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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Zion 100 Race Report

This race isn’t hard to sum up in just a few words. I’d probably use the word Majestic to best describe it.  If you have never been to Zion National Park, this is definitely a race to add to your bucket list.  If you aren’t a 100 mile runner, no worries!  They have a 100k distance as well as 50k, and even 1/2 marathon – something for everyone.  The views are breathtaking and the 100 mile race gives you a 34-hour cutoff (which is definitely needed) if you want to enjoy the scenery and take it all in.

Two years ago I ran the Antelope Canyon 50-miler and visited Zion National Park for the first time.  I knew I wanted to come back and run the Zion 100.  It’s a Western States qualifying race, and while I’m on my journey to eventually run WS, I want to run some of my bucket list races, also.  I like to see new parts of the country and enjoy each race, and this was a good year for Zion to fit into my schedule.  I signed up in the fall of 2017 when I got early signup pricing, still months before the WS lottery drawing for the 2018 race.  I chatted with my coach at the time about signing up for Zion not knowing the lottery outcome.  We decided that I could always drop back to the 100k option or defer my entry (they are great about giving you lots of options).  I tried to convince a few friends to come run it with me, but couldn’t seem to get anyone to jump on board, so this was my race and I was running it because I really wanted to do it.

My favorite running buddies, David Yerden and Rich Higgins, both agreed early on to crew and pace for me.  I also wanted my husband, Ed, to come, but because our son was not on spring break it was just too rough for him to miss school or not have Ed at home to help him.  Our son has challenges with school and I simply could not run ultra distances and races if it were not for the support of Ed!  He may not get my “crazy” but he always supports me and I work hard to balance home and running.  It’s not always an easy thing, and often puts a huge burden on Ed.  Bless his heart!

The Zion 100 race has a Friday morning start.  That meant leaving Atlanta on Wednesday, flying to Las Vegas and then driving to St. George, Utah, which is 30 minutes from the race start in Virgin, Utah.  The small town of Virgin is barely a speed bump in the road, and you would miss it if you blinked.  The race itself is not in Zion National Park, but just about 30 minutes outside the park.  The race organizers were very clear about this in the literature for the race.  Most ultra runners understand that NO race can take place in a National Park or on the Appalachian Trail (AT) for us East Coast runners. The views, the scenery, and the beauty of the area was on display even outside the park, however.

Leading up to Zion, I had a slight cough, probably due to the high pollen season in Atlanta in the spring. I didn’t have a sore throat or any other signs of being sick, but a rather annoying cough.  At least 10 days out from the race I started taking Allegra and Ziacam to alleviate the cough.  It did seem to help but I knew either way, it wouldn’t bother my running ability.

Early on Friday morning, we loaded up our rental car and headed to the race start.  The weather wasn’t ideal as it was lightly raining, and the forecast was showing rain for a good bit of the day on Friday.  I’ve run enough races in the rain, so I wasn’t at all concerned about that.

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Lightly raining but ready to get started

We listened to a last minute briefing from the Race Director and then started the race right on time at 6:00 a.m.  It started with an easy road, then trail, section that quickly led to the first climb of the course up to Smith Mesa and the Flying Monkey aid station.  It’s a rough, paved road climb so while it’s a little slow going up, it didn’t feel terribly steep or bad.  It was nice to chat with others around me and settle into the long race ahead.  At the top, we were quickly onto the trails, which would normally have been an awesome, very runnable and easy section, even in the early dark hours of the race.  But due to the rain, it felt like you had 20 lbs of clumpy clay mud on each foot.  You literally felt the weight of it with each step, and this thick, slippery mud was not the kind that kicked or came off easily.  Just as I was settling into the start of a nice race, I had to decide how I was going to navigate this trail and terrain. How long would this last?  How long could I fight this mud, the slick sections, and the weight I felt on my feet?  On top of that, I was already feeling a little off, physically.  Nothing felt really bad, but I just felt “off.”  Maybe it was the medicine I had been taking. I had that foggy feeling in my head.  Later, I thought it also could have been due to the first climb up to the highest mesa of the race.  Possibly the altitude was affecting me?  I just knew it was way too early to be on the struggle bus and I wasn’t sure I could fight the mud and my foggy head for the next 90 miles.  This wasn’t going to be pretty.

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IMG_8772Views from that first climb

Photo Cred: John Taylor

 

Just as I was starting to feel a little defeated and unsure of how things might play out, my friends, Tony and Kathy (who were the only 2 people I knew at the race and they were running the 100k distance) caught up to me.  It was so nice to see them and just have friends around for encouragement.  I was determined to stick with the two of them to get me to my crew and pacers later in the race.  We were soon at the second aid station and headed off the mesa towards Dalton Wash aid station, where I would see my crew at mile 18.  As soon as I started descending I began to feel better and the running was much easier without all the mud.  Things were looking up!  I had gotten ahead of Tony and Kathy coming off the mesa, but they quickly caught back up and we came into the aid station together.

I don’t remember what I ate at this aid station, but the important thing was drinking Ginger Ale that my crew had for me.  My stomach felt “off” from the very start and I wanted to be proactive in settling things down.  I handed off my lights and got a dry pair of gloves to try and stay warm.  I left the aid station with Tony and Kathy, while Rich walked me up the road to let me try and drink more Coke before he headed back.  This section was another hill climb on dirt road.  We ran a good bit at first because it was more of a gentle climb. Tony and Kathy were moving stronger, but I worked to keep up.  I was trying to hang on to them for dear life, hoping I could just get pulled along.  The top of the climb was steep, but at the top we arrived at the next aid station.  This was Guacamole Mesa, and after the aid station we had a 7.5 mile loop and then we would head back down to our crew again at mile 33.  One thing that seemed to always taste good to me during this race was oranges.  They had lots of fruit choices and the oranges just seemed to be a winner for me.  It wasn’t the calories I needed, but it was something that worked.  As we left that aid station, Tony asked if I wanted some of the broth he was carrying in a cup.  That sounded good and it was also warm and soothing.  The weather was still rainy and it was getting to be annoying.  The mud wasn’t an issue at the top of this mesa, but there were endless puddles of water and many rocky sections.  Tony and Kathy eventually slipped ahead of me as I fought to pull things together and tried to keep moving.  I think Tony and Kathy were just on a faster pace because of running the shorter distance, and I knew I needed to take care of myself and run my own race.  After the broth had a chance to settle, I began to perk up and for the first time in nearly 25 miles I was beginning to feel better.  My stomach still felt rough (and it stayed that way the entire race) but with something in my stomach, I felt better.  I stayed with a guy named Vic for the rest of the miles back into the 33 mile aid station where I saw David and Rich for the second time.  Vic said if I left the aid station before him, he’d catch up to me, but I didn’t see him again until we saw each other on an out-and-back section 44 miles into the race.

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Feeling a little better and the rain has stopped

Feeling a little better this time in the aid station, my crew insisted I eat more, and I did.  We walked to the car and I sat for a minute and drank more Ginger Ale and ate a whole PB&J sandwich.  The more food I ate, the better I felt, although my stomach never felt great.  Rich again walked me out of the aid station, letting me drink a cold Coke and getting me to the turnoff for the next section.  I was now at mile 33, and I wouldn’t see them again for 23 miles, where I could pick up one of them to pace me.  The toughest climb of the course was just a few miles ahead of me.  This is where not fully knowing the course might have been a good thing.  I was able to move well on the downhill’s and flat sections of the course, but I saved myself and hiked most of the uphill’s.  The steep climb up to the Goosebump aid station was almost enough to take out the toughest of runners.  It was extremely long and very steep, with the trail getting rougher and rockier with each step.  The top section was hardly a trail but more like a boulder field climb (some exaggeration here, but that’s how it felt).  When I say the climb was worth the view, I can’t even begin to describe the beauty this course showcased.  While my stomach didn’t feel so great for most of the race, I didn’t fail to take in the views and enjoyed every minute of the course.  I tried to run in the moment and focus on the scenery surrounding me.  Some of my favorite running is single track technical, and the rocks and sections on top of the mesas offered me trails in my ultra happy place.

