• Trail Running: Some Amateur Tips by Eric Olson-Getty

    Eric is one of Excel Rocktown's Runners (ultrarunner!) and is an ambassador for ReNew Earth Running, an organization "running to protect and heal the environment by restoring land to the stewardship of Tribal Nations and Indigenous leadership". 

     

    Until more recently I have not been a very competitive trail runner. I was a hurdler in my youth and as an adult I’ve done a few road races. I’ve done four trail events from 2018 to now, and only “raced” two of them. I’m pretty much just an average runner when it comes to speed, but I really like running around in the woods. There’s something about running trails that gives me a great sense of accomplishment and well-being. While sometimes I might miss some of the finer details of a place that I might not if I was going at a slower pace, there’s something amazing about connecting to whole landscapes and having the ability to explore a lot of places at one go. And at a very basic level, for me it is important to be someplace remote and peaceful on the regular. Sure, I run on streets and roads when I have to, but I need those hours away from everything where it’s just me and the land.

    But there’s another good reason to run trails: it’s better for your running to add variety, and you get the added mood boosting benefit of being in a natural space. If you’re already a runner, trail running helps prevent overuse injuries, improves balance and stability, and engages your core more than road running. There is more variation in surfaces and terrain, and the climbs, drops, twists and turns, and changing surfaces all mean you’re hardly ever running the same way for more than a few seconds (or minutes…tops!). 

    One time a friend asked me what I think about when I’m running trails. I’ve found that I have sort of an inner “coach” or self-talk that has helped me make explicit what I’m doing and why as I move down the trail. Here are my top three: 1) breath, 2) even effort, and 3) slow is smooth, smooth is fast.

    #1: Breath. Obviously this is the most basic thing. If you don’t breathe, you pass out, whether you’re sitting at your computer or running a marathon. You can learn a lot about breathing well by practicing yoga or meditation. When running I synchronize my breaths with my cadence on an odd-numbered cycle – a technique I learned about in a Runner’s World article ages ago. If you’re a musician, this would be like breathing in 5/4 or 7/8 time, with your foot strike as one beat. Breathe in three beats, exhale two beats (I tend to syncopate it to divide the cycle into two even halves). Using an odd measure means your breathing cycle steps off on the opposite foot each time, helping to build in balance to your gait and preventing injury over time. You can practice this technique while walking or running on a flat surface. Eventually it’ll become so natural you won’t think about it. The rhythm and measure length will change as you increase or decrease effort, and these changes will be your “gears.” Your gears can be a reference point for gauging your level of effort at any given time, and will help you learn to pace yourself by feel as you become better attuned to what is happening in your body. 

    #2: Even effort. The “even effort” principle applies to road running, too. The difference on trails is that, depending on where you’re running, the terrain and the surface may be changing rapidly. You may also be dealing with steeper grades than you would on roads. For that reason, road pace does not translate to trail pace. If your long run pace on the road averages 9:00/mile, it might be 11:00 or 12:00 or even slower on trails for the same level of effort, depending on how severe the terrain gets. So don’t even try to keep up the pace. Believe it or not, trail runners walk – even the pros! Instead, find the “pocket” you want to run in – your level of effort – and stay smooth. Remember to notice your breath: your body will force you to change gears as you push or relax your effort. Choose a gear, relax into that pocket, and flow over the trail. Don’t fight the trail. Let the trail decide your speed. When climbing, shorten your stride, keep your cadence even and gentle, use your upper body, and think of yourself floating smoothly up the hill. Walk if you want to or need to – sometimes that’s more efficient than running – or shift into a new gear if you have to increase effort to keep going. Your body will tell you what to do. All of those pointers apply whether you’re moving at a relaxed effort or trying to set a record.

    #3: Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Eventually you’re going to get to the real fun stuff: rocks and roots! Of course, the technical stuff is only fun when you stay upright, so these are some tips on how to have fun and stay safe. Running through a rock garden can be a blast if you think of it like play or like dancing. It is about keeping your upper body relaxed, keeping your hips and waist on a swivel, picking up your feet, and keeping your eyes scanning up the trail. Ever play the lava game as a kid? You know, that game where you can only step on the rocks or you die a fiery death? It’s a great way to train your brain to solve the puzzle of “how to get from A to B when it gets complicated.” Playing little games like this can be a fun way to improve your balance and strengthen the soft tissue that supports your feet and ankles, and it develops your brain’s ability to pick efficient lines as you run. Trail running is both a cognitive and physical activity. When I find myself stubbing my toe or rolling my ankle in a technical section my first reaction (after “oww! @%&”) is to tell myself to “slow down.” After that, it’s “be smooth.” Those two words, “slow” and “smooth,” put my mind back into play mode, and they also keep me centered, focused, and safe. It’s important that I not try to be fast, explosive, jerky, or rushed when moving along a rough section. If that means pausing to reset myself, to get my brain and body back in sync, that’s okay. It reminds me to be playful with the obstacles, stay light on my feet, and float. With time, the mantra “slow is smooth, smooth is fast” will come true. When I am really focused I have the experience of time slowing down as my brain instinctively picks the lines through the rocks. By slowing down, I can clear the rough stuff faster than I could by white knuckling my way through as fast as I can. 

    I’ll add one caution that comes from experience: I don’t fall often, but when I do it’s usually on the easy parts. In particular, easy sections that follow technical sections. It is easy to lose focus in the seconds after clearing some tough trail, when your brain relaxes and you fail to notice that little pebble of death hiding in plain sight! 

    A note on the spirit of things

    All of us come to running for our own reasons with our own beliefs and values. One important value that I’m learning from my Native teammates is to run with respect. That means having a reverence and gratitude for the land that is hosting me as I run, and along with that, an awareness and reverence for myself as I interact relationally with the land. That includes acknowledging that I am running on stolen Native land, and there have been painful histories lived out here. I’ve found that if I come into a run holding this intention and awareness, I am more attuned to what is going on in me and around me. 

    I avoid coming to the trail with a conquest mindset. I don’t think it’s healthy or safe to be in conflict with the land I’m running on, so if I have a sense that it’s not right for me to do the thing I’d planned on, I listen to my gut. That could mean choosing to run on roads to avoid damaging muddy trails during a spring thaw; it might mean opting not to do that off-trail exploration I was thinking about that could damage delicate ecosystems or degrade historic sites; or it can be something as simple as, “I really wanted to send it on this descent, but now I’m noticing it is hot and humid and my brain feels a bit foggy and I’m not finding the lines on these rocks, so maybe I’ll slow down and walk instead.” That is working with what is happening in the body and the air and the trail and not fighting it and risking getting hurt. I think it also means taking the time for curiosity and not just putting down your head and running: pause and enjoy the views, notice the plants growing along the trail, and talk to the animals if that’s your thing! There is give and take, dialogue, connection, mutual care: we take care of the land, and the land takes care of us. For me, when trail running is about connection, not conquest, it means that being attuned to my mind and spirit is just as important as what I do with my body.


  • Overfed and Undernourished

    Over fed and undernourished: that was the theme of my adolescent/early adulthood athletic career.

     

    In 7th grade, I fueled my XC training runs, races, and track meets with Grapico and Reese’s cups, refueling with even more processed garbage. Now, the body can withstand a smaller percentage of processed, high sugar foods when the safety net has been established: high quality protein, phytonutrients, healthy fats. But at some point, fueling with nutrient-deficient foods will catch up.

     

    Looking back, it’s a wonder I accomplished what I did before I finally broke. My only regret is not caring for my body better, especially since I'm having to repair that damage now.

     

    Age 13:

    21st in State XC, 4th/5th on team.

    3rd in Indoor State 4x800

    Top 10 in 400m dash Outdoor state

    1st in Outdoor State 4x400, 65 sec split

    Age 14:

    4 days weekly of 3 hours of ballet at Alabama ballet: 90 min of Technique, then 90 min of Jazz, Modern, or Pointe class

    Indoor State: 3rd in 4x400, 2nd 4x400

    Outdoor Sectionals: won the 400m hurdles, won the 4x400, top finish in the open 400.

     

    BUT my back was severely injured and my menstrual cycle had lasted 4-5 months approximately. I had also been plagued by aches and pains and adolescent fear. But my back, my L5 to be exact, twisted from same lead leg hurdling, and I couldn’t stand up straight, let alone run without significant pain. The orthopedic solution: surgery or anti-inflammatory drugs. The gynecological solution: birth control… at 14. My mother was horrified by my options.

     

    I took both drugs, but began chiropractic 3x week during PE and also visited a muscle testing compounder, who decided dessicated bovine ovary was needed. With rest and this healing protocol, my body somewhat healed, though my lower back will be forever anatomically changed.

     

    I returned to track my senior year, but was plagued with a respiratory infection throughout indoor that I couldn’t shake. I was the fastest out of blocks and 2nd fastest sprinter, so I ran the 55m dash at states. No advancement to the finals, though.

