Similar to my Umstead race report, I’m going to start with a brief overview of the race for the undecideds or merely curious.  My (overly) detailed race report that follows will be of interest for those who are planning to run the race and my family/friends.

What OD100 Has to Offer
  • Historic.  This is the 2nd oldest 100 miler in the US.  At the pre-race meeting, Pat Botts, who founded the race, got up and gave a brief overview of how the race got started.  She relayed how she talked with Wendell Robie (founder of Western States) and he mentioned that they had runners participating in their horse race.  When she got back, her kids used their barn money to advertise for the first race in 1979.  Very neat perspective.
  • Tough.  From the 28 hour cutoff to the 24 hour requirement to get a buckle to the gnarly trail sections, this is not an easy race. While I would argue it’s not a race for the back-of-the-pack runner, it’s definitely doable for everyone else.  And at the end of the day, we don’t run 100 miles because it’s easy.  We run it for the challenge and this race definitely has that.
  • Scenic.  Mile for mile, this was the prettiest course I’ve run.  You wouldn’t think that would be the case with the number of road miles, but what these miles give you are great sights of the surrounding countryside.  Most of the time on trails, you’re too focused on the ground immediately in front of you trying not to trip.  While the OD course gives you that, you get many miles where you can just zone out and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.
  • Grand Slam race.  OD100 is back as a grand slam event after a decade hiatus.  For east coast runners, this means you now have 2 options on the east coast instead of having to travel west for 3 of the 4 races.

Overall, this race should be on your 100-mile bucket list regardless of whether you think you can finish inside 24 hours.

Race Founder discussing how the race got started all those years ago.
All about the buckle

That said, this race was all about finishing inside 24 hours for me.  My race preview mentioned that I didn’t have a high degree of confidence that this was doable.  It was definitely within the realm of possible, but not quite within the neighborhood of likely.  I figured I needed to be out of Elizabeth Furnace aid station by 8:45 pm, which would give me a 75 minute buffer on a 24 hour pace.  I had given my dad a bunch of other times for the various aid stations, but they were only guesses.  And given how things can progress, you really never know how things are going to shake out until after mile 70 anyways.  In the Medical Comments of the Red Book, item #5 recommends “don’t get buckle fever”.  This means don’t go out too fast.  Run sustainably right from the beginning.  This meshes with my strategy of running “too easy”, which is always easier said than done.

One of us is about to crush his first 100 mile crew experience. The other is wondering if they wouldn’t mind pushing the race start back till 7am so he could get a bit more sleep.

I woke up at 2:45am for the 4am start pretty tired.  While I went to bed at 8pm the prior night, I didn’t fall asleep until after 9pm and ended up tossing and turning the rest of the night.  Not an auspicious start to my day.  We gathered at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds and a couple minutes before the appointed time headed outside to the starting line.  There were only 48 starters and I somehow found myself at the front of the pack.  A quick prayer was said and before anyone knew what happened “Go” was shouted into the pre-dawn silence.  It took all of us about 2 seconds to realize that we should be running and off we went.

The course starts with a counter-clockwise trip around the brand new race track.  Glow sticks were placed around the outside (needed to get the full 100 mile distance) and I was slowly moving backwards in the pack as we went around.  I kept thinking to run slow and tried not to get caught up with the crowd.  We exited the fairgrounds and I could see the flashing lights of the police car just ahead that would lead us up to Woodstock Gap.  I could still see the leaders when my watch flashed up an 8:55 first mile split.  What?!?!  I commented to a runner next to me that that was fast, turned around and saw only about 6 headlamps behind me.  So I was right where I wanted to be at the back of the pack, but I was going far too fast.  I tried to slow down, however was only able to back it off to a 9:01 pace for mile 2.  Doh!  It was at this point that I began thinking this was either going to be a great race or a horrendous one.  Either way it would likely end up as a good race report.  It was fun to run through the empty town of Woodstock.  The streets were very well lit and it was rather peaceful.  We crossed route 11, made a left on Water Street, and before I knew it we made the right on Mill Road and started heading out into the country.

