Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Race Report

I love to travel to other parts of the country, run races, and experience different race directors and their courses. I have a small bucket list of races I’d like to run and TRT was definitely on my list. It has a reputation for being a great race, very beautiful and tough, all the things that attract me to a race. TRT is definitely a race to consider adding to your bucket list. They also offer a 50 mile and a 55K option.

Over the last few years I’ve enjoyed meeting many new friends at races. When ultra running, if we spend a few miles together or sit together on a shuttle bus, we become fast friends. When I signed up for TRT I didn’t know anyone in the race, but I was confident I’d make new friends once again on the trails. I actually did end up knowing a couple of friends running the race, and looked forward to seeing them again.

IMG_0473Getting to hi to Maia at packet pick up

I feel like I’m getting more and more comfortable taking care of myself at races, but I enjoy travelling and having friends with me. I’d prefer to have a pacer or friend to run with because I’m more of a social person and runner. I can do solo, but prefer company. I got my friend Sherri Harvey on board to travel, crew and pace me, and we bought our airline tickets shortly after I got into the race. A month or so before the race, Russ Johnson offered to come help crew and pace me. Russ has run the race previously, so that was a huge relief to have his experience on my team.

I heard over and over that George Ruiz does a great job as race director, and that the course is very challenging. It definitely lived up to that reputation from the moment I arrived in Carson City and went to an impromptu meet and greet. I met runners there that would be friends after the race. From beginning to end, the entire race had such positive vibes and excellent volunteers.

On race morning, I left my hotel room to walk across the street and catch a shuttle to the start. And yes, I sat by someone on the shuttle who I would end up spending some miles with, and my crew would hang out (unknowingly at the time) with her boyfriend who was there to crew her. The race started promptly at 5:00 a.m. and just before the start I would get to say hello to my friend, Janette Maas, also from Georgia, running the 55K. Familiar faces are always fun to see!

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I started out the race with my new friend from the shuttle, Rusty. We enjoyed each other’s pace as we got to see the sun come up and get our first views of the lake. The first and second aid stations came quickly and I saw my crew at the second. They hiked several miles and thousands of feet to see me at my first and second pass through the Tunnel Creek aid station. They brought my poles just in case I wanted them, and sure enough my Piriformis was being cranky, so I definitely wanted them. It was very nice and a huge boost to see them.

IMG_0436Seeing Sherri and Russ was always the best!

Rusty and I soon caught up to each other again and enjoyed more miles together running into the mile 30 aid station where I would see not only my crew but my coach, as well. I had to ask if Rusty was a nickname. Inquiring minds want to know these things! She told me it was a nickname, and how she got it was a long story, as if we didn’t have a lot of time on our hands. All she said was it had to do with a drink called the Rusty Nail, she didn’t remember anything, but the nickname stuck.

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We came into the Diamond Creek aid station together. I got some food and cold drinks and was encouraged to head out and tackle the Diamond Peak climb ahead of me. Meghan, my coach, didn’t want me to sit too long, so after she gave me a quick word of her belief in me, I was off. It would be another 20 miles before I would see my crew again, but then I would pick up Sherri as my first pacer.

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Getting some much needed encouragement from my Coach, Meghan Laws before heading out to climb Diamond Peak

Although I felt like I was doing well eating and drinking, I began to bonk after coming out of the 35 mile aid station and hitting another long grinding climb. I took in some Spring Energy to give me a boost. Then rounding another switchback or two and still feeling a little low on energy, I was greeted by a female runner sitting on a rock looking like she was catching her breath. It took me a second to realize it was one of just a few runners I knew at the race, my friend Lucia, who I had met at the Zion 100 the year before. In our chats leading up to the race, I knew she had just been cleared by her doctor to run the race due to some health issues. She wasn’t looking too good and I sat next to her for just a few minutes, sharing her rock and the views. Looking back, they were probably some of my favorite moments in the race. Of all the runners who could have been sitting on that rock, it was my friend. We got moving again and covered the miles together into the next aid station. She dropped back just before getting to the aid station and I knew her race was probably over. I was ready to head out when she came in and confirmed that she was going to drop. I gave her a hug goodbye and took off. I was on a mission to get to my crew at mile 50. I still had lots of climbing ahead and then a long descent. I once again came across my friend, Janette, who was running the 55K. I greeted her and kept going.

IMG_0424The views were incredible

I finally got back to my crew and was in much better spirits, as if I’d just gotten off the struggle bus. I knew I’d now have someone to push me and keep me moving. I tried to take in some food and put on a warm shirt, as the night was approaching. We had great weather so far, but it can get cold at night on the ridges and we needed to be prepared. Sherri and I took off for the second loop of the course. Unfortunately, it got dark before Sherri could see much of the course. We hadn’t gone far when we once again came across my new friend, Rusty. She was struggling with her borrowed headlamp. Sherri and I hoped she’d be able to stick with us and run off our lights but she just wasn’t able to keep up. Rusty and her boyfriend had driven down from Canada and arrived at Carson City late the night before and she had not gotten much sleep. We then figured out that Rusty’s boyfriend is who Sherri and Russ had been hanging out with at the aid stations.

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Sherri and I pressed on. She kept me moving and running on the good runnable sections. The climbs were still tough for me and it seemed like I wasn’t able to run too well in the dark. Luckily, it gets light early in this part of the country, and we were soon headed into the mile 80 aid station to meet Russ. I was starting to worry that my time on the struggle bus was going to cost me and I wouldn’t make cutoffs but we got to Russ with plenty of time to spare. I ate more food and changed out my contacts, which were bothered by the dust. A fresh pair felt great in my eyes. It was daylight again and I had 20 more miles to the finish.

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Russ paced me the last 20 miles and his knowledge of the course was very helpful to me. He removed any stress I had by assuring me I was doing well and had plenty of time. We ran the sections where I wasn’t climbing. Russ made sure I got a strawberry Ensure smoothie at the Hobart aid station and then sorbet at the Snow Valley aid station. Both were refreshing and tasty, and I was ready to run the final 7 miles to the finish. It was a long 7 miles but we came upon some horse riders and enjoyed views that were unbelievable. Russ called Sherri from the final water stop to let her know we were just over a mile out.

IMG_0451Everyone said the view if you look back on the Diamond Peak climb are some of the best

You can hear and see the finish from about a mile away. It’s a long mile as you circle around Spooner Lake to the finish line. Russ took my poles so I could run it in, and one of the first people who greeted me with a high five was my friend, Lucia, who had to drop! That was so sweet for her to come out to see me, as well as her friends, finish.

IMG_0468Lucia captured this picture of me coming into the finish

We waited with Rusty’s boyfriend to see if she would finish, and we were so happy to cheer for her as she crossed the finish line. The finish area was a huge party, in what they called the “Ultra Lounge,” as runners waited for the award ceremony to receive their buckles and awards. It was a great finish, hanging out with many of my friends old and new. I was blessed to share miles with so many of them, and have the support of some great friends, Russ and Sherri, to help me reach my goal. I hugged my friends goodbye and before I left I asked Rusty if she was on Facebook. I asked what name to search under, and of course she replied “Rusty Nail!” You gotta love ultrarunning and making friends along the way!

IMG_0416Rusty Nail and I before the race already friends

Hellbender 100 Race Report

I start most of my race reports by telling you how beautiful the course is, but they always are! I choose races that look epic and challenging. The beauty is the payoff for the hard work.  Hellbender was definitely all that and then some. I had Hellbender on my radar after hearing about the inaugural year of the race last year. When Stephanie and I began talking about races for our 2019 calendar, we discussed Hellbender and were eager to sign up.

