Bighorn 100

The 2017 edition of Bighorn, which takes place in the Bighorn mountains of Wyoming, served up the worst conditions in race history. Extended rain turned the course, already famous for its muddy sections, into an absolute mess that was unrunnable for 40 miles. One person I ran with in the beginning later sustained a concussion from a bad fall in the mud. Scuttlebutt at the aid stations and on the internet also indicate one runner broke their ankle and had to ride out on a horse, while another broke their nose from a fall. Bighorn is advertised as “wild and scenic.” It was indeed scenic and perhaps a little too wild.

Last fall, I decided to run Bighorn as my first 100. Wanting a summer 100 and Hardrock qualifier, Bighorn fit the bill. A strained quad/groin from overzealous training sidelined me for a couple of weeks in March and served as a blessing in disguise. I had a heightened sense of anxiety in preparing to run 100 miles. If I was going to run further than I ever have before, then I needed to run more miles in training than I ever have. I kept pushing the envelope in training and the early warning signs of doing too much began to creep up. My legs were constantly tight, I would have some days with little to no energy, and my daily runs were more stressful than enjoyable. In 3 consecutive weekends, I raced a hard 50k, did a seven and half hour long run in the Smokies, and capped the last weekend off with an intense 50k training run. I went for a recovery run on the treadmill the following day and my right leg was extremely unhappy. Being forced to take two weeks off to let my quad and groin heal up made me realize that I would never make it to the start line if I kept going hard every week. My training shifted from trying to hit a high weekly mileage goal, to keeping the mileage consistent with focused blocks of accumulating vert. With my new approach to training, the mini freak outs became less frequent the closer I got to the race. I felt more fit than ever and confident in tackling 100 miles.

Jeff volunteered to fly out and serve as my one man crew/pacer pretty soon after I had signed up. He would be the perfect pacer to keep me moving and would entertain zero thoughts of dropping. We flew into Billings, Montana the Wednesday before the race and made the two hour drive down to Sheridan, Wyoming. We stopped for a quick detour at the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument and enjoyed the experiential history of artifacts and battle sights. A quote from Sitting Bull resonated with me, “You are fools to make yourselves slaves to a piece of fat bacon, some hard-tack, and a little sugar and coffee.” While my 100 mile run is of course trivial compared to defending your ancestral land from a government reneging on their promises because they want to mine for gold, I hoped I would not make myself a slave to a warm aid station and the allure of dry socks.

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This van would have definitely got stuck in the mud. Photo- Jeff

Friday morning finally rolled around after poking around in Sheridan for a few days. The race started at 10 AM to fair temps and an overcast sky. The heat that pounded the runners last year would not be a factor this year. There was a chance of rain but the forecast was not dire. It seemed conditions would be just about perfect.

The first 13.5 miles to Dry Fork aid station had a little over 4,000 feet of ascent. All that climbing served as a perfect governor to keep the effort level low from the start. I caught up to the legendary Andy Jones-Wilkins right before the aid station, and we would go on to run the next 27 miles together, which allowed those miles to go by quickly and easily. Jeff helped me to refill my bottles, reload my pack with Spring gels, and I was quickly out of Dry Fork. I would not see Jeff again until mile 48 at the turnaround where he would then pace me all the way back to the finish.

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Climbing up. Photo- Emile Baizel

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Pretty flowers and ominous clouds. Photo- Sunaad Nataraju

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I think I was burping. Photo- Jeff

The section from Dry Fork to Footbridge (mile 30) was the best bit of running all day. Wildflowers of purple and yellow surrounded us as we ran with the canyon walls towering above on either side. The terrain was gentle and rolling with perfect footing as the rain had yet to start. The clouds were still hanging around and shielded us from the sun. Everything was going perfect.

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Cruising through the flowers.

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About to descend the Wall.

We neared Footbridge and the infamous Wall. Heading down into Footbridge, the Wall is a steep and fun technical descent. I really enjoyed this rocky section and rolled into the first class establishment that is Footbridge. Two kids on radios messaged in each runner’s bib number as the aid station neared, so when we rolled into the aid station somebody was handing us our drop bag. I changed out of my shoes and socks while a volunteer delivered me avocado, potatoes, and boiled eggs.

During the pre-race briefing, we were told that the majority of the mud would start around Spring Marsh (mile 40) and continue all the way to the turnaround. Being an out and back, you would then run through all that mud again so there was no point in changing shoes and socks at the turnaround. The plan was to change into the S Lab Ultras, which had a little more grip, for the muddy sections from Footbridge to the turnaround and back down to Footbridge. Then change back into the cushy Sense Pro Max for the last 30 plus miles of mud free terrain.

I left Footbridge with the usual surge of adrenaline that a busy aid station provides. The trail was rocky and paralleled the raging Little Bighorn River for the first few miles. It was a steady 18 mile climb with a little over 4,000 feet of gain to the turnaround. Still feeling strong, I was looking forward to settling into a rhythm of hiking the ups and running the flats. The real fun was just about to begin.

The rain started not too long after leaving Footbridge. I read many race reports and received first hand advice to be prepared for cold on the climb from Footbridge to the turnaround. I left with a dry bag that included a long sleeve wool shirt, dry buff, gloves, and the Patagonia Airshed Pullover. I also had a raincoat (Patagonia Alpine Houdini) in my pack from the start. These two shells worked perfectly and were indispensable in battling the wind and rain.

It was still warm as the first bit of rain started, and I did not want to stop and fiddle with my pack to get the Airshed and gloves out. Not stopping to layer up at that moment almost cost me my race. My t-shirt was soaking wet and quickly cooling down my core body temp. The wind was getting stronger and my hands were starting to go numb. Shielded from the wind, I stopped in a patch of trees to throw on the Airshed and gloves. I noticed a big difference immediately, but my wet t-shirt was keeping me from gaining 100% warmth. I hit the Elk Camp aid station at mile 43.5 soon after and threw on my jacket as well. A focused 12 year old served me some warm mashed potatoes and broth. Galvanized by the warm food and additional layers, I was ready to charge up the last 4.5 miles to the turnaround.

The mud was getting ridiculous. With each step, I slid a few inches one way or another searching for traction and ankle deep puddles began to cover the trail. The night was settling in, and I was about 2 miles from the top when I finally had to switch my headlamp on. Headlights from vehicles emerged out of the darkness, and I knew I was getting close. I ran the last flat mile on the road into the aid station ready to eat some warm food and change my base layer.

It was triage in the aid station. I have never seen anything like it. Runners were covered in blankets, huddled around heaters, and staring off into the distance like they had barely escaped a firefight. Volunteers were yelling for chairs and delivering quesadillas and broth to runners all over the place.

A crew was doing everything they could to get their runner back out.

Crew- “What if you keep the down jacket on and double up with two Houdini’s?”
Runner- “No. I’m done.”
Crew- “Leave here and make it to Footbridge before you decide to drop. We will be there and you can drop there if you want to.”
Runner- “No. I’m sorry.”

Despite being on my feet for 48 miles and battling the cold, rain, and mud for the past 3 hours, I felt amazing. Seeing nearly all of the other runners shivering and dejected gave me an extra boost knowing I felt so great.

Jeff had my drop bag and helped me refill my pack with food. I was so glad to get my soaked base layer off and put on the long sleeve wool shirt. Jeff reminded me to take my time here and get some food in me. I munched on a quesadilla, black beans, and broth. After 15 minutes of eating and getting warm, we charged out into the cold night.

Me- “I hope you’re ready to get muddy.”
Jeff- “Is it honestly that bad?”
Me- “Dude, it’s insane.”

The warmth of the tent was hard to leave and the frigid wind immediately pierced us upon exiting the aid station. It actually snowed up at the turnaround over night. The mile of road back to the trail would be the last bit of sustained running for 33 miles.

We quickly hit the trail and began splashing through the puddles and skating on the mud. Jeff was laughing like a little kid at how awful the trail had become. We went on to hike the 18 mile descent back to Footbridge. The rain continued and there was no running to be done with nearly all the runners trampling through the trail and making the conditions worse.

We went through periods of laughing at the mud and cursing the mud. In all my planning before the race, this section was going to be a fun downhill to run. I was on pace for around a 25-26 hour finish after reaching the turnaround in 12 hours. I figured there was no way we could travel faster than 3 mph in these conditions. Would I finish closer to 30 hours? Beyond that? When people asked me my goal time leading up to the race, I told them I thought I could go around 27 hours if I had a great day. I would also add that if it took 34 hours, then that’s what it would take. I had said this so many times but it had never entirely resonated with me. The reality started to set in that it may actually take 34 hours. Yikes.

