I need to start with how absolutely gorgeous the course was. I picked this race because they had some pretty pictures on their website and if anything, they undersold how beautiful the trails and scenery is. The first five miles are all uphill in woods, however once you got up on top of the ridge, you were greeted with vistas like this:
The next 10 miles into the Birch Knob aid station had many ups and downs. While this is an accurate description of the entire course, I found the first section to be the easiest. Not easy, mind you. But easier. Maybe this is why I found myself running a sub-16 minute pace or about a minute faster than Eastern States. I was within 2 miles of the aid before I was passed by the first 50k runner heading the other way. I had expected to see them before this and was surprised by how close to the frontrunners I was. I ended up counting 12-15 before I rolled into the 50k turnaround. Considering there were about 60 doing that distance, this was way too close. I had no business running that fast relative to them considering I had to go 3x farther than them. Oh, well. It wouldn’t be the first time I went out too fast in a race and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
I got a nice emotional boost from the “crowd” at Birch Knob as I rolled into the first of 2 crew accessible aid stations. I was a little surprised not to see Kate and Dave there though. No biggy. I figured they were out hiking or otherwise enjoying the area and that I would see them in 15 miles. I picked up my backup headlamp out of my drop bag, refilled by water bottles, grabbed some gels, and headed out down the road. Literally. I was the only runner on the road for the first little bit and was unsure whether I was still going the right way. I flagged down a car and they told me the course stayed on the gravel road for the next 2 miles. It was right after this that 2 other runners caught up with me so I felt much better.
Since I had my phone with me, I called Kate and left her a voice mail message that I had already left Birch Knob. It wasn’t more than 2 minutes later that she pulled up next to me. Apparently, the road up to this aid station is beyond treacherous with deep gravel, sharp turns, and steep drop offs. It was an easier trip the next day, but definitely plan extra time (and four wheel drive) getting up there if you’re making the trip yourself.
After giving her and Dave high fives, I proceeded to crank out a string of three straight 13 minute miles. This was just blazing fast and contributed to me covering the 15 miles into Marathon Station at a sub-16 minute pace as well. This was my least favorite section of trail. If it wasn’t the most difficult section, it was a very close second. There was a new section of trail added in here this year and they literally just carved it out of the woods. The trail was extremely rough, more half track than single track. It was rather neat from the standpoint that it really encapsulated the whole backwoods vibe of the race, however the off-camber footing on loose dirt is what started the hotspot on my left foot.
I was maybe 2 or 3 miles out from the Marathon Station aid station (they call it that because it’s behind a Marathon gas station, not because of the distance) when I passed my first 100k runner heading back to Elkhorn City. Again I’m thinking I’ve gone out way too fast since I should be much farther back. I’m still cruising sub-16 minute in through here and with my pace now 2 minutes quicker than a sub-30 hour finish I’m starting to dream about an amazing finishing time. Even though I’ve always faded at the end of these races the possibility of a sub-32 hour crossed my mind more than once. This would be about 4 hours quicker than I thought heading in, however there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done at this point.
Right before Marathon Station is the Mountain Life Church aid station. The 100 milers needed to check in here before heading down their driveway and crossing route 23 to the gas station. Not sure why they require this, but no biggy as what’s an extra 30 seconds when you’re out for a day and a half? Kate and Dave met me across the street for the first of my 3 stops at this aid station. This was my last major aid station before dark, so I geared up for the night section. I switched into a long sleeve T, grabbed my gloves, and threw on my headlamp. It was still 3 hours till dark, but I figured it was easier to just put it on now than mess around with it later when I needed it.
The website doesn’t do a great job explaining this section of the course and it wasn’t until the pre-race briefing the night before that I finally got it. There are 2 aid stations past this and I thought you hit them both twice on each out-and-back (i.e. one single out and back). In reality, several hundred yards after you leave Marathon Station, you turn left off the trail and do an additional 1.5 mile section of trail down to Red Fox (3 mile round trip) before coming back up and continuing on out to Adena Springs. The trail to Red Fox is a nice gentle downhill the entire way. Unfortunately, this lulls you into a false sense of security before you’re hit with the other 17 miles of this section. I’m not sure whether this was the toughest section of the course or not. It was mostly run at night, which may have made it seem more difficult than it was.
A quick digression on aid station distances. You have time for this, right? If not, just skip to the next paragraph. So the Cloudsplitter course is remote. As in, it’s deep in the woods with not a lot of access to the trails. This means there are limited aid stations. The race organizers do a good job for the 50k runners (4 aid stations in 16 miles), however the rest of the course has aid stations every 7-9 miles which is quite a bit of distance to cover when you’re clocking 20 minute miles (i.e. 3 mph). Red Fox is only 1.5 miles from Marathon Station, however it’s not much more than a water only stop. And this isn’t meant to be a knock on the race organization. I enjoy running 100s because of the challenge and didn’t think the distances between aid stations had any impact on my race. Frankly, if you’re the type of person who needs an aid station every hour or so, then you probably shouldn’t be running 100 miles to begin with. And you definitely shouldn’t be attempting a mountainous 100.