Nearly 18 miles of running across the hard rock surface began to wear down my legs, however.  It was almost like running on pavement, but I was eventually back to the Goosebump aid station and headed towards my crew and pacer.  It was starting to get dark and I ran as much as I could to try and get to my crew before having to turn on my headlamp.  They were able to meet and crew me about a mile before the next aid station.  After taking care of a few things, getting Ginger Ale, changing into warm dry clothes for the night, switching to a smaller pack, and picking up my poles, I was off again, with Rich pacing me.  The next aid station was 1.5 miles away and for the first time in the race I sat down here for a longer time.  I drank a couple of cups of Roman Noodles and broth, ate some bacon (which for the first time in the race didn’t make me want to throw up just smelling it) and after feeling much better I was off for a 6 mile loop with Rich leading the way.  Rich set a good pace, and we moved really well.  The last part of the loop was a lot more technical and hilly which slowed us down (ok, I slowed us down).  Even at night you could see the beauty of the course.  We went through the aid station, saw David again at mile 64, and then headed off for a fairly long section before we’d see David again at mile 76.

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Rich was with me this time as we came down the long steep climb I had gone up earlier in the day getting to the Goosebump aid station.  I tried to tell him how tough it was and I’m not sure that even going down you could grasp how tough it was going uphill.  I was really happy I had my poles to give my legs that extra support going down.  It was then another 7 miles through the desert to get to David at the Virgin Desert aid station at mile 76.  It seemed like moving through the rolling hills in the desert at night took a very long time, but we were passing lots of runners and moving really well.  Just before getting to the aid station, I got really cold.  The desert night had brought down the temperature and because I was slower and sleepy, I began to get very cold.  As soon as we got into the aid station, I told David I needed to get into the car.  He tried to get me to warm up by the fire, but that’s a no-no for me.  It would warm me up, but I’d be way too cold after walking away.  In the car, I put on another jacket, long pants over my shorts, and also put on a beanie hat.

I drank a little more and I was off to tackle the first of 3 loops that were based out of this aid station.  The loops were 5, 6 and 7 miles long.  Rich lead me on the first loop where we were able to get into a good running pace, again passing lots of runners and moving pretty well.  I warmed up quickly at this pace and soon took off the extra jacket.  David began pacing me on the second loop, now at mile 81.  It was longer and more technical than the first loop, so we were a bit slower this time around.  We were again passing more runners and kept moving along. For the first time during the race, I began to eat sugary treats to pick up my energy – Skittles!  I love almost everything about Skittles although they are harder to chew when they’re cold.  David also started giving me Tums when he began pacing me to see if that would help my stomach.  It seemed to work a little but wasn’t a totally winner.  As we started the final 7 mile loop, the sun was up, and we were able to turn off our headlamps.  That always seems to pick up your spirits as the new day breaks, and of course seeing the sunrise was beautiful.  This loop had some spectacular canyon views below us and was easily the prettiest of the 3 loops.  We saw Rich one last time when we finished this loop, and we had 5 miles left to the finish.  I took off my long pants, my gloves (which I had worn the entire race), switched back to my trucker hat and put on my sunglasses.  It was the home stretch and I wasn’t slowing down.

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Ready to finish the last stretch

This last section had lots of gentle downhill running, then a short climb up to the road, where it was 1.5 miles to the finish.  There were more runners around us now as the 50k and half-marathoners were coming in on the same trail to the finish.  We managed to pass a few more people and David did a great job keeping me running all the way to the finish.  I had high expectations of finishing this race between 26 – 28 hours.  That goal was sort of thrown out early on with the mud and my stomach issues, so I tried to enjoy the course and finish strong in the end.  David said I could get in under 29 hours, so we continued to run as best as I could.  When I crossed the finish in 28:47, I was more than thrilled.

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A 100 mile finish is always sweet!

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The race has a 34 hour cut-off and while I was well ahead of that time, the day was beginning to warm up, so it was nice to be finished!  You get to pick your own buckle, as they are all custom made and each one is different.  I sat down, took off my shoes for the first time, and enjoyed watching others finish and feeling the warmth of the sun.  Tony and Kathy showed up before we left the finish area and it was fun to see them again before we headed back to our hotel for a shower and some rest.

I can say the race was very well run and had great volunteers!  Each aid station had lots of food, plenty of water and supplies.  It’s a “green” race, with recycle bins and compost toilets at each aid station which can be very nice to have, especially when you have 100 miles of stomach issues.  My crew wasn’t a fan of the compost toilets and were not disappointed to bid them farewell when the race was over.  No matter what may have gone wrong in this race, you would have missed out had you not stopped a moment to take it all in and enjoyed the views and surroundings.  Truly a majestic place to run, no matter what distance is your jam.

 

Georgia Loop Report

The Georgia Loop isn’t exactly a race, but after doing it, I think it certainly deserves a report to share my experience.  It’s like running the Grand Canyon R2R2R in some ways.  It’s not something you just wake up and decide to do one morning.  It takes a lot of time to plan and strategize.  (Note: if you want more detailed information about running or hiking this Loop, see the detailed notes at the end of this report)

If you live in Georgia and have been an Ultra Runner for at least a little while, you’ve probably heard of the Georgia Loop.  It’s basically just that, a looped route that connects the DRT (Duncan Ridge Trail), the BMT (Benton MacKaye Trail) and the AT (Appalachian Trail).  It can be done in either direction and has about 3 main easy access points where you can  start and finish.  The mileage of the loop is approximately 56-60 miles and around 16,000 – 18,000 feet of climbing. Because the mountains tend to be cold and snowy in the winter, and hot with little water in the summer, the time of year and weather are critical factors when making your plans.

There was a lot of chatter on Facebook and among local ultra runners in the last two months of 2017 about putting together an attempt at the Loop.  These types of things usually start with a large number of interested people, but then slowly dwindles down to just a few who can stay committed and get it on their schedule.  In my case, I piggy-backed off others who had people committed to crewing for them.  There are not many places a crew can actually help you, but it is still critical to have crew you can meet at a few important points along the way.  Essentially, you need to be a runner who feels comfortable running 10-15 miles with no help or crew, which makes those few crew access points very important.  Think of it more as a self-supported run with potential crew stops.

Just 2 days before our planned Saturday morning start, the weather was showing a large chance of thunderstorms overnight on Saturday.  Not knowing how long the run would take but certain most of us would be out there for some overnight hours, the start was changed to Friday night.  This would get everyone to the finish before the storms.  This also added another factor of being up all day, then running all night and into the next day as well.  This plan may have just gotten harder.  Time would tell.  Afterwards, it would be deemed the “Georgia Loop after Dark!”