I don’t judge a race by swag, but if you do, this race won’t disappoint, but there’s really so much more.  The race starts in Old Fort, North Carolina at Camp Grier. From the moment we arrived, it had a cozy, welcoming feel as volunteers greeted us at the large pavilion. Many of the runners stayed in the small bunk houses that circled the pavilion, and as the runners began to gather, it had the feel of meeting your new best friends who you were going to spend the next several days with at camp.  We caught up with old friends and met new ones while we waited for the pre-race meeting to start, followed by a great pre-race meal. We camped in a nearby field. It doesn’t get much better than sleeping very close to the start of a race!

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We had one friend coming to help crew us part way through the race, and possibly pace, but we were prepared to be mostly self-sufficient.  We knew this would be a challenging race, but felt well-trained and ready. Stephanie had been fairly sick 10 days prior to the race and we weren’t certain she would start until just 5 days or so before the race.  I had been dealing with Piriformis Syndrome for many months, and I always stand on every starting line knowing that anything can happen and there’s no guarantee of a finish. I don’t take a 100 mile race lightly and always respect the distance.

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Some people did better at studying the course

Now, I’m an admitted elite geek! I love to follow all the ultra runner elites, read articles about them, follow them on social media, listen to them on podcasts, and follow the races.  I admire their God-given gifts of speed and strength. I’m especially inspired by the masters-level runners that are still racing strong, and admire my coach, Meghan Laws “The Queen” who not only guides me, encourages me but believes in me.  My gift is not speed. I’m a fast runner only in my dreams. But what I possess is toughness and determination. I pick races I really want to run and embrace them.

IMG_1744Almost time to get this started

After a quick check-in on race morning, we were off at 4:30 a.m.  The first 5 miles were on road. If you know me, roads are not my favorite, but five miles on country roads in the dark seemed like a nice start and almost enjoyable.  It seemed we were quickly at the first aid station where the real race would begin, and later end. During the pre-race meeting and chatting with some of the runners who had run the race last year, we knew the first climb would be the longest of the race.  I had to tune out the course details at the meeting because it was beginning to get too overwhelming. We knew there were 5 big climbs in the beautiful Black Mountains, with the toughest ones being in the first half of the race. In the middle of the race we would climb and summit Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak on the east coast at 6,684 ft.  There would be 21 miles of gravel roads, and the five miles of pavement at the start. We knew the biggest climb of the race was the first one – 7 miles. The predicted morning rain started during our first climb and we stopped only to put on our rain jackets. As we got close to the top it was much cooler. We had been told we could expect big weather changes between the tops and bottoms of the climbs.  It was raining and foggy by the time we got to the top, and most runners know that’s not a fun combination with headlamps. Luckily, daylight came before we reached the summit but our epic view was fogged in. The beautiful scenery along the way did not disappoint, however. We came across three very old and abandoned campers at an intersection of fire roads just below the summit. In the early morning rain and fog, we called them the “creepy campers!”

IMG_1746Summit of Pinnacle but no view

We made it to the top of Heartbreak Ridge and summited Pinnacle before finally heading down.  We knew for certain we had our work cut out for us. Before long, we were at the Blue Ridge Parkway water drop and headed down towards the second aid station where I knew a couple of the volunteers.  They were the only friends that I knew would be at the race and was already looking forward to a familiar face. Getting hugs and words of encouragement from Kris and Kim was just the boost I needed.  As it turned out, I knew people at almost every aid station and they were calling out my name and cheering me on. Each aid station had a large number of extremely helpful volunteers and always offered us a great variety of food choices.  We were waited on, encouraged and taken care of like we were the only runners in the race. We went up the Snooks Nose climb to Green Knob, which we were told was the steepest climb of the course, and then back down to another aid station.

 

As we came into Neals Creek aid station, we were surprised to be greeted and encouraged by Aaron Saft, the race director.  At this point, we were probably the final runners to get there, but were well ahead of cutoffs.

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We then began the climb to the summit of Mt. Mitchell.  It proved to be a very tough and technical climb that was beginning to eat away at our margin on the cutoffs.  When we finally summited, we were able to take in the incredible view before checking into the aid station there.  Ken, who had come to help crew for us, met us as we reached the summit and our spirits were lifted just to see him (he couldn’t crew us here, but did greet us).  As we came into the aid station we were again met by the race director. We had lost some time on the climb and were now only 20 minutes ahead of cutoffs. After the long hard climb, we were thinking the downhill would give us a chance to gain back some time (I should have paid more attention at that pre-race meeting). I was so surprised to see Aaron once again and asked why he was there.  He said that he was there to check on us and see how we were doing. He was there for all the runners at the back of the pack. It was probably one of the most encouraging things I’ve ever had an RD do. Aaron told us that we probably would not be able to make up any time on this downhill section, but we would in sections after the next aid station.  I assured him that we would make it to the finish and hoped to get a hug from him. He promised to give us a hug and a he’d hand us a buckle when we got there. When he said it, you knew how much he really wanted to see you finish.

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IMG_1758Mt Mitchell Summit and not quite so cold

The downhill from Mt. Mitchell had a few more climbs and very technical, rocky downhills, including a rope section.  It got dark, and with the wet trails, it seemed like the longest and toughest downhill section. We knew we needed to get to the aid station and make the cutoff but we were getting very nervous about it.  When we finally got there we were sure we had missed the cutoff. This time I was surprised to see my friends Brad and Jenny. Brad quickly told me that they were going to let us keep going if we wanted to continue.  Yes! We wanted to! They told us we had to go roughly 22 miles in ten hours to make the next cutoff. Brad assured him that we could most definitely do it.

We still had a long way to go, but we were full of hope and began the climb up the Buncombe Horse Trail, when we passed another runner.  We were no longer DFL. But if we thought the climbs got easier after Mt. Mitchell, we were wrong. It might look like it on paper, but you have to account for how you might be feeling at this point in the race.  We had wet feet all day, and the steep and technical downhills had begun to take a toll on our feet. This quickly became a low point for us as we fought hard to stay moving and make up some time. Then, Stephanie’s light went out.  As we were rushed through the previous aid station, we had not gotten extra batteries. We somehow managed through some very wet and muddy sections using only my headlamp as our guide. We were eager to get to the aid station, not only to put on our long pants and warm up, but we really needed to borrow a headlamp if we were going to make it.  The volunteers were so happy to help us, give us warm food, coffee and lend Stephanie a headlamp that no doubt saved our race and allowed us to keep moving.

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We began to move faster through some “easier” sections and surprised the volunteers when we came into the next aid station an hour and 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs.  With Ken bringing our drop bags to us, we were finally able to take time to change shoes and socks. We couldn’t pay too close attention to our feet but knew how they felt, and we had roughly 30 miles to go. Ken began pacing us for the last 20 miles. It was nice for us to share those miles and some final tough climbs with him.  He got to experience our race but only a small amount of our suffering. We had managed to pass a couple more runners in the final downhill push and finished 2 ½ hours ahead of the final cutoffs. As promised, Aaron gave us a hug and handed us our buckles. As we sat down, the aid station volunteers began to wait on us hand and foot. Then Aaron came over to us and handed us each a special gift, telling us we had both won our age group award. We started out just wanting to finish this beast of a race, but walked away with so much more.

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The next morning, I walked over to the pavilion to see if Aaron was still around to thank him once again, and thank the volunteers who were still there. Aaron gave us another hug and said he had one more thing to give us and soon came back with gift certificates for a pair of shoes!  We said thank you and final goodbyes.

We may not be gifted with speed but we are both tough, determined and never give up!  As AJW would say: “Gritty AF”! This race, the Hellbender 100, is the Beast Coast at its finest!

