This race was designed to be the second step in training & experience towards the UTMB100 in August. Rocky Raccoon was a good way to learn about running 100 miles but climbs totalled 5500 feet over the 100 miles, as opposed to UTMB which has 30,000. Old Dominion at 14,000 feet has a few monsters but enough rolling road to make them bearable. As the second oldest 100 miler in the States, set in beautiful Virginia countryside i'd expected a deeper field but there weren't that many of us. I flew into Washington and stayed a night with Frank, Chelsea and their horsedog Winston who tried to eat my bag. The next morning we got up, ate some hotdogs and scrambled eggs & Frank dropped me back to the car rental place at Washington.
The next day I drove out to Woodstock and checked in to the Holiday Inn then went to the Fairgrounds where the race started to register for the race. They weighed me in (if you lose or gain too much during the race they pull you out) and I loaded up 7 drop bags with packets of cheese and bread rolls. I put things like burgers and cheese in drop bags gels and energy bars taste like sh*t and I need the real food. I ended up talking at length with a guy called David Snipes who had run OD 4 times before and really knew his stuff. After the course briefing we drove out to the 3 mile to go checkpoint, at the bottom of Woodstock Mountain where you emerge back into civilisation after 97 miles of running and then back into the Fairgrounds so that we could double check the route, which although marked, regularly gets removed by vandals. I didn't want to go wrong at 97 miles so was grateful that we did it. After that I went to Pizza Hut and got involved and then went back to the hotel for some sleep.
Alarm went at 3:15 for the 4am start and put my stuff on and went down there. There weren't that many of us starting which I found suprising as the run is heralded as extremely good by all those who take part each year, plus it is the 2nd oldest 100 in the States, oldest on the East Coast & hence has some prestige. Talking to Ray the Race Director afterwards he blames a lack of finances for marketing and therefore word of mouth which inevitably leads to low numbers. I agree with him but I think what puts most people off is the course profile and cut off. 28 hours is tight for any 100 miler and with 14,000+ feet of climbing I think 28 hours alienates a lot of would be runners. Its not hard enough to go up against Hardrock/ Leadville or Massanutten on the East Coast but its also not flat enough to run fast times.
They had spray painted a pink line on the ground outside the main stable at the fairgrounds and we all lined up behind it in the dark, most without headlamps including me as i had stuck it in the drop bag to pick up at 75 miles. The gun went and some really odd music started coming out of someones car speakers, something you might hear at the end of an old Western and off we went. One circle of the fairground track and then out onto the roads. A police cruiser led us through the town to protect us from all the traffic and I quickly got into stride with David from the day before. The course went 3.1 miles before aid station 1, then more flat until we went over the huge Shenandoah River and to the bottom of Woodstock Mountain. I walked pretty much the whole climb up the 14 switchbacks and at the top the first signs of dawn were appearing 7.2 miles in. Down the otherside on a gravel path David pushed on ahead with a friend of his and I got into just running my 100 mile pace, steady roughly 10 minute miles. Aid Station 3 was Ray in his truck with some water and all until now had been on road/ gravel road so despite the climb & descent real easy pacing.
The pattern for the day was set in the next 4.5 miles however. The course markings disappeared off of the road left into a wood and straight up a long rocky ascent. Nice trail but totally unrunnable as a climb, then back down the other side on nice dropping wooded trail and back on the road to the next Checkpoint. The whole of Old Dominion is road, gravel road, road nothing too serious and then WHAM off you go out of nowhere on a massive off road trail climb and technical descent back to nice easy road again. It makes for interesting running but pretty hard to get any rhythm going. Nevertheless the course meandered down into Fort Valley and between 16 and 32 miles there were just rolling hills and road through farms and quiet Virginia Country. The only distraction were dogs in cages which went insane each time we ran by.
