Great Southern Endurance Run 100K Covid Edition, A Race Director’s Perspective

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The Great Southern Endurance Run (GSER) is a 100K in Atlanta, Georgia that travels from the top of Kennesaw Mountain to the top of Stone Mountain. It’s a small, iconic grassroots race that tours many of the highlights of the great city of Atlanta. This race is the brainchild of a local and well-respected race director (RD) here in the Atlanta area, Thomas Armbruster and 2020 would be its 6th year.

I watched the race from afar each year until one of my best running friends, Rebecca asked me to crew her and her husband Michael as they ran the race in 2017. That could be another whole story, but she finished first place overall and set the course record. The next year in 2018, I crewed her again and yet again she finished first overall and bested her course record. The next year when the local runners began discussing running the race in 2019 but the RD had not yet posted the event, I felt for them. GSER had now gotten into my blood even though I had only crewed the race, not run it. I reached out to Thomas imploring him to continue with the race and promising that I would step in and help him put it on hoping that would convince him to go ahead with it. So, in 2019 I worked with Thomas as his co-RD and began to appreciate the race from another perspective. Again, in the fall of 2019 the runners began to discuss whether their favorite spring race would be back on the calendar. When it didn’t seem to be happening, I finally made an offer to take over the race, continuing on with Thomas’ vision for the race and a strong desire to not let this race fade away.

The vision for the race was for it to be an adventure run through the city of Atlanta seeing many historical and other fascinating sites that many times go unseen. So, with Thomas’ blessing, I was handed the baton and took the reins to continue the Great Southern Endurance Run. It was later than usual when we finally got it scheduled on Ultrasignup and many runners had already made other plans, but there were still plenty that wanted to run it. GSER has always been a small family vibe race. I had a new logo created and was working with a local vendor for swag when everything came crashing down with the Covid-19 Pandemic. I immediately changed signups to waitlist only and continued to have a few sign up. Then the cancellation of races started to happen, shelter in place orders and many businesses closed to wait out the peak of the virus. What was that going to mean for GSER? Occasionally a runner would reach out and ask about the race. My plan was to wait it out. When the Georgia Shelter In Place orders came from our governor, GSER was just on the other side of those dates. That gave me hope and I wanted everyone to share that hope. Traffic was being limited on some of the trail routes and especially the Atlanta Beltline. I knew I couldn’t be reckless, but I wasn’t willing to cancel the race just yet.

Then came the virtual races. Along with races being cancelled, pushed to later dates or deferred to next year there came the virtual options for the cancelled races. In fact, my big spring race was also turned into a virtual race, but they would also be rolling over entries to the next year’s race. For many reasons you can read about in that race report, I decided to run my big race as a virtual which meant self-supporting for a tough 100 miler. I learned a lot doing that and knew for sure I did not want to turn GSER into a virtual event. I also knew that due to the way the race was set up, it could easily be rescheduled by just pushing the date out a few weeks and not completely moved to later in the year. Then things began to open up in Georgia, the “Land of the Free”! Not everyone agrees with how our governor is handling things but that’s not the point here. You might not agree with me in continuing to go forward with our race, but overwhelmingly the runners did agree. So, let me share what I did, how I did it and see if we can find a way through all this.

Once I decided to have the race as scheduled, I offered runners the option to rollover to next year if they were not comfortable with running it this year. I did not want to pressure anyone to run the race if it wasn’t something they were completely comfortable doing, no apologies needed. I let the runners know that my primary goal would be to provide safety for them and the volunteers, and I began to work through what that might look like. I felt certain I could do it. I also wanted to offer hope to runners. Hope that we would find a way through all of this, hope that races would come back, and hope that there could be some sort of return to normalcy. I knew from the runners who reached out to me, that they really wanted this. It meant as much or more to them than it did to me.