 

Elevating Your Run Experience

New Year’s resolutions are not my thing.  I’ve made them over the years, but like most people, they are long forgotten after two weeks.  Resolutions like losing weight, lead to failure when there’s no specific plan to go along with the goal.  Instead of making a specific plan as to how I might change my diet or set up an exercise program to meet those goals, they’ve all ended miserably.  So I’ve long since given up on making resolutions.

At the beginning of the year, I was listening to an Ultra Stories podcast with Sherpa John Lacroix and found myself incredibly challenged.  It wasn’t about setting a resolution, but taking a whole new look at the year 2019 from a totally different perspective.  I’m a runner, and more specifically an ultra distance runner.  Over the last five years, most of my goals have focused on races I’d like to run or distances I’d like to complete.  As a runner, it would be very easy for me to focus my whole life on running, and it can become all-consuming.  It can be a very selfish and narcissistic sport where you draw a lot of attention to yourself and your accomplishments, while spending a lot of hours doing it.  But running isn’t my whole identity or how I define myself.  I’m so much more than that.

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Listening to Sherpa John pose a couple of questions caused me to think a little harder and dive into it a little deeper.  He got my attention with the question:  Would you still run if there was no Strava to see what you’ve done and no likes on social media?  That’s easy for me! Absolutely!  I love the woods, the trails, and the freedom of being outdoors and exploring the mountains. For me, racing brings the extra challenge of a course and being able to do a long run with support along the way.  Finishing a difficult race leaves me with a huge sense of accomplishment of being able to work through issues and keep my focus on the journey to the end.

The more I thought about this question, I began to think about the role of social media.  We post about our races and accomplishments on social media, sharing pictures and looking for responses.  For some people, no run seems complete if they don’t post it to Facebook or Instagram.  Am I one of those people?  Could I be a little too addicted to following every race, elite athletes and others on social media?  The answer is probably going to sting a little bit.  In running, we sometimes say we had to dig deep.  We might need to dig a little deep here, too.

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Before Sherpa John finished chewing me up and spitting me out, so to speak, he offered up a challenge to his listeners.  Okay, you’ve got me listening, let’s hear this challenge:  List 3 ways you can elevate your running experience in 2019 that have nothing to do with the following:  time, distance, elevation, race, external validation or how many licks it takes to get to the center of a tootsie pop!  Then create a challenge for yourself that will help you obtain your goals.  Wow, you might need to re-read that and let it sink in for a while.   So as I accepted the challenge John put in front of me, it wasn’t hard to come up with a list of things I’d like to focus on in 2019.

  1. 1. Focus on stretching and rolling to avoid injury, putting myself in a better place for running long-term. I’m going to be 55 years-old in a few months, and it’s often the accomplishments of the Grand Masters-level runners that inspire me more than anything.  Seeing the video of 70 year-old Gunhild Swanson’s epic finish at Western States in 2015 inspired me to be running for years to come.  I realized I could be in the sport for more than just a few years.  In order to do that, I’m finding I need to take care of my body and be very intentional about it.  I’m going to challenge myself to stretch and roll several times each week, especially following races or long runs
  2. Plan an adventure run with friends this year, not just a race. I’ve run the Grand Canyon R2R2R and I count that experience as one of my favorite things I’ve done as an ultra runner. Being an ultra runner gives me the ability to see things that I may never be able to see any other way.  My legs have allowed me to experience incredible views.  So I’d like to plan an adventure that is not a race.  There are so many trails I’ve never run on, mountains I’ve never climbed, and views I haven’t seen.  I want to enjoy the beauty of creation and embrace the experience by enjoying it with friends, all without the pressure of a race.  My challenge is to pick that adventure, plan it, and do it.
  3. Volunteer more. Not just at races, but also do trail maintenance work.  I value our trails and the freedom we have to use them to run and hike.  I want to make every effort to give back.  I’d like to learn how to be an advocate for saving our trails, and learn how to preserve and care for them.  I’m challenging myself to take a class to be certified in trail maintenance work and to volunteer more at races.  For every race I run, I will volunteer at another race.
  4. Help others more. Ultra running sometimes takes many people to help you to complete your goals.  It’s a community that helps one another.  I love the friends I’ve made and the time I share with them on the trails.  I enjoy pacers in my races, not because I can’t finish without their help but because I truly enjoy being with them, and enjoy the conversation and experience.  I want to spend more time helping others by crewing, pacing or just encouraging them.  I want to focus on others so I can share things I’ve learned and help someone else in some small way.  I’m challenging myself to seek out people that might be in need of crew or pacing help.
  5. Run more without a watch. Focus more on just finding my happy place on the trails and in the mountains, not caring about the distance or elevation, or uploading it to an app or spreadsheet.  Spend some time off the social media grid, so to speak.  I’m a numbers person, to some degree, and am always looking to see my distance or time.  I’m going to challenge myself that once a week I will run without my watch.  No Strava upload (sorry coach) and no data.  Crickets.  Off the grid at least once a week.

While that may have seemed like an easy list to compile, it’s going to be quite challenging to do.  Essentially I want to focus more on others and less on myself.  I want to enjoy the trails and give back what I can.  I don’t want to be just different, I want to make a difference.  It’s a tough challenge, Sherpa John, but I accept your challenge.  I hope others will join in, as well.  Dig deep.

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Black Canyon 100K Race Report

I’ve been wanting to run an Aravaipa Race for a long time now.  They seem to have so many great races and I really wanted a chance to experience one for myself.  As soon as the 2019 Black Canyon 100K race opened for registration, I talked several of my local running friends into signing up and join the fun.  When I got a chance to meet Jamil Coury at Western States in 2018, I told him we had a big group coming from Georgia for the Black Canyon race.  A lot of us signed up, but many didn’t actually make it to the race, due to injuries.

We flew out to Phoenix on Thursday before the race so we could settle in and have Friday to rest and go to packet pickup.  We had a good dinner and went to bed early for the early race start.  Due to heavy downpours that occurred on Thursday, they had to re-route the course at the last minute.  Huge shout out to Aravaipa Running for all the work that went into that and how smooth the whole race went.  They have tremendous volunteers with very well organized aid stations.  Runners had plenty of options, no matter what your diet might be.

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Starting Line Photo

Because Black Canyon is a point to point race (which, by the way, is one of my favorite race types), we were shuttled to the starting line.  The temps were pretty cool but not crazy cold.  We left our drop bags, used the bathrooms and started the race right on time.

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David and I hung out before the race

 

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John, Stephanie and I all started together

Black Canyon is a race that easily lulls you into thinking it will be a fast and easy run.  It essentially starts with a lot of very non-technical trails that are mostly downhill.  Many runners might find it difficult to keep from going out too fast and crash later as the day warms up.  Stephanie flew out from Knoxville and we once again got to enjoy the trails together.  She is much better at setting a manageable pace at the beginning than myself.  I’m one of those runners that goes out too fast and doesn’t settle into my own pace until much later.  I have been dealing with Piriformis Syndrome for several months and while it is much better, there was the real possibility of it being a long painful day.  I knew I had to let Stephanie lead and go easy.

The start turned out to be windy and cold, with a little rain, but it soon cleared away into a very beautiful and comfortable day.  I was enjoying my morning and the beginning of the race until somewhere around mile 10.  I began to get that uncomfortable feeling in my Piriformis I had been dreading.  I was also beginning to have trouble keeping pace with Stephanie, although I could see she wasn’t far ahead on the beautiful winding trails through the desert.  I chatted easily with those around me and enjoyed the beautiful Black Canyon Trail.  Somewhere before mile 20 and the Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station, I began to think I needed to tell Stephanie to leave me and thought my day might be much rougher than I wanted it to be.