     

    After indoor, I picked up pole vault and prepared for the 100m dash and starting the 4x100 m relay. One day, I was practicing my pole vault drills and my ankle gave way, causing instant injury to my knee. My ACL was torn, reconstructed with a hamstring graft. My hamstring. That upper respiratory infection turned out to be pneumonia, finally diagnosed right before surgery.  I tried to run for my D3 college, but the scar tissue build up was so great that I couldn’t flex or extend my leg fully, and I limped at a run and a walk. I quit the team because I couldn’t take failing anymore. I had a second surgery to scope out the scar tissue, and this is when I fervently began rehabbing on my own, delving into cross training and creating my own structured programming. I had dabbled in this through middle and high school, but this is when it became truly structured. It wouldn’t be until my first daughter was born that I really began considering nourishment being present in my food.

     

    I share because when I say overfed and underfueled, I can see now what it cost me, then and now. I ran 28 sec 200’s and 65 sec 400’s as a 13 year old. I didn’t strength train and I certainly didn’t eat well. Maybe not as a sprinter but in every other event now, I am stronger and faster. I’m pain free and INJURY free. When you know better, you do better, and you share the word with others so they can do the same. I see my two daughters and pray the wisdom and knowledge can put them ahead of me in terms of wellbeing and overall physiological durability. Beyond them, I pray people and especially athletes may benefit from the challenge to take a broader view to heal and nourish themselves more adequately.

     

    There is obsession with moderation, but moderation can only be possible when our security net is established. My question is: Is it? 

     

    Just something to chew on. Hopefully something nourishing.


  • Finding Peace in this Season

    I dropped, and I dropped early (Petites Gap, mile 8). As I sit here with a low-grade migraine, dizziness, and gut distension the size of a canteloupe, I know I made the right decision. I'm at peace, but I've still cried a couple times. I love racing, Iove this race, and I love running. If I felt a DNF was avoidable and not dangerous for my health or jeapordize the experience of the directors and fellow participants, I'd still be racing now and hopefully approaching Bearwallow Gap in the next 45 minutes from the time I wrote this sentence. However, I showed up. 90% of making progress is about showing up. A DNF is far better than a DNS in my opinion. A DNF shows bravery and hope.

    In a nutshell, as I was gently pushing against and praying for my body to just relax already, I came head-to-head with how I'd been postponing healing in order to race, when I should have been prioritizing healing so that I can race.

    The back story is that for years, especially the years following 2017 and the 270 days of antibiotic use for Lyme disease + coinfections, I've suspected gut dysbiosis and eventually, SIBO infection. Last year, I had struggled to heal from Epstein Barr Virus, which is hard to manage if there is anything in the body like chronic stress, leaky gut, or underlying infection existing. I had developed some kind of dairy intolerance this summer as well as intolerance to prebiotic and probiotic foods, especially around the time I ran Grindstone 100. During that race, extreme stress was placed on my gut due to high heat in addition to the obvious prolonged racing time, and I was unable to fuel the final 30 miles very well due to nausea which I believe was caused by a combination of heat and low stomach acid, the latter of which allows bacteria to make harbor in the stomach and small intestine (where it does not belong!).

    I had scheduled an appointment the first week in October with my Functional Medicine Practitioner prior to Grindstone because I wanted to address this in a lull in my training. $1000+ in testing and appointments later, I came to learn that I have Hydrogen-based SIBO, Klebsiella Oxytoca bacterial overgrowth in my large intestines, and severe inflammation markers in my large intestines.  The treatment protocol was as follows:

    • Begin a 14 day treatment of Rifaximin + Guar Gum and regular diet to tolerance to catch and kill the bacteria unaware
    • Upon finishing Rifaximin, Integrate Candactin AR + BR for 4-6 weeks, and 2 weeks after starting, begin a Low FODMAP (Fermentable Oligosaccharide, Disaccharide, Monosaccharide, and Polyols) diet to starve out remaining bacteria and provide broad spectrum yeast, viral, and bacterial overgrowth treatment in the small and large instestines. Integrate also ginger as a synergist for digestive support, motility, and inflammation

    The first snag I quickly ran into was the cost of Rifaximin, $2000 with insurance, in the United States. So with the help of friends, I found other countries who ship quality prescriptions to America at a fraction of the cost.  However, the shipping time was long.  I ordered rifaximin officially on Nov. 9 and it is "en route" somewhere after it was last received in Germany. I have no idea when it will arrive. Now, I had applied for Hellgate also in early October, thinking the hardest parts of treatment would be behind me by race day.  As race day approached, my growing concern was whether to throw away a hard-earned spot and hefty race entry (and my first official sponsorship opportunity) or commit to the race, accept a delayed healing protocol, and see what happens. I chose the latter. Neither was wrong entirely.

    For a time, therefore, I was in no man's land, unable to start this treatment protocol without the medication, and so after consulting with my doctor, I began Candactin AR + BR, though the jury was out out on when to begin the Low FODMAP diet because it is intended for 4-6 weeks use due to starving unfortunately the good bacteria in the gut.  The equation was relatively sensitive and complex. Once started in mid November, I began experiencing higher levels of inflammation and swelling in my gut, as expected because of the battle being waged there. I saw my times and performances start to sharply slide back, and how I felt in my skin and body grew increasingly more uncomfortable. Then, I began experiencing challenges with stomach emptying, heart burn, and cramping, where laying down was even a challenge. My heart rate variability was suffering, and more importantly, my tolerance to life stress began to dwindle.

    I did not want to begin a low FODMAP protocol entirely before Hellgate because the carbohydrate consumption overall is signfiicantly lower in addition to the limited amount of time appropriate to be on it, but I did begin seeking carbohydrate/electrolyte sources that contained less fructose, because fructose is a high FODMAP. Enter Maurten drink + gel, a high performance product designed to crush goals.  I ordered it on Black Friday (Buy 1, get 1 50% off!), but it arrived the Tuesday before my race. I tried a CAF gel on my final morning workout, and while my stomach felt overstuffed and I nearly threw up, my legs felt fine.

    I will do my best to describe to you this primary symptom: basically my digestive tract felt full from my abdomen to my mouth. Taking in more food, no matter the quality was unappealing and unpleasant when done. My stomach wasn't emptying, and bowel movements didn't seem to be an issue, but again, the distension and swelling in my abdomen was uncomfortable. At times I had hearnburn, but taking TUMS, while temporarily relieving, actually harms the production of stomach acid, which is needed to create a hostile environment for microbes in the stomach and small intestine.  

    Leading up to the race, I spent the morning sipping on 320 Maurten drink mix, very viscous, sweet without flavor, visiting my amazing chiropractor, Dr. David Glazer, eating a nice breakfast with my husband at Heritage Bakery Café, then taking a long epsom salt soak and putting my feet up until it was time to hit the road. I ate approximately 200g of carbs, knowing I was also in high hormone phase and needed to make sure I was getting that 10% ish extra carbs to offset hormonal needs. I felt calm and assured in my race plan, ultimately with the goal of enjoying the experience and finding peace in whatever the outcome may be.

    Dr. David Glazer

    We drove to Camp Bethel in the increasing rain, picked up my race bib and t-shirt. Once returned to the car, I stuffed my Salomon vest full of the things I needed to run through the night and emptied my SenseRides of any remaining dirt, both of which provided by Bluestone Bike & Run. Off to the pre-race dinner, which was delicious! Last year, I had skipped it out of precaution. We debated on whether to attend the pre-race meeting and ultimately decided that I was here to get as much joy out of the experience, so we went! No regrets being in a room full of people who love putting foot to soil in the mountains as much, if not more, than I do, listening to an ultrarunning legend. Not to mention, Dr. Horton was all about reminding us not to be stupid. I was trying not to overthink this given my circumstances.

    Seeded 10th female - damn proud

    In the pre-race briefing given by the famous Dr. Horton

    CATs racing!

    Mike and I retreated to the car, where I changed into my race clothing (I noticed everything felt snug, itchy, like I could feel every seam... tried to put this out of my head and that I'd resolve late with anti-chafing products) and slept a wink, up at 10:30 to accept riders into our car at 10:45 so that we could drive to the Hellgate trailhead. As we drove, heartburn and "icky" came over me. Adrenaline probably played some role here, but a week before, I was struggling with this same issue on a trail run, that overstuffed feeling, and no place for the contents of my stomach to go, for whatever reason. After the other runners exited the car, I told Mike I wanted him to be at Petites Gap. I chose to change the plan because otherwise the next time I'd see him was mile 24ish at Headforemost Gap, which is a long way to go if the stomach issues worsened.

    We had already discussed that if nausea and GI distress struck early on, I would pull the plug because I was causing further harm to my already suboptimal state. And I'd be at peace with it because my health should always come first in these endeavors. I'd be a terrible coach if I recommended otherwise.

    I was happy to be in a trail race that was a single wave, singing the national anthem all together. I kissed Mike, stepped under the Hellgate road gate, watch syncronized, and on the final countdown, began the race.

    Right before the Start!