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Dropping Water at Woody Gap just before we started

Ten runners ended up starting.  One solo runner with a pacer, additional groups of 2, 3 and 4 runners, with only 5 of us finishing.  I started in a group of 3 with Rich Higgins and David Yerden.  We dropped our cooler with supplies and other items to “our” crew, Jason Anderson, just a few hours before heading to the start.  In case you are wondering what I packed, just about everything!  And then I packed some more, because “That’s How I Roll”!!!  If you know me, run with me or have ever crewed for me, you might be familiar with my infamous “notebook”!  I like details and to cover all the bases.  I might be a little OCD, but I’m not admitting to it.  This was just a training run or adventure run, so there was no notebook, but I still packed every possible item and a back-up, filled my cooler with Cokes, Ginger Ale and lots of snack options.  You never know what you might need or what’s going to sound good at the moment.  In the end, usually nothing sounds that good to me except a nice cold Coke!  I filled the cooler with supplies for the three of us and dropped it off with a bag of extra clothes, shoes, lights, and other items I probably wouldn’t use.

Rich and I drove up to Dahlonega together and met David so we could get a good meal before starting our run.  We dropped in at Dahlonega Mountain Sports to say hello to Sarah and Sean, the store owners.  Go visit them if you are in the area, it’s an awesome store and be sure to tell them I said hello!  Sean shared with us his experience running the Georgia Loop the year before, and while he mentioned the suffering, my mind played down that part.  I would soon remember his words to the wise, which I wasn’t wiser for until I experienced it myself.

On our way to the starting point, we stopped at Woody Gap to stash a supply of water.  It was our safety plan if for some reason crew couldn’t get to us at that point.  We knew we would need a water refill for the last 9-10 miles of the run.  Our starting point was Wolf Pen Gap, where we could park cars along the fire road and run the Loop in a counter clockwise direction.  Going that direction put us on the toughest section of the DRT first, then the BMT, and finally the AT, with a short section of the DRT at the end to get back to Wolf Pen Gap.  There were only two major turns on the course, but they were critical turns with no flagging.  You can run this totally unsupported if you want to drop water and supplies along your route beforehand, but it takes about 4 hours to drop everything off, you need to use bear canisters for your supplies, and it takes 4 more hours to pick everything up afterwards.  Probably not a good chance to get a cold Coke either, so that’s why we decided to use the help of a crew.

We got to Wolf Pen Gap, got ready to go with a final check of our packs and headed out at roughly 7:10pm.  It was already dark, so our headlamps were on from the start.  If you’re familiar with the route, you know it’s pretty much a climb from the very start.  It was exciting, just like at the start of a race, and the adrenaline was really going at this point.  It was exciting because it was new for all of us, and it was a bucket list run we were doing.

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Quick Photo before we start this thing!

The temperature was perfect.  I wore a long sleeve shirt and a breathable jacket over it.  Most people know I wear double what everyone else wears.  The guys were in short sleeve shirts with jackets around their waists!  We were off to a great start with lots of climbing to the top of Coosa Bald and well under way to our excellent adventure.  This may seem a little unbelievable, but it’s totally true. The three of us were having a great conversation about the safety of running with others.  Of course I’m a female, I just don’t run alone and I always carry my phone.  For one, my husband would not want me out there alone, and secondly, I was always taught the safety of having someone with you.  You just never know what might happen.  Even if someone knows where you are, in an emergency they really can’t get to you that quickly.  David is more of a solo runner at times, and I think even considered running ahead of us.  He is certainly much faster and stronger than Rich and I.  With our limited crew stops, and timing the run to not get ahead of our support, we decided to stay together as a team.  This wasn’t a race, it was really was about training and the overall experience.  And then – BAM!!  David went down.  He was at the back and when Rich and I realized he had fallen, we looked to see him pick his head up off the ground and his hand covered his right eye.  Blood was clearly dripping all over the place.  I remember David’s immediate words were that he knew it wasn’t good.  I quickly thought of what I had to help stop the bleeding, and pulled my buff from around my neck and gave it to him.  A few minutes of pressure and the bleeding began to subside.  Rich took a look when David pulled the buff away and told him he saw a pretty good gash that he thought could need at least a couple of stitches.  NO!  We were only 4-5 miles into our adventure.  Luckily, David did not feel dizzy or lightheaded.  He was able to get up and even kept a good pace as we continued on towards our first support stop.  We discussed how David would need to stop when we got to our crew at Mulkey Gap and go to the hospital for stitches.  He felt pretty good considering, and it was hard to accept that he would have to end his run before it even really got started, but we all knew there wasn’t much choice.  We got to Jason and he agreed with our assessment, so if it’s any consolation, David, you were pulled by medical at mile 8.  Sorry buddy, it won’t be the same without you.  I will say that we didn’t miss your altimeter readings later on when the climbing was so tough.  We could have been forced to toss you off the side of a cliff if you had kept giving us those readings! (As an update, David received a total of 13 stitches in four separate lacerations around his eye.  He’ll be back to run it again!)

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We aren’t even close!

So now our team of 3 was only two.  We felt terrible for David, but knowing he would have been there if he could, we added him to our list of people we were running for.  Their strength pulled us through at times when we had none ourselves.  We had about 11 miles to go to get to Hwy 60, or as it was called “The Highway to Hell Aid Station.”  Our crew wouldn’t be at this stop, but we would see crew from the other groups and get some water and snacks if needed.  The climbs across the DRT seemed long and endless with each mountain higher than the one before.  Most runners call the DRT the Dragon Spine.  Straight up, straight down, with no switchbacks.  If the steep ups don’t wear you out, the steep downs will get your quads, your toes, or both!  For Rich and I, the steep downs seemed to do the most damage to our toes, getting smashed into the end of our shoes.  Before we got to the DRT/BMT intersection our toes were in pain, and running steep downhill’s was going to be rough.

The steepest of the climbs gave way to some easier trails for a few miles.  We caught up to one of the early groups about a mile and a half from the Highway to Hell AS, and then came into the AS just after the first runner had arrived.  Except for our toes, we were feeling pretty good at this point.  We refilled our packs with water, taking note that we had not been drinking enough.  We needed to do a little better at that.  We both drank a cold Coke and quickly headed back out to continue the journey.

It was 2:00 a.m. when we left Highway 60, (about 19 miles into the Loop) and we would see our crew again around mile 33-35.  We both had our headlamps with one set of batteries as a backup.  While the climbing did not get easier, we enjoyed the moon that was out and the awesome temperatures for a February night in the mountains of Georgia.  Not too long after crossing the Swinging Bridge over the Toccoa River, my headlamp started to fade.  I knew I had an extra set of batteries, but we also knew I only had one extra set.  Depending on how long the new set would last, that was it.  We had no crew, no AS, no help.  So I pushed on as long as I absolutely could before putting in the backup batteries.  Next it would be Rich’s headlamp starting to fade.  He pushed through as long as he could on the first set of batteries, also.  Rich had also been dealing with leg cramps in the last few races we’d run.  Somewhere between miles 25-30 the cramps hit him.  Being a training run, Rich had purchased some highly recommended Hot Shots to try out for the cramps. He had taken one before the start (as directed), had one in his pack and one with our crew supplies. They are fairly expensive but Rich felt it was worth a try.  Soon he was stopped in his tracks with a painful leg cramp.  Sure enough, the Hot Shots almost instantly took his cramp away and we were off climbing again.  Rich was now very cautious on the climbs, because he felt the strenuous climbs set off the cramps and we had no more Hot Shots with us.  We would have to pick up the last bottle when and if we saw our crew again.

