again later and then I lost track of him.]
Steep climb number 3… maybe? I tried to keep track of the largest climbs instead of mile markers. I used trees and rocks as landmarks. Another runner and I were thinking that we were approaching the 2 miles of downhill switchbacks, but we were wrong. Aid station 1 and 2 were 11.5 miles apart, I knew this, but it felt MUCH longer. We still had about 3-4 more big climbs. A man passed as we trekked upwards and stated in an agitated tone that he thought we were “done with this,” and that it was getting pretty hot out.
The elite runners began coming through towards us. This was my favorite part of the race, they were fast and graceful! *jealous!* They dripped with sweat. Some appeared in better condition than others. I stepped to the side of the single track trail to let them fly by. They were competing for cash prize, $5,000 for first place and $2,000 for second. I would call back to alert the runners behind me that they needed to be on the lookout. The elites zipped downhills, like the rocks were nothing. Amanda Basham was first female, with a good lead on the second female. I saw Michael Wardian go by shortly after. Michael Wardian is one of my favorite runners. Every elite said something encouraging or thanked me for moving over. Someone exclaimed “UROC tough!” as he passed. I had that written on my left thigh in Sharpie marker as something motivational. I replied motivational things though I was out of breath.
A woman coming back told me to hang in there, that the trail flattened out and then it would be the downhill. On one of the final steep descents, I used my poles to navigate my feet on the slipping rocks beneath. Controlled falling. “Careful and easy, you got this!!” another woman encouraged, further down. Hearing that was helpful. Soon, I saw Josh coming. He appeared to be in pretty good shape and smiling. He asked while passing how I was feeling, and I replied with something like “holding up.” He asked how my knee was doing [I had runner’s knee weeks leading up to the race and hadn’t been able to run more than 2 miles at a time.] I told him that my knee was good, not hurting. Josh continued to power along and up the hill I completed.
The trail flattened and I reached the downhill switchbacks. It was easy running, though my legs were weary, and every so often, I walked 3 or 4 steps to break up the running. I was over heated and thirsty. I drank water with Tailwind every couple minutes, but my thirst was never quenched for more than 2 seconds. I was continuously thirsty for miles. My mouth was dry and coated with sweetness from the Tailwind in my bottle and bladder, at least I was receiving the calories. I pictured myself dying. Runners hiking up the switchbacks appeared strained, they complimented me “good job” or “good work,” I’d reply the same back. A few people told me how much further until the aid station, and that there was a cold sponge…. it was motivating. I rolled my eyes about how long this stretch of trail felt. My dark thoughts about quitting the race were haunting, but I kept telling myself to wait to see how I felt after getting more water.
The downhill was a nice change, as it was more shaded than the ridge. The trail winded it’s way down the edge of the mountains. The right side was a drop off into the woods. I used my poles for a brief period of time to guide my feet. My left pole struck the side of the trail, which was layered with fallen brown leaves. I heard and saw, out of the corner of my eye, the leaves rustle about. A critter was there. I was reminded of the lizards, newts and snakes on the trail. I hadn’t noticed any all morning. I was guessing snake. I kept going.
I asked a runner how much further and was told no more than half a mile. I finally reached the aid station, it was along a dirt road. The aid station was in full blast sun. It made me not want to stay long, plus I knew that I didn’t have much time to spend there. Time stood still for a couple seconds as I tried to recall what I needed. I wandered and gazed at the food options, but almost wasn’t processing what was there. The aid station volunteers began to help me out as they kicked out previous runners. I leaned my poles against the trail sign. One volunteer kindly filled my handheld and bladder. The lady there checked me in. She retrieved my name from her list of runners and then HAM radio called saying I reached the check point.
