My right leg screamed in angst and pain. I put my hands on the cold, wet, grey stones I had just slipped on to throw myself back in an upright position to begin running again, trying to not lose even a second from my sloppy footwork. It wasn't even mile 3 in the Ultra Race of Champions 100K and I had just suffered a blow to my right Quadriceps that felt as though it had not only injured the muscle but went through to the femur itself. The terrain in the opening was brutal, a mix of wet rocks covering the trail, and steep grades which relentlessly destroyed the body with awesome climbs and grueling descents. It was a an accurate glimpse of what was in store for us the duration of our day, running 62.5 miles though the Blue Ridge Mountains.
I was in the right place mentally from the word GO! This race was about a strong finish and perfect pacing. Approximately 12,500’ of climbing awaited all of us on the course, and I couldn’t get caught up in trying to run someone else’s race. With the most competitive field in any race I have ever run, and with one of the most stacked fields in any Ultra ever, I knew I couldn’t destroy myself in the opening by trying to hang with runners who were battling in the opening miles, only to find themselves empty at the finish where it really matters. My strategy was confirmed as a wise one when I found myself running next to the highly respectable Brit, Ian Sharman, a phenomenal runner who ran the fastest 100 miler ever on American soil this year, 12 hours and 44 minutes at the Rocky Raccoon 100. I was thrilled to be chatting with the friendly Sharman as we approached the Summit of Wintergreen Mountain near mile 5.5.
After mile 5.5 I soon myself alone already which pleased me. In hopes of truly running my own pace, I was pleased to have the trail to myself, as I pounded the downhill miles to only meet more climbing before the next aid station. I was surprised at the amount of pain my quadriceps were in this early in the race, but honestly, I still felt better than any race in this year maybe, and I knew I had mental strength this race, and I was well rested and in peak form. I knew this because my heart rate was high relative to my perceived energy expenditure.
As the day progressed I maintained speed though the aid stations, which were all well stocked by Clif, manufacturer of high-end performance nutrition products. Fortunately, due to my great crew, consisting of Stephanie and Kara, I never actually had to stop running as they had my bottles ready to go for quick hand-offs at the aid stations, so I wouldn’t lose any time at aid. We were so fast at aid, I couldn’t even tell them about exciting things on the course, like my muscle stabbing fall early on, or about running with Ian Sharman up to Wintergreen Summit.
At mile 18, near Sherando Lake, I managed to reel in and catch Dave James, winner of the 100 mile trail USATF championships this year. Chatting with the affable James, while navigating the singletrack around Sherando Lake was a highlight of the day for sure. I came out ahead of James and began the climb up Bald Mountain. I later heard that many runners dropped after the long technical climb up the rocky Bald Mountain trail, but I didn’t think it was that bad. I’m not sure if it was because they went out too quickly, or what, but I felt pretty good and had a good climb up Bald Mountain. Halfway up the climb, I caught Jeremy Pade and let him lead me up the climb a bit.I was glad to have the chance to chat for a moment with Jeremy as he is signed up for Pinothi this year, which is a 100 miler in Alabama in November. I was surprised to say the least when Jeremy and I both passed Michael Owen, one of the younger runners at UROC, who placed 3rd at the USATF 100 Mile National Trail Championships this year at Burning River. Michael is one of the guys I think are going to make the future of our sport. He’s crazy fast, and insanely good for how young he is. A guy like Michael who is so gifted physiologically to run fast road stuff who does ultras is going to be setting course records and raising the bar for the next 20 years. After Jeremy and I passed Michael, I then passed Jeremy and also another runner, Chris Reed.
After Bald Mountain was a long lonely stretch of pavement, and I didn’t see another runner for over thirty minutes, maybe even an hour, I don’t know. I began to grow worried I was off course and missed a turn, but I knew I was still seeing course markings and I knew I studied the map and I had to be on course, but I kept waiting for the aid station and it never arrived. What I didn’t realize was that the “aid” station at Spy Gap, mile 29.3 wasn’t a full aid station so I ran right by it expecting to reach the real aid later. The longer I ran, and looked at the mileage on my Garmin, I thought I had missed a turn and had screwed myself. The Blue Ridge Parkway and Spy Run Gap road went blanketed in fog and a strong breeze and the scene was ominous, but suddenly out of the fog, came a vision of figures and I heard clapping. I realized I was still on course and my world became right again.
I entered the out and back section and was glad to back on singletrack for a break from the pavement. I saw Dave Mackey walking and wondered if he was about to drop. Dave just set a new course record at the Waldo 100K last month, and has too many wins and national championships to even list. The benefit of an out and back stretch on the course is that I could definitively see my competition, and see their order and their spirits, etc. Soon after Dave Mackey, I saw Michael Wardian flying, and Geoff Roes looking downright spritely and fresh.
