By Mike Fox
Left the house at 3:45am, 2 hour drive to Holiday Lake.
Turned off of Highway 24, along with 30 other cars to find the road to be covered in ice (it hadn’t been treated) and quite a few people that were nervous on the slick road. A Toyota Corolla tried to make it up a hill and failed. For some reason that made several others with 4x4 not want to try it, and they clogged the road. I drove around about 20 cars using the grass on the edge as traction, but then there was one stopped in the middle and wouldn’t move. Frank, Sean, and I were trying to convince them it was ok, but it was no use. They weren’t interested in trying anymore, and I couldn’t REALLY blame them. It was a complete ice rink.
It’s only about 4.5 miles to the starting line from where we are. I COULD run there and make it. I mean, if you’re gonna run 50k (++), what’s another 8k. Plus, it would be an effective warm up! But, I couldn’t leave Nelle and the girls stuck at the car. I would’ve been worried about them the whole time.
My preferred option was to attempt a gutsy move across the road to the far side and hook the grass again. Nelle decided it wasn’t worth the risk despite me giving her the “there are leaders and there are followers” speech.
We decided to turn around and try a different route. At this point it was about 6:30am. I was supposed to start my race at 6:30am. …read that sentence again.
We followed a new friend, Sean (Cate, maybe), onto the new route and it was just another ice covered road. One of his friends in a Tacoma was sideways in the road, stuck in the ditch, and blocking our way. Once again, we all get out to help. After trying to spot him out of his stuck, I suggested we hook a strap to him and try to pull him out by hand. I got a few weird looks, but I convinced our group that 5 guys could pull a small truck. If any of you know my rockcrawling background, you would know that I have some experience with this. So, we did! I hooked the strap to the front of the truck, we all grabbed hold, and I said “go”. Ten seconds later, the truck was free and we were running back to our cars to try to make forward progress. Again, hugging the edge of the road, with two tires in the ice covered grass, we made it the rest of the way to the camp and starting line. It was now 7:35am.
I went to Brenton Swyers, race director, and asked what to do. He said to get my bib number and start in whatever wave I could get into. At the time, I didn’t know it, but they were starting the 25k runners. All of the 50k waves had started on time. I am so grateful for them to be understanding and letting people start late considering the circumstance.
The good news: I’d actually get to run the race.
The bad news: I’m going to have to run the whole race by myself.
I packed 4 gels in my handheld bottle pocket. Time for a 50k++ Time Trail!
It was 7:45 and I’m at the starting line. Frank Gonzalez was huge in this moment. He said, “I’ll see you in 2 hours, don’t go out too fast, I love you, Mikey!” The last part he had to yell because I was GONE!
If you don’t know, the race is two virtually identical loops. When I ran this race a few years ago (I won in PERFECT conditions), it took me just under 4 hours, and that was my goal for today. But there was a problem. Actually lots of problems. The course was destroyed by the runners that started before me. The temp was right around freezing and it was raining. Traffic was a challenge and a blessing. Passing folks on a single track is tough, but without them it would’ve been very lonely (I enjoyed exchanging “good jobs” and seeing friends). I was racing, but I had to hold myself back. I had a long way to go, I’m not going to catch the leaders and I don’t know how fast they are running. It’s like I’m chasing something or someone, but I don’t even know if it exists.
Only a couple times on the first loop did the cold bother me. One was the stream crossing which was about thigh deep. That water was quite chilly and made me ease back into speed on the other side. Another was the SWAMP at the bottom of the logged field before you get back to the lake. It was mud up to my knee.
Finishing up my first loop, I could hear Nelle yelling for me across the Lake. I was feeling great! Almost like I had just finished my warm up and was ready to race. When I came through halfway, Nelle got some great pics of me, and Frank shared that I was almost EXACTLY the same time as the leaders through halfway!
That was huge news. With all that had happened that morning, just trying to get to the race, having to do this effort alone. Today, I could accomplish something incredibly special. I told myself that many times. I can do something special today: win this race running all by myself. What a story that would be.