I chugged the handheld water, the volunteer watching me with his eyes wide. He refilled me. I threw my pack on the ground next to my poles and eyed up the food. I downed 3 slices of oranges, two small potatoes and a half of a very ripe banana. There was candy, but I felt like I couldn’t eat anything sugary. Another volunteer asked if I was okay. I paused to think about it and continued to wrestle with dropping from the race. I wanted to tell him that I was considering dropping, but my thought rapidly changed and told myself that I wasn’t doing myself any favors. I told him that I was okay, just mentally struggling and that I was over heated. He nodded his head and was like “okay.” Him and other runners pointed out the oasis bucket filled with cold water and a large yellow sponge. THE BEST THING EVER!!!! I squeezed cold water 3 times over my body, head down to my waist, before hesitantly grabbing food to go. I grabbed a peanut butter and jelly tortilla wrap. The food was warm and mushy from being in the blazing sun for hours.
I overheard runners coming in talking about a sick runner who was throwing up on the trail and stumbling around. Once the ill runner made it to the station, he was immediately attended to. Some runners had ran out of water before getting to the station. In fact, the station was down to it’s last bits of water when I arrived. Volunteers were figuring out how to get more.
I saw runners leaving and I knew that I also better rush out. I strapped on my gear and sadly used the sponge one last time and hoped it would keep me cool for a couple miles. I quickly drank a small cup of Coke for the caffeine, thanked everyone and began hiking back up the switchbacks. With my tortilla in one hand and my poles in the other, it wasn’t too bad walking uphill. I encouraged the final oncoming runners and told them they were almost to the aid station. No one appeared in good shape.
My sponge water that was dripping from the rim of my trucker hat began to wear off. I was heating up again. I tried to take a bite of my peanut butter and jelly tortilla, it was as dry as my mouth was. I chewed and tried to create saliva, but nothing. It was difficult to breath and chew dryness at the same time. I thought about not eating the rest of the tortilla, but reminded myself that I needed the carbs for the 10 plus miles back to the original, first aid station where Stephen was at. I rolled the tortilla into a ball and shoved it into my mouth, sipped water and swallowed it, almost whole. It was the only way to consume it, it was disgusting.
As the ascent continued, I saw a nice rock to sit on on the right side of the trail. I inspected it for snakes. No snakes. I stopped to get my act together. I put gummies that had fallen all over my phone back into their packet. Next, I turned on my bluetooth headphones to listen to my rock music. I was in no hurry all of a sudden. A lady coming down the hill kindly asked if I was okay. I told her that I was and that I was just cleaning up gummies. We both chuckled. I told her she was almost to the aid station and she continued on. I continued upward.
A runner ahead of me rested on a rock, we briefly mentally checked-in with each other, he was the last person I’d see for quite some time.
With my music going, I felt decent. “Until the End” by Breaking Benjamin was playing. I wondered if I made it past the switchbacks because I couldn’t remember if I saw the Whetstone Ridge Trail sign again that was posted just before heading down the hill. I felt like I was making good timing. Later, I found my trail sign that I was looking for. I was about to do the hell-ish steep up and downs all over again. I told myself, “just survive.”
The view was too gorgeous to ignore, I had to stop and take pictures of pink wild flowers with the mountains in the background. I also took a selfie with the view. I told myself that this picture was in case I didn’t earn my buckle, I needed something. I earned that view and beautiful pictures. I normally don’t take pictures while racing when I’m pinched for time.
I noticed two medium-sized, brown spotted lizards running through the leaves on the trail edge. Shortly after, I saw two more, one about 6 inches long, and a teeny tiny one. I struggled up the steep hills, digging deep and focusing on one step in front of the other…. and not looking up at the top of the hill because it made me feel unbalanced, like I could fall backwards.
The word “COMMONSENSE” burst into my mind as I began to compose how I’d write my social media post to let people know about my decision to drop. – though I was still unsure about wanting to quit.
I did look up at one point. I was about 6 or 7 miles from aid station 3, and about to pass a young lady on the hill. As I approached, she turned around and began to talk to me. I turned off my music and stowed away my headphones. She asked me how I was doing. I told her that I was alright, but struggling to quench my thirst. I was constantly thirsty and didn’t want to eat because my mouth was too dry. She agreed and said that she was happy to see a person because everyone was passing her, and she was concerned that she might pass out on the trail and that she wouldn’t be found until later. I decided to stay with her. She could barely run. I knew we needed to be running every bit of flat and downhill in order to make it back to the aid station before cutoff time.