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Swag from Southen Terminus GA

I posted on the GSER Facebook page that most of the runners belong to, invited the waitlisters to join the race and also opened up a couple of extra spots. I felt certain there would be some that would not want to run it. It was a small race but with so many other races cancelled, a few others might be looking to grab onto this bit of hope.
Now to get to work. Another thing in all this that was extremely critical for me was to support small businesses. I reached out quickly again to my vendor who I had been talking with about swag, we finalized a new plan and moved forward very fast to pull that together. Southern Terminus also creates some of the most beautiful handmade wood pieces such as bowls, boxes and boards. I wanted to offer a practical and useful award and asked if there would be time to make a cutting board that was engraved on one side for the top male and top female awards. Supporting this small business and these friends really added an extra bonus.

So how would I safely support runners for this race? What was that going to look like? First you need to understand a little bit about this race. It’s more of an urban adventure type run with very limited support of a few aid stations. It’s intended to be a run that you carry some cash and enjoy places along the route, although some sections are a little more desolate as far as gas stations or stores. Normally there are 4 aid stations over the 62 miles it takes to get from start to finish. This year my main goal would be to keep runners safe and that meant trying to keep them out of going into places along the way as much as possible. Many businesses were not open and fast food restaurants at this point were only open for drive thru. So, the first decision was to add 3 additional aid stations for runners.

It seemed pretty obvious to me that the aid stations should be set up with prepackaged foods. That’s really not as difficult to provide as it might sound. Yes, it is more expensive for sure, but maybe even a little easier to offer a huge variety as lots of prepackaged snacks. Along with food being prepackaged, I would provide Crustible peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas and Clementine’s, nothing cut but available for runners to take whole. Drinks needed to be the same way. There would not be jugs of water with spouts and possible contamination areas by too many sweaty hands on them. So, I provided individually bottled water and sodas. Again, more expensive for certain. In a large race just the transport of these type of containers could be challenging as they take up way more room. One huge downside, the amount of trash is huge in comparison. As an ultra runner and outdoor lover and enthusiast, this sort of goes against my beliefs. Tough times like this force us to have to choose, and my clear choice was the safety of all the runners and volunteers. In order to put on the race, I didn’t see any other choice.

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Distanced Start Line

This race is easy with social distancing as it’s very small and spreads out over 62 miles. While there could be a gathering at the start, there was still room to spread out and keep a clear distance. To add to everyone’s safety, I reached out to a friend who had been furloughed and was making face masks for a little income. I immediately placed an order for enough face masks for all my volunteers and every single runner; yes, every runner. This isn’t a trail race in the woods, this is an urban adventure through communities. My goal was to keep runners from needing to go into places along the way, but I wasn’t stopping them from doing so. Some pathways may be crowded as parks, trails and pathway systems in our area are all open. Providing each of them with a mask (when they checked in at the start) would give them a way to cover their mouth and nose should they need to enter a store or business or feel they were in a crowded area. It was given to them in a zip lock bag so they could carry it with them and easily access it.

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Runners were all sent final race instructions which told them about the masks and asked that they wear them and social distance at the start line. Everyone was more than happy to comply with that request. I also let them know how the aid stations would work. There would be a tub with snacks and lots of choices between sweet and salty, crackers, chips, candies and much more. I had told the runners to reach out to me with any personal requests and I would make every effort to add those things to each tub. My goal was for the race NOT to be self-supported but it was self-serve. Volunteers were there to see that each runner was safe and taken care of, but from a distance. Each aid station also included hand sanitizer and wipes for the runners and volunteers to use. Many volunteers used their face masks and stayed back. They cheered on the runners, helped support and encourage them. This could be something that slows down front runners but I offered them fair warning. It takes a bit longer when you have to fill your own pack using bottles of individual water. It’s just how it works. I also highly recommended runners use a pack in this race due to the limited access to businesses and not run off handheld bottles. In addition, having a crew might also be a great choice, if possible. There was lots of communication and I felt like I had tried to think through as many details as possible. Just prior to the race, I even had a Zoom call asking for more input on what I might be overlooking which included a nurse who gave some great advice.
I feel this race was more about the planning. The actual race pretty much followed as it usually does. Runners checked in and worked their way to the start line at the top of Kennesaw Mountain. They distanced themselves and wore masks for the most part. We started just a couple minutes after the scheduled time as a few were still coming up the last short section to the top. A quick well wish of having a great day and the runners were off and going.