Frustration started to set in the closer we got to Footbridge. Jeff and I were taking turns falling down in the mud, and there remained no runnable section. Jeff took one nasty fall in which I had enough time to hear him hit the ground, turn around, and see him continuing to slide a few feet down the side of the trail. I was holding out that the conditions would get better near the turnaround, but they only worsened.

Jeff broke a long period of silence.

Jeff- “How you doing?”
Me- “I’m just getting really frustrated with this shit.”

Airing the frustration out loud was mildly cathartic.

Me- “But hey, (forced chuckle) what can we do?”

We rolled into Cathedral Rock, the last aid station before Footbridge, where all the volunteers had rode in on horseback.

Volunteer- “3.5 miles until Footbridge.”
Me- “What!? I thought it was 6.5. That’s great news!”

I had gotten the distances between the aid stations mixed up and was pleasantly surprised to know we were closer than I thought. I was so looking forward to changing into dry shoes and socks.

The smell of campfire and the lights from Footbridge eventually came into view. Finally! It had taken me 5 hours and 14 minutes to climb the 18 miles from Footbridge to the turnaround. The muddy 18 mile descent had taken 5 hours and 24 minutes.

The original hustle and bustle of Footbridge was no longer. It was 4 in the morning, and the volunteers were still going above and beyond, but the long day in the rain was wearing on them as well. A volunteer delivered my drop bag and took my order. I was quickly delivered potatoes, avocado, and boiled eggs. The sense of urgency I previously had in each aid station had vanished. Sitting down felt nice. Not concentrating on every step and making sure I didn’t fall was a welcome reprieve.

Jeff snapped me out of my stupor and I went about taking off my shoes. The mud had nearly caked the laces to the point where I couldn’t untie them. A gracious volunteer nearly pulled me out of my chair trying to take off my mud infested knee high compression socks. I washed my feet in a tub of water, lathered on some RunGoo, and welcomed the foreign feeling of dry shoes and socks.

Me- “I don’t want to do this for another 34 miles. This may actually take all 34 hours.”

Jeff later told me after the race that he was thinking the exact same thing upon leaving Footbridge. But being a good pacer, he didn’t say anything.

The thought of sliding around in the mud for another 50k with zero running sounded awful. But dropping was not an option. I had invested too much time, money, and effort into training for this race. I was going to finish.

We had stopped long enough in the aid station for a chill to set back in. Thankfully, the climb up the Wall quickly warmed us up. The eternal optimist in me had a flicker of hope that the mud was going to get better. It did not.

We were a little halfway up the Wall when the sun started to peak through the rain clouds. Jeff and I turned around for an epic sunrise that would accompany a John Muir quote and spark renewed motivation in us to keep going. But the dang rain clouds didn’t even allow for a beautiful sunrise.

I’m usually the bird geek pointing out different types of birds, but Jeff pointed out a nighthawk circling around and dive bombing into bogs for its morning breakfast. All the other birds were waking up and starting their morning songs. The sunrise was disappointing but the merry band of birds made up for it.

We approached Bear Camp aid station (69.5) which signaled the Wall was almost over. The mud was super slick at the steepest parts, and we were falling backwards with each step. Desperate for any aid, I grabbed a Hobbit hiking pole to help reach the top.

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Limited edition Hobbit trekking cane. Photo- Jeff

The next 13.5 miles would have been runnable if for not, you guessed it, the mud! A pity party was slowly starting to creep in.

Me- “You know David Horton’s mantra, ‘It can’t always get worse.’ It honestly feels like it keeps getting worse.”
Jeff- “Well it’s not raining anymore. The wind isn’t blowing. It’s light out again. And you can’t beat the scenery.”

I had never fully understood that mantra until then. Jeff said exactly what I needed to hear and saved me from going to a bad place.

Jeff had been taking keen interest in the different types of mud like some sort of scientist. He kept me distracted and entertained with his classifications of different types of mud. The final tally of mud categories, ranging from beef soup to caramel taffy, totaled 9 by the end of the day.

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“No more mud!” Photo- Jeff

We approached the last climb back up to Dry Fork aid station and continued to work against the mud. Jason Schlarb randomly ran by going the opposite way. Jeff and I guessed he got tired of waiting at Dry Fork to pace someone and was running back to find his runner. He was gliding effortlessly on top of the mud with his mullet blowing in the breeze. He bellowed sternly and quasi-inspirational, “The sun is coming! Hang in there!” And just like that, the sun slowly started to break through the clouds for the first time all morning.

We finally made it to Dry Fork aid station, and the finish remained 18.5 miles down the mountain. 18.5 miles felt so far away after averaging 20 minute miles for the past 11 hours. Maintaining that pace would mean another 6 hours until the finish. We were closer to the finish than we had been all day, but the thought of trudging through the mud for another 6 hours was overbearing.

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Almost to Dry Fork. Photo- Jeff

I wanted to sit down, take the time to eat some food, and take a mental break from the mud. All the chairs were taken by other mud caked runners. I continued to pan right and left hoping I missed sight of an empty chair.

Volunteer- “Do you want to sit down?”
Me- “Yes.”
Volunteer- “There is a warm trailer right outside and you can go sit in there.”
Me- “Oh, thank goodness. Thank you.”

Jeff and I walked over to the trailer, which had a nice 3 foot clearing to climb into the trailer. I was too apathetic to laugh or curse having to jump in the trailer. I sat there drinking coffee and eating potatoes calculating whether or not I would be able to make it to the finish before the cutoff.

Me mumbling to myself- “It’s probably around 2 o’clock. That means 6 hours to finish. If the mud remains horrendous then the best we can do is 3 mph which puts us at the finish pretty close to the 8:00 PM cutoff.”

I actually did not know what time it was. My watch was in my rear pocket and I did not feel like fiddling with it and getting it out.

Me- “What time is it?”
Volunteer making pizza- “It is…10 o’clock.”
Me- “What!? It’s only 10!? Wow, I thought it was around 2!”

I was ecstatic. I chugged the rest of my coffee, and we hopped off the precipice of the trailer to continue marching towards the finish.

We had a short climb up a dirt road before hooking back up with the single track that would take us all the way back to the start. We would then continue past the start and run 5 miles of dirt road back into town to get our money’s worth of 100 miles.

Bighorn also has 52, 32, and 18 mile races that start on Saturday and run on the same trails. One report said that a bunch of people got off the bus for the 32 miler, saw the terrible conditions, turned their bib in, and climbed back on the bus for the ride back to town.

The 18 mile race had just started behind us as fresh and jovial runners passed by. 100 mile runners had white bibs and caked mud covering their posterior to identify their different race distance. I was slightly annoyed with the 18 milers prancing by in their clean shoes and proceeding on to chew up whatever bit of decent trail was left. But so many runners passed by with praise and admiration for those running the 100. It put things in perspective that I was currently 85 miles into this quest through the mire and I was still moving.

The clouds had finally parted and the beautiful blue sky had reappeared. And the trail was finally runnable! Yeah, there was a little mud but it was mud you could actually run through.

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Yay running! Photo- Jeff

Jeff volunteered to take the lead and we started passing a bunch of 18 mile racers. It was euphoric to actually open up our stride and run. The coffee had kicked in, the sun was shining, and we were running. The muddy nightmare was over.

We rolled into Upper Sheep Creek and were 12.5 miles from the finish. I was finally warm enough to take off my two shells and gloves. I pounded some potato chips and downed a Hill Aid Spring gel with caffeine for the last short climb of the day. The last 12 miles would then be all flat or downhill.

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Last climb of the day. Photo- Jeff

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All downhill from here. Photo- Jeff

My legs still felt good and we ran the long descent at a decent clip passing several 18 milers and a few 100 milers. The exertion of actually running, the warming temperatures of descending lower, and the sun being out made it a little warm. I continued to sip water but did not want to bother with eating while running downhill. I started to heat up and was no longer sweating.

We reached the road for the last 5 miles of flat running back into town. I was starting to feel a little weird after overdoing it on the descent. I put ice in my hat and shorts and was sprayed down with water at the aid station.

Jeff- “You’ve got 58 minutes to go under 28 hours. So that’s 12 minute miles with a little extra time.”
Me- “We can do that. Let’s run/walk it in.”

The run/walk strategy was working for about the first 2 miles and then I hit the wall. I finally had my first hallucination.

Me mumbling to myself- “Is that a? A dead baby armadillo? Oh no. Just a stick and some pine cones.”
Jeff- “What’s that?”
Me- “Oh nothing.”

I still felt hot but also cold. I felt loopy and was starting to get tunnel vision. I was staring off into the sky, zoned out, and then remembered where I was and what I was doing. Any effort greater than a walk felt like I would pass out. I was quiet for 5 minutes as all these thoughts were swirling internally. I didn’t know how to verbalize how I felt without worrying Jeff or myself.