Upon reaching the Whetstone Aid Station again after the out and back, I changed my shoes as planned, which took less than 30 seconds, but I figured would pay large benefits on the road. It was mile 42 approximately at the Whetstone Aid, and the remainder of course was mostly pavement minus a very technical stretch of 5 miles of treacherous downhill singetrack on wet rock and muddy trail. I knew it was the right decision to switch shoes as soon as I stepped on pavement after 42 miles of running and was able to put in a strong pace even on the climbs. My cadence felt quick and light, but upon entering the Bald Mountain area again for the nasty trails, I had to pay my price.
I managed to gain placement as the race progressed all day. After Whetstone#2 following the out and back, I held 8th for a long time, and Chris Reed was in ninth. I was fast on the pavement and gained time on Grossman in 7th, but because I wanted faster road shoes, I sacrificed a lot of time during miles 48.5 to 53.5 as I pussyfooted down the Bald Mountain stretch with its steep grades and mud and rocks. I hit the aid station at mile 53.5 and Chris Reed had closed 10 minutes on me! As soon as I ran towards the station to grab my bottle which Kara and Stephanie tossed, I heard the cheers as Reed caught me!
Luckily, the rest was pavement, and I had already paid the piper and I could speed up now that I was back on roads for good. I didn’t even look back. Reed stayed behind, and I knew I had a slight advantage on the climbs. There was only 10 miles left, and I was empowered to hear that even as I crawled though the technical terrain in my road shoes, I still closed the gap on Grossman down to 4 minutes or so, and there was only 10 miles left.
The next 5 miles went by slowly as I was focused on not letting Reed catch me. I try to not race “behind me”, but I did NOT want to lose placement. I tried to focus on running my own race, and I did NOT look behind me even once to see where Reed was.
I entered the Aid at Reed’s Gap with only just over 4 miles left, and knew I had juice for a strong finish. I glanced back to see Reed entering the Aid Station, but I bolted without slowing. It was one mile downhill and then the finish was a climb over 3 miles to the finish. I held 10 miles per hour on the downhill to escape Reed and couldn’t see him at all, and then focused on attacking Grossman. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he was there.
Halfway up the climb, with nothing left in my body I dug deep as I had been the whole last climb and destroyed myself. I saw Grossman, running and looking strong, and attacked and rested and attacked and rested. I would go his speed and then attack faster to close the gap, and then recover by going his speed. It was foggy and misty and epic to the core. I knew Grossman couldn’t see me, or didn’t see me, but then a car containing some of the elites who had dropped and were on the climb to check out the finish alerted Grossman, and then cheered me on too! I dug deep for my final attack and passed Grossman with a huge smile. I have known Grossman for many years, as he created my hometown ultra during the years he lived in Louisville. I raced against him at the Iron Mountain 50, my tuner race for UROC. He won that race setting a new course record, which he was also the founder of, and I got 2nd. I wanted to send a signal I was feeling better than I was, so I yelled encouragement at him, and he yelled something at my to the effect of, “You are CRAZY!” and I took off. I was on fire; I just passed Grossman with less than a mile, taking 7th. He said something, which I didn’t hear, and then maybe something else. I wish I knew what it was, but I soon learned that there was another runner right in front of me! I couldn’t believe how close this race was! I attacked and rested, but after destroying myself to catch this next runner, I couldn’t make the pass. He held sixth at the summit of the climb and I gave up the chase as I choked, literally from exasperation. There was about a hundred or 2 hundred yards of downhill to the finish and I came in a minute or so behind JB, and I took 7th overall. I was ecstatic with the finish, as epic as ever, with so much fog and mist, it was just theatrical. My crew wasn’t even expecting me so early!
During my interview the night before the race with Andy, ( an interview I almost didn’t do because I so overwhelmed by being in such great company upon arriving, seeing my name on a plaque with the other true “elites” etcetera), I told him I wanted a top 10, but I didn’t think it was possible. I got 7th and was jovial. I stuck to my game plan, and ran my own race, trying to not get swept away in a fast start which ending up forcing out many of the elites. My nutrition was good and my crew incredible.
I was proud of my pacing, and it left me with yet again a drive to grow faster and smarter and push the limits even further. Everyone was so friendly and what a great chance to finally meet all the runners I’ve been admiring from afar for so long. I couldn’t sleep much after the race, as I thought about my next race and what I can improve upon to gain speed and efficiency and finish in the fastest I am possible of.
Some after notes…
Here’s a link to some vids…
I’m at minute 4 on this one….
I’m at minute 9 here, for the interview…
PICS TO COME…