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Photo by Ben Gray

Our aid station workers all followed the simple guidelines of being there to see that the runners got aid safely, wearing masks or at a distance. We checked runners in at every aid station to keep track of them, following the front and the back of the race. The day was pretty hot and most were not yet acclimated to the heat. I’d have to guess that while many runners had not really been able to put the miles in to train for a 100K distance, I think most just wanted to get out and enjoy the day. It was here on the streets of Atlanta, free to run and experience the day, they could have some sort of normalcy. In the end, whether they finished or not, they were all super happy and very understanding with how the race went. The overall course record dropped by just over 35 minutes, and female runners came in second and third overall. This is a classic race that brings out the local speedsters especially among the women who have held the course record for a couple of years.

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New Course Recorder Holder showing his award

Custom made cutting board by Southern Terminus GA

Related to the Covid virus, I feel like we covered our bases pretty well. There is probably a certain risk we will all be taking for months to come just stepping out of our homes. Eventually we will all have to do that and make the decision for ourselves as far as what we are comfortable doing. At this point in time, I personally think runners need some hope. Hope that their races will not all be cancelled and hope that things will return to “normal”, whatever that might look like post Covid-19.

What didn’t work so well? Other than some small race issues more do to me directing this race for the first time and throwing in extra aid stations, I think our safety for the runners and volunteers was very good. Supporting a race this way is much more expensive with everything being individually packaged but I guess RDs will have to make some adjustments for that if they plan to provide aid. Bigger cost I think might be the individual water and drinks and certainly the amount of trash is greater with providing prepackaged food. The majority of this race was not on trail but rather through town. I’m sure each race will have to be evaluated a little differently.

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So, a short run down of changes due to Covid-19:
1. Added 3 additional aid stations
2. Provided prepackaged food
3. Individually bottled water and sodas
4. Face Masks for Aid station workers and runners
5. Social distancing at the start, using masks or buffs as well
6. Recommended packs with bladders to limit the need to refill at each aid (avoiding extra touching etc. of water hydration pack)
7. No post-race meal (this might be more specific to my race and being immediately after Shelter In Place orders ended in our state)
8. Hand sanitizer, hand wipes and gloves at each aid station
9. Aid stations were self-serve keeping volunteers from touching more things

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Trena Chellino, GSER Race Director

 

Double Top 100 Race Report

This is a race that quite frankly has never really been on my radar. The course is a local legend for being a notorious 5 loop beat down. This year with my friend Alex, I signed up to do it. Since I was doing Lavaredo in June, this seemed like the perfect “training” race. Sure why not? This is ultra running. We do stupid things.

As fate would have it, not long after committing and signing up for the race, the Covid 19 Coronavirus Pandemic started to spiral. I dare say a year none of us will forget. When my “A” race in Italy was cancelled, I was left with Double Top still on my calendar. Most every ultra runner had at least one or more of their races cancelled, and short of doing a virtual race or run, the races came to a screeching halt.

Along with Alex, one of my other close running partners, Sherri and I had all been training on the Double Top course. The State park was still open so we continued to go each week, seeing very small crowds and literally no one on the remote and difficult sections we were on. Each week as the Pandemic got more and more serious, more shut downs and shelter in place orders, we waited for this race to be cancelled as well. With the park still open, and the support of the rangers there, the race became a “virtual” option. Who would do this difficult of a 100 miler with no support, no aid, virtually no help.

