Yesterday I ran my first Ultra marathon, the Highlands Sky 40 mile run around Dolly Sods. Having never done any race of any sort before, let alone an ultra there were alot of first for me. First set of pre-race jitters to start things off.
Yifang and I drove up to Canaan Valley on Friday afternoon and set our tent up at Blackwater State Park. We made our way to the registration and dinner at the Canaan Lodge and had a great dinner of pasta and salad. The registrar gave me some useful advice: "Just keep going" when I confessed to not having bought post-dinner tickets in case I didn't finish.
After loading up on Hammer Endurolyte sample packs and gels we got in the car and I drove to the start to show Yifang how to get to the midway point. We had done a short overnight loop in Dolly Sods in March before the leaves were out, but wanted to remind ourselves how to get there. The area looked completely different: lush, green and wet from all the rain. Red Creek was lower than when we had had to cross it. In the back of my mind I was glad that the race course would not take us across any big rivers. I was partially correct.
We drove back to our campsite after dark, my stomach rumbling as I packed my drop bag with extra clothes, foot care supplies, perpetuem and my iphone. I debated whether to run in my Inov-8 295's or my new Salomon Comp-3's. I had planned on leaving the second pair in the drop bag with some dry socks in case I'd need to switch midway but forgot the second pair in the car. Luckily I chose wisely and went with the Salomons....more on that choice later.
I set three alarms for around 3:45. We were on the road shortly after 4 and at the resort by 4:20. Yifang dropped me off and went back to sleep. I wound't see her again until almost 12 long hours later despite a planned rendez-vous around lunchtime at mile 20.
I taped my feet with Leukotape and Tincture of Benzoin in the prep room and ate some yogurt and a banana. I probably should of already been sipping on electrolyte laden water but I didn't know better. At 5 a.m. sharp three school buses and a convoi of cars left for the start bearing 200 runners who immediately lined up for 6 porta potties upon arrival. Last minute prep such as poorly choosing to leave with my sunglasses and almost forgetting my Giardia medication consumed the anxiety ridden 30 minutes before the 6a.m. start. But next thing I knew we were all running down the road towards a grassy single track that quickly slowed to a crawl up a very wet nettle lined path. I passed a bunch of people to get over the climb up into Roaring Plains and into a better pace. A fellow named Steve Roper gave me some timely advice( Run station to Station) and reassured me that the pace we were moving at was fine. He also laughed at me for tkaing on HS as my first Ultra and warned me I'd be hooked.
I was quite nervous about making the cut-off times and not knowing the course or my capabilities I was worried I would be too slow. In hindsight I probably pushed much too hard in the first half of the race but it felt good. By the second station I discovered they had pringles and had a handful and would crave those for the rest of the day.
The trail alternated between running like a river or still as dark pond most of the time and I had to stop to clear mud and debris out out of my shoes at station 3. There was alot of rain, torrential rain. Under the canopy and in the fog my sunglasses were too dark and I was frequently nearly blind, either because of fogging up and wetness/smeared glasses or when I took them off, from my bad eye sight. It was a question of picking my poison. In particular, the long muddy descent before station 3 proved quite difficult vision wise and I was glad to make it down with only a scratched knee and a cut hand from an unrelated fall on some slippery rocks while trying to get to a moderately secluded area to pee. Beyond station 4 the terrain improved quite a bit as did the light conditions and I was OK for the rest of the day.
I felt good coming onto the road to the mid-point but realized it was quite early and that I was unlikely to see Yifang there as we had only planned to meet after 11. I was cranking and it was just after 10. The road slowed me quite a bit, I walked and ran to the station and immediately grabbed a lawn chair so that I could clean and re-tape my feet. A very worked out looking guy sat next to me and admitted having puked a few miles back (I think it might have been this guy) I was glad to be feeling better than him but was worried about the road ahead and the weather as the sky erupted into pounding rain and wind. I debated switching to a l/s top and chose not to. My sunscreen (applied at 5:30) had long since washed away and given the rain falling again I skipped reapplying, both choices haunt me now as I write this with burn shoulders and arms.
I got on the road and ran/walked at very slow pace passed station 5 and onto 6, arriving there well over one hour ahead of the 1:40 cutoff. It's hard to describe the road section. Unpleasant, endless, long, boring just don't do it justice. I would pick off a point in the distance and run to it, then pick off another and walk to that one. Repeat for 7 miles and you sorta get the picture. I got passed. I passed. We all stopped for pee breaks. It was running on a road and reminded me of the misery of planting trees in Northern BC several years ago.
Nearing the end, in sight of station 6, which I could see from a little ways ahead I was thrilled at having met one of my main goals, meeting all the cut-offs. I debated whether to call it quits as I wasn't sure how much I had left in me and if it would be enough to finish another 14 miles. Once there I didnt think and just kept moving after grabbing yet another handful of pringles and refilling with HEED.
The road had taken it's toll however and my legs, not used to this sustained effort and the pounding of hard surfaces started screaming back. Leg cramps had begun in the last hour and now increased and would persist until the end. Besides the cramp, jabbing pain was being felt everytime my feet landed. Somewhere in the wet grass leading to the rocky section I popped two Ibuopofens and started doubling up on the electrolyte pills and Nuun drink. I threw some hammer gels into the mix all washed down with the HEED supplied at the stations. Surprisingly my stomach handled the mix. My cramps never went away but didn't get much worse either. Condition wise the next section to station 7 was by far the best. Great views, few people -some of which I managed to pass and stay ahead of- as well as perfect running weather conditions made things almost pleasant. I was starting to feel more confident in my ability to finish, perhaps even under 9 hours and likely under 10 which had been some of my goals. Needless to say the Ibuprofen had kicked in. The positive effect lasted just long enough to get me within reach of the end.