When I got to 32 I felt tired. It was hot probably 80ish and I knew it wasn't going to be an easy day. The next 15 miles were supposed to be hard back to the 47 mile aid station which was also the 32 mile station so a loop within a loop here. We climbed another long hill and trail then dropped down into what they called Duncan Hollow. Essentially it was just a shit up hill climb for about 5 miles on rocky trail that was totally flooded. I passed about 7 people on this stretch all trying to keep their feet dry as I went straight up the middle of the 'river' wading the whole way Im never bothered about getting wet feet it defies belief how long some people spend changing shoes and socks to keep dry feet your gonna get blisters anyway may as well just SUCK IT UP!!!!
Anyway back at 47I started getting in trouble. Id been drinking loads until now in the oppresive heat but I didn't take on what I needed in the next 4 miles all uphill road into the 51 aid station called Mountain Top. When I got in there I was staggering about and when Ron and Andrew the two guys I ran a lot of this section with asked me a question the words just came out in totally the wrong order. As a result I knew I had to start consuming food and drink straight away or id be in big trouble shortly after. In the end after around 20 minutes of trying to recover the 6 miles down to Edinburgh Gap at 57 miles flew by I really started running strong.
I blew up my own race on the next 8 miles though. I left the aid station at 57 with Ron & head up onto the ATV Trail which was an absolute bitch. Serious sand climbs and descents around a water and wet sand soaked path and it was really hot. Flies everywhere and only one aid station with water (a guy in his truck) in the middle so I pushed on here and actually burnt up a lot of the energy reserves I had left. When I got into Little Fort at 64 I sat in the chair and some guys brought me a burger and some soup which was great but I knew it was slowly but surely all going a bit wrong. Another long climb and then some rolling road brought us into Mudhole Gap which was again full of so many flies I just got water and carried on. Mentally I was shaky on this section but the guy at the aid told me I was the last one on the course still on for sub 24 time, with 13 in front of me. That was good to hear.
I went on the 6 mile trail to Elizabeth Furnace Mile 75 and it was really nice trail running, smooth compacted but despite that I was all over the place. My mind was playing the old tricks you naturally suffer ie. You've got 30 miles left with the 2 monster climbs still to come and you're already totally cooked. You've been running 16 hours and you've definitely got 8 left minimum.
Still when I got to Elizabeth Furnace at 75 miles it was still light. Id been told that the next 8 miles up Sherman Gap and down were awful. I'd read a pre race report from a guy called Jay Finkle 5 time sub 24 hour finisher outlining that Sherman Gap was by far and a way the worst part of the course and that you should try to do as much of it in daylight as possible because its long and technical. Id known this all day and I think having this in the back of my mind had maybe caused me to push too hard earlier on when I knew I was tired.
Anyway in that Aid Station the Volunteers told me I could have a pacer. I said thanks but I didn't have a crew with me, but a 16 year old kid called Cole from the local school was there headtorch on, food in hand ready to go over the mountain with a runner. He offered to go with me and I was absolutely stunned. I said yeah sure that would be great but bear in mind there won't be any running involved until we get over the mountain as I was feeling pretty wrecked. He said cool and in hindsight I think he saved my race.
It took almost 3 hours to cover the next 8 miles up and over Sherman. The top was so steep I passed another runner literally panting and panicking because at 80 miles the massive climb had sent his Heart Rate through the roof. He recovered but I thought for a minute he was going to collapse which would have been a really bad idea up there. Talking to Cole took my mind of the run. We talked films, facebook, running all that American High School stuff that he was into and I knew by the end he'd end up running this race himself one day he was loving the pain!