The first couple miles into the 2nd loop were not great. My confidence was high though. My legs weren’t tired, and I remembered the first time I raced HL50k I didn’t feel good starting the 2nd loop either. All systems were “go”.
However, I didn’t know what laid ahead. As trashed as I thought the course was on the first lap, the 2nd lap was WAAAAY worse. The single tracks seemed to all have mud rivers, running down them. The power line reminded me of the nasty mud you see around cow feed troughs. The gravel roads offered two options: solid ice that had you straight arming on every step, or slushy goop that splashed icy mud on your lower legs every step. The tree limbs were heavy with ice and blocking the paths. Attempting to brush by them resulted in a feeling as though someone had whipped my face with a leather belt. The pines with their icy needles were more like getting beaten in the face with a frozen pillow. I’ve run some icy, muddy races that I’ve been able to laugh off, but not this. This was very serious.
Conditions aside, there was no one. NO ONE. Just me and aid stationers cheering every 45 minutes or so. I was 3 hours into a hopefully 4 hour run and didn’t see anyone. And my gels were sooooo hard to eat. My hands were too cold to open/squeeze them and when I did finally get it into my mouth, it was the consistency of chewing gum. I even tried to stick them inside my glove for 5 minutes prior to eating to warm them up, but it didn’t work.
There weren’t any negative thoughts though. Most ultramarathons will likely have you questioning why you are doing this to yourself. That never crept into my mind. I was very focused and knew I was moving well. I kept thinking that I didn’t know how my legs were taking this abuse, and that I could STILL do something very special today.
Unfortunately, the cold slowly started to catch up with me with about 5-6 miles left. First, it was my head. Everytime I blinked, my eyes would ‘shutter’ as though I had blinked 3-4 times rapidly. The ability to hear seemed to be leaving me. I didn’t hear my feet crunching ice or the rain/sleet hitting my hat anymore. Then it was my torso. My soaked shirt that was tight fitting at the start was now a bit baggy, had ice along the shorts line, and wasn’t protecting me anymore. In fact, it felt like barbed wire any time the cold breeze flapped it against my skin.
I had ice balls and frozen mud tangling the hair on my legs. It felt like my socks were off my heel and were bundled up at my toes, but whenever I looked down then were just as they were when I started. Man, did my toes ache!
I really had to be careful because I felt that If I were to fall, I might not be able to get back up. Legit concern at this point.
The last couple miles included some short uphills that I reluctantly walked. I would like to say I “power hiked” them, but that would be a lie. I walked. I’m not going to say my legs were tired. It wasn’t a tired leg feeling. It was a “we’re reaching the end of our tolerance for this bullsh*t” leg feeling.
Finally, I was at the top of the last climb and only had a few minutes of downhill road running to the finish. I did not sprint, but I didn’t walk either. David Horton gave me the news that I got 3rd by just a few minutes. I didn’t quite understand and so he tried to clarify. He said that top two guys (Jordan Chang and Daniel Rau) were only seconds apart. I honestly had a hard time comprehending, and a bit of trouble speaking, so lots of very cool people helped me inside and helped me change my clothes while wrapping me in blankets. Thanks everyone for that!!!
Turns out that the top guys waited an hour for me to finish because they knew there was a chance I could beat them on race time. Unfortunately, my time of 4 hours 28 minutes was around 6-7 minutes too much and their positions stood. I took 3rd place.
I didn’t stop at any aid stations, which is a shame because those awesome volunteers looked like they were having a great time despite the cold! That might have been a bad idea, but I didn’t want to give up even 1 minute of time. I took one of my gels every hour on the hour as I had done in my training runs, kept sipping my NUUN-laced water, continued to risk assess, and keep my effort as close to redline as possible without going in.
Considering the pre-race events and circumstances, I can’t be upset. However, I still want to win one of the individual Lynchburg Ultra Series Races this year and place as high as possible overall. I have 3 more tries. I’m behind the eight ball if Daniel and Jordan are in the series. Next up is Terrapin Mountain 50k at the end of March.