The longer we went, the more tired I became. At one point my arms and legs were shaking due to the climbing. I needed a hiking break from running. I decided to stay with her and she really wanted company, but she told me that I could race ahead if I wanted to. I continuously went back and forth in my head with doubts and many other racing thoughts about quitting the race. I was okay with hiking a lot and jeopardizing completing my race to have a trail companion. We both needed somebody. I was very hot and thirsty, drinking every few minutes, still no thirst being quenched.
We introduced ourselves and had upbeat and deep conversations. Ultrarunners have deep conversations sometimes. We lift up one another whether it’s about running or about a personal trial. We share the struggle of the distance. We share the pain and agony. My new friend’s name was Madison and I found out that we were in the same age group, she was a few years younger.
We talked about many topics, from health-related, to personal, to goals, to running, to our accomplishments. It. Was. Great! She shared about her boyfriend, who seemed like a great guy, and I shared about my husband. We paused for about 30 seconds at the top of a hill to catch our breath and drink water from our packs. The weather was hot and trail was grueling. We were slowly going, step by step. I eventually asked her if she needed Tylenol and a S Cap (salt tablet) because she seemed like she needed replenishment. She politely declined. We kept going and talking, time was going faster than previously, we were ticking down the miles, 6 to 4.
Madison shared a low point that she was in before I came along, it was so low that she said she dragged her poles behind her on the ground. I asked again if she wanted Tylenol and a S Cap as I slowed my pace to gulp water. She decided she did and took them. I showed her my cute mustache pill box that I stored my Tylenol and S Caps in. – pun – it was “my stash,” “mu-stache.” We were approaching another person. I said to Madison that maybe we’ll pick up more people. We were moving faster, even though we were hiking. I thought the Tylenol and salt tablet was helping her.
“Every step is closer to the aid station,” I kept repeating. I sarcastically stated a few times how “fun” the trail was. It was beautiful to be out there, Madison made that point. I explained my reasons for wanting to drop from the race and imagine it in my head. I was smiling from ear to ear as I spoke of the happy moment. I had valid points. I told her to not let me influence her and that she needed to continue to race on. She agreed and wanted nothing to do with quitting. I told her that if we made the cutoff time, I’d actually consider continuing because I was struggling with the decision of quitting verse going on, and she knew that. I told her that if she continued on, I’d give her my muschtash pill box.
The bugs were constant and annoying. Big, FAT gnats. One flew in my ear and I think that I accidentally killed it as it lodged itself, which bothered me for the entire next day.
We approached the next person, a man. Madison asked him how he was doing and he seemed disappointed and struggling with the heat. We were in the same boat and related. We all talked and shared a little, and then I found out that he was also from the Pittsburgh area. We found quite a few things in common. We both really love the city of Pittsburgh and the D.C. area. We discussed the Pittsburgh Penguins, craft beer, cost of living in Pittsburgh verse D.C., etc…
Another annoying gnat launched itself into my throat. I tried to clear it out, choking on it. I ended up eating it.
The three of us continued to hike. I was leading them both and asking if they wanted to go faster, but their bodies wouldn’t allow them. There was just miles left on Whetstone and I’d had enough of hiking. My body began to feel fresh and I was moving a lot faster. I checked once more to see if they wanted to run, but they didn’t want to. We were so close to the aid station and trailhead, I was wondering whether we made the cutoff time or not. I still wanted to drop from the race. We approached 2 more runners. One was in medical danger from dehydration. The man that was with him while they were hiking stopped as the dehydrated man sat down on a rock. A race volunteer with a bright yellow vest and handheld radio was on the scene right away, occurring about half a mile from the aid station and brought them water. This was a frequent scene throughout the day, I learned.
Madison and the man had stopped or slowed greatly. I yelled back to them down the trail, as they were out of site at that point that we were a quarter of a mile from the aid station and the end of the hellish Whetstone section. No reply. I hiked faster. Another volunteer, that was at the Whetstone south location was now supporting north, he walked down the trail with a gallon of water. He asked if I was doing alright and I replied that I was doing really well. I began to run. I ran hard until I reached the aid station. At the trail head, a volunteer was standing there with her clip board, and I noticed as she was preparing herself to give me news. She said that she was sorry and that I just missed the cutoff time. I slowed from running and leaped into the air, pumped my fist, and exclaimed, “YES! That’s what I was trying to do!!” The volunteers all smiled and laughed and said that they were worried that I’d have a much different reaction and enjoyed this reaction more.