It was a long dark night and then rain came.  It was a light rain at first, but eventually we had a good hour of fairly heavy rain.  We had our rain jackets on to keep us dry and comfortable, while we continued making our way with frustrating headlamps on what seemed like constant uphill climbs.  Without David, one thing that could go wrong was a missing a turn or taking a wrong turn.  We knew our way and we knew the directions, but you know how “ultra brain” and “ultra fog” can affect you.  In our pre-adventure planning, one thing I did was mark our course using the AvenzaMaps app on my phone.  We would not need a cell signal to use it, and could easily see where we were.  When we came to the big open field we’d heard about at the southern end of the BMT, we had no idea what way to go.  We wandered a little aimlessly in one direction by following hunter tacks, but once I pulled out my phone we realized we were totally off course and headed the wrong way.  Having to climb back up a hill we just went down, we were soon back on course, and the crisis was averted.  Best money ever spent, and best advice received from the Duffer, AKA Brad Goodridge, who I might say is a local legend and the best source of information for doing the Georgia Loop.  Thanks, Buddy!

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Finally day light and our crew!

We made the left turn at Long Creek Falls shortly after that and were now on the AT.  But we didn’t know where or when we would see our crew again.  It was a bit of a mind game that can get to you when you’ve been up all night.  Otherwise, we were still doing well.  Our feet were still sore, but we were feeling pretty good as the light of day began to break through.  At this point, I’d managed to kick so many rocks in the dark, over and over again, that I was sure my big toe nail was no longer attached.  Toe nails are for sissies anyway, and this stuff is not for those folks!  We knew we should see Jason, our crew, somewhere around mile 33-35.  He told me he would be at Hightower Gap, although others mentioned different places, and we just resigned ourselves to the fact we’d see him eventually, but not knowing exactly where that would be.  We did need water and hoped we’d see him sooner rather than later.  Finally, as we began to drop into the Hightower Gap parking area, we heard calls and cheering!  What a welcoming sound that was!  But we didn’t expect to see Thomas there, as well.  Thomas was part of the group of 4 runners we had left behind at the Highway to Hell Aid Station.  For them, their hell ended just a few miles later when one of the runners who had been having serious stomach problems since mile 8 decided it was time to call it quits, and they were all in or all out together as a group.  Regardless, we were happy to see a familiar face, and our gear bag and cooler with ice cold drinks in it!  Thomas even had sausage and egg biscuits from McDonald’s for us!  All was right with the world, for a few minutes anyway!  We made it a short stop and were soon on our way.  I think we got to this point some time early in the morning shortly after the sun came up, maybe between 7-8am.

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We were now working our way across the AT towards Blood Mountain, but unfortunately there were several mountains to climb before we got anywhere close to Blood.  Being on the AT in daylight gave us some spectacular views!  The top of each climb was always rewarded with an awesome view and we didn’t fail to grab a few pictures along the way.  Jason was able to crew us a couple more times along the way and we finally got to Woody Gap, our final crew access point around 1pm.  We refilled our water and headed out.  We were in the home stretch, but 9-10 miles is still a long ways from home and now every climb and every step just hurt.  We were ready to be done.

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View from Preachers Rock

We might even have entertained the thought of quitting, but there was nowhere to quit.  Rich told me later that in some of the final miles he had thoughts that someone was going to have to come get us.  But there were no access points, no help available.  He said he knew that, but figured they’d send a helicopter, drop a basket or something!  The things some people think of!  It was definitely a very long stretch from Woody Gap to the turn onto the DRT!  I have run that section  to Blood Mountain before, and was looking forward to a familiar easy section, but right then there was nothing easy about it!  We enjoyed a beautiful view at Preachers Rock and ran into one running buddy coming back from Blood Mountain, but aside from that we were on the struggle bus and just wanted off.  We finally made it back to the DRT and knew then we were very close, but not before climbing just one more mountain!  Worse than climbing up that mountain was the very steep downhill on the other side of it, dropping us back into Wolf Pen Gap and the car!

The sight from the top of the last hill dropping into Wolf Pen Gap was bittersweet.  We had been anticipating the view of the car below for hours.  We knew we had made it, completed a bucket list item, and finished something only a small list of people complete in a day’s journey.  But darn it all, that last hill was steep and my toes were killing me.  We officially finished in a time of 22:04!  We didn’t care about our time, but some of you might be wondering how long it took us.

Afterwards we waited an hour for the second group of 2 runners to come in.  John and Scott started about 30 minutes after us the night before, and all day we expected them to catch up to us.  We all shared stories and took a group picture as we waited for the final runner to come in with her pacer.  In the end, we decided we needed to head home because we didn’t know how far behind us she was.  It was getting dark again and we were very sleep deprived.  It was a great training run and a fantastic experience!  Ten of us started and 5 of us finished!  Those who didn’t finish will no doubt be back to try again, and who knows we might even consider another run at it, but not anytime soon.

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We made it!

John, Scott, Myself and Rich after getting some dry clothes on

If you are reading this blog looking for information on running or hiking the Georgia Loop, the following is information that Brad Goodridge assisted us with:
Nemesis Loop (Brad’s notes)
Woody Gap to Wolfpen (10 miles)
Wolfpen to Mulky (8 miles)
Mulky to BMT/60 (12 miles)
BMT/60 to Hightower (13 miles)
Hightower to Cooper Gap (8 miles)
Cooper to Gooch Gap (4miles)
Gooch to Woody (3.5 miles)

If you plan to do the whole loop at one time (without support)….
You need to put aid out the day before the attempt (Wolfpen, Mulky, BMT/60, Hickory Flats, Hightower, Cooper Gap). Food In ammo cans (Bears) (there is ZERO water on the DRT). Takes ~4 hours of driving to put aid out.

You should also do section runs before you do it again (can be tricky between big bald and Hightower (there is a turn at Long creek falls) when you are tired in the middle of the night). The last 3.5 miles from Gooch Gap to Woody is a killer (you will want to die).

——
NAT Geo Map #777

The easiest place to start is Woody Gap on GA-60 CCW.
Going North, follow the White blazes on the AT to the DRT (Blue blazes) about 8 miles in (trail on the left before Blood Mountain)

You can also start at Wolfpen Gap (near Vogel off of SR-180).
Some people like to start at 3 forks, but that’s a hour drive on forest road drive and a mile from the AT/BMT (depending on the direction). Same with a BMT/60 start.

The DRT blue blazes turn into BMT White Diamonds on the top of Rhodes mountain (DO NOT right turn like the GDR or Crewel Jewel Course).

The only tricky turn is at Long Creek Falls (it a 3 way turn)
You want to take the left trail (AT north), straight goes to 3 forks and Springer, right goes to Long Creek Falls (nice place if its daylight)

These are all places you can drive to.
Woody Gap
Wolfpen
Mulky
BMT/60
Hickory Flats (about 3 miles before Hightower)
Hightower
Cooper
Gooch

Looking… Hightower to Gooch are all off of USFR-42 (turn left on GA-60 about 3 miles past Woody Gap (before the 180 turn)

Whiteoak Stomp – N34.783989 W83.975463
Woody Gap, N34.67650 W84.00048
Wolfpen Gap, N34.76396 W83.95211
Mulky Gap, N34.79909 W84.03974
Fish Gap : 34.802165, -84.071082
BMT/60, N34.76638 W84.16353
Hightower Gap, N34.66361 W84.12971
Horse Gap, N34.65571 W84.10543
Cooper Gap, N34.65294 W84.08452
Gooch Gap, N34.65221 W84.03217

 

Two Women! Two Challenges! One Goal!

YS6-21The Day we met “in the woods”!