Me- “Dude, I do not feel good.”
Jeff- “What’s up? Hot, cold? When’s the last time you ate?

Jeff helped me problem solve. At first, I thought I was too hot so we poured water over my head. I then quickly got the chills from the water and strong crosswind. He then made me put my jacket on and forced me to eat. I slowly came out of whatever it was and managed a measly shuffle for the last half mile.

Jeff ran up ahead to get a picture of me crossing the finish line and I was by myself for the last few minutes. I tried to soak it in and think back to the whole day. The high of getting to mile 48 and feeling like I could turn around and do it all again. The mental lows of trudging through the mud for hours on end and wondering if I would ever reach the finish. Being grateful for Jeff coming all the way out to experience the muddy madness and for being the perfect pacer who never pushed me too hard but always had the perfect response to keep me going. I got choked up as I approached the finish line but was too emotionally and mentally wasted to do anything other than cross the finish line.

28 hours and 15 minutes later, it was all over. I did it. I felt empowered like never before. I could do anything. Except take my mud encrusted socks and shoes off.

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Finished. Photo- Jeff

Bighorn is a first class event. The volunteers braved the awful conditions day and night and catered to the needs of all the runners perfectly. Many of the aid stations were so remote that supplies had to be hiked in or ridden on horse or ATV. Yet, almost every aid station was stocked with warm food and had everything a runner could need.

I lost count at some point but consumed around 50 Spring Energy products along the way. I had zero stomach issues all day. Spring Energy makes all their products, 4 gels and 1 electrolyte mix, from 100% real food and zero added sugar. I’m extremely grateful for their support.

And big thanks to Nashville Running Company for their support. I’m glad to be on the race team for the store that helped me get my start into trail running.

Only 175 of the 373 racers finished the 100-mile run for a finisher rate of 47%. Kudos to every single runner, crew, and volunteer who was out there.

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Thanks Jeff for being the best pacer ever.

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Jeff’s legs post race.

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Stillhouse 100k

The Stillhouse 100k is an out and back of the Upchuck 50k course that runs along the eastern rim of the Cumberland Plateau. I kept telling myself, “Oh, it’s just Upchuck twice. It won’t be that bad.” False. A more reasonable approach would have been, “Damn, I have to run Upchuck and then turnaround and run it again. This is gonna suck.” I prefer a more optimistic “it won’t be that bad” mentality for any race or long run. It keeps my mood light and enjoyable, rather than dwelling on the negative and not enjoying being out in the woods. This naive, hippy approach works perfectly for a 50k, because the pain and fatigue from pushing the pace usually sets in late with the finish line only a few miles away. I know I can power through for another 15-30 minutes and then eat all of the cashew butter I want.

Stillhouse would be my fifth race over the 50k distance. There has been a distinct pattern at my four previous 50 milers, which goes like so. I forget about the magnitude of the distance with my “it won’t be that bad” approach, am surprised when the pain sets in, realize I still have a long ways to go before the finish, and turn into a sulky mess. I shuffle along until I cross the finish line, realize it didn’t hurt that bad, and regret not pushing through it.

My goal for Stillhouse was to eat the whole time, have fun, and finish feeling strong. During my sulky mess stage, I always stop eating and of course slow down even more. Have fun is always a goal. I spend too much money on gear, races, and travel to participate in this hobby and not have fun. Finish feeling strong didn’t necessarily mean busting out 7 minute miles at the end. I wanted to be moving at a pace that wouldn’t be classified as shuffling. I accomplished goal number one and was pumped to stay on top of my nutrition all day. Goal number two of having fun was successful until around mile 40. Finish feeling strong definitely did not happen. I could barely manage a shuffle. Plodding or trudging would be more accurate. An average of one for three gets you in the Hall of Fame, but this ain’t baseball.

One of the reasons I wanted to do Stillhouse was the midnight start. I like night running and a midnight start just sounds cool. Jeff, Kyle, and I arrived at the start/finish around 10:30 to mingle and make sure everything was squared away. We had been crashing at my aunt’s in Chattanooga since midafternoon and planned on getting some rest. However, we were all too jazzed and managed only a 30 minute nap.

As midnight neared, it was cold and hovering around 40 degrees. Chilly to be standing around but just fine for running if dressed properly. The one and only Cary Long was mildly concerned with his layering system and kept asking everybody for advice on what to wear. Runners continued to mill around as the start approached. Co-RD Chris Luberecki gave us a brief speech that warned us of heavy leaf litter (they actually used a leaf blower on some parts of the trail to make it discernible) and soon we were off.

It’s a steady two mile climb up a road before hitting the Cumberland Trail and all its rocky glory. I quickly settled in with John Brower, and we would run the next 20 miles together. We chatted for a bit in the beginning but soon settled into a quiet groove in which we worked together perfectly to keep moving steadily along. When a brief section of solid ground gave way to the many rocks and leaves, I would steal a quick glance at the sky and marveled at all the stars with Orion always dominating my attention.

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Rocks and leaves await. Photo- Victoria Brunner

The south has been in a drought for the past two months, and I was surprised to hear the steady flow of water as we carefully descended into Soddy Creek. There was barely a trace of water a month ago during the running of Upchuck, but the few showers from the past week had quickly replenished Soddy Creek. Forest fires were actually burning on this part of the trail a month ago, which forced a reroute of Upchuck. The smell of the burnt forest faintly lingered. I was curious as to what the damage would look like in the day time.

The always soothing sound of flowing water grew stronger as John and I carefully made our way down the mini boulder field to the Soddy Creek bridge crossing. I paused for a second to look back up the ridge from which we just descended and was amazed at how high up the stream of headlamps glowed from other runners. With our headlamps only illuminating a couple feet in front of us, it was impossible to have perspective on the big climbs and descents that lie ahead of us in the dark. I later realized during the daytime how much of a mental advantage not knowing what awaited provided.

After a quick and steep climb out of Soddy Creek, the trail becomes more runnable over the next several miles. Sections of pine forest litter the trail with soft beds of pine needles, which make this a fun section to run. John and I settled into a good rhythm and hit the brief road section quicker than expected that leads to the first aid station at mile 12. The bright flashing lights of the gas station advertising deals of packaged soft drinks and 100% gasoline off of Highway 111 clearly came into view upon hitting the road. I took a right turn on the pavement towards the aid station, which was tucked just outside of the woods a half mile down from the gas station. The gas station still seemed far away and I quickly realized John and I were running down the on ramp to Highway 111. We laughed, corrected our mistake, and arrived at the aid station in a few minutes.

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John and I fueling up. Photo- Victoria Brunner

John and I left the aid station together and continued running with each other until I pulled off for a bathroom break around mile 20. I soon arrived at the Retro Hughes Road aid station just as he was leaving. I took my time to refill my bottles and take some solid food for the next section to the turnaround. The next eight miles would be mostly downhill to the turnaround and I was looking forward to flowing down. I lost focus for a second on the flat trail leaving the aid station and rolled my left ankle pretty good. I had to walk for a few minutes before it was okay to run. Thankfully, my ankle was fine for the rest of the day, but I was scared of rolling my ankle again and the downhill section was more timid than rhythmic.

The top three passed me on their way back as I neared the turnaround. They were about 20 minutes up and I was feeling good at the moment and wondering if I’d be able to close the gap over the next 31 miles. I arrived at the turnaround at 6:31 to many familiar faces. It looked like John had arrived a few minutes before me and was just about to head back out. It is always talked about but the ultrarunning community is the best. I had no crew, but I was quickly catered to by seasoned ultra-wives Katy, wife of Nathan Holland and volunteer coordinator for the Rock/Creek Race Series, and Sherrie, Jobie Williams’s wife. They grabbed my drop bag and were asking what I needed, while David Pharr was delivering me chips and guacamole. I downed the chips and guacamole, reloaded my pack with food, took a ziplock bag of potatoes for the trail, and was off.

I left the aid station full of energy and was determined to catch John who left a couple minutes before me. It would be light in an hour and I was looking forward to ditching the head and waist lamps. Jeff and Kyle passed by with no sign of Jobie, they all planned to run together, and said he had dropped off the back a while ago. I passed Jobie five minutes later, and he said he was already worked. It would be so easy to drop out at the turnaround knowing exactly how tough and technical repeating those 31 miles would be on tired legs. I hoped he would persevere and leave the turnaround determined to finish.