I ended up getting in 2 more sub-10 minute miles before starting the climb up to Woodstock Gap.  The climb isn’t too bad and I managed to pass a couple people as I was power hiking pretty well.  I had a nice chat with Todd from Stokie, IL (23:13 finish) in through here.  We were able to make good time (16 and 14 minute miles), however that was not the focus.  I knew I already had time in the bank from the first couple miles so it was just about taking it easy and warming up.

I took a quick pit stop at the top of the hill at mile 7 (nice to start out well hydrated) and then dropped down into the long decent to Boyer.  Even though it was a decent downhill run, I was still surprised to see two more sub-9 miles flash before my eyes (8:23, 8:51).  I was now starting to get more than a little concerned.  I’ve done six 100s before and never done better than a 10 minute pace in any mile.  And several times that 10 minute pace has put me into serious difficulty later on.  Yes, the temps were near perfect in the low-50s, but this was getting a little ridiculous.

Picturesque mountain lake just below Woodstock Gap.

Finally, I hit the Boyer aid station where the Race Director was managing things out of the back of his truck.  A hundred yards up the road, turn to the left, and I was onto the first trail section of the race.  What a wake up this was.  The course lulls you to sleep with 10 miles of roads, then slaps you in the face with a steep, technical climb.  My watch actually measured this as the second steepest mile at 615 feet of elevation gain behind only the top of Sherman Gap (764 feet).  After two miles of trail, you pop back out onto a road and then cruise back down to Ray’s truck.

Coming up to the 770/758 aid station. Course continues straight here. You bang a right the next time through here 71 miles later.

The next 18 miles into the Four Points #1 aid station are all on roads and I was absolutely blazing along with no mile worse than 12:34.  This was a beautiful stretch with sights of the mountains around the valley and farms at every turn.  My dad saw me for the first time at mile 19 and mentioned that I was ahead of plan.  I’m in and out of aid stations very quickly early on so didn’t get much chance to chat with him, but said he was doing well.  I checked my total time for the first time at mile 20 and was exactly 60 minutes up on a 24 hour pace (11:24 average).  This meant I only needed to get 15 more minutes over the next 55 miles.  Awesome!  I ended up banking another 15 minutes by mile 25 and was sitting at 90 minutes total by mile 30.

Have I mentioned the gorgeous scenery yet? I probably lost 15 minutes snapping photos during the race.

There are a couple miles on a semi-busy paved road (675) before you get into Four Points #1.  I had been dreading this for a couple miles because the next section up Duncan Hollow was supposed to be pretty nasty.  Apparently, the person who normally handles the Peach Orchard aid station couldn’t make it, so there was going to be an 8 mile stretch with no aid.  Before you get there though, there’s a short 2 mile loop with the 1st on trails up to an overlook and then a mile back down on a road.  There was a water only stop here so I topped up my bottle of Gatorade and up the trail I went.  The first half to three-quarters of a mile is flattish and pretty runnable and then you get to the climb.  The only word that comes to mind is relentless.  While it’s not the steepest climb, it just seems to continue on forever though in reality it was “only” 4.5 miles.  I’ll have to do some research, but this may be the longest sustained climb I’ve ever done.  I knew I was way ahead of my time goal so invested some of it by taking it nice and easy (16-18 minute miles).  I was within sight of another runner all the way up so knew my pace wasn’t too bad.  I passed him at the very top when he took a break and told me this was the high point on the course.  The backside trail was somewhat technical so I wasn’t able to make up any time.

Trail section up Duncan Hollow. The grade isn’t steep, but it never seems to stop.

I rolled into the Crisman Hollow aid station at mile 43 with about 2 sips left in each of my 20oz water bottles.  I didn’t conserve my fluids on the way up Duncan Hollow, but did a bit coming down as I thought it would take me a bit longer to get to the aid station.  This was the first of 2 medical checks so I stepped up onto the scale and was pleased to see I was only down 3 pounds.  They wouldn’t have stopped me unless I was down about 10 pounds so I was doing very well considering the temperatures had probably climbed into the 70s by this point.  This showed I was doing a much better job staying on top of my salt/electrolyte intake than I’ve done in prior races.  I started with the salt tablets at mile 22 and had been popping one every 3 miles or so since then.