    The first mile was wide, rocks and roots here and there, but easy to navigate. I quickly let go of top females like Shannon Howell and Alondra Moody and settled into what I believe was an all day pace, walking a smidge here and there in the second mile with growing elevation, narrowing trail, and increased likelihood of tripping over rocks hiding beneath the leaves. Runners were either falling back or moving forward, and it didn't seem I fell into pace with anyone, which I was neither here nor there about. As we ascended, the same dogs from last year were losing their minds barking. Can you imagine once a year, 150 runners with bobbing lights come barreling by your home in the smack dab middle of the night? It's kind of comical. 

    Anyway, we find ourselves in a muddier section, mid calf for me... squelch, squirch... onward! I was leading a shorter line of runners at this point as the double became single track, bringing us to a couple of creek crossings and minutes later, to Aid Station 1, where trail meets gravel. Here comes one of the longest climbs of the race, and I jog right through the AS. I notice that I have sipped about 50% of my Maurten 160, but no actual food yet. I had no appetite for it. As we started climbing, I felt the contents of my stomach push up my esophagus, creating that stomach in throat feeling. Occasionally gagging but reluctant to vomit, I focused on my breath and short, quick cadences for efficiency over this 1500 foot climb, doing all I can to not think much upon how fast the entire field was moving in these first 5 miles... it felt much faster than last year. 

    My legs felt so unbelievably strong, but I felt swollen, feeling hot spots in all the atypical (for me) places. Run 150 steps, walk 50 steps, sometimes running more, but unable to really get away from the burning and rumbling feeling in my gut. However, I decided to embrace this section. It might be my favorite because in the furthest distance, you can see the top runners' headlamps bobbing and ascending high above, with additional switchbacks of closer runners lighting the way on a switchback leading towards that highest group of runners. And then, all the orbs of lights become a question of headlamps or stars. It's magical. And you're breathing and finding a run/walk cadence appropriate with the climb. I really do love this part of the course! I was also regaining ground on male and female runners who took off earlier on, toggling back and forth depending on where we were with run/walk cycles, but ultimately, I'd move on.

    However, by this point, given my symptoms early on and knowing what they could lead to, I knew I'd be dropping. I was proud not to voice my sadness to fellow runners. While I wasn't making friendly conversation, it was important that I not add negativity to anyone else's race. I stayed present and enjoyed the first 8 miles of the course despite the fullness I felt throughout my body. I was grateful to see Mike at the aid station as discussed, because I was concerned he wouldn't be there (there's always that chance, and all participants should be prepared for the absence of crew due to GPS failure or emergency). He quickly ushered me to my box of gear, but I was already ending my run on my watch. I very calmly looked at him and said "This is it.  I'm done." I told him that it was like being stuck in an endless warm up, my stomach and tense body just weren't jiving (and it was not an effort issue; in fact, my heart rate was stabilizing), even though I reached this aid station with muscular ease around 4 minutes faster than last year. Like any good crew, he checked to make sure I was sure. I told him I was sad about it, but the distress felt early on in my stomach was a non-negotiable. Running with those symptoms should earn me the "stupid award".

    We notified the aid station volunteers of my drop and drove home, where I shivered for a time, gagging several times and reeling on the tighter curves. Upon arrival home 1.5 hours later, I stripped, threw on a fresh pair of underwear and my Comfy, climbed into bed, waking up around 7:30 AM. I came downstairs, sat on the couch, and sobbed a bit. Have I mentioned how tired I am of dealing with this? I could say "why me?", but I already know.

    Over the years, I have shared what I've learned about caring for and learning to truly listen to the body, pursuing dreams, practicing relentless self-compassion, but how could I have shared those things and impacted others positively who have struggled and suffered, seemingly alone, and unsure of what to do with that season?

    Ultimately, you've got to be at peace with where you are and trust that no matter the outcome of performance, or lack thereof, there's a pot of GOLD on the otherside. My doctor said to me, "If this is how you perform with all these things going on, imagine what you can accomplish once you heal." I want that. I want that more than anything. I want to figuratively split myself open with the raw energy that is in my spirit. But it's an equation: optimal spirit + optimal body = optimal wellness and performance. Like the simple view of reading, yes, this is a thing, suboptimal levels in either one of these components, expect your performance to be suboptimal. 

    Simple View of Performance™ (I am trade marking this) Suboptimal Body Optimal Body
    Suboptimal Spirit I will work on defining this. I will work on defining this.
    Optimal Spirit I will work on defining this. I will work on defining this.

    So what's next? Healing. Healing is next. Today, I've already studied the Low FODMAP diet again. I'll boil organic coffee for my first coffee enema.  I'll take an epsom salt bath while it cools. I'll foam roll, stretch, and do some gentle strength. I'll read my Gut and Physiology Syndrome book and snuggle up with my amazing husband. He was a treasure yesterday and this morning.

    Depending on where I am with healing, Boston 2022 will be either be a push race or an experience race. Ideally I'd like Chicago and New York Marathons to be strong performances, and I have plenty of time to heal for them. My hope is to integrate shorter, faster races in 2022 and take a long needed break from Ultrarunning (I ran my first ultra in 2015).

    Thank you for reading my report. If you take anything away from this, it is that no chronic condition is normal; seek help and don't accept a poorer quality of life as your new baseline. Optimal spirit + optimal body = optimal wellness and performance.


  • One Cheek Full of Humble Pie

    (Written by Coach Mike)

     

    What do you know about Hubris? My 2021 was full of it. 

     

    You would think that after reading about characters like Icarus (or maybe Adam and Eve depending on your reading fancy) from the time I was a child and to my children now, I would have some “take-aways”.  However, every so often I reach too far, have the wax on my wings melt, and I learn this same lesson over again. 

     

    At the beginning of the year, I decided to run the Lynchburg Ultra Series. A 4 race series that has the Holiday Lake 50k, Terrapin Mountain 50k, Promise Land 50k++, and the Mountain Masochist Trail Race 50 Miler. I wanted to win at least one of the races and also aimed to win the entire series. I earned high places in all the races and won Terrapin Mountain. I went into the last race (MMTR) with an hour and 20 minute lead over 2nd place in the series. Things were right on schedule. I should be able to coast this series in for the “W”. 

     

    The only problem was that Mountain Masochist was in November, which left me the whole summer to get into other things (races).

     

    Nelle and I traveled to Washington state to chase a fast marathon time at the “Jack and Jill Downhill Marathon”. I did some good tempos leading up and was hoping to run 6-6:15 pace which would qualify me entry into all of the US Major Marathons. Low and behold, due to good pacing, patience, and getting competitive in the final miles, I ended up WINNING the marathon!

     

    I also entered the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners Summer Trail Series. It was comprised of 4 short trail races (5k-5 miles in length) sprinkled throughout the summer. Despite getting 2nd place in all four individual races (to various stud high school runners), I was the series winner. 

     

    So far, this year sounds like a pretty sweet dream, right? It was. I was killing it and having a great time. While I was still doing a good amount of training, I wasn’t really worried about how hard any course was, or what competition I was up against. I was ready to fill my race calendar with any other challenges I could squeeze in. 

     

    And then it happened: I bumped into Rick Kwiatkowski who was the race director for “Andy’s Backyard Ultra”. It’s a “race” where you run 4.2 trail miles every hour, on the hour, for as long as you can. Last person to be able to complete a lap in the hour wins. I’ve never done that type of challenge before, and there was 3 weeks between that and Mountain Masochist, so why not???

     

    Now, these Backyard ultras can go on for days. As long as there are 2 runners to keep going, the race continues. I figured that I could do at least 100 -150 miles, or 24-36 hours. 150 miles?!?!  That should be good enough to win. My pride and ego said, “I’ll just do that.” 

     

    Wrong on all accounts. 

     

    At around 45 miles, 10 loops, my semitendinosus tendon on my left leg (behind the knee) was beginning to complain… a lot. I massaged, applied muscle rub and took some ibuprofen. Once that kicked in, I was good for several more laps. I was running easy, finishing each lap with plenty of time to rest and eat before starting again. At 62ish miles, it started coming back. I repeated what I did before, but it was less effective this time. I was in a death spiral because I was having a hard time running. There were still 14 or so people in the race and I was doing all I could to continue on, but on lap 18 running was no longer an option, and I couldn’t walk the 4.2 mile loop in an hour. I was done. 

     

    I sat in my chair. Cold. Sleepy. Beaten. Broken. I sat and watched as the other runners started their next loop, and the next. Maybe it was my mind playing tricks on me, but they looked fresh, laughing, and enjoying the process. The process I got kicked out of because it was too hard for me. I should have been running all of those laps. Then again, Lucifer thought he should be the most powerful in Heaven and look how that turned out. At 3am I couldn’t take it anymore. I drove Nelle and I home. At least there I could be miserable in a familiar place. 

     

    When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I wasn’t just sore, but I was injured. It became apparent that I couldn’t run and that I probably wouldn’t be able to put my running shoes on again until the Mountain Masochist race, IF THEN!  I wasn’t worried about winning the race, but I did need to hold onto my 1 hour 20 minute Lynchburg Ultra Series lead. 