The last two sections were tough, physically of course but mentally too. Once I could see the ski runs and the Canaan valley I knew I was getting close but did not have enough experience to correctly estimate how long it would take to run the remaining 7 miles and what it would take out of me. The climb up to the ski hill was OK and the descent down the butt slide went well, no falls but I took it slow, my legs in no shape to try to run down that. Imagine skiing down mud on cooked spaghetti legs. I emerged into the fields and onto a gravel road only to realize that the last 4.5 miles would be on more hard surface.
I almost started crying. by now the sun was pounding and I could tell it was burning my skin. Every step between station 8 and the finish required discipline and I learnt alot about pain tolerance and what people write about when they talk about running ultras being a as much about mental endurance as well as physical. I didn't enjoy this last section at all and in fact will be choosing my next race accordingly. NO MORE ROAD RUNNING. My legs hated the pounding they took on the pavement.
I was glad to head back into the forest as we neared the finish. one fellow ahead of me screamed bloody murder as we went up the last hill to emerge at the resort. I arrived confused and humming the theme song to St. Elmo's Fire into the arms of a slightly worried looking Yifang. I finished in 66th place under 9:32. We were back in DC at a colleague's pig roast 5 hours later chatting about the race. What a surreal and wonderful experience.
All this would of been impossible without the amazing work of the organizers, volunteers and my amazing, loving support crew of one, Yifang Xu. Thank you all.
My lower body is extremely sore now. Strange new pains in my feet. Burning muscles and just general soreness. I have no idea what to expect over the next few days. Worse or hopefully steady improvements. I woke up very nauseous this morning and my stomach is not very pleased with the sloshing it endured yesterday. Stairs are very difficult to negotiate. I did manage to beat Yifang on the two short sprints she challenged me to today in the hopes of finally beating me in a foot race. Little does she know.
A couple comments about training. Almost everyone that knows me was surprised to hear that I had done this given that I don't run or train with any regularity. I confess as much. I have recently gotten interested in Ultras as a result of my preparations for hiking the John Muir Trail this fall. I'm hoping to do the ~230 mile trail southbound from Yosemite to Mt Whitney in 11 days. I'm also going to an ACC climbing camp in July. Both of which will require some endurance and mental fortitude. As a result I've been incrasing the length and severity of my regular hiking and backpacking trips.
So for everyone who has asked about training here is the longer version.
Since the fall I have been running and hiking almost weekly on the valley and ridge trails in Rock Creek, on the Billy Goat Trail, or in Shenandoah. In April Yifang and did a 10 day long trip in Utah and did some canyonnering. The hiking along stream bed in wet conditions actually prepared me quite well for the wet, submerged trail conditions on the course. I like to hike fast and long days averaging 15 miles whenever possible. I dont run during the week but walk 2 miles a day, everyday. I don't run on pavement. I don't run down very steep hills, and usually don't run uphills on very long days. This may change soon as I plan on doing more hill training. I do run on very technical rocky ground. I was never phased by the trail conditions encountered yesterday and this was definitely an advantage in completing the race. I don't do well in the heat so usually I don't run in the summer. Since today is the official start of the hellish season I guess nothing has changed. I have to admit that if temperatures had been warm yesterday I likely would not of completed the race.
In the last month my training has intensified somewhat starting over memorial day long weekend when Yifang and I hiked the 24 mile North Fork Mountain trail in WV in 11 hrs. The next day while recuperating at home I signed up for Highlands Sky and ran out to run in Rock creek the following day. The following weekend I did not run, but we did a 20 mile bike ride in the heat. 2 weeks ago I fast hiked 30 miles of mostly steep hills in Shenandoah with the Extreme Dayhikers Meet Up group in about 11 hours. I credit this day as being the biggest confidence boosting effort that led to my finish yesterday. Knowing I could do 30 miles of hills on difficult trails in the heat. Knowing how my body feels after such an effort was extremely useful.I rested another week and did a fast 5.5 hour 17 mile on the Bull's run trail last weeked to round out my preparations, testing my body's reaction to HEED.
Gear wise, I ran in my new Salomon Comp 3. This shoe fits me really well. I had only walked about two miles in these before but they left my feet blister free. This is my second pair of these shows and they seem to have held up fairly well, although they are still totally wet from the race. I wet thru two pairs of Ineji toe socks. I carried a bottle of Perpetuem or HEED the entire course and had a Nathan 2L hydration pack for plain water (first 20 miles) and NUUN laced water(last 20. I refilled the pack's bladder midway and the bottle at every stop with HEED but began with Perpetuem. I shielded my balding head with a new Headsweats protech cap. The hydration pack rubbed my under arms raw a bit after mile 27. Some vaseline limited the damage but I'm concerned about what was going on there. More experience will tell if it can repalce my BD pack for this kind of day. A short sleeve t-shirt might also protect me better.
I hope to do some more of these Ultras, I hope to keep training for the JMT in the fall, incorporating more multiday 20 mile efforts into the mix. Some of them solo to get used to being alone as I will likely be hiking by myself in the fall for most of the time. I also need to start testing foods and supplements to figure out what will work best. I am starting to think that 11 days might be too long and that I might finish faster. We'll see....
*photos by Dan Lehmann