Luckily, as it often happens, you get a little renewed at the aid stations.  At this aid station, I ended up getting to meet, and got help from, a Facebook friend who I knew from Ginger Runner Live!  That seemed to change my mood.  Stephanie and I chatted and I told her my fear of keeping up with her, but she assured me she didn’t want to go any faster.

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Kim Wrinkle took good care of me

 I left that aid station feeling good, and Stephanie and I enjoyed some beautiful views and took a few pictures in the next section of trail.  Running through the desert is so different from our normal runs so we both took it all in.  I think we both felt a little unsure if we would be able to finish with a sub 17-hour time, which is the requirement for it to count as a Western States Qualifier, but we didn’t discuss those thoughts.  Our goal was to move forward.  We are both solid runners and hikers, and this course was very runnable.

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After we got to the Gloriana Mine Aid Station (mile 23), the trail got much more technical with lots of rocks.  Most of the race was on single track and often had a good bit of rocks, but those are some of my favorite trails.  As long as we kept running steady, my Piriformis remained uncomfortable but not unbearable.  I wasn’t as fast on the hills, but with Stephanie pulling me along, I seemed to have my moments of rallying.   It was also fun in this section as we began to see the top runners racing for the Western States Golden Tickets and cheer them all on.  We made it into the Black Canyon City Aid Station (mile 35) where the reroute of the course began.  At this point we had to do a 4 mile out-and-back section before we would head back to the Gloriana Mine Aid Station and back again to finish.

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I saw Michael and Rebecca Richie just before getting into the Black Canyon City aid station who said David was behind them at the aid station.  Stephanie and I made a quick stop and we headed out for our 4 mile out-and-back.  I didn’t have time to look around and say hi to David.  A mile or so out from the aid station we ran into John, who was headed back into the Black Canyon City aid station.  He also updated us that David was roughly two miles ahead of him.  So everyone was doing well.  Stephanie and I began to set small goals for ourselves.  We wanted to be back and leaving the Black Canyon Aid Station by 5:00 pm.  We kept moving and were happy to make our goal.  We now began the 11 miles back to Gloriana Mine aid station, and then return the same 11 miles back to the finish.  There was a lot of climbing and some big hills midway through this section.  We just broke it down into small pieces and took it one step at a time.  About 4 miles or so from the aid station we passed Michael and Rebecca again.  They told me David had slowed down but they were doing great and everyone was in good spirits.  We kept our eye out for David and John as we were on the last section leading into Gloriana Mine.  We finally came across John who again said David was in front of him by a couple of miles.  In the dark, we had somehow missed him but that wasn’t so surprising.  This section became a little tough in the dark and then you were constantly passing other runners on the single track.  We tried not to shine our lights in the other runner’s faces but it was a constant passing game that seemed to slow us down.  This was one of the downsides to having an out-and-back course with 700 registered runners!  We reached our next goal of getting to the aid station by 8:00 pm and were happy to be headed back to the finish.  We now knew we would easily make the sub 17-hour time we wanted.

Stephanie continued to lead us at a good pace through the technical trails and back to more runnable dirt road sections.  We were able to dig deep and run much better through this section than we had the previous time.  We both seemed motivated to not just finish but finish strong.  We were thrilled to finished in just under 16 hours and meet our goals.  I would like to think we worked together, but I know it was all Stephanie.  She pulled me along and paced us the whole race.  We’ve covered a lot of miles together over the last year or two, and hope we have many more miles and adventures together.

This was a very well run race by Aravaipa Running and I hope to do another one of their races again sometime soon!

IMG_1534Finish line, all smiles

 

More Photos from the Black Canyon Desert

Looking Back and Looking Ahead to 2019

 

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I started this blog, along with my Trail Running 100 Facebook page, shortly after I finished my first ultramarathon. Somehow, I knew I was on a journey to run a 100-miler one day, but I had no idea what that would look like. How would I train, how would I find the time, and how would my body be able to handle it all? So I decided to start this blog and share exactly what it would be like and what I would learn along the way, because, I assure you, I knew absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into. I thought if a married, working mom of 3 who didn’t start running until age 48 (and a middle-of-the-pack runner, at best) could go for big dreams and make them happen, then I could possibly inspire others along the way.

I wanted to be authentic and share the good with the bad. I’ve shared more than one DNF and I’m sure there will be more. I’ve tried to share what works and what doesn’t work for me. I’ve been blessed to have had excellent coaching along my journey – coaches who have kept me from running myself into the ground, taught me balance and how to recover well. I’ve been lucky not to have experienced any major injuries, although when I was first running road races, I had IT Band issues, but that was before my ultrarunning days. I’ve dealt with stomach issues and chaffing, along with an assortment of other issues like blisters and bonking – the things all ultrarunners will experience sooner or later.

Since my first ultramarathon in June 2014, I’ve been on an epic ride. I’ve run in some beautiful places, and races, such as The Georgia Death Race (twice), Cruel Jewel, Habanero, Pinhoti, Grand Canyon R2R2R, Zion, Badger Mountain, Vermont, Yeti 100, and this year got to experience UTMB. My favorite part of ultrarunning is the community of friends I’ve met and made along the way – the people who “get” me and my kind of crazy. I’ve found that some of my favorite experiences have been when I’ve crewed and paced others as they chased their dreams and goals. I’ve found that while ultrarunning is a solo sport, it’s often a whole community that gets each of us to a finish line. This community includes the volunteers along the course, the race directors, the people who crew for us, those who pace us, and even family and co-workers who hold things together while we are out doing our thing.

2018 has been a big year for me! I tried to plan my year in advance, but when I got drawn in the UTMB lottery, those plans quickly changed. As I look ahead to 2019 and the long list of races I’d like to run, it doesn’t seem so easy to make those race decisions. For me, I feel running three 100 milers in a year is about my maximum. Let’s be honest, this isn’t an inexpensive sport and that is a huge limiting factor. Time away from home and work is another limitation. I’m 54 years old and I figure I will only be able to run so many 100 milers on this journey. Many of the races on my list are far away and have lotteries, so they are much harder to plan. Many of my top picks fall in the same time window, forcing me to choose one over another.

Here’s the other thing I want to share as we enter the new year, because I want to share the whole journey and not just the good stuff – not just the successes but the tough stuff and things that make me step back and reevaluate. After UTMB, I started having an “issue.” It’s not an injury, and I don’t have any pain, or it didn’t start that way. While I was recovering right after the race, I noticed my big toes were tingly and numb. At first, I thought they were swollen and I could feel them rubbing together, but I realized that wasn’t it. I finally did what all good runners do, and Googled it. I found that the foot has lots of nerves, and tight shoes could be the cause. I wasn’t in any pain, and it wasn’t a problem to run, but it was annoying and continued to get worse. I was sure it would work itself out over time and I didn’t tell my coach for quite a while. I even ran another 100 miler with no problems. It was a few weeks after that, when it progressed to sciatic pain down my hamstrings and calves during hill climbs, I decided that I really needed to find a solution to this issue. With guidance from my coach, help from a Chiropractor along with a trainer, and after some awesome massages, I’ve had some improvement. I still have numbness in one of my toes but I’m making progress. I’m focused on building a strong core, which I failed to do during my UTMB training.

So again, here I am looking ahead at 2019! My goal is to be a smarter and more consistent runner, building a strong body that will allow me to be active for many years to come. I already have goals for 2020, along with a list of races I’d love to run in the coming years, including some international races, now that I got a taste of running overseas. I never want to take running for granted. It’s a gift and a blessing. So far, the lottery gods have not been with me in lining up my 2019 schedule, but there are so many great races to look forward to and experiences to have along the way. May 2019 surprise us all!