I worked my way back up the eight mile climb as the sun was coming up. It was cloudy over the distant ridge to the left and the sun was turning the clouds into a beautiful hue of purple and orange. It was more hiking than running up the climb, and I worried John was starting to pull away. He was only a few minutes ahead as I arrived back at mile 39 and the Retro Hughes aid station. Veteran Chattanooga ultrarunner, Ryan Meulemans, was working the aid station and asked how I was feeling. I hesitated in giving my answer and he said, “Just say you feel great.” I laughed, thanked the volunteers, and left determined to close the gap but the wheels slowly started to fall off.

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Winner, Nathan Holland, making it look easy. Photo- Victoria Brunner

The aforementioned mental cycle kicked in. It started to hurt and I folded. My brain was telling me, “Hey, you’ve been on your feet for a while. Why not just walk?” I didn’t even argue back. There were brief moments of snapping out of it and running but those didn’t last long. I would take off running and be completely aware that I wasn’t hurting that bad. There was general fatigue and soreness but nothing excruciating. All my motivation was completely gone. I had stuck to my goal of eating all day, and my stomach was perfect. I had no excuses, and the only thing holding me back was my mind. I was not prepared to deal with the pain and shutdown. It then became a cycle of being pissed off at myself for not having the want to or mental fortitude to push through, and then being angry with myself for being angry at myself.

I kept the walk and plodding pattern going and thought for sure someone was going to eventually catch me. I kept looking back but no one approached. After awhile, two people were ahead of me on the trail and I thought they were hikers. I caught up and realized it was one of the guys who had been in the top 3 with his son pacing him. The runner was moving even slower than I was and looked absolutely spent. He said he was wasted and would eventually drop at mile 49. I was thankful to not be that physically depleted and had a new spark of energy.

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“Someone with a camera. Run.” Photo- Victoria Brunner

Back at the Highway 111 aid station and 12ish miles from the finish, I found out John, now in third place, had opened up a considerable gap on me. There was no shot at catching him, and my tiny spark of energy quickly faded. It would be 12 more miles of wallowing in mental despair. I thought ahead to my next big race. “There’s no way I can run 100 miles. I’ll never be ready to run 100 miles. 100 miles is stupid. I wonder if I can get my money back for Bighorn.”

I descended down into Soddy Creek and the last climb awaited. The climb took forever, and I kept thinking I had reached the top. But the trail kept wrapping around the ridge and climbing even further up. I was officially over it.

This is the section where the forest fire hit and the damage didn’t look that bad. The ridge was scarred black, but the innumerable amount of rocks probably kept the fire from leaving worse visual and physical damage. And the firefighters also worked their tails off to stop the fire on the steep terrain.

I eventually made it to the road for the last two miles of pavement to the finish. Miraculously, no one had caught up to me and I was still hanging on to fourth place. I kept looking back for Kyle and Jeff to catch up over the last 10 miles but they never did. I was running 13 minute mile pace down the road, feeling sorry for myself, and not taking the time to celebrate running 62 freaking miles. I took one last look back a quarter mile from the finish, and I finally saw Jeff and Kyle closing in. They caught up and we ran to the finish together.

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Jeff felt good enough to moonwalk in. Photo- Nathan Holland

I had been stripped down to my core and was none too happy with the way I responded. I turn into a worthless state late in a long effort and it’s all mental. I’m looking forward to some time off and getting back at it next year to address the mental side of things.

Strava

The coolest story of the day was the guy who finished last. Gregory Griffin was on his way to just sneaking in under the cutoff and then had to hustle to beat the train less than a mile from the finish. He crossed the tracks 15 seconds ahead of the train and then made it to the finish after being out on the trail for 19 hours and 56 minutes.

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Gregory Griffin happy to beat the train.

Sponsor plug- I recently joined the Spring Sports Nutrition Team. They make their nutrition out of real food and put it in the size of a regular gel packet. I had 25 of the Spring gels throughout the whole race. I’ve never been able to take 25, or anywhere close to that, of anything during a race or training. I never felt nauseous or got tired of the flavors. They use only real food for ingredients, have no sugar, and taste great. The company was started by runners and is based out of Nashville. Spring Energy

Huge shout out to Brian Costilow and Chris Luberecki for putting on a great race. It was the first year for the Stillhouse 100k, and they have big plans for the future of this race. The aid stations were awesome, and the course was perfectly marked. Many people were worried about getting lost with the midnight start and the heavy amount of leaves on the trail. I heard no stories of anyone going off course and had no trouble at all staying on course myself.

If you want a good old fashioned beat down towards the end of next year with an awesome community of trail runners in the southeast, then come out to Chattanooga next year for a December midnight start at the Stillhouse 100k. Rock/Creek Race Series

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Yong Kim cruising along. Photo- Victoria Brunner

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Tennessee geology. Photo- Victoria Brunner

 

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San Juan Solstice 50 and a Road Trip

Summer is fun. As a teacher, I get two months of freedom. Even better, my wife Marcelle and I work at the same school so we have the exact same schedule of days off. This makes planning vacations and weekend trips infinitely easier.

I started looking for a summer 50 last December. I wanted to go somewhere out west where we could have a fun vacation around the race. One January training run, Jeff Davis mentioned I should apply for the lottery for San Juan Solstice as he planned on running the race for the second year in a row. I initially considered this race but was scared away by the altitude. But it is pretty easy to say yes to anything during a run.

Not soon after, I registered for the lottery and got in. I quickly began dreaming up a summer road trip out west around the race.

Pre-Race Road Trip

Marcelle and I spent a day in St Louis on the drive out from Nashville visiting a friend and also spending way too much time at the Forest Park Zoo. Then we had a Clark Griswold Vacation moment in Kansas when I got the car stuck in the mud camping. On to Leadville where we camped for two nights exploring the big mountains and visiting a friend.

Next up, Lake City for a week to settle in for the race. Two more nights of camping before trading the domesticity of the tent and car for a luxurious lakeside cabin with Jeff, Lori, and Conrad.

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Leadville mountains.

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More big Leadville mountains.

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Creek crossing! Hike earlier in the week with Marcelle.

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Hike up Cataract Gulch.

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Pre-race shakeout approach of Handies Peak.

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Camping is hard sometimes. Especially when you’re lazy and don’t use all 4 stakes.

Pre-Race Feelings

My biggest fear of this race was the altitude. The course is above 10,000 feet for a little over 34 miles. I had no idea how my body would react. Would I be able to get food down? Would I be able to keep my heart rate at a steady level? Would I be throwing up? Would I be struck by lightening on the Continental Divide? Would I get lost and die? The last one was a dramatic and outlandish fear but an actual question on the race’s FAQ page.

I had been at altitude (8,500-10,000 feet) for 7 days. 6 of those days I had hiked or ran at easy efforts ranging around an hour. In hindsight, I probably did a little too much. But it’s hard not to when you have quick access to some of the most beautiful mountains in the world.

I was noticeably breathing harder on all the hikes and runs. I felt like I had a pressure in my chest that slowly shrunk everyday but never fully went away. I gained confidence on each excursion that I would be okay during the race. Yeah, the altitude would make things more challenging, but I would eventually make it back to the finish.

I felt that Jeff and I had an unspoken agreement to stay together during the race. This was confirmed the night before the race when he posed the question of us staying together. Neither of us were approaching this as a race. It would be stupid to try and race this coming from sea level, and the course is too dang pretty to run with your head down focused on a time rather than marveling at the surrounding beauty.

I had my usual breakfast of a banana, 2 Lara bars, and a couple scoops of cashew butter. This pre-race breakfast always left me full. Almost too full. But I always felt the big breakfast left me satiated throughout the race. The full stomach early on led to problems getting food down that essentially lasted the whole race.

We left the Town Park at 5 a.m. and would loop back after 50 miles and 12,856 feet of up and down respectively.

The Race

My internal train of thought is in italics.

Mile 0-3: Gravel road with steady incline. Runnable.

“Feeling good. I like this easy pace.”

“Actually my stomach is still really full from breakfast. Hopefully that goes away.”

A guy runs past using poles.

“Are those ski poles?”

“I am confident I made the right decision in not bringing my trekking poles. Having my hands free will make me eat more consistently.”

“Everybody is getting spaced out pretty well. Shouldn’t be a conga line once we hit the single track.”

“It’s starting to get a little brighter. Wow, the mountains are so pretty.”

Mile 3-9: Single track and multiple creek crossings. Roughly 4,000 feet of climbing.

“Geez, I still feel full. This needs to go away so I can start getting some calories in.”

Traffic slows upon hitting the single track and starting the multiple crossings over the next mile.

“So much for no conga line.”

“Oosh, that water was cold. Kinda refreshing.”

“Come on people, let’s cross these creeks a little faster.”

“Dang, that was really cold.”

“Holy cow! That one was really cold.”

“Alright, I think that was all of the crossings. Time to hike a little faster and warm up.”