Two Women – The bond between Cherie and Trena began when they literally met “in the woods!”, while running a trail marathon in 2014. Since then, the two have shared many miles, stories, and goals during their weekly runs. Cherie has played the role of motivator in her support of Trena, as well as many others looking to benefit from all-types of running. Cherie’s kindness and support for others consistently goes above and beyond.

Two-Challenges – When the two met, Cherie was on a journey to run a marathon in all 50 states, but now faces the most significant challenge of her life; having been diagnosed with a form of Kidney Cancer. She is now on the other side of surgery and faces six months of chemotherapy. Everyone knows someone who’s been through this difficult process. While Cherie and those around her face her next mountain head-on, Trena will be training for one of the world’s most challenging foot races. She is one of 2,500 runners chosen to run in the 105-mile Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), a race that crosses portions of the French, Italian, and Swiss Alps over 46 consecutive hours. This race is an experience of a life-time and Trena is hard at work preparing for the August 31st race date. She has dedicated all of her training miles and her UTMB race to Cherie, and her battle with cancer.

One Goal – As destiny would have it, shortly after Cherie finishes her journey through six months of Chemo, Trena hopes to be crossing the finish line of UTMB for her.  I kindly ask that you consider dedicating your miles, positive thoughts, and prayers to Cherie and her family during this difficult time. Be sure to check back for updates on their progress as these two women, with two challenges, reach one goalsuccess!

UPDATE

Strength

On July 18th, 2018 Cherie finished her last Chemo Treatment and “rang the bell”!  It was a long and sometimes difficult journey for her, but she says the support of her family and friends are what saw her through it all.  STRENGTH doesn’t come from what you can do, strength comes from overcoming the things you thought you couldn’t!

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On September 2nd, 2018 Trena completed the UTMB race in Chamonix, France after 45 hrs and 52 minutes.  It’s considered the toughest trail race in the world!  It was during a very low point in the race, when Trena came into an aid station around mile 58 that a video cued up from the MARC running group.  Trena saw Cherie in the video and knew she couldn’t quit.  Just as Cherie had not quit, no matter how hard things were, quitting just was not an option.  Both had learned that STRENGTH doesn’t come from what you can do, strength comes from overcoming the things you thought you couldn’t!

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Two Woman!  Two Challenges!  One Goal!  Success!

 

Mountain Masochist 50 Miler

This is one of those historic and iconic races that most ultras runners who have been running for a few years have heard the name of. David, my regular running buddy shared with me back in the spring that he wanted to run this race and knew it would be a challenging one. If it would be a challenge for him, I knew it would definitely be a serious challenge for me. I signed up for this race when it first opened but it wasn’t my main focus over the summer and fall as I had other big races I was more focused on. I had spent months working hard with my coach on speed work, hill repeats and core and strength workouts. So I went into Mountain Masochist (MMTR) feeling stronger than I have ever felt and totally ready for the challenge.

The trip to Lynchburg, Virginia for this race was 7 1/2 hours long drive and there were five of us runners from Georgia who decided to jump into the race. All of us knew that to make the tight cutoffs we would have to be having a great day and manage ourselves so the wheels didn’t come off later in the race. I honestly didn’t spend a whole lot of time researching the race, but during our trip up, I got lots of information from the others who had done more reading about it, along with Janice Anderson, who was one of the runners with us. What makes Janice such a good source of information? Well I guess not much more than the fact that she has won top female 4 out of 7 times that she has run it. Those were more in her glory days of an elite runner, but with a 35 year old race such as Mountain Masochist not much of the course had changed. We had more fun talking with Janice about what it was like to run “back in the day” when they didn’t have packs, much less water bottles, and fueling for a race was quit the challenge. There was no internet, cell phones or UltraSignup back in those days, and going to races and receiving Ultra Running Magazine in the mail was their only connection to other runners across the country. I felt like a pampered runner with all we have, and no matter what happened the next day on the course, I knew in my heart the true badasses where those runners from years gone by. That’s what Mountain Masochist would symbolize for me.

It’s a little odd when you go to a race and don’t know a single other runner than those who came with you. This race screamed deep history from the very beginning. Janice immediately knew the first person she saw as one of her old running friends, and then she received a huge welcoming hug from David Horton (original Race Director of MMTR).  I sort of felt like I was a bit of an outsider just looking in on the old years gone by in Ultra Running, I felt a little out of place. You know how us runners look around the room at packet pickup or pre race dinners and kind of size up the other runners. I don’t call them competition because for me it’s just others who are running and I am no competition for them. I made two fairly obvious observations, 1) there were not many woman who took on this challenge and 2) even the guys running it all looked like very serious and tough runners, as did the women! These were some true Beast Coast runners! This wasn’t a fun run in Georgia where everyone shows up to have a good day together and everyone finishes no matter how slow a runner you are. All that being said, I felt more than ready for the challenge.

Janice and David Horton, Original RD of MMTR 50

The five of us who came up from Georgia were staying in a large cabin we rented that turned out to be just minutes from where the race ended and where we would catch a shuttle to the start. After our pre race dinner and getting to listen to guest speaker, Scott Jurek, we headed back to our cabin for the night. We had to get to bed early to catch our 4:15am shuttle ride. The time in the morning seem to go by fast, from getting up, to taking the shuttle and once again checking in for the race start. It seemed before we knew it, at 6:30am and in the dark hours of the morning the race started.
We were quickly on a paved road for about a mile and 1/2 before dropping onto a nice trail that was very easy to run. Rich, Tony and I all settled in together for our run. Before we were too far into the race David would come by us, so we knew he was in front of us, where we expected him to be. Janice we had passed on the road section but we all run fairly close to the same pace and didn’t expect her to be too far behind us or for long. We spent the dark hours before the sun came up on rolling trails that crossed creeks, had some climbs but nothing at all crazy. I had the sense that once it was light out, the scenery would be beautiful and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Rich, Tony and I

The first AS was one of the furthest at roughly 7.6 miles and it seemed to come up on us fairly quickly. We all grabbed something quick and kept moving. The next section started with a climb on what we might call a fire road but they are much smoother than the fire roads in Georgia and covered with taller grass so it seemed really like a section of single track. AS began to come up on us quicker and the next one was just 3.7 miles away. The weather was cooler, and although we had all taken off our jackets, we weren’t going through our water too fast and needing refills, so AS seemed to be rather quick to get in and out of. Our pace felt strong but it seemed like no time and we had come through an AS with a good 2.25 mile climb to the next AS on road. While Rich and I continued to climb as steady as we could, Tony began to struggle in the climbs and fell behind. When we reached the top and the AS we found we were just 6 mins ahead of cutoffs and only around 16 miles into the race. This isn’t how I wanted the day to go but chasing cutoffs looked like the Mountain Masochist way! It was a good 2.5 miles of downhill that we were able to open up on and run at a good pace and gain a little time coming through the next AS.
Fall Colors were so beautiful!

Rich and I had not been able to wait for Tony and now were not sure if he and Janice who were both behind us had made it through some of the AS and cutoffs. We knew we were running close to cutoffs ourselves, but continued to run strong, climbing hard and running a fairly fast pace on the downhill’s and flats. We came into the mid-way AS at mile 26 with about 10 minutes before cutoffs. This was a drop bag point, but we chose not to drop any, and probably would have had little time to mess with them if we had. A drink of Coke and on we went as quick as possible. The course was a lot of gentle roads with unbelievable scenery. I had my phone but could only bring myself to take it out a couple of times to snap a few quick photos. Soon it began to rain. At first it seemed more drizzly but before long turned into a real rain that was cold. Before I got soaked I went ahead and put on my jacket and even put my gloves back on just to stay warm. I didn’t feel like the rain made the course a mess because the roads seem to handle the water well.