     

    Fast forward to 4 days before the MMTR50, I found myself walking without pain, even able to run a couple miles here and there, but still doing Epsom salt baths, and all the little things to help continue the healing. I haven’t really been sick in a couple years, but now I’m dragging through the work day with a cold/sinus infection that is kicking my ass and not allowing me to pack in the food like you should be doing days before an Ultra race. This is the beginning of the perfect storm. 

     

    Mountain Masochist Race day: 

     

    Just finish within 1:20 of Steven Tucker (2nd place in the LUS series). That’s all I have to do. No problem. I beat him in all of the other series races, and I’m ok with not beating him today, as long as I stay within an hour:20. 

     

    I started out VERY easy. BTW: Do you know how hard it is to let a pack of 12 guys run away from you at the start of a race when you’ve beaten them all before? I sound like a cocky little shit saying that, but it really was hard to watch their headlamps disappear into the pre-dawn darkness ahead of me. The good news was that I had no pain, and other than a sinus headache, I was ready to slowly shlog through this 50 miles with only the finish line mattering. 

     

    At the 12 mile aid station, Nelle did a great job of aiding me and informing that the leaders were rolling along about 15 minutes ahead of me. The news that shocked me was that Steven Tucker was the one leading the charge! My head is always doing math and I quickly calculated that gaining 15 minutes of lead on me every 25% of the race would give him an hour on me at the finish. That is getting close to the 1h20m I was protecting. He was doing exactly what he needed to do try to win the day and steal MY series!

     

    “MY” series? Who did I think I was? 

     

    I pushed on and new energy came as I clicked the miles off with the sunrise. I knew that there was a turn around at mile 20 and I would be able to see the runners ahead of me. A perfect opportunity to get a time check on their lead. I really need it to be no more than 20-25 minutes at that point. I was feeling pretty good, still no pain, and only minor fatigue.

     

    I’m going to be ok. I’m a badass runner that can do badass things. I can fight with the best of them. I am like Achilles, half man and half….  BAM!!!!  I trip over a rock and hit the ground hard!

    I don’t get up immediately. In fact, I just stayed on the ground not moving. It took me a bit to understand and accept what had just happened. I felt pain in my left knee, hip, elbow, and side of head. Thank goodness I was wearing gloves or my hands would’ve been cut up too. I think this is the true point when THIS Achilles got shot in the heel. 

     

    Finally, I get up, brush myself off, take inventory on how much skin was lost and body mobility. Head is good.  So, I started walking, trotting, and then mostly back to regular run. 

     

    I started seeing the runners coming back toward me from the turn around. Tucker was still in front and looking pretty good. I took note of the time: 3 hours 23 minutes into the race. My buddy McLane Grow was in 2nd and also looked good. John Andersen was in 7th place and gave me some words of encouragement.  I reached the turn around and looked at my watch: 3:39. Ugh. That means Tucker is 32 minutes ahead of me plus however many minutes I spend at the aid station there. 

     

    This aid station was pathetic for me. They had so much food and I asked for the one thing they didn’t have. I felt really bad about that. I ate some salted potatoes, and set my water bottle down as I rummaged through my drop bag. I ate a few things and threw my drop bag back, only to find that I had set my bottle right under my bleeding knee and now it has blood all over it. It’s just one thing after another.

     

    I started back up the trail and almost immediately I can feel the injury from the Backyard Ultra starting to flare. I keep my pace easy and just focused on getting to the Aid station at 27 miles where Nelle would be. Each mile it got worse, but luckily a lot of it was uphill and I used that excuse to walk a fair amount. 

     

    As I approached the aid station, I was very happy to see Nelle, but she didn’t have the same excitement to see me. She had a puzzled look on her face. “What’s going on?”, she asked. 

    “What do you mean? I’m grinding.” I said probably more sarcastically than needed.

    “But you didn’t come up the trail, you came up the road. You are supposed to come up the trail.”

     

    I can’t believe this is happening. I have to turn around, go back down the road a bit and turn on a trail. Frustration hit a different level. It only added on a half mile or so, but with my leg not really working, it might as well have been 5 miles, not to mention it’s more TIME that Tucker gains on me.

     

    Now that I’ve gone the right way, we are able to talk and evaluate the situation. We figure he is leading me by 50-55 minutes now. He’s looking good, and I am not. I have 23 miles to go. I can’t really fathom covering another 23 miles, but I’m a gamer. Nelle asked me what I wanted to do. I told her “I have more try in me.” The next section was a 4 mile loop that would bring me back to her again, so let’s go. 

     

    I put headphones on to listen to music (which I never do) in hopes of getting my mind away from everything else. However, about ¾ mile into the loop I stopped seeing course markings. I didn’t remember seeing any turns, but I had no choice but to go back because I didn’t want to go the wrong way. This was another momentum crusher, because after backtracking a few minutes I ran into some other racers. They confirmed they hadn’t seen any markings either, but I was indeed going the right way. I had doubled back for no reason. More wasted distance and time. 

     

    By this point my left leg is shot. My knee cap, hip, and elbow are all beaten and bloodied from the fall at mile 17. The back of my knee is worthless. I’m stumbling every third step because I’m not raising my foot high enough to clear rocks/roots. My last two miles have been 21 and 19 minutes. It’s over.

     

    I do my best to finish the loop and get back to the aid station where Nelle was waiting. I was preparing for the discussion about dropping out. My fear was that she would try to get me to continue even though I had 17ish miles to go. To my surprise when I got to her she said only two words, “You done?”.    I shamefully nodded my head and headed over to the chair. 

     

    Sophocles couldn’t have written this better. One minute I’m on the top of my game, challenging anything or anyone to take me on, and the next I’m injured on the shelf trying to muster the gumption to walk to the car after collecting my first set-distance race DNF.

     

    But no one to blame by myself. This was self-inflicted heartbreak.

     

    We did go to the finish line to see some of our friends finish. I congratulated Tucker on winning the series, as well as McLane for winning the race. Luckily I was able to crack a few smiles before thanking  the race directors and shoveled my pitiful self into the car for the long ride home.  

     

    Some lessons are really difficult to learn, and I doubt I’ll ever stop riding that fine line of being aggressive/overreaching. I can only hope to zero it in a little bit better, and maybe keep one cheek full of that humble pie at all times. 









     


  • Grindstone 100 Endurance Run - The Long Report

    There was not enough space in the Eat Clean, Run Dirty magazine, and so here it is!

    I knew one day I would run 100 miles, and after experiencing the perfect day at Hellgate 100K in 2020, with many miles left in me, I believed the time had come.  In my mind, I’d planned on my first one being Pinhoti 100, in my home state and nearby the trails my dad took my brothers and I camping. I distinctly remember dragging my pink princess suitcase on single track into the woods where we’d be camping. Obviously, we didn’t go far.  We enjoyed the campfire, tomato soup, nature, and overlooks. Pinhoti seemed like a milder (though let’s be real, nothing is easy about 100 miles!) first 100.  Alas, my husband Mike Fox has been crushing the Lynchburg Ultra Series this year, and the date of PInhoti conflicted with the date of Mountain Masochist. After pacing and crewing Mike and other runners at Grindstone in past years, what with it basically being in my backyard, I could feel the pull of the race. It was destiny, I suppose. At this point, I’d paced several friends in different 100 mile races and studied the sport enough to accept that the most logical way to gain further wisdom was to just do the darn thing.

     

    I was told there was race magic to be had even in 100s, but I’ll warn you now that this story has little to none.  I was fully within my body, feeling it ALL. Carnage is the only word, I feel, that adequately fulfills the description of the race… unfortunately right from start to finish. It was most certainly not my night-day-night, and while my whining was epically horrible, I somehow crossed the finish line at a run, in spite saying I’d stomp my way through it. 

     

    Grindstone 100 starts and ends at Camp Shenandoah, the race course of which is primarily an out-and-back that begins at early evening in the final days of summer. The course boasts upwards of 23,000 feet of climbing (and loss) and traverses across several mountainous trails, many that are technical and some that are highly runnable.

     

    My race began at 5:30 PM in the elite wave start. 8 females were in this wave, and we lined up well behind the elite men.  With the afternoon sun mercilessly beating down on us and no more time to hydrate or second guess our gear, a countdown began and we were off! I totally screamed when I passed by my husband.  My nerves were exploding, cowbells were ringing, and where finally beginning this epic journey and staving off the anticipation collided had simultaneously eft me giddily squaling and also numb to the magnitude of what I’d just started.

     

    Heather Dougherty was a friendly face at the starting line, and we exchanged a few remarks regarding our exposure to the sun and heat as we circled the lake in the first quarter mile.  Beads of sweat were already forming, and I was gradually pulling back more and more to respond to my body’s alarm signals.  I told my quaking mind, “It’s okay, it takes you a little while to find your groove.” Nevertheless, I didn’t want to walk yet, so I smiled and pretended that I was relaxed and bebopping as we passed by spectators.  I’m pretty sure the temperature was in the mid 80’s at the start, and the humidity was most definitely quite dense. 