When we got to the Aid Station at 83 i shook his hand and told him if I broke 24 id send him the buckle you get for beating the 1 day clock. I then caught up with Ron again and we climbed up and over the 2nd bastard climb called Veach Gap. Down the other side into Veach West at 87 wasn't as long as Sherman but again we were wading through the river and it was absolutley pitch black. I hadn't replaced my headtorch batteries (idiot) so i was tripping everywhere in the half light. At Veach I felt close to the edge. With 13 left I knew id be ok but i was absolutely gone. No energy left at all. The next 4 were back on open road and it was so dark the black top road looked like a magic carpet. I went delirious here imagining peoples mail boxes were animals and people and stuff but I kept moving forward until close to the 91 mile aid station. I was looking for anywhere to lie down at that point. I almost lay on the road I was so tired. I knew i was going to finish but that to break 24 hours id have to run most of the remaining 10 miles and that was looking very hard to do. Instead I hobbled into the 91 mile aid station and sat in the chair again. The guys there kind of went 'don't stop you're nearly there' and i couldn't be bothered to tell them 'look lads there's still 9 miles left and im not sure i can go 9 metres' but they could tell thats what I was thinking. I shut my eyes for a few seconds and then got annoyed with myself for being a pussy and stood up to move off. I sort of stumbled forward back onto the road but realised i wasn't going anywhere. In fact a car had come up the road & I had almost stepped out in front of it. The aid station captain was holding me by my collar to stop me walking into its path. When it went by he released me with a kind of 'off you go now' in the way you would talk to a 3 year old which I guess was about my mental age at that point.
From 91 there was a 2 mile climb to the top of Woodstock Mountain. The racebook mentions this point when you enter as follows:
'There are fancier ways to spend Saturday night in America. None better than to stake your claim at a spot on the top of Woodstock mountain, about seven miles from the finish. Some look like the survivors of a battle. They are the victors who have actually been in the arena.'
Ron and I had some coke at the 93 aid station and took absolutely ages descending the 14 switchbacks down to the bottom of the road we had run up in the morning because our quads were screaming at us. We tried to run little bits and then just hobbled a bit acknowledging that it just wasn't going to happen.
We got into the 97.36 aid station with 24 hours 30 on the clock and ran the last 2.7 miles in 27 minutes. The last lap round the fairground again we were picking up some good pace still. No ties allowed in this event so I let Ron cross first and then followed him in 24 hours 58 minutes and 34 seconds.
The finish was just a small banner and a man under a gazebo with a watch who signed us in. We said thanks and went on our way. All that running to be witnessed by only one person at the end of such a journey. Ron and I exchanged a quick hug and I grabbed the car and went back to the hotel.
Footnote: 1 of the runners Dan Brenden who has finished the Grand Slam and Last Great Race multiple times went wrong at 47 and ran 9 miles to another aid station before they told him what he'd done. Instead of dropping he turned around and ran the 9 miles back and then finished the rest of the 100 miles totalling 118 miles in 26 hours. I will remember than any time I make a mistake in course reading or add unnecessary distance to a race as the mental strength it must have taken not to quit at the point he realised he was going to have to have run an extra 18 to finish must have been absolutely enormous.
A couple of days before the race I booked a hire car from Houston airport and a hotel just off of the side of the I-45 freeway, packed a lot of mars bars and flew to Texas. It felt strange going off to take on a big race knowing that I wouldn't be meeting up with the rest of the Endurance Heroes. RR100 is widely renowned as one of the easier 100's as it takes in only 5500 feet of climb and is largely on nice soft woodland trail around Huntsville State Park. I've got to say that the scenery was stunning but I doubt i'll ever run a race with 5 x 20 mile loops again. This time it made sense, I had no crew, no pacers and had to drive straight back to the airport after the race so needed to be back at the car immediately at the end, not 100 miles away from it.
I got to Texas on the Thursday night had a Mcdonalds which was just great. The nuggets were good & the burger was dripping grease much more so than in the UK. The next morning I went to Wal Mart, bought some food and drove to the park to give in my drop bag which was going to be taken out to the aid station at the 6.4 mile and 12.4 mile point. This was a waste of time as I actually never got anything out of it and had to leave so soon after the end of the race that I didn't have time to get it back! I tried not to change my body clock for this race as it was a 6am start on the Saturday so I went to bed at 7pm and got up at 3am, ate a lasagne and then spaghetti with Meat Balls from the microwave, got in the car and drove down to the start line. I put my bag behind a tree near the finish line tent and lined up with everyone else. Before the start I looked at the 10 people around me and thought to myself 'at least 3 of us aren't gonna finish this' and told myself there was no way I would come all this way and DNF....