After that excitement, Stephen showed up from the car. I was called over to another runner’s crew who had their cooler open and full of waters, pop, etc… it was very kind of them to offer. I took an electrolyte water and drank about half of it right away. Two other runners were there, they were done and had enough fun. Madison and others eventually showed up and learned the news about missing the cutoff. Some of us briefly spoke about what our day was like and what we struggled with the most. We all had common experiences, the elevation gain and the heat.
I thanked the crew and said goodbye to runners. Madison approached me, we introduced one another to the significant others, and then got our picture taken together. I asked her if she still wanted my mustache pill box and she did! That made me happy. We wished each other luck in the future and thought we’d maybe see one another again at a race. It was great meeting her.
I hobbled to the vehicle as the race wear and tear set in more on my body. I quickly became extremely disappointed with myself and had racing thoughts about how I gave in, how I was defeated and didn’t know how much further my body could handle. I was angry that I had these self-sabotaging excuses and followed through with them. I really struggled with wanting to know what would happen to me if I continued on in the race. How far would I make it? How would I pick myself up again? How would I move fast enough to stay ahead of the cutoff time? Many questions. It might not have been my day to race. The race was very challenging. Not all of the elites finished the race. 51% of the runners did not finish.
I don’t like to quit, I don’t give up easily, that’s why I’d rather miss the cutoff time and be told I was done by a volunteer and not on my own will. That sounds silly in this situation because I pretty much set up missing the cutoff time; though, I was concerned about my well-being. I also said that if I made the cutoff time, I’d seriously consider continuing. I have never experienced the back and forth decision making before to this extent while racing, though I’d never participated in a race so grueling.
89 started the race.
44 finishers, 49% (including Josh!!!).
45 drops, 51%.
17 DNS, 16%.
I beat myself up over the next few hours and into the next day. Stephen and I went to the finish line and hung out with runners, their family and friends, and other runner’s family and friends anxiously waiting for them to finish. I was SO TIRED… falling asleep sitting on the grass. I kept refreshing the race website on my phone to check on Josh’s progress. Nothing for about 3 hours. Stephen and I worried. The sun was going down and the wind picked up more on the hill we were on.
Oh, I never mentioned the wild fire that was in the next valley over, not too far away. The smoke from the fire was white in color, as firefighters and a helicopter were battling it. The smoke blew across the final mountain climb of the course. A ridiculous section of miles of climbing and then rocks as you descend. Runners who finished mentioned choking on the smoke. I can’t imagine this on top of everything else! People also ran into snakes and fire ants on the second half of the course!
I went to the car to stay warm and fell asleep. I woke up sporadically to check where Josh was, using my phone. Eventually, I saw that he was at Bald Mountain aid station. I knew from there that he made it to the peak and would be coming back with about 5k left in the race. I got out of the car and text Stephen, who was sitting on top of the giant hill at the finish line. I stood at the bottom where the runners turned to come in. I continued to wait for Josh for 10 minutes or so. The area was pitch black, so I used my cell phone’s flash light and watched for a bouncing headlamp to come up the gravel path. Sure enough, the next person was Josh. I yelled over to him to bring it in and to get up that hill!!! Josh was running like a bent over, old man. He used everything he had left to get up the driveway, grass hill, and shuffle through to finish chute and finish line. I cheered and video taped him. I ran up the hill, I had to video him finishing. I yelled up to Stephen that it was Josh. Stephen was already at the line ready to take pictures.
Josh finished and seemed pretty delirious. 15:50:39 was his time. He earned his buckle!! The rest of the night and next day was pretty rough for Josh. He kind of looked like death, and I told him. Huge, HUGE congrats to JOSH!! I’m proud of him.
I’ve learned a ton about myself and ultrarunning. It’s very true about learning MORE from your failures than from your successes.
I’m willing to train harder and try again. Fingers crossed for another UROC.