     

    Within those first 5 miles, my friend Dan Spearin, who years ago when I was racing Promise Land 50K for the first time and under intense treatment for Lyme Disease and Babesia wouldn’t let me drop at mile 13, shared a few miles, some distracting conversation, and some encouraging remarks. We passed through that first aid station dripping sweat, needing bottles topped off, and prepared for the first major ascent up Elliott’s Knob.

     

    Once we turned off the winding, technical single track, it was a seemingly vertical climb on a loose gravel road to the fire tower, where we would turn around and take a left hand turn onto another single track trail. Males from later waves were passing by now, but again, I assured myself of my goals: 1) finish 2) finish in time for bedtime and 3) wait to race until mile 70.

     

    Every now and then, I’d stop my hands on knees climbing (and pause from the wishing I had poles here), turn around, and focus on my breath.  The sun was setting and the nearly full moon was rising. I wish I’d snapped a photo, because the view was a beautiful distraction from the grind already at foot. Though I’d hoped to summit Elliott’s Knob before darkness descended, I was only around 5 minutes behind that goal.  I walked through the overgrown brush to the metal fence perimeter of the tower, touched it, and was happily putting the first of 7 significant climbs in the past.

     

    I fell in step with Sarah Hodder, a Grindstone veteran, but we were quickly swarmed by men in a hurry to fly over the loose rocks in that steady descent into Dry Branch aid station. Wouldn’t you know it that my taped up ankle succumbed to rolling multiple times, which were quite painful due to the obvious camber of the trail! I hobbled it off, whimpering and telling myself I needed to proceed with care to prevent more of that in the future. I”ll go ahead and tell you, my ankle got into gear and didn’t give me another issue the remainder of the race! We continued gingerly running down this improving section of trail until all of a sudden, Sarah screamed from behind mel I was so scared she’d been bitten by a snake or something! I ran back to her and asked what happened. She was clutching her foot screaming “it’s biting me on my foot!” It turned out to be a swarm of yellow jackets, and suddenly everyone around me was yelling out from getting stung.  “Run!!!!” And it was like a new race had started.  I managed to avoid being stung, and luckily no one around us had allergies to bee venom, but my husband is anaphylactic, and I got the feeling he probably did not have his epipen, so no way in hell he’d be allowed to pace me on this section on the way back. It wasn’t planned anyway, but things do evolve as races go on, and I stored that away to share at mile 20.

     

    Shortly after the bee stings, we descended into Dry Branch, refilled fluids, grabbed some snacks, and began the God-awful descent up Crawford Mountain. Seriously, fuck that mountain both ways.  The ascent was not technical but essentially the same grade of steepness as Elliott’s at times. I really wish I had trekking poles here, and again, I was huffing and puffing, turning around to release my hamstrings, and watching everyone basically leave me… bye Sarah.  I tried not to think about how I was 6th, as I’d been reminded the race doesn’t really unfold until mile 70, but I couldn’t help but weigh my placement with my equally demoralizing rate of perceived exertion only 15 miles into this beast and wonder how to regain contact with easy movement.  That’s what the first 70 miles were supposed to be!  

     

    God sends angels. In real life too, but I find them on the trails in the form of aid station support, crew, and fellow racers. This time my friend Corey Gray had reached me, starting 20 minutes behind me, and had already caught me around mile 17. My knee jerk reaction was to say… already? But I managed to avoid the negative self-talk for like another 5 minutes.  Honestly, Corey was a safe space for me to share how absolutely miserable and overexerted I was feeling. It was nearly 11:00 PM, which is wayyyy past my bedtime, and I couldn’t go easier than I was going. Once we got our “ugh” off our chests, and I shared I’m going to convince Mike to let me drop, we chatted about his daughter running cross-country and distracted ourselves from the misery.  He took a sudden tumble behind me but quickly bounced back up. We were in a finally flat section and running fairly easily, crossing the road and spending a couple more miles on the trails before pulling ourselves up the steepest single track and onto the grassy road that leads you up to the first crew-accessible aid station: Dowells Draft.

     

    Nighttime contrasting with the blazing lights of headlamps and twinkle lights was a bit disorienting. It was noisy, people were cheering, I saw Sarah receiving aid, and I was pushing through the tunnel of people, desperate to make contact with Mike.  If I mentioned dropping upon seeing him, I can’t remember. I do remember telling him about the bees and chastising him for not having his epipen.  He sat me down immediately, remarked on the conditions and how he saw steam rising off of runners, lovingly served me broth and Mountain Dew. We changed my shoes because I had hot spots forming on the back of my heels.  Corey plopped down next to me and Mike served him aid, too! Mike takes his crew role very seriously, closely following the 10 page document I’d written explaining my hopes, expectations, dos and don’ts specific to me.

     

    Suddenly, I see Sarah before me.  She said she wanted to wait for me, and I said that’s great! I’d love to run with you, but I am not quite ready. A couple of minutes later she was shivering. We were all wet from sweat and the humidity. She said she was cold and needed to go. I didn’t blame her at all!  Mike recommended Corey and I get started together, but when the time comes, leave the other (he said that to both of us).  I was feeling in a much better headspace as Corey and I headed to the relatively gentle and non-technical ascent to Hankey and Lookout Mountain, the next aid station was 7-8 miles away. Breathing and ease, that was the focus of this section of trail, and so I stayed on Corey’s tail, and we gradually caught a few people as we climbed up to Lookout Mountain.  There wasn’t much conversation, and the rising cacophony of crickets chirping along with the occasional hoot of an owl reminding us that we are currently nocturnal.  Once we reached that aid station, I was thrilled to see some of my favorite people! It me!!!! Pump me up! Tell me I’m doing great! Feed me!  I can’t remember the food, but I remember leaving there feeling so refreshed. I pulled out my headphones to trigger the dopamine I direly needed to get me through the night, told Sarah to hop in with me, and took off because I was eager to see my man at North River Gap in 7 miles, the trails being rocky and then smooth.  I was finally in a groove, though I could hardly call it race magic; I wasn’t clipping by miles. I was mustering my legs over the jagged, craggy rocks and wow, after the first mile, I didn’t see a single soul. I was entirely alone. A first for night racing.  Oddly, I was at peace with it, when ordinarily I feel hypervigilant and on edge.

     

    I was thrilled to cross the river and head towards the aid station, and as I descended on the road to the aid station, again, it was about coming in looking happy, relaxed, but focused.  You never know who is seeing you, and while this is mile 37 of the race, what I do can influence or motivate the rest of the field. I found Mike in the middle of the bright, cheerful aid station at North River Gap, where a blow up unicorn was pointing to the trailhead for the 7 mile, 3000 foot climb up Chestnut. As I sat in my chair and took inventory of my surroundings, I saw quiet crews, and very few runners.  I asked Mike where the runners were because I hadn’t seen one in front of me in the last 6 miles.  Apparently there were a bunch ahead of me that had just left, and the affirmation I wasn’t the only person still in this event was encouraging.  I drank more broth (scalded my mouth, so we added water), got my trekking poles in hand, and impatiently waited for the flash to capture a picture with the blow up unicorn before taking off! I tried not to think about the 65 miles remaining or the fact that I had around 30 miles of race before seeing my crew (and pacers again).  One bite at a time, this elephant.

     

    I know this climb fairly well. I live in Bridgewater, which is 22 minutes from North River Gap parking lot by car.  I’ve run up chestnut at least 10 times by this point. It’s steep and filled with varying sizes of rocks, loose and packed dirt.  The views would be spectacular during the day, though the starry sky and nearly full moon were a nice alternative.  At times, the trail was very narrow, briars scraping my arms and legs, and I’d hold my poles instead of dragging them through the brush. These miles went oooooon. Getting to certain turns and milestones on the trail. Holy shit, I have underestimated the painstakingly slowness of these miles in comparison to my training runs and past race efforts. I’d wished I’d written some mantras for how slow I felt, because “relentless forward progress” doesn’t quite scratch the surface as my past and current ultrarunning selves collided.

     

    There was a man ahead of me that I swear had stadium light beams emitting from his waist that illuminated my hallucinations of within-sight aid stations.  Brief moments of hope passed before me, and then I’d realize that they weren’t real. Curse that man and his hallucination-eliciting lights! I fell in behind him and some men, but their trek pulls were too slow, and I was hungry. I needed that aid station.  Gels weren’t really sitting well with me anymore, and I needed sustenance. I popped electrolyte tables, some peanut M&M’s and cheezits, but I needed more minerals, more glutamine (which I know soothes the epithelial lining of intestines and enhances absorption of electrolytes and nutrients). So I passed by. One of them I knew from Hellgate 2020, and he heckled me a bit, saying it took me longer to pass him this time! That stinker.  I wished him well and didn’t see him again. By this point a couple of the leaders, including our friend Mclane Grow had passed, and I was grateful only a little more single track remained because sharing the trail in two directions is UNFUN! 