Buttery smooth road down into Four Points #2.

There’s a 4.5 mile downhill road section from here back into Four Points.  It was shaded, gentle, and I ended up making back almost all of the time I had lost in the prior section.  I was really pretty amazed that here I am 46 miles into the race and I’m cranking out 10-11 minute miles (downhill, sure, but still).  I rolled into the aid station, chatted with my dad for a couple seconds, and then was back out onto the course.

Half way done. Well, distance wise at least.

The next 3 mile section up to the Mountain Top aid station is all on roads and not too steep.  It was more exposed than other sections so I tried to keep my pace under control.  The runner ahead of me waved and it took me a second to realize he was at the 50 mile marker.  My elapsed time was 10 hours 15 minutes when I got up to it, which meant that I had managed to bank a whopping 105 minutes on my 24 hour goal.  I caught up to the runner whose name was Brian right after this.  He asked what I thought our chances of buckling where and I paused for a minute before answering.  At this point, I was way ahead of where I thought I would be and the last thing I wanted to do was jinx myself, but I eventually responded that it was looking pretty good.  I then tossed in the requisite caveat that it was still early and anything could happen.  Unfortunately, a “knee” happened to Brian and he was forced to drop at mile 65.

Right before I got into Edinburg Gap at mile 56, I felt some blisters starting to form.  My dad had all my gear already laid out for me when I arrived so I was able to immediately get to work fixing my feet.  I can’t emphasize enough what a great job he did supporting me all day long.  Even more impressive is that this was his first attempt at crewing for an ultra.  He was probably having an even better performance than I was in his first go.  Unfortunately, this is where the wheels started to come off.  As I was walking out of the aid station, I felt absolutely awful.  I think I apologized to my dad for seeing me in such a low place and started to worry that he would be worrying for me.  I was low on calories, overheated, and all the miles I had covered (too quickly) seemed to catch up to me at once.

The ATV trail was not my happy place.

So I hit the ATV trail with one goal in mind: recovering.  This was difficult to do though as the first mile is all uphill and pretty exposed to the sun.  After a couple miles I came up with the brilliant idea that if I took my hat off, then my head would be cooler.  Why it took me about 6 hours to think of this is beyond me, but luckily I eventually did.  There also came a nice cool breeze out of the woods about now so that combination finally got me back in shape.  The trail isn’t the smoothest though so I wasn’t make great time as I picked my way among the rocks even though I was feeling much better.

This lasted until right before I rolled into Little Fort aid station at mile 64.  I wasn’t nearly as low as I had been before, but once again my dad wasn’t seeing me at my best.  The aid station had plenty of real food available, but since I typically have no interest in burgers and the like during a race I merely grabbed my Ensure Plus and was back up out onto the course.

It’s in through here where you start to run some of the same roads as earlier in the day.  You head back down the road from Woodstock Gap and pass the Boyer aid station (long since gone) on your way to Mudhole Gap.  The roads weren’t too difficult (rollers rather than hills), however I couldn’t seem to get any speed going.  I got a blister on my right foot not too long before the aid station that I had to stop and take care of.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make much progress so had to just put my shoe back on and endure.  Thankfully, it faded into the background after a couple minutes.

One of the creek crossings after Mudhole Gap. Never had to get your feet wet if you could dance the rocks well enough.