 

No Business 100 Race Report

This is probably a race I really had No Business doing, and I say that in all sincerity. I actually signed up for it when registration first opened up in 2017. That was long before I got into the UTMB lottery, which I never dreamed I would get into. I had run part of these trails with my friend Stephanie when we ran Dark Sky 50 miler together in May of 2017. That was the first year of the No Business 100 race and I was all over it but timing wise I couldn’t run it that inaugural year.

Knowing the 106-mile UTMB in August would be a huge challenge, I decided not to withdraw from No Business, but wait until after my race and see how I was feeling. I must say that my coach was not thrilled about me running again so soon, because her first concern was my recovery from UTMB. Nonetheless we made a training plan for me to recover well off UTMB, do a couple longer runs and taper way back before the No Business race. In return, I promised that if I wasn’t feeling completely recovered or my legs were still not there, then I would pull the plug and not run.
Let me also say something here about using a coach. I have loved my coach, and I use one because I trust them and feel strongly about the relationship we’ve developed. If she would have told me not to run this race, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I would have respected her judgment. Recovery is important to me (and my coach) and not just physically but mentally as well. I don’t spend money on a coach and then not listen to their advice and guidance. One of the most important things to me about a coach is that she believes in me. As runners, it’s nice to have friends and family say how great we are and encourage us towards our goals. However, a coach is much more intimately acquainted with us and our abilities. When a coach believes in you, it’s very empowering! Thank you, I love you Meghan!

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I’d lined up crew for No Business back in January, talked to Stephanie some about pacing me, and honestly didn’t give a lot more thought to the race. UTMB was my A-race and No Business did not get much attention until after I came back from Europe in September. That said, early on I did try talking her into signing up and running with me, but being the smart person that she is, Stephanie didn’t fall for my peer pressure. Then just a few weeks before the race, Stephanie gave in, and No Business 100 became her business as well. We already had crew, didn’t need pacers, or a place to stay; we were set. We were looking forward to a beautiful, “easy” race and not having to fight cutoffs like at UTMB. Of course, I’ve learned from experience that when a race gives you longer than 30 hours to finish 100 milers, it’s because you need that time. They aren’t just being nice.

Stephanie and I both went into the race feeling confident in our recovery and excited about the race. We had a solid plan and were ready to spend some more trail-time together. An unexpected rain fell much of the night before the race, so when we got up in the morning it was wet and chilly. We made small adjustments to our gear and what we would carry in our packs. The race begins in Blue Heron, Kentucky, also known as Mine 18, a former coal mining community on the banks of the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River. Tipple Bridge at the train depot marks both the beginning and the end points of the race. The course is one large loop, starting in Kentucky at Big South Fork and going into Pickets State Park in Tennessee and then back around into Kentucky.

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The race began on time at 6am, so we spent the first hour or so in the dark. It was a large crowd that narrowed right onto the long Tipple Bridge and an instant conga line ensued. The first few miles were a nice rolling single track and enjoyable to run. Stephanie and I began and ran comfortably for the first 15-20 miles in the upper-middle portion of the pack. We spent a few miles with our friends, Kirby and Caitlin, who went on to run at their pace after we began to take walk breaks on a long fire road section of the course. The road sections were very hard on our legs. Stephanie and I talked about how real the UTMB legs were, leading us to set a more cautious pace. For those who like numbers we ran our first 30K in about 8:15. When we saw our crew around 25 miles we were told we were about 1.5 hours ahead of the cutoff.

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The next time we saw our crew was in Picket State Park (42 miles in). There we took a few more minutes to change into dry cloths, got our headlamps out, and changed socks and shoes for the only time during the race… we also took advantage of the restrooms. Stephanie had started having some minor stomach issues, but they weren’t causing her to slow down. We’d maintained our 1.5-hour cushion on cutoffs and were soon off again feeling refreshed from our change of clothes and would see our crew again around mile 61.
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Stephanie’s coach, Alondra Moody was working the Bandy Aid Station at mile 61. When we arrived there, Stephanie and I were now only 30 minutes ahead of cutoffs. We needed to quickly take care of a few things and head back out. Alondra helped Stephanie get something for her stomach issues, hoping to settle things down for good. Once we were back on the trail, we began talking about how we could have possibly lost the hour. Looking at the cutoff sheet now, it was night time so normally you do begin to go slower. In that section we had just under 6 hours to cover approximately 20 miles, hitting three aid stations along the way. Again, for you math nerds that’s about an 18-minute pace, at night including AS stops. Even with quick stops you now have about 17-minute pace, at night with lots of climbing. Wherever our time went all we could do was get to the next AS 5 miles away and work with the time we had. Stephanie began to calculate that we had 14.5 hours to finish, as the race was really a 104-mile course. In short, we had another 44 miles or so miles to go in 14.5 hrs.

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Getting into the next AS at Grand Gap, there was a huge crowd with lots of people we both knew. Immediately we were asking about cutoffs… still just 30 minutes. At this point, Stephanie and I were stressed and frustrated. Chasing cutoffs is not a fun way to run, and we had felt we were running solid – pacing well, running all the flats and downhills, and only slowing down to climb. Having just completed UTMB 6 weeks prior, we were thrilled with our pace. We felt like our legs were good. Neither of us had foot issues to speak of, and only Stephanie with some stomach issues. If you are not a back of the pack runner you might not understand how it feels to run from one cutoff to the next, it’s a very stressful thing. On the one hand you are trying your hardest, not gaining on cutoffs. You don’t want to be cut, but you also begin to calculate how long until you slip up and miss. At that point, all your hard work is snatched right out from under you… STRESS!!!

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We had a 6.5 miles loop to do and back to that AS. Due to the increasing stress, challenges of nighttime navigation, and Stephanie’s stomach issues, I took over as lead runner pacing us during the night hours. Stephanie had paced us and pushed us well during the daylight, and now it was my turn to try my best to keep us moving at a good pace. During the last section of the loop Stephanie began to fall behind, but I kept trying to push us both. For a while I’d assumed Stephanie was the person running behind me. Once I stopped to check on her, I realized she’d fallen off and another runner was there instead. He advised me that he’d seen Stephanie some distance back throwing up. Being close to the finish of the loop, I was concerned that Stephanie would not be able to continue for long. I pushed ahead to the AS to get to our crew. It was the middle of the night and I knew if I continued the race, I’d be on my own. I wasn’t sure how much farther I could get before being pulled for missing the cutoff, but I knew I couldn’t just quit. My legs felt great, my feet were fine, my stomach was fine, we’d been eating good and running well to this point. Short of Stephanie continuing I was ready to keep moving. She soon came into the AS and told our crew, she was done. I was quickly headed out with still only 1/2 hour to spare. I would see our crew again in 7 miles.

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Alone, but more than able to run strong, I kept a solid pace. I ran as much as I possibly could, determined to make up time. One-by-one I passed people along the way; 10-12 runners in a 7-mile section. I got to the next AS thinking for sure I had made up time and was going to be OK. To my surprise, I arrived only to hear that I now only had 2 minutes to spare! All I could do was keep going. Now 80 miles into the race, there are 24 more to go. I’m unsure how much time I have to reach the next AS cutoff which is 9.2 miles away, so I grabbed food and ate on the trail. I chatted briefly with a guy I met in the race earlier in the day. He didn’t have any ideal about the next cutoff time and soon ran ahead and out of sight. I didn’t see any lights behind me after that.