     

    Finally off the chestnut climb and heading towards Little Bald, I thought the aid station would be at the turn, but it wasn’t.  A brief pity party after having sucked down my remaining fluids, and then I’d ask other leaders how far to the next aid station from here.  It was about a mile and a half longer, but downhill and flat, so I was running some! Yay running! The fog was a descending heavy blanket around us, and our lights reflected the molecules of water in the air instead of our path. Luckily, jeep road and therefore less technical, though there was the choice between shoe-sucking mud puddles or scraping against thorny briars. I chose briars.  The scars are healing great FYI; I surprise myself by wearing them with pride. 

     

    I reached Little Bald to find 4th place female, Ash Walsh, refilling her bottles! Boy, am I so happy to see those volunteers. I ate grilled cheese and drank broth as I refilled my bottles.  I won’t lie, it’s the little wins like pulling out my bottles before approaching the aid station to be efficient with my time that made me feel like I was doing all I could to be successful.  This next section was awesome in comparison to what I’d put behind me. I focused on pulling through powerfully with my poles, jogging when possible, and I was passing others quickly. I liked how these miles clicked by. Happiness. It was time to ascend Reddish, in 4th now, and excited to be turning around.  I saw more and more runners on their return trip, including Heather and Christine! Cheerful hellos and encouragement really lift me. Yes, we are competing, but we need each other. It’s a hard thing we are doing!

     

    This night I felt was eternal; I’m not a night owl. Rarely, actually… never do I pull all-nighters. Not even in college, where I was the grandma hitting the sack at 8:30 because I had music theory right at 8:00 AM! I co-slept with my babies as a means to survive the early days of motherhood.  What I’m saying is that making it through the night without crashing is huge! HUGE! Yay for another victory along the way. 

     

    Finally, summiting Reddish Knob, and I was kissed by the most heavenly daybreak. It was a deep, rich red, and I did need to have a human, non-race moment to soak it in, my unintentional, yet impeccably-timed gift for pushing through a terribly challenging first half of the race.  So much for keeping the first half easy, but I’ll take this gift and cherish it forever.

     

    Selfies having been acquired in spite of fumbling with my headlamp, it was time to proceed to Briery Branch and turn this shit show around. This aid station went without a hitch, though I forgot how long the distance was between Briery Branch and Reddish Knob. The peanut M&M’s were probably my best fuel investment for this race, Picky Bars, the worst. I didn’t eat one. I remembered liking them before, but I just couldn’t force myself to eat them this training cycle. More broth, Ash Walsh shows up and asks me how I’m doing! I felt great, so I of course shared that and that it was my first 100, so yay for being halfway!  This seemed to surprise her, and I informed her that I lived nearby so my comfort on the course was fair, even though the course totally sucks! I also shared that I’d read her blog on Grindstone previously and remarked that I hoped she found redemption in this race, which based on the time, seemed to be very much in the realm of possibility. 

     

    Then Sarah Hodder trickles into the aid station, as I’m sipping away on my broth. I’m good to go, it’s time to get moving! I run out of the aid station, and strike a power hike on the other side of the curve. My husband has taught me many things. Racing is just a part of me, even if I’m not a pro or a top pick to win these things. My music is going (let me tell you, my headphones DID have race magic or God’s blessing because they never died and still had juice for a 1 hour run a week after the race. Wow.) and I am cruising past people. The views are incredible, as the sun is just peeking over the far away mountains and looking to an entirely cloudless sky, and I slow to a hike to grab some photos and videos.  I recall in my mind the mostly non-technical, gradual downhill stretch ahead of me and dial in my effort. This should be easy pacing, but I also need to get off the ridge before the sun begins beating down. While the fog had lifted, the heat was the next challenge; solve them as they come, I’d been told.

     

    These miles, thankfully, clicked away. Morning bathroom routines went without a hitch (I hadn’t practiced with immodium), though I did announce to one man coming by that I was stopping so that he’d pass me by already.  Check and check! Some open bald sections lent themselves to full access to sun exposure. I kept my eyes set on the next throw of shade I could shirk to without rushing. I am a vampire, and oh how I wish sunlight just revealed my sparkles to indicate I was a supernatural predator.  Damn you, Twilight!

     

    I reached the Little Bald aid station around 8:15, and it was indeed warmer already. My stomach was subtly alerting me that it was unhappy. I asked for broth, grilled cheese, and Todd, aid station chief, gave me some Tums to take now and later. I was off quickly for another mile and a half before turning back onto Chestnut. 57.5 miles into this, and I’d realized now I was in for a long day of suffering.  Break it up, I coach myself, get to Mike. Again, favorite race-day mantra since mile 15: just get to Mike. As I was leaving, the gentleman checking numbers told me that from mile 45 to mile 57, I’d moved up 20 places, Wow! While my knee-jerk reaction was hell yeah, my subconscious tugged on me a bit, reminding me to dial in my effort because it was not time to really push yet. 

     

    “Descending” Chestnut encompassed many steep, narrow trails, loose rocks, and now, the blazing sun. My hydration had seemed to hold up in spite of the oppressive heat and dewpoint the night before, but question marks were exploding all over my brain.  I remembered sage advice to take problems on as they come, and it wasn’t an issue yet, so I drank and focused on moving down the 7 mile, 3,000 foot climb without destroying my quads or rolling my ankle.  I was successful in this, but as I summited Grindstone Mountain (the last rolling climb before the descent into North River Gap), I really got overwhelmed with how painstakingly slow I was moving over the rocks.  I can fly down descents, unless it’s technical. It must be my self-preservation because I don’t take a lot of risks and therefore don’t fall often. Right before the last short but very steep climb up to Grindstone Mountain, I came upon Andy Jones Wilkins bebopping around. I asked him if he could put me on the other side of it already, and he laughed and carried on his way.  But I was serious.  Atop Grindstone Mountain, I found myself pulling my poles along and staring at a giant blue construction crane and swearing it was real! Maybe there had been trail work on the mountain - I don’t know!  My first legitimate hallucination, and I thought hallucinations were only for night time. The lack of sleep was finally catching up, I suppose. I was in uncharted territory, setting a record for the amount of time I’d been awake at 27 hours already since the morning before. 

     

    I was relieved to see a few people on the trail clapping, and I was like “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad that’s over.” “ I’m never running this trail again.” Finally the trail had “flattened” out and was merely technical, and I was running, but walking over the mini bridges.  I heard Daryl, my crew before I saw him, which is hilarious as he is 6’8”, but then I saw him and he was guiding me back to my seat. I’d done it: 30 miles to get back to Mike. 

     

    Mile 65+ (hovering at my distance PR) and with more climbing and time on feet than I’d ever done before. I felt wiped. I clutched a gel ice pack against my face and body while Mike changed my socks and shoes again (pair #3). Sophie Speidel came up to me and told me I was doing amazing, and now only a 50K++ left to go. Unfortunately, my left hamstring had been tightening more and more in the descent from Chestnut, and I felt a little too beat up to be thinking “Hell Yeah, 50K to go!”, but in spite of my whimpering, I wasn’t quitting. It wasn’t a thought in my mind. She directed my attention to a person lying down on a cot.  “You are in 3rd place. She hasn’t moved in awhile, and I don’t think she’s getting back up. 2nd place was here for 45 minutes, and you look way better than her when she was here. Buck up. You are strong.” Sophie is tough as nails. She keeps it real; matter-of-fact encouragement, no sugar coating or ego petting, just facts and tough love. So much was happening here while I was taking in the current race environment: phone attached to external battery and placed in baggie, new bottles and snacks, sunscreen on face, female-specific wipes, body glide, new buff, no new shirt, that comes at mile 80, and sunscreen.  I quickly ate a plate of potatoes, drank broth, drank my pre-mixed MUDWTR iced coffee, and some Mountain Dew. My motivation was back. It was time to get out of here.

     

    Sophie snapped some photos for my “fan club” (I laughed!) as Jonathan, my pacer from mile 65-80, and I took off down the road at a strong hiking pace. We jogged along as I recapped him on how the night had transpired, asked how his week had been (we are both reading specialists for the same county, so lots of things to discuss), all during this non-technical and fairly flat section of the course. As we began ascending the rocky (larger rocks) trail up towards Lookout, my stomach began to rebel like I’ve never felt before.  Rumbles in the jungle!!!! My heart rate was low, but I felt alarm bells sounding. I stopped for the first time, leaned over (felt great on my hamstrings) and rested my head on the butts of my trekking poles, breathing deeply.  I think the hot sun pelting down on us through the skimpy shade of the trees was escalating the work placed on my body to digest.  My body couldn’t cool and digest at the same time.  I tried not to get overwhelmed by the long day ahead of me in light of my current situation. For the most part, I did alright.  We’d count 50 trekking pulls, then pause to breathe.  Occasionally, I sat down on a rock and just put my head in between my knees.  These were my slowest miles yet, arguably the slowest of the entire race, and my new game plan was just to ease my way up to Lookout Mountain so that I’d have something to work with coming down to Dowells Draft.