More crossings ahead.

“Oh, two more to cross.”

“Pretty sure that was it. Now the hiking will get steep.”

The long climb truly begins.

“You know, what’s the difference between hiking and power hiking?”

“Holy cow, I feel like my heart is gonna beat out of my head.

“Still so full but need to eat.”

“Dang dude, that’s a lot of spandex. Is this UTMB?”

“I wish I had my poles.”

“Look at the mountains. They are beautiful. That’s why you’re doing this. Let that distract you.”

“Screw this. Why do I pick races with obscene amounts of climbing?”

Approaching what seems like the crest with another huge peak in front of us.

Me- “Are we going up that?”

Jeff laughs somewhat maniacally. “Yep.”

Me- “What the eff? You’ve gotta be effing kidding me!”

Mile 9-10: Above tree line and running along the ridge.

“Oh thank goodness. Jeff was wrong. We don’t have to go up that mountain.”

“Whoa, this is pretty. I take back everything I thought earlier. Totally worth it.”

“This is magical.”

“I need to eat. My stomach sort of feels better.”

I look at my watch.

“Whoa, I just went 3 hours without eating. Not good.”

“I’m gonna stop and take pictures. Perfect excuse to stop moving.”

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Jeff crushes mountains for breakfast.

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Mile 10-16: Single track. Big descent. Fun running.

“I feel much better after the bathroom break. I think I can start eating.”

“Maybe not. This is technical. Gotta focus. I’ll eat later.”

Starting to catch and pass a few runners.

“Woo hoo!”

“Oh hey, it’s spandex dude again.”

“It feels good to pass people.”

Just about to the bottom of the descent.

“I recognize this from our hike on Wednesday. We are getting close to the aid station. And crew!”

“I’m glad Lori and Conrad are here. I always feel bad when Marcelle is crewing by herself.”

Me- “I think I’m gonna change my socks at the aid station. They are still wet from the creek crossings.”

Jeff- “No, we should keep moving. They will get wet later.”

“Geez Jeff. You’re such a drill sergeant.”

Mile 16: Williams Aid Station

Marcelle- “Give me your trash.”

I hand over two empty Clif pouches.

Me- “It’s been hard to eat. I’ve only had 200 calories.”

Marcelle- “Ryne, you need to eat. Eat now.”

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Rockin’ the Anton outfit. Photo-Marcelle

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Conrad cheering for love. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 16-18: Gravel road. Flattish. Runnable.

“Always a nice pick me up to see Marcelle. I’m feeling better. Time to start eating.”

“Hey, that’s Dakota Jones. I wonder who he is crewing for. I’m gonna try to be funny and ask if we are on pace to break his course record.”

“Dakota Jones thought I was funny. Or he’s just really nice.”

“He was probably already on the Divide and halfway done at this point. How the heck?”

“Yes! My stomach is feeling better. I’m gonna be able to catch up on calories.”

Mile 18-22: Jeep road. 2,000 feet of climbing.

“I remember this climb isn’t supposed to be as steep as the first one. Should be able to hike up at a good pace.”

“Damn. My stomach is hurting again. I can’t get this food down.”

Jeff has been aware of my stomach struggles throughout the race and is offering me any of his food to see if it sounds good. Nothing does.

Jeff- “Don’t make me force feed you.”

“Okay, I get it. I have to eat.”

Slowing down and starting to get passed.

“There goes spandex guy motoring on past. Man, it sucks to get passed by people. Especially when they are wearing nothing but spandex.”

“I’m gonna put my head down and grunt it out.”

“Where did Jeff go? Geez, I’m moving slow.”

“I hope he left me for good and runs his own race. He’s looking good today.”

“Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Eat the banana beet ginger Clif pouch and keep going.”

“Conrad called the Clif pouches baby food the other day. That was funny.”

“I feel like a baby.”

“Geez! Will this climb ever end?”

“I would wear spandex for the rest of my life if I could just make it to the top of this climb!”

“Is dropping an option? No! You will finish no matter how long it takes!”

“I’m gonna have to get my headlamp at mile 40. I probably won’t finish until the 9 p.m. cutoff.”

“I really want my freaking poles!”

“Oh good. There’s the aid station.”

Mile 22: Carson Aid Station

“Ginger ale sounds really good. Oh my gosh. It’s so good!”

“This aid station volunteer is being so helpful.”

Jeff pops out of nowhere.

Jeff- “Ryne, where’s your drop bag?”

“Where the hell did he come from? He didn’t leave me. What a friend.”

Volunteer hands me a cup of potatoes.

“These potatoes are already mashed. Wow, what service!”

“Salt is the best thing ever.”

“She is seriously packing me saltine crackers in a ziplock bag. What a goddess.”

“The world needs more aid station volunteers. There would be no wars.”

Mile 22-31: 1,500 feet of climbing to the Continental Divide. Some miles hovering at 13,000 feet and then steadily drops down.

“I feel like a new person! I am revived!”

“Wait, I had these same feelings after the last aid station. Don’t get cocky.”

“Whoa, those are some big clouds. Hopefully they stay away.”

“These views above tree line are so worth it.”

“Hey! A marmot!”

“The mountains go on forever. This is awesome.”

“And there’s so many wildflowers.”

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DCIM100GOPROGOPR0420.Jeff is still feeling good and regularly putting distance between us but always keeps me in sight.

“I’m trying to keep up Jeff.”

“Oh cool. I see the lake, which means the cabin is on the other side. Ha. We’ve been pointing at the mountains all week saying we would be up here. And now we are. Funny.”

Still moseying along the Divide.

“When do we drop down below 13,000? I wanna be able to breathe again.”

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Just keep hiking. Photo-Jeff

DCIM100GOPROGOPR0442.“My head is starting to hurt. Geez, I’m complaining a lot today.”

“This is kind of peaceful up here. I like it.”

“We should be getting close to the yurt aid station.”

“I wonder if it’s like a Dothraki yurt from Game of Thrones?”

“There’s the yurt. Aw man, the aid station is outside of the yurt. Not as cool.”

“Who put all this mud here? My feet were finally dry.”

Mile 31: Divide Aid Station

“Did they just seriously ask if someone wanted sweet or white potatoes? Best aid station ever.”

“Ginger ale is the nectar of the gods.”

“Potato chips sound good.”

I shove a handful in mouth.

“Wait no, chewing is hard right now.”

Mile 31-40: Flattish running and runnable downhills. Double track and jeep roads.

I try to tell Jeff for the third or fourth time to go on and run his own race. But he again ignores me and changes the subject.

“Why doesn’t he just go on? He’s gotta be tired of herding me around these mountains.”

“I never wanna do Hardrock. How do they cover 100 miles of this terrain? Those people are insane.”

“I definitely want my poles for the last 10 miles. I wish I had them all day.”

“Alright, you’ve got a steady stream of food in you. Suck it up and pick up the pace.”

I try to quicken the pace ever so slightly.

“Whoa, body didn’t like that. Got light headed.”

This happened about 5 more times.

“Suck it up and be stoic like Jeff.”

“Well, I need to be safe. Maybe I should tell him I need to walk for a bit. No, man up!”

Another lightheaded spell after trying to speed up.

“Screw manning up.”

Me- “Hey Jeff. I’ve been feeling lightheaded the past hour. I’m gonna sit down at the next aid station and reset. I’m gonna finish but it may take a while. Go on without me when we get there.”

Jeff- “How are you doing on salt? Here, eat half of this Nuun tab. It won’t taste good but it will help.”

I take the Nuun tab expecting the worst.

“That’s a little bitter. But also good. My body must really need some salt.”

Start to come out of the lightheadedness.

“Whoa, feeling better.”

“Why didn’t I tell him earlier? I should have used common sense. Of course he would have a solution.”

“This downhill is kind of fun.”

Me- “How you feeling?”

Jeff- “My knees are starting to hurt a little.”

“I weaseled a complaint out of Jeff. Ha! He is human!”

“I hear people! There’s Marcelle!”

Mile 40- Slumgullion Aid Station

“I made it. Only 10 miles left. And I won’t need my headlamp to finish.”

“Ginger ale and potatoes are the best things ever. Also salt.”

Me- “Where are the poles? I definitely want them for the last climb.”

Marcelle hustles to grab my poles for me, while Lori is holding Conrad on her hip and talking to Jeff.

“We have the best wives ever for supporting our crazy adventures.”

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How I felt climbing. Photo-Marcelle

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How I felt not climbing. Photo-Marcelle

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Poles! They make everything easier. Including standing. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 40-46: 1,500 foot climb and then rolling terrain. Single track and farmland.

“This is steep. But I have poles! Everything is better with poles!”