The first go though the Highlands section was fairly uneventful, although once again I noticed myself far too close to the race leader at the turnaround (maybe 4-5 miles back at the 40 mile mark). I turned my headlamp on after passing through Adena Springs although many other runners were still going without at this point. Typically, I’m one of the last to turn mine on as well, but after my first trip over a root or rock or whatever, I turned mine on so I could see better. No use being stupid. Right?
Halfway can be a very difficult part of a 100 mile race. Typically, you’re happy to be over the hump on any given task, but 50 miles is like 3 normal tasks so it never feels like you’re halfway. Especially considering I was still 2 hours away from being halfway done from a time standpoint. I left Marathon Station feeling so-so, not nearly as good as I felt the last time I was there. But this is how you roll when you’re running 100 miles. You have good time, so-so times, and . . .
I have never thrown up before, during, or after a race. Well, until this point in my running career. I’ve had some slight stomach issues that lead to the feeling I might spew, however have managed to keep everything down by slowing down my gel consumption, breathing deeply, drinking some water, and/or praying. I was about a 1/4 mile out of Red Fox when I broke my Oh-fer. I had just taken a slight taste of a gel and before I knew it, I was bent over and emptying my stomach onto the ground. All 6oz of water and 1/3oz of gel. It took about 8 seconds and as soon as I stood back up, I felt great. Well, I felt great physically, but mentally I was on uncertain ground. You see, I use gels for 90%+ of my fueling and without them I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it around the course. I had Ensure Plus in my drop bags in case I needed them, but my next drop bag was 17 miles or about 6 hours away. I needed to figure out a viable plan C pretty quick or I wasn’t going to make it that far. Once into Red Fox, I looked over my options, which were limited, and decided on some banana and bite sized candy. I was like a kid trick-or-treating at a house where the homeowners just leave a bucket of candy on the front porch. I’m stuffing these fun-sized packages all over my body to help fuel me along. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until I was a ways down the trail that I realized these didn’t sit quite so well in my stomach. But they sure did look good!
I now have to go 9 miles to reach the Adena Springs aid station on a half a banana, candy I can barely stomach, and a bottle of chicken broth. If that doesn’t sound like the perfect plan C to you, well you’d be right. It wasn’t, but it’s the only one I had. I decided to downshift my effort level since I was going to be short on calories over the next couple hours and this may have been one of my better decisions during the race.
I made it to Adena Springs a little before 2am in good order and in acceptable spirits. I came in with the game plan of stocking up on bananas, topping up my bottle of chicken broth, and grabbing a cup of coffee to help keep me awake. Normally, I would toss the coffee in a bottle, but I need it this time for my chicken broth. I always make sure to keep one of my 2 bottle strictly reserved for water and the thought of swapping between coffee and chicken broth for the next section almost made me hurl again. I was like an invalid at this aid station and felt a little bad having the volunteers do absolutely everything for me as all I could do was sit there and get ready for the next section back to Marathon Station. I had planned to stay for 10 minutes and I was up and off the bench right on time.
The 7.5 miles back to the Marathon station was mostly a blur. I passed some runners heading the other way and I think a couple runners passed me along this stretch, however it was rather quiet. I was counting down the miles in through here (never a good sign) and then finally I got to the horse gate. This is where the trail split off down to Red Fox and I knew I was almost back to Marathon for the last time. It had taken me almost 7 hours to complete the 18 miles and would end up being my slowest section of the course at a little over 22 minute per mile pace. I had told Kate to expect me about 4:30am and I rolled in right at 4:32am. I was surprised not to see her there since she was going to wake up at 4:15am, however she strolled in a couple minutes after I did. Apparently, the car battery died so she had to walk down from the Mountain Life church. This gave me the opportunity to walk back up with her and it was a big boost to spend a little extra time catching up. Again, I spent exactly 10 minutes in the aid station chugging a cup of coffee, swapping out headlamps, and then I was on my way.
Let me tell you something. The 2 mile drag up from Marathon Station is pretty tough. It’s among the steeper sections of the course and it’s all uphill until you get up on top of the ridge. There were times I wondered if I was ever going to make it to the top.