     

    I remembered my husband at Grindstone 2017, how great he looked at North River Gap but then his death march into Dowells draft later. I immediately felt remorse for not being sympathetic enough to his needs, honestly to any of my pacer’s needs in past experiences, and that had nothing to do with my current pacer’s behavior; he was wonderful, patient, and encouraging. Also paid very close attention to my need for eating/drinking. These seem to be the quotes for 2021, but “you don’t know what you don’t know” and “once you know better, you do better.” Noted and filed away. Meanwhile, I was on an entirely new learning curve: relentless forward progress looks and feels very different in 100 miles than in other races. It’s slow. Slower than slow. Time has all but stopped.  Occasionally, a gust of wind would make the sweat feel cool on my skin, and we’d find pockets of denser shade to rest and catch breaths or simply enjoy moving through with less oppression. Ultimately, I was grappling mightily with calming my stomach. Somehow, I knew it would improve. I needed to lower my core body temperature, to lay down, and to eat/digest without moving. 

     

    Before we arrived at Lookout Mountain at mile 71, I actually clocked an 18:15 mile! My heartrate had stayed in the 120’s, even a 119 average, which was good so that my body could digest!  Much improved and primed perfectly to take in food at this aid station, the CATs aid station! Seeing my friends was such a welcome sight after that significant battle up the mountain. I asked if anyone had a blanket I could lie down on, could I have ice, and some grilled cheese?

    As I lay there, Jonathan brought me ice, which went down my sports bra, under my run buff on my forehead, and Becca brought me 3 pieces of grilled cheese, which was excruciating difficult to eat slowly because it was so good. I think they also brought me broth. Becca handed me two packets of pepto bismol, which I never took and probably should have, and then opened up her bag of running fuel and asked if I wanted powders, gels, whatever, No more gels for me; I took nothing.  Too much sugar had rotted my stomach . We dumped out any electrolyte fluids and refilled with water. Actually, we didn’t do that. Jonathan did that. I’d take salty snacks, M&Ms, and electrolyte tablets in between aid stations from here on out.  I had hoped for a 10 minute rest; that’s what I’d shared as I entered the aid station with whatever glee looks like when you’re entirely depleted.  However, my blissful rest was cut short as I hear Andy Jones Wilkins’ voice resounding throughout the woods. Becca whispered that there’s a chick with him. It was Ash! Drat!

     

    The next couple of moments were a whirlwind of movement, but I rolled over, hopped up, whispered to Jonathan that we need to go, and we were running! We ran for around 200 steps up a climb, and melting ice dripped down from my bra and buff. Ah, it felt so nice. I wanted to be out of sight before I fell back into a power-hike, and we were successful. It’s wild: the time would fly by, but the miles were frozen in time. Jonathan would remind me gently “Nelle, it’s been 30 minutes and you haven’t sipped anything; Nelle’s it’s been an hour, pick something and take three bites.”  Whimpering, I did it, and it was hard to trust my stomach wouldn’t rebel again.  Amidst those challenges, I’d point to a skull hiding in the logs, and a tractor sitting on the side of the trail.  It was fairly amusing and a welcome distraction from my current quality of life. Mile 77, I began feeling a sense of dread with the duration between aid stations.  We were moving, and looking back, the pace was GREAT after what I’d just recovered from, but I was concerned about how close Ash was.  

     

    Finally, at mile 78, as I was throwing a fairly significant pity party that would soon resemble a toddler’s temper tantrum, Ash came shooting by, carrying, but not using her poles. Was I doing this wrong? Did I make the wrong call? She is an experienced ultrarunner; this is my first. She’s got her own battle she’s waging out here, her second time on the course.  She’s killing it.  We mentally worked through how to not let her passing me take the remaining wind I had out of my sails. But she bolted by and disappeared, giving me a taste of my own medicine.

     

    I asked how much longer until the aid station, and Jonathan said not much further. I needed finite information.  Everything seemed far! I’d lost all perspective. He shared that it was about 2 miles, at which point, I replied that’s not a little bit further! I started to cry, and I dropped my poles and stomped off. Full-fledge toddler. Embarrassing.  We got back going, and he reminded me that I’m moving at a great clip, just keep going. So I did. I’d whimper here and there, but the jokes were gone for the remainder of this section, which I ran much of, with intermittent hiking poles. I did say I did something right because I was running in the final 25 miles to go.  Finally, we reached the trailhead that leads to the Dowells Draft aid station. I saw a person taking numbers, and when I reached that person, he/she was nowhere to be found. Yay hallucinations. Mile 80 by 3:15 PM, 21 hours, 15 minutes into this monster with  22 miles to go.

     

    Jonathan and I ran up to that aid station, where I came upon my happy crew and Caroline… with pizza! Yum! I immediately sat down, at which point Jonathan was off and refilling my bottles.  I changed shirts quickly while Mike stuffed my back. Caroline was bringing me more glorious ice for my buff and my sports bra. Someone handed me a pizza slice, and I was surprised to find myself ravenously biting into it and needing to slow myself down.  Jonathan had made a list of needs prior to this aid station, and great news, the Arnica cream had been located, and after eating a full slice, I was slathering that on the back of my left knee and atop my tiring hip flexors. I asked how far ahead of me Ash was now, and they said she wasted no time getting in and out of the aid station, just refilling bottles. Damn. I was jealous, but ultimately, this was my first one! I just needed to stay upright at this point. I say that, and then suddenly there’s a female that had snuck up from way behind, and I was again, doing my best to sneak as we hustled out of the aid station. Jonathan’s pacing was done, and now it was Daryl’s turn.

     

    The single track off Dowell’s is so steep going down, and I hobbled my way before looking up and see this monstrously steep section - how did I forget this from training camp? Good God! I powered to the top of it and again, head on the butt of trekking poles with long, deep pulls of breaths.  I needed to separate myself from the pressure I was unnecessarily placing on myself so that I could keep my cool.  We were run-walking again, gradually ascending, descending, and crossing the road, back where it was flat, back where Corey Gray face-planted.  Seemed like forever ago.  We caught a couple of men here, some that I’d leap-frogged with throughout the race, some I hadn’t seen yet. I pushed up this climb, and the effort was overwhelming, the sun beating down on me as I climbed up the side of the mountain. This was Crawford Mountain, and she’s a real bitch, coming and going. 

     

    Again, I was being nudged gently to drink, to eat. Had I not just eaten a slice of pizza? Was that enough? Apparently, time was passing by fast and still, so slowly!  I felt like I was constantly forcing myself to eat but really struggling to do it. I did eat a 100 calorie bag of peanut M&M’s again, so that’s good! However, my cognitive tolerance for struggle was rapidly unraveling, and I began panicking about the long way to go still with such high temperatures.  Did I mention the high was 87º? Yet, I’d passed several men, and in spite of throwing myself periodically onto several rocks and sobbing, Daryl noted that they weren’t catching me.  That was encouraging, but still, staying in the pain cave and focusing there was very difficult.   He’d calmly state that yes, we were still climbing, but no, we weren’t there yet. “You’re doing it.” “Yes, it’s hard.” He affirmed every thought I had except: “this is never going to fucking end.” “It feels that way, but it will. You’re making progress.” I nearly cried, no actually I did cry when a mile clocked in at 27+ minutes. And he’d remind me, “Nelle, we just climbed 2000 feet. This is a tough climb.”
    At one I told Daryl, I’d like to be airlifted out of here, the only other logical alternative is to full send myself off the mountainside. Joking, but in that kind of suffering, I find myself remembering 10 centimeter, 6 plus hours of endless, fruitless labor, and I just want someone to put me under until it was over. After 27 hours of labor, crowning as my epidural went in and grunting heavily into my doctor’s arms, I finally had a baby.  That’s what I’m remembering. All over body aches and pain, entire musculo-skeletal tension, ebbing and flowing, catching my breath and having it taken away.  Am I a masochist for finally finding an experience that mimics my experience of labor? Yup.

     

    I’m sure one thing my pacers learned is that I don’t want to hear we are “almost” there. It’s so relative when the challenge of the next aid station, milestone, turn, switchback feels endlessly away. I certainly learned that and had failed to anticipate just how hard the agonizing of sitting with relentless, SLOW, progress would feel. However, a century later, we have arrived on the ridge, and I am seeing toddler-like leaf humans hanging on stems of larger plants. I point them out to Daryl, and then we are descending. Down, down, down, steepest of down, nearly as steep as Elliott’s.  By this point, I’m approaching 24 hours of movement, and ugh. I’d hoped I’d be closer to the finish than this! So finally, my body can do less work, but I can’t coordinate my body effectively enough to really run much. So sobbing and driving my poles in front of me, I zero-heartedly descend, secretly wanting to forward roll like a Ninja-Turtle. Ninja Turtles forward roll, right?