IMG_7881An actual “bear” sighting!

It was a another long climb into the AS, that was the start of the “loop” which was about 5.3 miles, although lots of people say it more like 6 miles. We knew lots of people complained about the loop saying it was rocky and technical, and thus far on the course it had been anything but that. The first mile or more of the loop, it was extremely easy running and we started to pass runners and hoped to be picking up some time. It would be the beginning of many runners we would pass. Although as the loop got wetter and muddier it did become harder to navigate at the pace we wanted to be moving. We had a 20 minute cushion coming into the loop so we felt we were still in good shape. Soon we got to an out and back section on the loop, you did a long climb and had to punch your bib at the top before heading back down. We came across David coming back down not long after we had started the out and back section. David was in good spirits and wearing his rain jacket, so I was happy to see him and felt good about how he was doing. He wasn’t far in front of us, but with the amount of people we moved aside for, the rocks and muddy course we definitely lost some time on this out and back section. Once we punch our bibs and started back we came across Janice. She was also doing well and we were happy to see her as well. She had last seen Tony before the half way point and we later learned he missed the cutoff there and was pulled.

Rich and I worked our way back down and finished the loop as quickly as we could. It was very rocky and technical as well as some steep muddy and slippery sections, again slowing us down some.  Just before coming in the AS off the loop we were told we needed to hurry we were just minutes ahead of cutoff. They tried to get us to eat but also get going because of cutoffs. We thought this was the last “hard cut” but shortly after we got out of the AS we were told by other runners that we needed to keep running at a good pace. They were telling us we had about 20 minute left to get 3 miles. We’ve been running cut offs and back of the pack all day long and quick math, that doesn’t add up for me. We never stopped and didn’t give up for one minute. We were confused thinking once we got about 50K into the race it would not be any trouble to finish. We pushed hard and ran into the AS ready to keep moving when we were told we were done. Our race had ended at mile 42 (although my Garmin said 44.85) missing the cutoff by just 5 minutes! We had done 8,500 ft of climbing and had kept a solid pace of 13:28. I was disappointed to not finish the race but not disappointed with my run. It was a challenge that I would do again. A very well organized race and even offered a very nice shuttle ride of shame back to the finish area! Janice was pulled just minutes behind us, and we all got to the finish just in time to watch David come across the line and finish strong! David was the only one of us from Georgia to finish, and in a small way seemed to offer our DNF’s a little redemption.

Rich, David, Me, Janice and Tony the next morning!

My DNF (Did Not Finish) was more like, I Did Not Fail to Challenge myself! I didn’t pick an easy race that I knew I could finish, I wanted a challenge! This is the Beast Coast and we are some tough runners here and we’ll be back one day to show MMTR how tough we can be!

FROM COUCH TO COACH TO SUCCESS

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Most of us are just average everyday amateur runners.  We all have a unique story about how we began running.  Most of them probably include putting on a pair of shoes and just heading out the door for a run.  We’ve had very little training, if any, and just fell into the activity.  The vast majority of us will never be anything more than just an amateur runner with simple goals of finishing races and maybe picking up an age-group award here and there along the way.  A few of us may have come from a high school track or cross-county background, have a trainer in a gym or do CrossFit, but aside from that have no experience with a coach.

KNOW YOUR GOALS

There are many reasons a coach might prove to be helpful, and lately it seems many either have a coach or are talking about hiring one.  When is the right time to consider hiring a personal coach for yourself and how do you know if it’s right for you?  Maybe you are just getting started in running and looking for guidance and help in avoiding newbie mistakes that can lead to injury and burnout.  You might be at a place in your running where you have plateaued and feel like you could get more out of yourself.  You believe you have the potential to do more and need help from someone with more experience to guide and push you a little.  You may just want a coach to help you with a specific race or upcoming event, and you’re looking for a training plan to get you to that finish line. Top-level athletes might be looking for that extra edge and close contact with a coach to propel you to the top of the podium.  Having an extra set of eyes on your running schedule, your workouts, your nutrition, and even your recovery days could be just what a runner needs.

So you think you might like to hire a coach, but where do you start?  How do we find the “perfect” coach that’s a fit for you?  A coach that offers you the right amount of hands-on help and will work well with  your running ability and schedule.  A coach that works with middle or back of the pack runners, not just elites.  You will probably need a coach who has a lot of experience with the type of events for which you are training.  A good 5k coach may not be the coach that’s going to help you cross the finish line of a tough mountain 50k race or Ironman event.  You also want someone who cares and believes in you, as you build a strong relationship of trust with them.  If we are going to invest money, time, and hard work into our training, we want to believe in our coach’s ability and we want them to believe in us.

KNOW YOUR COACHING OPTIONS

Unless you are in search of a coach who works with you one-on-one and supervises your workouts, coaching is usually done “virtually.” They often don’t live in the same area, and you likely have not even met them in person.  Virtual coaches use your GPS running watch or app to look at your data, as well as regular communication with you to see how you’re feeling and how your workouts are going.

You will have to do some homework to find a coach that feels right and will be a good fit.  Start by asking friends what type of experience they are having with their coach.   A quick google search will help you research coaches online.  Coaches are constantly interviewed on podcasts.  Listen and see if you believe they would be a good fit for you.  There are a variety of coaching options depending on the level of involvement you want from your coach.  Are you looking for weekly updates with your training schedule or do you want a coach who is available anytime to talk on the phone?  Do you need help with nutrition and want your coach involved in this aspect of your training?  Are you recovering from an injury, or have been injury-prone and are looking to avoid this in the future?  Are you interested not in a serious training plan, but rather have someone look over how you are currently doing things and make simple adjustments or suggestions?  These are some of the questions to consider when looking for a coach.

Begin by making a list of what you want from a coach.  What are your goals and what are you looking for in hiring a coach?  What is your goal race? Do you have access to a gym where you can do additional workouts your coach might suggest?  Be ready to share your recent race experiences and recent PR’s so they have an idea of your current fitness level.

KNOW YOUR LIMITS

Take a look at things happening in your life outside of running that might be factors in your training schedule and share them. If you have a high stress job, work long hours, have an unusual schedule or have difficult family situations, these can all be important factors for a prospective coach to understand. How much time can you spend devoted to running during the week? These are likely to be some of the questions a coach will ask when you begin to interview with them. Be realistic, not idealistic, about your time.  You want to share honestly and begin to build a rapport.  It’s also a good idea to think about what you are willing to pay for a coach.  Prices can vary greatly, with more involvement from your coach costing more money.

INTERVIEW COACHES

Those are some things we might want to think about and be prepared to answer before talking with a coach.  But what about the things WE should be asking a coach?  Our goal is to find a qualified coach, but also one with specific experience with the type of races you are running. What is their background as a coach, and even as a personal athlete?  What kind of success stories do they have with athletes similar to yourself?  How do they structure training? How would they describe their coaching philosophy? Some coaches might emphasize high mileage, while others believe in more moderate mileage weeks mixed with tempo runs, core workouts, and more.  Understanding their philosophy and how it aligns with your thinking and training might give you an idea of whether or not you can work well with them.