“Wow, this is really peaceful. These aspen groves are so cool.”

“It’s so quiet. And calm. This is wonderful.”

“This kind of reminds me of farms in Tennessee.”

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Just like farms in Tennessee. Including the 10,000 foot peaks. Photo-Jeff

Trippy, almost done with the race thoughts are stirring.

Me- “Do you ever forget where you are sometimes? You’re just running and aren’t thinking. And then it’s like, “Oh yeah. I’m running in the freaking San Juans! This is awesome!”

Jeff is nice and entertains my dopey thoughts.

Jeff- “Yeah, I guess.”

Me- “Like just then, I was thinking how this reminded me of Tennessee. There are the rolling hills. Open farmland…”

I realize we don’t have aspen groves in Tennessee and am about to point this out so I don’t sound like a complete idiot.

Jeff- “Yeah and don’t forget the aspen groves.”

Set myself up for that one.

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These Aspens inspire deep thoughts. Photo-Jeff

 Mile 46: Vickers Aid Station

“Feeling good. I smell the barn. Top off water, stash the poles, and let’s go.”

Aid station volunteer- “Only three more miles and it’s all downhill!”

Mile 46-50. Downhill and single track.

“Wow, crazy to think back on the day. I honestly didn’t think I would finish on the climb up to Carson.”

“Who put all these mini mud bogs along the trail?”

Walking up a tiny hill.

“I know I shouldn’t have believed the aid station volunteer. This is not all downhill.”

“And who chopped down all the trees to perfectly be across the trail?”

Slowly reeling people in.

“It’s nice to pass people.”

“Spandex guy! I caught you in the end. Ha ha!”

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Finally, the downhills. Photo-Jeff

Coming out of the trees with views into town.

“I see town, but it looks so far down. Ugh.”

“This is steep. Dang this is just a bunch of huge shale.”

“We have made it to the roads and town! So close!”

Jeff is looking back and saying something to me. I see a sign pointing the racers in the right direction.

“What is he saying? Oh Jeff, you are about to hit the sign!”

Jeff plows into the sign but gracefully catches himself.

“That’s too funny, but I don’t have the energy to laugh. I’m glad he’s okay. Must tell Lori about it later.”

Another turn and more pavement.

“Where is the park? I want to be done! I want to see my wife!”

“I hear people. We are close!”

“I did it! We did it!”

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I need to work on my finish line face. Photo-Marcelle

Mile 50: Finish Line

I’m laying on the ground trying to fathom the day and how people run 100 miles.

Me- “How do you run 50 more miles?”

Jeff- “You keep running.”

Well, he’s not wrong.

Strava

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Picked up a lot of parenting skills for the future from this family. Photo-Marcelle

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“Conrad, there’s going to come a day when your dad starts taking you into the mountains for crazy adventures. I hope you will be ready.” Photo-Marcelle

Post-Race Road Trip

We had two more nights in Lake City at the cabin. Jeff and I were both feeling relatively okay after the race and wanted to explore one more trail before we parted ways. Of course the trail Jeff picks to run two days later has 1,500 feet of climbing in the first mile and a half. But I brought my poles from the start this time!

Marcelle and I headed to Durango to explore and camp for two days, while Jeff, Lori, and Conrad went to spend the rest of their vacation in Ouray.

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All star ultra wifey. Crushing Animas Mountain in Durango.

After Durango, it was a quick detour to El Malpais National Monument for one night of camping and exploring.

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I’ve got the ultrarunner look down. Just need to work on the actual ultrarunning. Photo-Marcelle

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Sunset from the Sandstone Bluff Overlooks.

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We saw 33 rabbits in 12 hours. Photo-Marcelle

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La Ventana Natural Arch. Photo-Marcelle

Then it was off to Albuquerque for 6 nights to visit Marcelle’s best friend Claire. I managed to get in some fun runs in the mountains outside of Albuquerque.

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Top of South Sandia Peak.

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Working on my Jobie picture taking skills.

The last stop on the journey home was 1 night in Fayetteville, Arkansas to break up the drive.

All in all, we spent 21 days on the road. We saw so many beautiful and mesmerizing vistas, and made many unforgettable memories with friends. Maybe I can convince Marcelle into making the summer road trip an annual thing. If gas prices stay low.

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Quest for the Crest 50k

The Quest for the Crest 50k runs up and down the Black Mountains outside of Burnsville, North Carolina. You go up and down the mountain 3 times. During those 3 trips up and down, there is a little over 11,000 feet of ascending and descending respectively and some exceptionally technical terrain.

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Course Profile

Fellow Nashvillians, Kurt and Lauren, would also be at the race. Kurt was running the 50k for the second year in a row, while Lauren came along for a weekend getaway in the mountains. It’s always more relaxing and enjoyable to share the race weekend experience with friends.

Training had went well leading up to the race. I had been getting plenty of climbing in and had no injuries that took away from training. However, I did have an intense bout of allergies the weekend before the race that forced an extreme and not ideal taper.

First Climb and Descent

The race started just after day break at 6 am. There was a brief section on a gravel road to thin out the conga line, before starting up the Woody Ridge Trail.

The forecast was surprisingly cool for May. Mountainforecast was calling for the temperature to be in the 30s above 6,000 feet with 30 mph winds.

The first climb gains 3,000 feet in 2.5 miles and is the steepest of the day. I started out fast on the gravel road section to warm up and then quickly shifted into power hike mode upon starting up the Woody Ridge Trail. I can usually power hike pretty strong, but I was getting significantly passed and gapped by people on the first climb. It felt like I was going up a set of stairs on all fours, while other people were walking up an escalator.

At around 5,000 feet there was some frost developing on the trees. Upon topping out on the Crest Trail, just above 6,000 feet, we were greeted to hoar frost blanketing all the trees and grass. I’d never seen this phenomena before. It was so beautiful that it brought tears to my eyes. Actually, that was from the frigid wind smacking me in the face. The wind was in full assault mode as the trail was exposed on the ridge. Thankfully, we only spent half a mile on the exposed Crest Trail before descending down to Bowlens Creek.

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Hoar frost. You can notice how hard the wind was blowing. Photo- Ben Herron

The trail down to Bowlens Creek was the most runnable terrain of the day. I was able to run down the 4 mile descent relatively effortlessly (in terms of technicality) and savored the fun downhill running.

Second Climb

I arrived at the Bowlens Creek aid station with renewed confidence after feeling good on the descent. I refilled my bottle, grabbed a banana and some orange slices, and started the climb back up hoping I would feel stronger this go around. Well, I felt strong for about 5 minutes. I left the aid station with Misty Wong (eventual 3rd female and 6th overall) and made it my goal to keep up with her all the way to the top. I put my head down to hike for a minute or two, looked up, and she had gained significant ground on me in that short amount of time. Dang. For whatever reason, the ability to efficiently power hike still wasn’t there. Kurt soon caught up with me. This was our third leap frog of each other 8 miles into the race. He had now passed me on both climbs, while I passed him on the first descent. He looked strong and I was happy to see him doing so well. I wasn’t sure if I would see him again during the race the way he was moving.

I was passed by 3 or 4 people during the climb back up to the ridge. It was discouraging to be passed, but I told myself to relax and enjoy the day. No need to get worked up with 20 plus miles and who knows how many hours to go.

I put my Houdini on right before reaching the ridge. We had 7 miles of semi-exposed running along the ridge before the second big descent. The wind was still really strong, but thankfully the sun was out and made it feel slightly warmer. The Crest Trail along the ridge is relatively flat compared to everything else in the race, but it is still technical with many rocks being covered up by the tall grass.

The race effort that I wanted to put out still wasn’t there as I moved slowly along the ridge. Yes, it was technical, but I was walking way too much.

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Frosty ridgeline. Photo- Ben Herron

The views of the mountains off of the Crest Trail are hard to beat. You have unobstructed views of the mountains that seem to roll forever with barely any signs of human development. At this point, I decided I was going to approach the rest of the race like a long run. There was no need to push myself beyond what I was capable of that day. I didn’t want to ruin a long day in some of the most beautiful terrain this side of the Mississippi has to offer. The sky was clear and blue as can be. The hoar frost was starting to melt off the trees and blowing off in coconut like flakes. Birds were whistling their songs in the trees. Trying to race harder would only turn my focus inward, rather than appreciating the beauty all around me.

I no longer worried about my pace or time for the next few miles and took my time to soak in the views. No one was in front of me or behind me, so I felt like I had the mountains all to myself.

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Views worth slowing down for. Photo- Vasu Mandava

My John Muir philosophic solitude was coming to an end as I neared the out and back section to Cattail Peak, a new addition to the course this year. Rather than going immediately down descent number 2 off of the Crest Trail, we took the roughly mile and a half spur to Cattail, stamped our bib, ran the mile and a half back, and then carried on down descent number 2. This added around 3 miles and 1,000 feet of ascending and descending respectively.