Mudhole Gap was where I discovered oranges.  Yes, they had these at all the other aid stations, but this is where I thought I would try one.  I grabbed one as I was heading out to the trail and it was so good that I had to turn around and grab another.  There’s about a mile of trail immediately after leaving the aid station that crosses a little stream 4 or 5 times.  It’s mostly runnable and rather pretty through here.  This leads to a 3 mile fire road.  I’m not sure why I thought this would all be downhill, but there was a decent number of small climbs in here.  The last mile into Elizabeth Furnace is a trail section that seems to twist and turn back onto itself every 15 feet.  About 2 miles out from the aid station I once again ran very low on energy.  It was all I could do to run the downs and I ended up walking even flattish sections.  I hadn’t seen another runner since leaving Little Fort, but got passed by 3 people in the last mile here.

Where dreams go to die

I reached Elizabeth Furnace at 8:37pm or 8 minutes ahead of schedule.  I had managed to squander 22 minutes of the 105 minutes that I had banked at mile 50.  I immediately started working on my feet as I sent my dad scurrying off to the aid station table to refill my bottles with water and coffee.  After re-taping my feet, I grabbed my long sleeve shirt, gloves, and trekking poles.  Time just seemed to bleed away here on me.  I looked at my watch and noticed that it was already 8:46pm.  I started scrambling now because I had to get going.  Then my headlamp didn’t want to turn on so I had to mess with it.  More time was lost looking for salt tablets and my Ensure Plus.  And then I was finally leaving Elizabeth Furnace (8:54pm).  My time bank had been reduced all the way down to 66 minutes.  Not knowing the course, 60 minutes or 9pm was the time I thought would be borderline for me and here I was right up against it.  All of those blazing fast miles early on were going to be for naught.

It was fully dark as I started up Sherman Gap.  I was hiking well, but was discouraged to see my first mile split of 21 minutes.  Seven more minutes gone.  The next mile was 22 minutes.  Arghhh!  I had now lost 25% of my banked time and I still had 11 more miles to go in this section.  The ironic thing is that even though I was losing large chunks of time, I ended up gaining on and passing 2 runners and their safety runner on the way up.  The safety runner asked my name as I passed so I told her.  The top of the climb is the steepest and I paused for a couple seconds at one point just for a short break.  Just after the top, my watch flashed up the most discouraging number I’ve ever seen in my life – 29.  Fifteen more minutes gone just like that.

When I was growing up, my parents had this poster in the bathroom of an eagle flying in the sky with the words: “If you love something, set it free.  If it comes back to you, then it is yours.  If not, then it never was.”  This was the moment where my dream of a buckle died.  I didn’t see how it was physically possible given the state that I was in.  I was very tired (coffee was only partially working) and still had about 10 miles before I got back onto the roads.  The downhill section was pretty technical so I was hiking more than I was running (21 and 18 minute miles).  Since I had given up hope of a good time, I was just focused on moving forward.  Mentally, I was in a good place.  Maybe I was just rationalizing, but any 100 mile finish is a good finish.  I even started fantasizing about how I would really drop the hammer at the top of Woodstock Gap if I “only” needed a 13 minute pace to buckle.

Eventually, I got down to the water only aid station at the bottom.  I wasn’t thinking too clearly though and I thought this was Veach East.  I was supposed to go another 7 miles with only a water refill and a couple bite size candy bars?!?!  It seemed ludicrous.  I didn’t blame race management or anyone when presented with this.  It just was. So I’d deal with this and move forward.  The next section was all on roads.  I was going up several rather steep hills and remember thinking that Veach Gap was pretty easy (i.e. on roads) when I heard what sounded like a party off to my right.  Now when I’m running these 100s at night, I get a pretty severe case of tunnel vision and really only interact with the 6 feet in front of me lit by my headlamp.  So while I heard a generator and kind of recognized some bright lights, it didn’t fully penetrate my consciousness.  A couple cars were parked on the left hand side of the road and right next to them was the shadow of a man.  As I walked up, he asked if my name was Phil.