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While I was determined to run solid, this section of the course was very technical, rocky, and now muddy, and messy trails. Rain had been falling for hours but now it was raining much harder. At this point, all I could do was focus, keep moving as fast as I could. Knowing that the odds were not in my favor, my hope of finishing were quickly fading. After being by myself for some time, I finally see someone behind me… soon I realize it’s the Grim Reaper and I think I might join Stephanie by throwing up! When the Reaper gets closer to me, she lets me know that the cutoff at the AS is 9:00. The bad news is that I’m on pace to reach it at about 9:15… now I’m really sick! I pushed harder, refusing to give up yet. It was so frustrating. I felt great, was running well but just could not get ahead. Then we came across another runner, I passed him and kept pushing. I might miss that cutoff but darn it, I’m not stopping until they stop me. We finally got to the water drop and I was thinking it was another 2 miles probably to the AS. The sweeper had no idea where we were or how far it was when I asked her. Another quick look at my watch and I knew it would probably take a miracle. I was still thinking it would take me until 9:15 to get there. Then the worst climb of the course is straight in front of me. It’s very steep, no end in sight and to make matters worse of course it’s wet, slippery and covered in rocks. Not an easy climb at 86 miles into a race. Now how do they expect me to make these cutoffs with this stuff? Even the 9:15 is looking bleak but I can’t give up. I knew my friends, John and Rebecca (who had been our crew at UTMB,) would be at this AS so I began looking forward to seeing them. I know I can finish this thing. I pass another guy as I continue up and up the hill. He’s sitting on a rock looking in rough shape and I feel his pain, but I can’t join him. I can’t lay down and quit.

Just before the AS one of the workers was there on the road, I think he may have been the captain. It was between 9:15-9:20 and certain I’m well over the cutoff. The first thing I asked was if there was any grace here. I told him how it was a rough section, but I pleaded that I knew I could finish it. When he asks how I’m feeling, I assure the captain that I’m feeling great. He asks for my number and trots ahead to the AS. When I arrive, there are John, Rebecca and the workers cheering for me. They want to know if I have a drop bag they can grab for me and what else I need to get out of there in 2 minutes. I drank some Coke, John put my headlamp in my pack for me, and Rebecca got me some food, and starting walking me out of the AS. The AS captain was told by the race director that the cutoff could be extended 10 minutes. Turns out the cutoff was 9:20, I was the last runner through this AS at 9:24.

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With 7.8 miles to the next AS, I have been assured by Rebecca that the worst is over, and I can finish the course. But, I have to get to the next AS by 11:55. The section begins with some good easy running and I’m gaining confidence that Rebecca was right. But over time the mud, creeks, slick bridges, it all begins to take its toll. By now I’m over 90 miles into this thing, and where the heck is that Aid Station? Just when you think you’ve got the race in hand, along comes another long endless climb! I know I must be close, but I just don’t know how close I am. I’m now too afraid to look at my watch. I swore when I got through the last AS I would prove I could get this race done and not miss this cutoff. At last I see it, I’m afraid to look at the time, but I have to… 11:48, I was never so relieved! I’m asked for my number (37) … “We’ve been waiting for you Number 37, you have two minutes to get out of here.” Now who can’t do the math, I had 7 minutes but I wasn’t going to argue.

Now an easy 2.2 miles to the water stop at mile 99.3 which has a cut off in 1.5 hrs and yes they tell me you do have to make it before the cutoff. So here’s where all that time was hiding. I easily make it there in 30 minutes with loud music playing and a whole AS and not just water. Super nice guys happily chat with me, getting me some broth and coke. Finally a huge sigh of relief. The long fight is nearly over. I finally know I’ll make it. I’m quickly on my way with 4.8 miles to go with around 2 1/2 hrs. I’m so happy, but my feet are sore, those rough sections have taken their toll. I’m no longer stressed and can enjoy the last 4 or so miles.

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It was sweet when I finally crossed the bridge to the finish… a smile on my face and friends there to cheer for me! Some finished before me, some left unfinished business out there, but they all celebrated my finish. It was bittersweet as Stephanie greeted me. We began No Business expecting to cross the finish line together, like UTMB. I have no doubt we will finish more races together.

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Final numbers for those of you still geeking out over them, 96 runners started the race, and 39 of us finished it, only 7 were woman, I finished in 32:21 and was DFL! If you are a real dork (David), last year they also had 39 finishers out of 96 runners who started.

If you are reading looking for more insights, details and information about this race, keep reading if not, carry on. This turned into a much longer report than I had imagined. So, let me share some after thoughts with you about this race and the course more specifically.

1. The first year of the race, 2017, it was run in the clockwise direction with this year being run counter-clockwise. A special buckle is awarded to those completing the race in both directions I think that prize brought back several return runners, along with runners who had some unfinished business from that first year. If you are reading this looking for information to run the race, keep in mind this report is from running it in the counter-clockwise direction. Looking at the finish times and talking to people who ran it both years, it might indicate that this was the harder direction.

2. It’s an absolutely beautiful course! If you want to run some of the most beautiful trails in the Southeast with rock overhangs, arches, lots of creek crossings, endless little bridges, some very technical sections, and lots of single track, you want to put this one on your list. The overall cutoff was 33 hours, and I would not be surprised to see them extend it in future years. It’s still a new race at this point and they are still working on making small adjustments. Believe me, they do want you to finish!

3. Your feet are going to get wet. No matter which direction the race is run there are lots of water crossings and you will get wet. The bigger ones are towards the end of the clockwise direction and the direction I did it, they were more in the first 1/2 of the race. I use Bag Balm and coat my feet before putting on socks. I did one shoe change and recoated my feet with Bag Balm at mile 40. Because of the rain, mud and constant creeks my feet stayed wet. My feet were in really good shape at the end, but I can’t promise what I did will work for you. Some people use Trail Toes and other products. This is just what I did and it worked well for me. Just so you know, you will have wet feet.

4. If you live close enough be sure to try and run some of the training runs the RD’s puts on. I can imagine that the more familiar you are with the course, the more helpful it would be. You can also run Yamacraw 50K which is held on some of the Kentucky trails, or Dark Sky 50 Miler which covers some of the Tennessee section. The course was fairly well marked at turns, lots of arrows and flagging, although I would say not heavy on the confidence marking. Once on a trail that didn’t turn off, it wasn’t overly marked. I think a few people may have complained and that may change in future years. My experience was you need to keep a close eye out for the markings especially late when you are tired. One missed turn can cost you time you may not have to make up.

5. Study the AS cutoff charts… a big fail on my part. I didn’t go in with a plan, just crew at five places. We had a cutoff chart but never really studied it or looked at it until we started running closer to cutoffs. It might have help to pay attention sooner to those.

6. If you like having pacers, you can pick them up as early at mile 40 I think. An extra set of eyes for trail markings and someone to keep you moving if you are a mid to back of the pack runner could be very helpful.

7. The AS are really awesome. Very helpful and upbeat each time you come in. They serve a great selection of food with lots of hot foods later in the race as well. I can’t speak highly enough about how well this race is put on.

8. The swag is also awesome. We got a very nice light weight North Face Hoodie, a buff, a pair of socks and some stickers. They also had additional technical long sleeve shirts you could buy as well as a couple of hat choices if you wanted a hat. Over all I thought they gave you a lot for your money. I might also say that the buckle is also very sweet, and if you finish the course in both directions they give you a second buckle that is very nice looking as well. You can tell they gave a lot of attention to details putting this race on.
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UTMB Race Report, August 2018

Wow!  It’s hard to know where to start!  Emotions are still all over the place at this moment just trying to take in the whole experience. It’s not a race you sign up for and decide to just run it.  UTMB is the largest ultra running stage in the world, and there’s just nothing like this one!