WORKING WITH YOUR COACH

Is it worthwhile to hire a coach for just one race or period of time?  Can a coach truly make a difference in this scenario?  My personal experience with hiring and using a coach is that the longer I work with them, the more they are able to help me improve, push myself, and go beyond my own expectations.  Hiring a coach to cross a specific finish line might be successful, but you are barely getting to know each other if you’re working together for just a few short months.  It often takes longer for a coach to learn what really motives and drives their athletes forward so they can better understand how to help them reach their personal goals.  Often a long term relationship with a coach will have more success and be a more rewarding experience.

TRUST YOUR COACH

Coaches aren’t miracle workers, and we need to make sure our expectations are in line with our abilities.  A coach can’t get you from the couch to a marathon in 4 weeks.  We must also be willing to follow their training plan.  Put in the work, communicate with them honestly about how you feel, and share your workout data.  If not, why do we have a coach?  They want to be a successful coach for you, just as you want to be successful in your running.

Coaches can encourage and guide you, but we must have the motivation and desire to improve.  That desire is often what leads us to consider hiring a coach in the first place.  They can give you a plan, but you have to trust them and follow the plan.  A coach might not be able to motivate a runner, but sometimes the boost of confidence from a coach that believes in you can be all it takes to set an athlete on fire.

 

 

 

Yeti 100 Race Report

The Yeti 100 is a beautiful race course with wonderful volunteers, one of the best Race Directors and sweetest buckles in ultra running!  My running buddies, Carrie, Lisa and I have had buckle envy over this buckle for 2 years.  In late 2015 when everyone was signing up to run the Yeti 100 in September of 2016, it was all we could do to keep from signing up.  We had already planned a trip to the Grand Canyon to run R2R2R just days before the race, so we all knew we had to wait until 2017.  Carrie and I both went to the 2016 race after returning from the Grand Canyon to help out volunteering and pacing.

Yeti 100 is a beautiful course along the Virginia Creeper Trail that runs approximately 33 miles on a rails to trails path, following creeks and rivers, crossing over more than 40 trestle bridges along the way, showcasing gorgeous views and scenery.  You run the race from Whitetop Depot down to Abingdon, back up to Whitetop, and down once more finishing in Abingdon. Because of the non-technical surface of the trail and being fairly flat, the course is completely runnable.  I’m more of a mountain runner and this type of course is not necessarily in my wheelhouse.  After enjoying my time volunteering at the race last year, I decided not to sign up for it this year with Carrie and Lisa, find an “A” race for the year and help at the Yeti race again.

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This year’s race became more exciting when race director Jason Green designed a special sub 24 hr race buckle. If you “shot called” sub 24 and succeeded, you would get this sweet sub 24 race buckle.  If you failed to complete the race in the sub 24 time you got nothing but the finishing time.  The new buckle didn’t interest me because I’d had 2 years of buckle envy for the regular race buckle and a sub 24 time was not even remotely within my reach anyway.  After running my “A” race for the year, I decided to reached out to the RD to ask about getting into the race and had two and half months to focus my training on the Yeti 100!

Spoiler Alert: I finished sub 24 and got the buckle!  If all you want to know is how fantastic the race is, how each aid station is top notch with every volunteer taking care of each and every runner, how the course is so beautiful, how the RD is awesome, and how it should definitely be on your bucket list of 100 mile races, you can stop reading now.  If you want to know how a mid-pack runner at best, trained and finished this race in sub 24, keep reading.  This might be a little long but if ultra runners are good at anything, it’s talking about running and our races!

I have been working with a coach for over a year now, and the Yeti 100 is my fourth 100 miler under her guidance and training!  I feel like a smarter, more patient and stronger runner than I have before.  I finished Vermont 100, my “A” race, with a PR and felt strong and good the whole race.  Once I had some recovery time, I shared with Coach Sally that I wanted to run the Yeti 100, which was 11 weeks later, along with a small list of other races.  Her reply was something like “you are gonna give me a heart attack!  ha ha!”  She crossed a few races off my list, made me promise to allow myself good recovery after Vermont, listen to my body and we immediately went to work, seriously concentrating on my core work, strength training, speed work and stretching.

While I still didn’t care so much about the sub 24 buckle, I was beginning to think about testing my limits.  I had worked hard all year and felt strong, but I’m really not a sub 24 hour runner by any stretch of MY imagination.  This course could be a fast one, giving me the best chance for a PR and doing well, but it could also be my worst nightmare.  Since I’m not a flat surface road runner, I didn’t have shoes I love for this rails to trail course, and I tend to get caught up in going out way too fast.  I know the carnage this course brings after seeing it firsthand last year.  So with just 2 weeks before the race my regular running buddy, David, told me I should tell my coach about my sub 24 idea.  I knew she could guide me and would let me know if that was even something I should push for.  Her reply this time was “I think you can do it” along with a rundown of what I needed to do over the next couple of weeks, including some big changes in my running and workout schedule.  Just 48 hours before the race, Coach Sally and I chatted for a long time by phone.  She calmed my anxiety, encouraged me, and told me she thought that I was way stronger than I thought I was.  She believed in me!  We went over my race strategy in detail, and if I could execute the plan and run smart and patient, taking care of me throughout the race, she was sure I could do it.

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I had no crew and essentially no pacers.  My buddy David got into the race at the last minute, so I wouldn’t be able to get help from him.  Carrie and Lisa had crew coming down from Wisconsin to help them out, the same friends of Carrie’s whom we had run with doing the Grand Canyon R2R2R!  I knew they would be there if I happened to see them.  They also had a cabin right on the trail in Damascus next to the main aid station at mile 17/50/84.  I was able to put my crew bag and a cooler on their porch so I could access that if needed.  Damascus was also a Drop Bag AS, but I thought having my personal bag for quick access would be helpful.

I had been training and running all year with my other running buddies, Rich and Jen.  We live fairly close together and catch some weekly runs and most all our weekend long runs together.  Rich and I have been able to push and support one another as well as run some long races and work through problems together.  So I knew going into the race we would run together, but if you’ve run races long enough you know anything can happen.  Our plan was to run together and have a strong race.  It wasn’t until much later that we quietly discussed the possibility of running sub 24.  We didn’t “shot call” it and we really didn’t want to feel the pressure from anyone.  We wanted to run a smart, patient race and see how it went.

IMG_7603Jen, Rich, Me, Lauren and David

As with many Georgia runners, we are personal friends with the RD Jason Green.  We also know and are friends with more than half the runners, so this was a family reunion, party, and race all rolled into one!  Packet pickup the night before the race was nonstop hugs and high fives.  Then it was off to the hotel to settle down and get some sleep.  Race morning was a shuttle ride from the finish in Abingdon to Whitetop, and before I knew it, Jason gave us last minute greetings to have fun and go!

Most runners try to break this race down into thirds.  It’s a down, back and down race so it really makes sense.  There are aid stations about every 7-10 miles, with Damascus in the middle with our drop bags.  Since it starts with the first 3rd being a gentle downhill all the way to Damascus, the key here is to watch your pace.  Not only is it easy to get caught up in the race and go out too fast, the downhill section of easy running makes it even more difficult to keep yourself in check.  While you feel good running downhill, later in the race you can really pay for too fast a pace.  Several times in this section we had to check our pace and really slow down to stay under control.  I kept focusing on strategy Sally and I discussed; be patient and focus on how you want to feel at mile 70. Then Rich would say “Slow down Trena Machina”!