And then the real fun begin. In between the Marathon and Osborn Gap aid stations, is a section of trail that the race organizers have had some difficulty with private landowners. Vandals (whom everyone assumed was the same landowners) had torn down a bunch of trail markings the day before on a long section of fire road. I hadn’t noticed it until the very end when I came up to about 10 other runners. Luckily, one of the guys had downloaded the course onto his phone and saw we were still on course so away we all went. There was another runner a little behind me (I could see his headlamp every now and again) the second time I came upon the section. I remembered the end of it pretty well, however I totally forgot how long it lasted. It took me what felt like an eternity to find one of the old painted blazes on a tree and yelled back to the runner that I had found it so that he would know to keep coming up the trail. A little farther on, I came up to a section with about 15 pink ribbons all grouped together and ended up waiting for the runner to catch me since I wasn’t sure where to go. We continued on together and helped each other navigate the now unmarked course. I easily spent an extra 10 minutes over this little bit of trail constantly slowing down and turning around looking for faded yellow markings on trees.
Finally, we reached the newly created trail section and were firmly back on well marked trails. It was mentally challenging to continually be unsure whether I was still on course or not even though I had never left it for a second. I’m not too upset with the vandalism and lost time though because stuff happens in a 100 mile race. Always. Part of the fun is figuring out ways to deal with the obstacles as they arise whether they’re self-inflicted, weather related, or man-made. That said. Several locals were out along this section after I came through carrying guns and made some threatening comments to 3 female runners. I was shocked to hear this and am sure this will be addressed by the race organizers and the community before next year’s race.
I parted ways with my running companion at the Osborn Gap aid station. It took me almost 11 hours to run the last 31 miles. During this time, I only saw 4 other runners, one of whom was hanging out at Osborn Gap as I came through. I don’t mind running by myself and really enjoyed the time to myself. I saw Kate and Dave out on the trails for the last time at Birch Knob. I was feeling awesome at this point and was in and out of the aid station pretty fast. Dave dragged a chair over for me to sit down in, but I don’t think I stayed for more than a minute or so. Just enough time to chug an Ensure Plus, toss another in my pack, and head on down the trail. Kate and Dave started to walk me out, but I was feeling so good I took off running within a hundred feet or so. Sorry! This burst of energy lasted about a mile, before I decided to just cruise it in to the finish. I hadn’t really be tracking a finishing time since I left Marathon and while my semi-inaccurate late ultra mental math had me somewhere potentially around 32 hours, this wasn’t really a goal. Continuing to enjoy a stroll through the woods was much more important to me.
But all good things must come to an end. And it was somewhere between Birch Knob and Turnip Patch Gap that my right foot developed a very severe hotspot in addition to the somewhat mild hotspot that had been on my left foot for quite some time. It hurt to run on, but I could still power walk/hike without too many issues. Well, I could do that as long as I wasn’t going uphill. All of the accumulated vertical gain had really started to take a toll on me as well by this point and my speed going uphill was rapidly diminishing. Heck, on the steeper sections, it took all of the upper body strength I could muster on my trekking poles to pull me forward. As my physical condition deteriorated, so too did my mental state. It’s amazing how this happens. High is followed by low is followed by “how much longer is this gonna take?!?!?!”. While I was once again counting down the miles through this section, I was no where near a death march. I was making relatively good time (20-22 minute pace) and while I was in discomfort, it wasn’t excruciating.
And then a miracle happened. Right before I reached the last aid station at Elkhorn City Overlook, I discovered how to run without the hotspots on my feet bothering me too much. Turns out if I took really short steps, almost a quick shuffle if you will, that I could run again. Then I came up to the last aid station only 5.3 miles from the finish, checked my watch, and realized all I needed was 21 minute miles to break 32 hours. I had been telling myself for the past several hours that time didn’t matter. I didn’t have any time goals so 32.5 hours (or even 33 hours) was no different than 32. Those times were all a lot quicker than how I thought I would run so were all equally good numbers. Was I rationalizing my deteriorating performance? You betcha! But there was a ton of truth to what I was thinking and even 34 hours is a good time on this course.
But I could run now, so off I went clocking a 17:33 minute mile. Yikes. I hadn’t run that fast since mile 39. So what did I do? I celebrated by cranking out another 17:33 mile. The next mile was a bit more technical (i.e. lots of rocks that had my feet screaming at me again) so I barely squeaked under 20 minutes for it. Then it was 16:44 and 15:39 miles as I finished up the trail, hit the gravel road to town, and the paved roads to the finish line. Dave helped direct me in to the ballpark and then I was across the finish line in 31 hours and 35 minutes.
This race had everything that I’ve come to love about running 100 miles. There were gorgeous trails and breathtaking views. There were more ups and downs than I could count, both mentally and geographically. There was a great community of runners out on the trails wishing each other the best. Top notch volunteers at all the aid stations whether they were located by a highway, the end of a dirt road, or in the middle of the trail reached by horseback. And there were new and interesting challenges that needed to be overcome in order to reach the finish line. There may come a day when these runs no longer stoke my fire, but I have a feeling that day is in my very distant future.