My journey to the starting line began more than 3 years ago when I earned my very first UTMB points in the 2015 Georgia Death Race 100k.  With the growing popularity of UTMB, qualifying for the lottery has become more and more difficult.  I don’t want to explain the whole lottery process, but when your name is drawn, it feels like getting the winning Lotto ticket or a payout in Vegas!  It feels like you’ve made it, but it’s just the beginning of a very long road.  After eight months of training you hope to show up at the starting line in Chamonix, France.  But who really dreams of running in France, in one of the largest and most difficult running events in the world?  Aren’t those just the dreams of the elites and top runners? Seriously!

My friend, Stephanie, and I met at that very first Death Race and we both dared to dream big!  We put our names in the UTMB lottery for the first time in 2016 as a team.  Under their new team rules, if one got in, we both got in!  We were selected into the race in the second year of entering the lottery!

We planned our trip, trained hard, and went over to Chamonix, France 6 days before our race. UTMB isn’t just one race.  There are 5 different races and distances throughout the week, all leading up to the crown jewel, the 106 mile race!  Each race starts at a different town and ends in Chamonix.  We spent the week watching the crowds grow and seeing runners from the other races cross the finish line.  The excitement for UTMB was off the charts!

Our race started on Friday evening at 6pm.  We tried to spend the day relaxing as much as possible. Then just 4 hours before the start of the race, we got the alert that the weather had changed and the cold gear kit was required!  This was one of my biggest fears because I do not like the cold.  We were already carrying so much required gear, so the thought of carrying even more was not what we wanted to hear.  Not only was the temperature expected to drop significantly, it started to rain as we headed to the starting line.  We were determined not to let it dampen our spirits.  My friend, Soon (who we had been hanging out with a lot during the week), Stephanie, and I put on our rain ponchos, headed down to the start with our crew and lined up with more than 2500 other runners!

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The huge crowds began to clap, runners waved flags from their countries, and we watched it all on the big screen next to us as the announcer hyped up the crowds and runners.  The elites were introduced as they each came to the starting line. The noise from the crowds and the excitement grew deafening.  Then just moments before 6 pm they began playing the song, Conquest of Paradise, and the feeling was indescribable!  I don’t think I’ll ever forget that powerful moment.  It all became so real, and just as the song ended, the race of a lifetime had started.  Our journey had begun.

IMG_0889Running through the crowded street of Chamonix

The race starts with crowds so thick you can’t move, and the streets were lined with people throughout the town for miles as we began running.  You knew this was going to be like nothing else you had ever experienced.  Stephanie and I grabbed on to one another, holding hands as we crossed the starting line and trying not to lose each other in the crowd of runners. The first 10k is flat and easy, but after that teasing terrain, things got seriously real!  The very first climb was like nothing I had experienced – rain, mud, and miles of climbing up a boulder field!  It felt like it took hours to get up the first climb.  We had trained hard and been given lots of wisdom and advice.  One of the biggest pieces of advice seemed to be KFM, or “keep f@#$ moving”!  My breathing was so labored and my heart rate was through the roof.  I couldn’t imagine how this thing I had gotten myself into would play out.  Moving through the first 19 miles to our first crew spot at Les Contemines, we were certain we would miss the cutoffs.  Stephanie and I chatted as we headed into that aid station and felt certain our journey was over.  At only 19 miles in we were both ready to bow down to Mont Blanc and be grateful for the journey we had.  I know it sounds a little dramatic, but I promise you have no idea, this thing is for real.

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Headed back out after the first crew stop

We got into the very busy aid station and anxiously searched for our crew!  Our crew was Rob Apple (who had 10 years of UTMB knowledge and experience at all their races) and John & Rebecca Storey (friends of Stephanie’s and now mine, from Knoxville, TN).  Rob told us we were doing great, we had time, and they quickly helped us get into dry clothes for the next section.  It would be 30 miles and the next afternoon before we would see them again in Courmayeur.  We had our first taste of reality and it was time to get to work.  No time for a pity party, we needed to KFM.  That was pretty much how the first part of the race went for us.  I knew cutoffs were tight up front and we seemed to stay just ahead of them for the next 30 miles before we seemed to put a little time in the bank.

My breathing was labored and my heart rate elevated with each climb.  Stephanie seemed to do better on the climbs and helped pull me along.  Downhill and more technical sections seemed to be my strength, so we helped each other. We were in it together, but we knew anything could happen.  And it would.

We felt discouraged at our pace, but each time we saw our crew they would reassure us we were doing great!  Rebecca would always tell us we were awesome, and though I don’t think we believed it, we simply had no other option but to accept it and KFM!  We were merely in survival mode each time we came into an aid station.  Disappointed we had barely beaten cutoffs once again.  Often we felt drained with nothing left to keep fighting.

Coming out of Courmayeur (mile 50ish) and now well into day two, we thought the weather would be nice, with the worst of the bad weather behind us.  Our crew encouraged us to switch to shorts and a short sleeve shirt but we both opted not to.  That would prove to be a decision that saved the rest of our race.  Rob told us the next climb was the worst.  We later realized he lied to us a lot!  Good crew sometimes have to tell a few lies.  Some tell more than others!

You couldn’t really talk to people around you on the trail.  You usually had your head down, were in survival mode, and didn’t dare look up.  You also could not speak to them because you had no idea what language they spoke.  There was always a bond though.  Heavy breathing, gasps, and deep groaning that everyone understood.  Everyone was going through a struggle that transcended language.

When we got to the top of that big climb and started out of that aid station, the volunteers stopped us and made us put on our required sealed rain jackets.  They had warned that the weather was going to be cold where we were headed.  A couple aid stations later, at Arnouvaz, they would make us put on our required sealed rain pants.  We were not far ahead of cutoffs but looked around to see that many of the runners were calling it quits here at Arnouvaz, 58 miles into the race. We were determined not to quit but knew there was a good chance it might beat us before we could finish. We now had 10 miles or so to the next cutoff point and about 4 hours to get there. That normally wouldn’t seem so bad, but this is UTMB!  As soon as we were on the trail we could see this huge overwhelming climb before us.  With all the people we had just seen give up at the aid station, it now seemed like that might have been a good way to end this thing.  It also seemed like more runners were coming down after starting the climb than going up.  One thing you get good at is keeping your head down, putting one foot in front of the other, and KFM.  We would later agree that the climb up Grand Col Ferrett was the worst climb of the race, but I think that was because it was mentally the toughest.  The weather was rough; heading into the night again, rainy, windy, foggy and cold!  We were into our second night of the race and were still barely surviving cutoffs. Nothing was getting easier, only harder and steeper!   It felt like hours later when we did finally make it to the top.  My hands were frozen and cold, it was windy, and I was completely exhausted and defeated.  I was also feeling like I was on the verge of being hypothermic.  We had two more check points to get through before La Fouly, and still a long ways to see our crew again at Champex-Lac.

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I had also strained my groin coming up that climb.  A warm shower and bed were all I could wrap my mind around at that moment.  In the meantime, it was survival mode and I balled up my hands inside my gloves so I could warm them up and feel my fingers again. We were now on some of the better downhill sections of the course, but it was still cold, wet, foggy, rainy and night time.  We knew we had managed to stay ahead of cutoffs, but it was definitely the lowest point of the race for me. I knew my groin was at least strained, and that doesn’t sound fun for 40 more miles of tough climbs. We were not far from the La Fouly aid station when we came across a few young women (we were now in Switzerland).  The crowds all along the course were yelling and cheering “allez allez allez” or “bravo” but these young ladies looked at my bib and hollered out “Stay Strong, Make America Proud”!  Dang it, why did they have to say that?  I had almost made up my mind that with my injury and the weather, I was dropping.  Now I have to “Make America proud”?