Resurrection

I responded that it was and he invited me into Veach East (mile 82).  Wait, what?  I turned the corner and was presented with a brightly lit oasis.  I rolled into the aid station a bit disorganized since I wasn’t expecting it.  They were quick to tell me I only had 4 miles, actually 3.7 something to Veatch West.  I had been on zombie shuffle mode for the last couple hours, but I immediately perked up at this news.  I asked for some orange slices and gummy bears and as they handed them over I checked my watch – 11:35pm.  Four miles in a little over an hour would get me into Veach West by 1am only needing a 14 minute pace to get a buckle.  The dream had turned around and was starting to fly back towards me.

I shot out of the aid station and was down the trail.  Veach Gap seemed much easier than Sherman Gap.  The trail was still steep in parts, but I was up and over before I knew it.  The first mile down the backside of Veach was very technical and I was only able to manage a 21 minute mile.  This wasn’t discouraging as I was feeling better and more awake than I had been in a long time.  It was here about 12:30am that I made my smartest tactical decision of the race.  Originally, I had planned to drop off my trekking poles at Veach West since I would be finished with the trail sections, but I changed my mind to keep them for the climb up Woodstock Gap.  The last mile into the aid station was very runnable and I made great time.

My dad was waiting right in front and I told him I thought I had a chance at a 24 hour finish.  He told me he wouldn’t see me at the next aid station, but I was only half listening to him (sorry, dad!).  I was entirely focused on getting what I needed and getting out of the aid station.  I had no time to waste.  I had to get scarce.  Eventually, I heard what he was saying and told him to drive safe that I would see him at the finish.  Checking my watch – 12:47 – meant all I needed was 15 minute miles to buckle.  I was energized.  This was possible.

I hit the roads flying.  I wasn’t just running down the hills, but also the flats and even slight uphills.  When I got to a steeper section I would use my poles and push myself a little faster.  After a mile or so, I noticed two headlamps ahead of me.  They became a beacon to me and slowly, but surely, I was able to draw closer to them.  Then I noticed a couple more lights ahead of them.  I had been by myself for most of the last 6 hours and here I was within sight of 10% of the starting field.  Over the next mile or so, I ended up passing one of the runners and all 5 of us arrived at the 770/758 aid station within a couple minutes of each other.

As I walked in, I heard a volunteer say, “You can do this, but you have to leave now!”  This gave me a little boost.  I still had a shot.  Some orange slices and a handful of gummy bears and I was up the road.  With the cool temperatures, I wasn’t drinking much so didn’t have to refill my bottles for the rest of the race.  I started out hiking uphill with 2 other runners at 1:50am.  Ten miles in 130 minutes didn’t seem possible (it was only after the fact that I realized it was only 9 miles), but again I wasn’t discouraged.  I was entirely focused on pushing forward as quickly as possible.  One runner dropped off the back fairly quickly (Alvin, final person to buckle at 23:55), while the me and the other pushed ahead.  We got to a less steep section and John started to run.  I thought to myself that we both have the exact same goal and if he was running, then I should be running too.  So off I went.  When the road got too steep and we switched back to walking, I would pull ahead as I was stronger with my trekking poles.  He would then surge past me when we started running again.  Eventually, the road got too steep and it was just a matter of hiking to the top.  We passed the Little Fort aid station then got to the T where we went right earlier down to Mudhole Gap.  This time we turned left up the mountain and another mile up was Woodstock Gap.

About a hundred yards before I got to the aid station, a volunteer started heading down asking for my name.  I shouted up my name and that I needed some orange slices.  As I pulled even with the aid station, she said to go on ahead and that she’d catch up.  They knew how short we were on time and were doing everything possible to help us reach our goals.  I stopped about 30 feet up and after about 20 seconds she was handing me over the last aid I was going to need.  Glancing at my watch, the time was 2:22am.  I had 98 minutes to run 7 miles or exactly 14 minute pace.  I could do this.  I could do this!