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Blue is my favorite color. Photo- Victor Mariano

As slowly I was moving along the Crest Trail, I thought the leaders would have been long gone down the descent. To my surprise, the leaders passed me a few minutes after I started the out and back. Yeah, they were about 3 miles ahead of me but I started to entertain thoughts of “racing” again as I realized I wasn’t as far behind as I thought. Eventual winner, Kyle Curtin, passed with a smile and looked like he was on his way to a picnic. He was making it look easy. Doug Daniel, who I briefly met at Yamacraw a month earlier, passed by extremely focused. It was nice to catch up with him at the end of the race.

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Doug cruising to 3rd overall. Photo- Victor Mariano

The trail out to Cattail Peak was extremely technical with gnarly roots and rocks littering the trail. I was moving efficiently as possible (read not quickly) as I was being passed by people returning back from stamping their bib. I don’t know if it was seeing and interacting with others or that my energy was just coming back around, but I started to feel good. The racing mindset started to creep back in.

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Cattail Peak. Photo- Sean Blanton

I tagged my bib at Cattail Peak, the highest point of the course at 6,584 feet, and started back. I had passed Kurt about 5 minutes before that and made it my goal to eventually catch him. I started to move confidently, rather than cautiously through the gnarled terrain. My effort level was finally where I wanted it to be without feeling over taxed.

Second Descent

I made it back to the aid station that marked the end of the out and back. I loaded up on water, shed the Houdini, downed a Honey Stinger waffle, and started the descent.

Enough thanks cannot be bestowed to the volunteers of this race. Two of the aid stations high up on the course required lengthy and challenging hikes carrying all the water and food they brought with them. Not to mention the sub freezing temperatures in the wind they endured while helping runners for hours. They earned a lot of karma points that day.

Aid station Mindy Bayless

The trail goddesses had a very tough hike in with all that water but were as cheerful as could be. Photo- Mindy Bayless

The aid station workers said that first mile and a half down the Colbert Ridge Trail was very technical and it then smoothed out. True story. The trail was essentially a creek bed. I didn’t want to break my face, so I moved slowly and carefully for the next mile and a half. The trail “smoothed” out and I was able to get a little turn over going for the remaining descent.

I rolled into the aid station at the end of trail just as two other runners were leaving. Another confidence boost for catching up to two more people. I made sure I had enough water for the last 3,000 foot climb of the day and started the brief road section before the climb up the Buncombe Horse Trail. My goal was to catch the two runners in front of me on the climb and hopefully pass them.

Third Climb

The first couple of miles on the Buncombe Horse Trail are fairly mild in their grade and runnable. Wondering the state of my climbing legs, I decided to try and run. My climbing legs had returned! Granted, the running didn’t last long on the Buncombe Horse Trail. But I was finally able to move at a pace on the climb that I was happy with. I quickly passed the two runners from the previous aid station. One of the guys I passed was the epitome of power hiking. He looked relaxed but was motoring up the trail. He would catch up to me on the power hiking sections after I had put some distance on him during the runnable sections.

After a mile or so, I saw Kurt’s golden curls up the trail. I caught up to him and we briefly chatted. I was finally feeling better, while fatigue was setting in for him. It’s so weird and impossible to predict when the highs and lows come.

Quest Kurt Victor Mariano

Kurt earlier in the race. Photo- Victor Mariano

I enjoyed our brief conversation and pressed on up the trail. There was about 4 miles and 2,000 feet of climbing left. This was the first climb of the day where I wasn’t getting passed by people going by on what seemed like an escalator. I passed two more people towards the top and was running with another person as I arrived at the final aid station.

The last mile of trail leading up to the aid station comes out of the trees and you have more incredible views of the surrounding mountains. The peak of Mount Mitchell towers above another 1,000 plus feet to the right of the trail. This section is fairly runnable, but the climb had zapped some energy from me and I was walking more than I should have.

View from Buncombe- Sean blanton

Beautiful view off the Buncombe Horse Trail. Photo- Sean Blanton

The other runner (I can’t remember his name) and myself arrived at the aid station close together. I had just run out of water and was happy to chug a bottle and refill for the last descent. We shuffled out of the aid station and saw Lauren who had hiked up. She was very cheerful and encouraging.

“You guys are doing great. You’re in the top 10.” I responded not so cheerfully. “I don’t know how. We are moving so slow.”

Just after the brief interaction with Lauren, three runners passed. They looked fresh and full of energy. I was not discouraged, just envious. Them passing did not spark one last push to stay with them to the finish. I was pretty spent. My only hope in catching back up was that I could make up some time on the final descent.

Final Descent

The finish, perfectly situated at Briar Bottoms Campground, was only 4 miles away. The other guy I ran into the final aid station with had surged with the group of 3 that passed us earlier. I had the descent all to myself, which was nice because I didn’t feel any pressure to push it. The trail was just as technical as everything else earlier in the day. Trying to hammer this last descent on tired legs would have surely ended with a rolled ankle or my face in a tree.

This section seemed to go by quickly. I started to pass some day hikers, which is always a good sign that you are close to the trailhead. I did manage to pass one more runner. He was having to stop and stretch his quads when I passed him. I muttered some encouraging words and was thankful that my quads had held up all day.

I could hear what sounded like finish line commotion and knew I was close. I glanced at my watch and realized I could break 9 hours. An arbitrary number but something to push for in the last mile.

I rolled into the campground at 8:57:39. Good enough for 12th place. My goal was to keep my top 10 streak of finishes going. After how I felt for the first 15 miles, I was elated to come in where I did.

Kurt rolled in about 10 minutes later and we sat in camp chairs swapping stories from the long day. This race has the perfect finish setup. You can finish within a short walk of your car, and then hang out in a small field chatting with fellow runners while also cheering in finishers.

Say what you will about Run Bum Sean Blanton, but he puts on some of the most beautiful and challenging races in the southeast. The race went off without a hitch. The course was perfectly marked and all the volunteers were exceedingly helpful.

I definitely want to do this race again and highly recommend it. It would be hard to find a more beautiful and challenging 50k on this side of the country, if not the entire country.

I left a lot of time out there, and would like to see what I could do on a day where I feel good from the beginning. But who knows. Maybe feeling good from the start would have set me up for a suffer fest those last 15 miles. The cool thing about this sport is that your best and worst day can all happen in one day.

Thanks again to all the volunteers, Sean, and his awesome support team.

Strava data.

Posted in Races | 1 Comment

Running the Art Loeb

Art Loeb, you have one heck of a tough trail named after you. Mr. Loeb was an activist from the Carolina Mountain Club who “deeply loved these mountains.” That is all my weak research can find on the man. Those mountains he so deeply loved are found in the Pisgah National Forest about 45 minutes outside of Asheville, North Carolina. The mountains, like all those found throughout the Appalachian range, are rugged, beautiful, and humbling. They calm the soul with their majesty and check the ego with their unyielding terrain.

The Art Loeb Trail is 30.1 miles in length and totals around 9,000 feet of ascent and descent respectively. Scott, Jobie, Mark, and myself would be traversing from north to south, which had a little over 8,000 feet of climbing and 9,000 feet of descent (Strava data with elevation profile at bottom). Traveling north to south allowed us to get more of the difficult navigating out of the way first. The first 8.5 miles of trail go through the Shining Rock Wilderness and are unmarked due to being a wilderness area. We would also have the luxury of running directly back into camp at Davidson River with a five course meal prepared by Daniel awaiting us.

Start from Davidson

About to head out from Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp. Photo- Jobie Williams

We got a later than ideal start from the Daniel Boone Boy Scout Camp around 10:30 am. We lingered around camp that morning without a sense of urgency, and the drive from Davidson River Campground took a little over an hour. Discussion broke out on the drive over whether we would need headlamps or not. “The days are longer now. And it’s ‘just’ a 50k. We should be fine.” Mark was the only wise one to pack his.

smiles at the start

Everything is wonderful 10 steps in. Photo- Daniel Lucas

We said our goodbyes to Billy and Daniel who would be heading back to do some hiking around Black Balsam Knob and Tennent Mountain. Unfortunately, they were nursing some injuries and wouldn’t be joining us for the 30 mile trek.