The first hour we jogged around in the woods following each others headlamps. The light came through around 7 30 and most of the trail was good. The 6 mile out and back section at the top of the course was long, undulating and littered with thick roots and was going to be difficult to negotiate in the dark of the night but it was good in the daylight. I managed to cover the first 20 miles in 3:34 which was right on for the schedule I had written across the front of my pack. The next 20 were mentally the hardest. I was enjoying running but had that slightly sickening sensation that 80 miles to the finish line was a long way. There were around 250 x 100 milers and 200 x 50 milers so with the loop format you saw people all the way around. Loop 3 luckily went like a dream. Haruki Makayami writes in his book 'What I talk about when I talk about running' which describes ruising through some miles, how I felt for this middle 20: 'As I run I tell myself to think of a river. But essentially I am not thinking of a thing. All I do is keep on running in my cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.' I came back to the start finish in 11:36 & that is where it all started going wrong.
I went for a sit down on the loo near my bag and for want a nicer way of describing this, ended up wiping half of the skin of my rear end off in the process. When i came out every step felt like someone had been rubbing at it with sandpaper for an hour. I tried to address the issue with vaseline but it was barely covering the problem. The next three miles it got dark and i started tripping over the roots. There seemed a lot in the day time but now they were everywhere. I went down quite hard twice and with the pain of my rear end, the slowly depleting energy reserves and lack of daylight I got a bit low. In the end I got to the turn around aid station and sat in a chair for 1 minute. Frank had spoken at length to before hand about how he had not sat down, not stopped, not changed clothes in the entire of his journey through the 2008 Leadville Trail 100, and I liked that. Very impressive. It seemed that i needed 60 seconds of 'personal time' here though just to remind myself that this was all a good experience & relatively speaking I was still fine. I stood up again and pressed on up the hill with short but quick steps and two guys coming the other way doing the last stretch of the 50 stopped and give me a round of applause with the comment of 'nice peppy step brother very inspirational.' This made me burst out laughing & helped me to start to refocus.
I got back round to 80 miles in 16 something and with my rear end still on fire reapplied a large amount of vaseline. It was at this point that the winner Andy Jones Wilkins carried himself over the line, just a massive performance, but I had for the first time EVER succesfully paced myself to within my target time of sub 24 hours and felt reasonably comfortable on the last loop. I ran out of the aid station and pushed through it as best i could hitting mars bars every 30 minutes, stumbling a lot, falling a bit but always moving forward. In the end I got round the last lap in a horrible time but crossed the 100 mile mark in 22:54. I was delighted but knew that I had to focus on the other endurance element of the trip, getting home.
I drove to the hotel got my stuff and drove straight to the airport. I was in such a rush a didn't have time to properly tend to the chaffed areas which therefore remained fairly exposed. I must have heard 'good job' 1000 times on the run but I was now making a decidedly POOR job of conducting myself in an honourable fashion. My legs were locking up so I was shuffling around and wincing. People were staring and i felt paranoid that they were trying to move away from me. I found a diner and waded into a cheese and bacon burger with fries and onion rings. Then I made my way to the Seafood restaurant next to our departure gate and had some pasta. I was so hungry it was unreal. I basically ate 20 mars bars on the run, a couple of small cups of pasta at the aid stations but that was it. I had to sit cramped up next to the window for 10 hours, got off the other end and literally couldn't walk. When I got home Monday lunchtime I found a gas man in the road outside and all of the pavement around the front door dug up. I knew what he was going to say before I even asked and I was pretty annoyed about it. No gas. No Heating. No Cooker. No Hot Water. I bought 3 packs of sandwiches from the shop over the road got in a sleeping bag, got under the duvet, ate all the sandwiches and went to sleep until it was time for work the next morning. Still I am now the proud owner of a sub 24 buckle for a 100 mile race. I am happy about that.