     

    Finally, I can hear cowbells and cheering somewhere below where we are, and the trail is evolving into a gentler descent, and so we are running, click, click, click, past the gate, and into Dry Branch around 5:45 PM.  Daryl remarked that we were over 24 hours, and he claims he celebrated silently for me. I found Mike, walked up, hoping he’d put his arms around me and let me cry. I just sobbed as he ushered me to my seat, saying everyone’s been crying here. Sophie came up to me and reminded me that 100’s aren’t fun. That’s not why we do them. Yes, yes, I realize that. I am questioning everything now. But at the aid stations I wasn’t throwing down “I quit!”, so at least there’s that?! I eat half a slice of pizza in my lovely chair, and bravely request pieces of quesadilla for the trail.  Taking more food was mandatory per my crew.  It was time to go, even though by the absence of it in discussion, 2nd and 3rd place were far out of grasp. Former 2nd (now 3rd) was hanging on with all she had. I’ve gotta hand it to these women. We were toughing it out, even if some of us weren’t going down without more f bombs than a sailor drunk on rum.

     

    I was up and moving toward the final climb to Elliott’s Knob, where the yellow jackets and ankle rolling rocks lay waiting for me.  As I was leaving, I was told the 5th female had arrived. Dammit! All the whining and crying alternated with the wimpiest power-hiking was enough for the men I’d passed but not enough to get away from her. It was time to really dig. Had I struck rock, because the course was full of them. Only 1500ish feet.  87 miles in, approaching single digits.  Sophie said no more than 4.5 miles to the intersection with Elliott’s Knob fire road.  And so, we were power-hiking, but stronger than Crawford, not with renewed energy or refreshment, but with the final embers that glow before finally going out.  Mentally, I was a lot stronger through here, playing my music aloud (all the explicit stuff, of course, I find it highly cathartic).  Staying present, being in a race for 4th, knowing that the race for 5th wasn’t far behind, was at times overwhelming. I distinctly remember having pushed for awhile, and all those overwhelming feelings came to a head, I put my head on my poles again and contemplated just sitting on the side of the trail waiting for the two women behind me to pass me before picking myself up and getting to the finish with my tail in between my legs.  No, I wasn’t going down like that! It would suck getting passed after the immense suffering all day to be where I was, so onward.  We crested over 90 miles, at which point Daryl claims he did another internal celebration for me.  Finally, always finally in these races, the trail evened out, and optical illusions caused by hope and fading daylight seemed to put the trailhead constantly just beyond reach. Finally, I asked 

    Daryl how much longer because it had been 4.5 miles since Dry Branch, and he looked at the fancy map on his fancy watch.  The trailhead wasn’t yet visible. So I carry on for a couple more minutes before stopping, asking again, and whipping my own phone out.  Looked like just under half a mile. I was eager to get to the final aid station, with around 4 miles to go to get there. Possibly 75 minutes? In spite of panicking about the moving trailhead, we carried on, powering through. Daryl, after I regained composure, shared that my climb was inspiring, that he thought he wasn’t going to have to work out here today. Finally, some humor, but also an effort in these later miles to hang my hat on, which is really good because coming down Elliott’s did have me in toddler mode.  Between potty breaks and unnecessary streamers (seriously, the course is overmarked!), I hobbled down this shit show of a descent for about a mile before I praised the trailhead that would lead us down into Falls Hollow.  

     

    We pulled our headlamps out. The twilight was casting shadows, and personally, I did not have the time or energy to deal with stumbling at mile 92.  Parts of the trail are fairly nice. I’m clocking 14-16 min miles here when suddenly, my light is blinking warning signs saying it’s running low on battery. I do recall Mike having charged it, and Daryl was wearing my back-up light.  We traded since I was leading the way ahead of my pacers. I like to be in front anyway, so that pacer was a non-issue.  It was at this point I needed to think about how I’d enter that aid station. I’d been on my feet for nearly 27 hours at this point, I didn’t feel great, but dammit I was going to finish and do all I could to not get caught by anyone in the last miles! I hadn’t seen (or heard) a soul other than Daryl from Dry Branch to Falls Hollow.  I told Daryl to text the group that I needed Mountain Dew in a soft flask, water in the other. No stopping, no chair, be ready for a flying hand-off, to swipe the key from Mike before we took off. We were a half mile away, and I was feeling the magnetic pull of the aid station, letting it take me, but then my heart would force me to slow, even though my average was 128 BPM, anything over fat burning was too high, not enough glycogen to transcend. 

     

    I picked back up as I heard the cowbell, and we were cruising in. I whipped out my half-full bottles, as I had failed to hydrate well in those final 30 miles, but oh well, poppeding my new ones in.  I took a drag of Mountain Dew. Mmmmm good. Surprisingly good. We were cheering and rolling, as Mike fell in stride next to me, crossing the road, hopping onto the single track, and giving the appearance I was crushing the end.  Mike and I were crossing the railroad tracks as some horn went off, and oh my gosh, it scared me to death. No trains though, we’re good. 

     

    Shortly thereafter, we were hiking and climbing up, and I was taking it in okay, powering through with the poles. Mike hadn’t seen me use them, so I think it was interesting for him to see me using something new to us both after many shared runs.  Not 5 minutes though later, my tolerance for climbing was at the threshold, and my joking approach to “Oh look another climb” had been reduced to whimpers.  Mike just kept by my side. I’d ask him if he was proud of me, and he said “I already told you that. Of course I am!” We reached the gravel road and continued to climb. Ugh, more climbing. The embers hanging on on that last climb fizzled out with a final puff of smoke. Here came the death march. No more digging, just one step at a time. I saw a woman with white hair waiting at the left turn to take us down single track towards the camp, but actually it was just a white blaze on a tree. I remarked on it, and I don’t really remember the exchange. It was past 8:00 PM, and I was craving sleep something fierce,

     

    The trail was runnable at times but very rugged at others. These miles crept by, 16+ minute miles up until the very last one. We crossed creeks and I struggled with my footing many times. Finally, there it is again: finally, we reached the bathrooms where we’d turn right, away from the straight shot to the finish line with around 2 miles remaining. Two freaking miles. Oh, how it went on, even though it was slightly downhill! We power-hiked. I started looking back, more frequently than I had on Crawford and Elliott’s final climb, and Mike called me on it. Are we on the right trail? I don’t remember this rope. Is that the finish line? Oh gosh, how much further until the finish? Joking about rocks, then crying about rocks, joking about climbs, then crying about climbs, joking about the trail never ending, you know what’s coming next.I spent so much energy crying, but I was making an effort to keep it light with the jokes, but we all know there’s an ounce of truth in jokes, and the truth found me fast. I began losing my absolute shit as we turn right, away from the like, away from everything. Some of the streamers in this section were not reflective, and it was hard for me to see, so I was asking again, are we on the trail? Where the fuck is the finish line, dammit!!!!

     

    By God’s grace, a turn left took us down the weird “trail” that rolled down and then turned sharply towards the lake. As we crested the slant of the of grass bank, I saw a light bobbing in the woods, moving faster than I was.  I told Mike we had to run. I wasn’t getting caught and moving to 5th with a half mile to go! And so, we were sprinting at a 9:45 pace. Oh my GOD, it was finally really almost OVER. Running, running away from that light behind me and towards the finish,  and Mike pointed a directed me to the grassy field I’d started on, as I carried my poles in hand, I hauled ass and crossed that damn finish line.  Cheering around me in the darkness.  Daryl walked up to me and I just leaned into him saying “Oh my God.” A female voice says “Yay, Nelle!”, and I look up like a buffoon and blind Amanda Womack with my headlamp, My friend had been out on the course at Falls Hollow the night prior, this evening, and came to see me finish. So grateful. 

     

    My whole crew was waiting for me. I was ushered to a chair and presented with my buckle, my top finisher half zip, a Klean Kanteen finisher item.  I refused to get back up for a finisher photo, so I pointed to the banner from my chair and smiled.  

     

    The next finisher was a male, whose sister I was racing, I later learned her name was Claire Lorentzen.  Apparently my push to Elliott’s Knob put me ahead of her coming into at Falls Hollow by 25 minutes, and she finished 5th in 28:48.  Christine O’Gormon was 3rd with 27:53.  It was strenuous, immensely challenging day. Walking to the car, climbing the stairs up to my bedroom, showering then bathing in epsom salts were unsurprisingly taxing.  I took Tylenol PM and happily, yet painfully climbed into my bed. I was home in time for bed, a little late, but before midnight was fairly respectable. Waking up in the morning, I felt mixed emotions: pride but also questioning my ability to suffer well. It was brutally ugly, The ugliest, saddest, weakest sides of me were the ones my friends saw. They were incredible. How blessed I was to wage this multi-stage war between myself and this course with them in the wings as my second because the course wasn’t my enemy; I was.  

     

    My First 100 Mile Race

    28 hours 12 minutes, 101.85 miles, 23,000 feet, 16:36 average pace

    4th Female, 41st Overall

     



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