I tore down the mountain.  A blister developed, burst into excruciating pain, and was brushed aside in 20 strides.  No time for that.  My first split was 11:52 giving me a 2 minute buffer.  My next mile was 11:15 giving me another 3 minutes in the bank.  At this point, I was down off the mountain and across the bridge by the dam.  There’s a short little hill and I started to walk after 2+ miles of running.  I was using my poles to power myself up the incline.  Left then right.  Left then right.  As the road turned to the right, the pitch lessened and I pushed back into a run.  This pattern continued for the next couple miles.  Whenever I transitioned to hiking, I would push the pace with my poles as much as possible.  After topping out at Woodstock Gap, all my miles ended up being at or below a 13 minute pace.  Even though I was running very strongly, I was terrified that I wasn’t going to finish inside 24 hours.  Time and again I would slow to a walk only to push back into a run after 15 or 20 paces.

I got to Water Street at 3:13am – 47 minutes to go 3 miles.  As I pass the aid station, I hear someone say “Is that Phil?  Go Phil!”.  The safety runner I had passed back on Sherman Gap had come down to cheer on the runners.  It gave me an extra little lift.  I started feeling more and more comfortable that I had this in the bag, but I didn’t stop pushing.  Right onto Court Street and it looked the same as the prior morning minus 47 other runners.  There’s a little hill here and I started walking.  Twenty steps later I’m pushing back into a run.  Left onto Commerce.  I cross a road and there are a couple more hills.  I cross the railroad tracks and am looking for the fairgrounds.  I’m so close I can smell it, but I can’t quite see the finish yet.  Up one last short steep hill and I see turn.  I check my watch and see I have 28 minutes to go a mile or so.  Then the right turn into the fairgrounds where they have glow sticks laid out again to guide my path.  I head past the cars parked in the lot and then I’m back onto the track at 3:38am.  Twenty-one minutes for my victory lap.  I had plenty of energy to run it in, but decided to take a couple walk breaks as I ran around the race track to savor the moment.  What seemed likely only to morph into an improbability was about to become a fact.  I was going to finish the Old Dominion 100 inside 24 hours.  I rounded the final corner and then crossed the finish line with a time of 23 hours, 45 minutes.  I knew there were a couple runners right behind me so waited around to congratulate them before heading off to sit down.

Epilogue

I had looked around as I finished for my dad, however didn’t see him.  There was only 4 people standing around including the timer so it’s not like I lost him in the crowd or anything.  I walked hobbled over to the parking lot and looked for our car.  I didn’t see it immediately and started to get a little concerned before I finally found it.  The back door opened and my dad got out as I walked up.  Apparently, he had set his alarm for right before 4am so missed my earlier than expected arrival.  We chatted about my run for a bit then caught some sleep before the breakfast/awards ceremony.

If you run OD100, you definitely have to stay for the awards ceremony that starts at 9am as it is quite unique.  Typically, you get your awards as you finish a 100-mile race since the field is so spread out, however here they give all finishers their awards (bag for all finishers, buckle for sub-24) during breakfast.  It was my kind of breakfast too with biscuits & gravy, bacon, fruit, and what looked like some sort of egg/quiche combination.  The RD calls all the runners up from last to first individually. As the runner comes up, they’re passed the microphone and give everyone a little insight into their race.  My initial thought was that this could get very long even with only 30 finishers, however nothing could be further from the truth.  No one went on more than a minute or 2 and it was neat to hear how other people’s races went. I’m not much of a public speaker so merely thanked the race organizers and volunteers for keeping the race going until I had the opportunity to run it.  The breakfast also provided a chance to chat with some of the volunteers who helped out during the day and night.

After breakfast, it was back into the car for the 3 hour drive home and the beginning of my recovery.  I may not be back next year depending on whether I get into Massanutten, but I’ll definitely be back at some point.

(Update: here’s a link to my splits for each of the aid stations as well the winner and last person to finish.)

3 thoughts on “2017 Old Dominion 100 Mile Race Report”

  1. Hi Phil! This was incredibly moving. I even choked up a bit when it started to go in your favor. I still don’t know how you do it and after reading this I don’t know why you would ever do it again. You have incredible strength both physically and mentally. I am in awe of your mind and body connection that I only touch the surface of in my relatively short runs. I can’t wait for the next article, please share again. Miss you! Rose

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