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Our first time coming into Damascus

We got into Damascus with a quick stop for food and a cold coke before we were off towards Abingdon.  I don’t drink caffeine in my regular diet.  I had given it up many years earlier.  The only time I drink a nice cold Coke is during an ultra race, which is one of my favorite things.  I’m not a vegan or a vegetarian, or even a particularly healthy eater for that matter.  I like my ice cream!  One thing Coach Sally has taught me to do is eat real food in my races.  I used to come into aid stations and look for the cookies and candies, but I now focus on finding real food to take care of myself.  I like potatoes, fruit, soups, PB&J sandwiches, grilled cheese, etc.  I do like my cold Coke but stay more focused on real food.  In my bladder I use Tailwind and have a water bottle in the front of my pack.

The day was warming up and we were now in the less shaded section of the course.  A few miles out we came across Tracy, who gave us some cold bottles of water and would become our “trail angel” several more times during the race!  Many times we came across crowds crewing other runners and they always offered us cold water and asked if we needed anything.  Just seeing smiles, cheers, hearing the cow bells and claps from those people was so awesome, giving us a mental boost.  We passed through the Alvarado aid station at approximately mile 25 on good pace.  It was now 9 miles to the turnaround at Abingdon.  Shortly after crossing Watauga Trestle Bridge, Rich said his stomach was not good.  Yikes!  This was a more uphill section and we had been running for 30 miles or so with no walk breaks, so we decided to power hike and give his stomach a chance to calm down.  Soon thereafter, Rich had to stop on the side of the trail to throw up.  Stomach issues are something that would get to a lot of runners in this race.  The fast pace, the heat, and trying to eat – the wheels would begin to come off for many runners and it’s not easy to recover.

IMG_7611Alvarado AS was Magical!

Rich worked hard to keep up a good pace so we could keep moving and stopped when he needed to throw up.  It forced us to slow down our pace, which we later felt probably turned into a good thing, giving us a chance to rest our legs and keep things in check as we went the last few miles to the turnaround aid station at Abingdon.  We also began to see the runners who were in front of us as they worked their way back towards Whitetop, and it was super exciting to see so many of our friends and cheer them on as we passed.  Once we got to the aid station, we found Carrie and Lisa’s crew who gave me a cold coke and gave Rich a ginger ale.  Rich had managed to get his stomach back under control, the ginger ale helped, and after quickly grabbing food we headed back out.  We stopped briefly to hug Jason Green again.  I told him that I had been training hard, and I didn’t know if I could get a sub 24 but I was hoping to.  If we did get in under 24 I really wanted to have my picture taken holding one of the sub 24 buckles even though we hadn’t shot called it. Jason told us if we finished sub 24 we would be getting both buckles!  Now there’s some motivation.  But we had a long way to go.  Focus. Patience. Take care of business.

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We now began to cheer on those behind us, giving high fives and hugs (and kisses to Jen from Rich) as we passed runners on our way back.  We were back on target with our pace and still doing well.  But this is 100 miles and we were only 1/3 of the way in and anything could happen.  Before each aid station we discussed what we needed so we could keep our stops brief as possible but still taking care of ourselves.  Back at Damascus and the half way point, we planned a longer stop.  I needed to change shoes as the ones I began with were not a good choice.  I found that I had calluses with blisters under them which needed to be drained and patched up so I could keep moving.  I changed into dry clothes, picked up head lamps, jackets, ate some food and got back on the trail towards Whitetop.  We made it to the next aid station at Taylor Valley before dark.  We ate some warm broth here and took off.  It was a fast power hike up to Green Cove which would be within 3 miles of the final turnaround.  We got into our jackets, gloves, and warm clothes for the final push.  We were starting to see more runners now coming down from the turnaround as we got closer and closer to the top.

It was definitely colder up at Whitetop, so we made our stop brief, but managed to take in warm soup before heading down.  We were now at the point we had planned to be all day.  We felt relatively good, stomach and legs were great and we were ready to make up a little time and head down to Damascus.  Sometimes our plans don’t go quite as planned, however.  We ran a good stretch down to Green Cove before the small rocks on the trail seemed to be tripping us both.  We would slow to our fast power hiking pace to keep from falling.  Every time we started to run, one of us would trip.  It was very dark at night up there, and even with lights it seemed hard to see the details of the course.  So we moved as fast as we could down to Taylor Valley and back through Damascus for the final time.  We knew our stops needed to be quick, because the time was ticking away.  This sub 24 hour time was getting tough.  It felt like constantly chasing cutoffs, knowing that if you let up you couldn’t make it.  We left Damascus with a good running pace trying to bank more time to give us a little cushion, but the night just seemed to drag on and the legs seemed to slow down.  Our plan was to get to Alvarado AS with 2 1/2 hrs left on the clock to complete the final 9 mile climb up to Abingdon and we didn’t think that would be a cake walk.  With no idea of our mileage due to both our watches shut down, we only had a clock to go by.   Alvarado turned out to be a mile further than we thought and we came in feeling defeated, and knew we would have to settle for missing our goal.  We would still finish strong and still get our buckle, but sub 24 had just slipped through our fingers, despite all our hard work.  We chatted with the awesome AS crew and told them we couldn’t get our sub 24.  They tried to convince us we could, but we told them we just were not moving at that pace anymore and we were now down to only 2 hrs and 15 mins with 9 miles of slight uphill.  They said it was only 8.5 miles, but we still felt we were done.

We got some food and walked out silently as we both let it soak in that we wouldn’t make it.  Another runner came ever so slowly past us moving at a steady pace.  I turned to Rich and said “we have to go for it!”  We pulled ourselves together and knew we had trained hard, we had worked hard to get here and knew we couldn’t give up.  I kept telling myself what Coach Sally had said to me, “you are stronger than you think you are!”  We could do this.  The miles slowly counted down with the markers on the side of the trail to help us count down our pace.  Six, Five, Four, then Three miles.  We came across other runners but we wanted to silently push ourselves along without others around us.  With around 2 miles to go my headlamp went out.  We both knew there wasn’t time to change the batteries.  Our margin of error was too tight.  I got out a small hand held light that was stowed in my pack and grabbed on to Rich to keep from tripping as we kept up our pace.  We were within a mile now, and we both dug deep to run it in. It was still dark out and that final corner in a 100 mile race seems to take forever to reach, but soon we saw the finish.  Rich started sobbing (he told me early in the race he probably would) and we ran into the arms of Jason Green with just 8 minutes to spare.  Jason took a second to realize who had come in and started to celebrate with us and Rich fell to the ground and yelled “Yeti Army”!  We had done it!  Jason gave us sub 24 buckles and the regular buckles saying “everyone needs surprises every once in a while!”  It may be the only sub 24 hr race I ever run, but it couldn’t have been any sweeter!  A Yeti race with all our friends along the way, and our friend and RD Jason there with his arms open to embrace us after our hard fought journey.

IMG_7622Jason Green, Yeti 100 Race Director, #NotACult

We had no crew and we had no pacers, but we had each other.  But we couldn’t have done this without all the help we got along the way:  Outstanding aid station workers at each stop, random crew along the course, including our trail angel, Tracy, and Jason Anderson.  Mary and Jane, who crewed Carrie and Lisa, and also gave us a hand along with countless friends who cheered us on each time we saw them.  My fantastic coach, Sally McRae, who has guided me and I knew believed in me more than I believed in myself at times.  Running buddy David Yerden, who I told Rich would be more proud of us than anyone if we went sub 24, and sure enough he was!  My husband Ed, who puts up with my running schedule so I can do what I absolutely love to do and is always my biggest cheerleader.

73456010-IMG_2590One of my favorite photos on a trestle bridge