The first 4 miles were a steady climb of 1,500 feet along secluded single track. We all settled into a nice hiking pace and came upon a group of backpackers at the base of Cold Mountain before we knew it. The backpacking group of seven was apart of the Outdoor Academy and being led by a single instructor. We pointed out which trail would take them up to Cold Mountain upon their inquiry. It was the job of the six students to navigate and their instructor seemed slightly disappointed that they asked us for directions. To which they quickly responded that they were just using their resources. One guy in the group could have passed as Scott’s younger twin.

backpackers

Scott’s ginger twin, second from left. Photo- Jobie

Jobie asked if the Cold Mountain we passed was the Cold Mountain from the book and movie. Mark didn’t think it was. Upon later investigation, it in fact is that Cold Mountain. But alas, we did not see Jude Law or Nicole Kidman anywhere near.

The next 4.5 mile section climbs to and follows the ridge through the Shining Rock Wilderness. It was nice having Mark with us who was familiar with the trails and we navigated the somewhat tricky sections with ease. We were afforded some gorgeous views along the ridge from a few rock ledges.

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Look, trees.

After leaving the Shining Rock Wilderness, there is a brief section of trail along the ridge with views of the mountains on either side. This is a short preview of the serene views to come from atop Tennent Mountain and Black Balsam Knob. The expansive views were quickly replaced by the trees as we started the climb up Tennent Mountain. I was leading the climb up with Mark close behind. There was an unmarked fork of the trail where I stayed left. I kept going and reached Tennent Mountain and then realized Mark, Scott, and Jobie were no longer behind me. Tennent Mountain is a grassy bald so I could easily see the trail leading up to the mountain. Mark arrived about a minute later but Scott and Jobie were nowhere in sight. Mark said he had not seen them coming up behind him.

Me- “They should be up soon. Do you think they took a wrong turn?”

Mark- “Um, maybe. But it all leads up here so they should be here eventually.”

We waited for about 15 minutes and thought that Scott and Jobie had went down to the spring just off the trail. So we made our way down to the spring, refilled our bottles, and still no sign. Mark and I debated if they had kept going or were waiting on us somewhere. We decided to circle back on the trail in hopes that they were behind us and finally ran into them. They had stopped for a Jobie photo shoot and a sandwich break. Reunited and no longer concerned if day hikers had been accosting them over their short shorts, we pressed on for the second half of the run.

Scott running

Nice place for a picture. Photo- Jobie

The first 12 miles included big views and many technical sections that were not entirely runnable. It was hard to get in a rhythm due to these technical sections and pausing to soak in the gorgeous beauty of the mountains. The rest of the trail was predominately forested single track that looked relatively harmless on the laminated elevation profile I was carrying in my pocket (printing off maps, pace charts, and elevation profiles are the only time I use the laminator as a teacher). There were two 1,000 foot plus descents with a lot of little bumps that I harmlessly described as rollers. The terrain, according to Mark, would also become less technical. All of these factors led us to believe that we would soon settle into a rhythm of challenging yet runnable terrain until we arrived back at Davidson River. The mountains took note of our lax attitude and delivered in kind for the final 18 miles.

DCIM100GOPROGOPR9930.

Mountain Crusher Mark

Being above 5,000 feet, we enjoyed a brief section of trail through a spruce and fir thicket. We then quickly started big descent number one. The descent was super technical and switch-backed all the way down to the Blue Ridge Parkway. We could see cars driving along the Parkway way down below as we descended, which put it into perspective how quickly the trail dropped off the side of the mountain. The trail continued to drop after crossing the Parkway and became thickly littered with leaves for the next few miles. The trail was easy to follow, but the thickness of the leaves caused somewhat precarious footing and prevented us from truly taking advantage of the runnable grade.

We finished the long descent and began the first little “roller” of a climb. Note to self, climbs of 500 feet in half a mile are not rollers. That was a rude awakening and a realization that the remaining “rollers” would not be similar to the brief climbs of Percy Warner.

Water is not frequent along the Art Loeb, but there are a few springs spaced about 8 miles apart throughout the length of the trail. After the half mile climb, we quickly dropped down into a backpacking shelter with a nearby spring and refilled on water. We could see the huge climb that awaited as Pilot Mountain jutted up directly in front of us. We dropped down into low gear and began the power hike up. The trail perfectly switch-backed up the mountain and reminded me of all the hard work that goes into creating trails in such difficult terrain that allow us all the opportunity to easily escape into the mountains.

Pilot mountain

Up Pilot Mountain. Photo- Jobie

The peak of Pilot Mountain had beautiful views off both sides. There is a great view of the iconic Looking Glass Rock to the east, which is where Marcelle and I took our second backpacking trip. The mountains undulated seemingly forever in their hazy hue to the west. A quick glance at the elevation profile told us we were about to head down big descent number two, which lost almost 2,000 feet of elevation over two miles.

Looking Glass

Looking Glass Rock. Photo- Jobie

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View to the west.

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“I love the Art Loeb Trail this much!”

The leaf litter wasn’t as bad as before and we could manage somewhat of a quicker turnover going down. We actually passed another runner and his dog going in the opposite direction taking on the Art Loeb in a single day. Realizing the time of day and the need to keep moving, none of us chatted for long and carried on.

We now had about 13 miles to go upon reaching the bottom of Pilot Mountain. The remaining half marathon was a net down hill with a few climbs thrown in. Everybody seemed to still be in good spirits, but had switched into finish mode. Mark was a little less cheerful and was taking extended breaks from his usual permanent smile. Scott was no longer referencing a movie or TV show every mile. And Jobie’s camera remained stashed in his pack. Art Loeb had us right where he wanted us.

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Are we there yet?

We passed a lot of backpackers for the next few miles heading up the trail as we were shuffling down. Seeing a backpacker carrying enough stuff to last for a week with a look of disgust and struggle on their face always brightens my mood knowing my little vest of food and water is infinitely lighter.

Butter Gap Shelter marked our last reliable source of water and eight miles to go. There was a huge pack of Boy Scouts setting up camp for the night as we pulled water from a questionable pipe. We took our time getting enough water to last us for the final push. I can’t recall our conversations but do remember thinking that we seemed a little drunk and delirious. Scott had another movie reference left in him.

Scott- “We are chipping away at this thing like Shawshank.”

The elevation profile indicated a few more of those “rollers” and one biggish climb left. There was nothing rolling about those last eight miles. It was up and down, with the ups being quite steep. After a few miles, I stopped at a trail intersection to wait on Scott and Jobie. Mark said he was gonna keep moving. The long descents were zapping his quads. I had the elevation profile out studying the remaining five miles hoping against common sense that we were closer to finishing than we actually were. Scott and Jobie shuffled in with fatigue fully set in on their faces.

Scott- “What ya thinking? How much more left?”

Me- “I’m trying to figure out if we have started the last big climb or not.”

Jobie- “What do you mean last big climb?”

DCIM100GOPROG0179963.

Last big climb.

We pressed on and soon after Scott hollered that Jobie needed to sit down for a second. I was getting a little worried if we would make it back with enough light and wondering if an epic bonk was stirring for Jobie. I decided to keep going so I could grab some headlamps at camp and meet them back up the trail with some Coke for fuel if they had to death march the final four miles.

I soon passed Mark who was trudging along. The last four miles would have been really fun to bomb on fresh legs. I made it back to camp about an hour later with a little bit of daylight left.  Billy was working on an awesome fire, while chef Daniel was cooking up a feast. I grabbed some lamps to meet the guys back on the trail hoping the lamps would not be needed.

Luckily, they all marched in minutes apart after I drove the short distance from our campground back to the trailhead. There was little jubilation in finishing. Just utter relief to be done.

Jobie- “That took 10 freaking hours to do a 50k!”

We got back to camp and Billy couldn’t wait to hear the stories of the suffer fest. Jobie (Joe-B as Billy pronounces it) had many words, none too glowing, to describe the Art Loeb Trail. Billy listened the whole time with a huge grin on his face and affectionately reminded Jobie that he would still have 70 miles to go in running Angeles Crest in three and a half months.

Sage Billy

Trail sage Billy. Photo- Jobie

Scott campfire

Glad to be back at camp. Photo- Jobie

The rest of the night was filled with some of the best food I have ever had. The beet salad, pan seared avocado, sweet potato soufflé, wild Alaskan salmon, and steak filet quickly lifted our spirits. We recounted the day’s journey around the campfire, while also discussing Jared Campbell’s immensely impressive third Barkley finish that Billy witnessed first hand two weeks ago.

b'fast

Breakfast the next day. Potatoes and duck eggs. Seriously. Photo- Jobie

chef daniel

Chef Daniel. God of camp food. Photo- Jobie

All in all, it was an unforgettable weekend with friends in the mountains. Good conversation, excellent food, and a humbling experience that only the mountains can offer.

4/16/16

Strava- Art Loeb Run

Jobie’s Instagram with more awesome pics.

Posted in Adventure Runs | 1 Comment