We got to the La Fouly aid station, 67 miles complete and ahead of cutoffs by about 30 minutes or so.  Then the minute I crossed the timing mat and came into the aid station tent a large screen cued up and played the first of two videos of encouragement my friends had made for me!  The first was from my MARC group (Metro Atlanta Running Club) and then another from GUTS (Georgia Ultra Trail Running Society)!

 

This is the MARC Video with Cherie

I literally stood still right in the middle of the aid station and cried.  In the first video, I saw my friend Cherie.  Shortly before I got into UTMB, Cherie was diagnosed with cancer.  She would have surgery and undergo 6 months of chemo treatments while I trained for UTMB!  I dedicated my 2018 year of running and my UTMB race to her.  She has never given up, and the moment I saw her on the screen I knew I wasn’t giving up. Mont Blanc and I would fight this out to the end.  Somehow, some way.  I had no idea how, but I was going forward.  I was going to make all the people cheering for me and my family who made sacrifices for me to be here proud!  I would know that I dug deep and gave it all I had.

Once in my life I had to quit something.  I was in middle school and came from a broken home.  Back then, no one came from a broken home.  I was shy and struggled to belong but eventually found a place where I fit in when I made the basketball team.  I mostly sat the bench but that sense of belonging meant everything to me.  Then my mother made me quit the team when one of my grades slipped below a C average (the coach’s history class nonetheless).  That was the worst feeling in my life.  I swore I would never quit anything again.  I often wonder if that was the defining moment in my life and from where I draw strength.

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We now had some downhill and uphill getting to Champex-Lac.  There’s always more uphill!  We again got to our crew and knew we had survived to fight some more. During that section it had been Stephanie’s turn to hit a low point.  She was tired and hungry but we knew we had to keep going.  Just KFM!  Keep your feet moving!  The next climb was rough for her and she began throwing up.  We didn’t dare talk about it, but we both knew this could end things for her.  When we finally got into Champex-Lac, mile 76 or so, Stephanie said she had to lay down.  We didn’t have time to stay long but Steph needed to recover.  Here the crew had more access to the aid station supplies (later in the race they were more relaxed) and allowed both of us to sit and take care of small things.  Our crew waited on us bringing food, drinks and refilling our packs.  We still had 30 miles to go with a number of mountains to climb.  Extreme fatigue and mental exhaustion had swallowed us up.  We could only focus on the next little section.  Rob would continue to tell us the hardest climbs were behind us.  Maybe looking at a chart it looks easier in the second half of the race, but after so many miles and so much time each step is more and more difficult.

Hydration was never a problem for either of us.  We drank well and it wasn’t really warm until the final afternoon so we both stay well hydrated.  Eating became a little tougher.  I personally loved the aid station foods; cheeses, meats, crackers, soups, and Coke, which was usually nice and cold, just how I like it.  The difficult part was we had to constantly stay moving.  We knew we could not relax and sit at the aid station.  We had been given lots of advice not to spend too much time at the aid stations.  It was amazing how many people did just sit or sleep at the aid stations, or just didn’t seem in any hurry to leave. The problem with grabbing food and eating on the go was that we had gloves on and poles in our hands all the time. We couldn’t put our poles away because immediately out of most every aid station was a steep climb. You also couldn’t really eat and climb.  When you would eventually get to a place that leveled out some, you still were using gloves and poles, and it was such a hassle to get anything out of your pack. Even stopping to put on or take off a jacket was a huge ordeal and we just couldn’t afford the time.

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Stephanie’s stomach started to rebound, but she was so exhausted.  It was very early in the morning on our second day and we were again finishing a very long, steep, unending climb. Climbing felt more like a pilgrimage than a large conga line at times as we literally journeyed over mountains from one town to the next with the same group of people. We knew them all by sight and each one was desperately trying to get to the same place.

We got to the next aid station, a rustic Refuge at La Giete, just before the sun came up.  It was small and people were sleeping everywhere.  There was no real aid, just water and coffee. Stephanie laid down on the hard wooden floor and covered up with an emergency space blanket.  I gave her 10 minutes to sleep as I anxiously watched the clock.  We had another 5k to get to our crew at Trient.  Luckily it was a downhill section, although even these downhills were not very runnable.  I wanted to give Steph a chance to sleep but not too long.  I got out her weather pants and warm jacket from her pack.  I was getting cold myself just sitting and trying to sip on very lukewarm coffee.  This was not the cappuccino I’d enjoyed in Chamonix the days before the race.  I put my warm layers on as well, made Stephanie a cup of coffee and got her up.  She put on her layers and we were soon on our way. Steph had rebounded some more and we were desperately trying to put some time in the bank on this next downhill stretch.

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Bam, we had made it to Trient, around mile 86.  Our crew again gave us food and refilled our packs with water as we briefly sat down.  Rob gave us our update of what was ahead.  The worst climbs were over he said again.  Again, all lies!  He also told us if we could get through the next section, around 8-9 miles, we would have no more cutoffs.  They would let us finish.  We were so exhausted and stressed from chasing cutoffs but felt sure we could make it now.  The climb from Trient turned out to be one of the steepest climbs we had done.  It was now daylight and warmer.  We had finally changed into shorts and taken off our jackets.  Eventually we got over the top of the mountain and started down a good downhill section on our way to Vallorcine and what we thought to be the last cutoff to stress over.

The first thing Rebecca said to us when we saw her coming into Vallorcine at mile 93 was that Rob was mistaken.  There was another cutoff.  We were no longer surprised, but we were determined with only the last 13 miles ahead of us.  We might have welcomed missing a cutoff earlier, but now we were too close and had come too far.  We were now on a mission to get to the next check point with more time in the bank as we headed into the final climb.  The last climb turned into a climb, then downhill, then another long climb.  The worst part would be the most technical boulder and root-filled downhill you could imagine.  There was simply no way for any of the runners to move fast.  Our goal was now set on la Flegere, the final Refuge and aid station, as well as the final cutoff.  Rob had told us if we missed the cutoff they would still let us finish but we were not letting that enter our thinking.  We were making it and not missing a cutoff.  We came out of the woods from our long climb and could see the la Flegere Refuge way above us and a long steep trail of runners leading the way up to it.  We could make it!

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We can see la Flegere

We entered the aid station with around 25 minutes to spare and went right through and kept moving.  Only 8k to Chamonix and the finish line was waiting for us below.  We both shed a tear of relief seeing Chamonix below, but knew it was too premature to celebrate just yet.  It was the longest 8k – too technical to run at times but we continued to run when we could and just kept moving.  KFM – we knew it too well.  We knew the clock was ticking and we knew we were finishing but we were determined not to finish over the cutoff time.  After a very long downhill we finally dropped out of the woods and onto the trails on the outskirts of town with huge, excited crowds everywhere.

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Just a couple of these to climb over on the way to the finish, which I might add that Rob told us we wouldn’t have to do.  Liar Liar

It was hard to hold our emotions together.  We fast hiked as quickly as possible on our hurting feet and broken bodies, but our spirits soared as the crowds cheered for us.  We crossed over two sets of stair cases to make our way into the heart of Chamonix on the small crowd-lined cobblestone streets.  The crowds thickened, then we came to the final turn where we could see the finish.  The roars from the crowd were deafening as the sounds of their hands slapped the sponsor banners.  We tried to savor the moment we knew we would never experience again.  The entire crowd was celebrating with us!  We grabbed hands to finish the race, just as we had started.  The French announcer called our names, “Trena and Stephanie! From the United States of America! From the US of A! Welcome home girls!  Yes you did, you did it, you completed the UTMB! The most difficult race in the world! Well done Stephanie!  Well done Trena!”

Mont Blanc is a majestic mountain to respect!  One that humbles you, breaks you and forever changes you!

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