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Alex, Sherri and I would talk each week as we were out there of the pros, the cons and the feasibility of actually doing the race. The social climate was also escalating with people very opposed to the race not being out right cancelled. So let me just say a few things here. Our race entries were all rolled over to 2021. We were in no way pressured or even encouraged to attempt this. I personally have looked at all sides of this debate; you can’t really distance yourselves, it’s irresponsible, you would put that community at risk by going there, you could endanger the whole emergency and medical system if something happened to you. The list goes on. I’m not wanting to debate either side of this. I looked at it very seriously. Two weeks before, the three of us decided we were NOT doing it, and then the week before we completely flipped. It’s hard to say what tipped the whole thing. One big factor was the course was going to be marked that weekend (the original race date of April 17, 2020) while we had until the end of May to complete the race as a virtual in possibly a less controversial atmosphere. Frankly, I think for me it was the idea that I loved being in the mountains. The 3 weeks prior when we would go there, it felt like the one thing that made the whole Pandemic life we’d been living, seem to fade away. Mentally it was a God send! The parks were open and we were not breaking any laws. Another idea that helped tip the scales for me was, what else do I have to do besides sitting in my house. Lots of people are out on the streets running “virtual” races on roads, and that didn’t seem the thing for me. I felt like I had a higher risk of spreading the virus or catching it by going to my local grocery store. It might not be the right decision for everyone, but for us it seemed to be.

So we made our plan for an 8:00am start on Friday morning. Alex and I were both running the 100 miler and Sherri was signed up for the 100K, but for fear of missing out, Sherri reached out to race director and decided she was going to attempt the 100 miler with us. It would be here first. It would’ve also been her first 100K for that matter but you know the whole “Go Big or Go Home” motto, ultra runners seems to embrace that like no other!

Our plan was for each of us to drop a car at what would have been an AS location, a couple that you would hit twice during each loop and also a water drop at another. We would each have a cooler stocked with Coke and Ginger Ale and snacks for all of us. We had our own bottled water as to not add any risk in sharing. We would pack “drop bags” of sorts to put in each other’s vehicles such as extra clothes, shoes, jackets, personal fuel, etc. We picked what we thought was the right location for our “main” aid station because of bathrooms being there, and we added a Jet Boil to that location to make hot broth or coffee if needed. We felt we had it pretty well thought through. For Alex and me, this wasn’t our first rodeo at a 100 miler. For Sherri, well you don’t know what you don’t know and we all figure some things out as we go. She knew she was in good hands, we would all stay together and take care of one another. We also didn’t want to involve anyone else in our attempt by asking for crew or pacers, although as soon as I told my husband we were doing it, he immediately said he was coming up the second day to do some miles with us. He had been up there with us on past training weekends, and was also looking for some revenge on the “big” climb of the course.

So there you go. We had our plan set in place. I had a little more time during the week to work on details since Sherri and Alex were both still working from home full time. I created our aid station chart, added encouraging messages to the sides of my water jugs, I made us race bibs, as we decided to call it the Double Top Covid 100. I even created some encouraging messages for us to get at the end of each loop by putting them in little Easter Eggs with some candy treats as well. Even with all the planning, my biggest concern I voiced was my fear of getting in enough calories. Let’s be clear, this is not an easy race course. There’s 28,000 feet of gain and you do it in 5 repeated loops. I hate loop races and try to avoid them. I knew we would have to eat and take in calories but we would not have the selection of aid station spreads that are ready to grab and go. If we didn’t stay on top of calories from the start, we would not be able to handle the brutal climbs in this race as the miles went on.

So with our plans laid out, we checked in with the Race Marshall of sorts and who was also a good friend of mine, Brad. He had spent several days carefully putting signs up marking the turns on the course. We were required to check in and be “officially” started by Brad and text him after completing each loop. We got a quick start photo with a few brief instructions and were off.

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Touch-less, Self-supported, and Self-reporting

It was a little chilly to start with but the sun came out soon and with all the climbing you warmed up quickly. The 20 or so mile loop starts with five miles before getting back to our first car for aid. We would pass one of our cars just 2.5 miles into the loop but we planned not to stop there each loop to try and avoid extra time stopping if not needed. Five miles went quick and back to our first official aid but we were all mostly good and kept moving. The next 7.5 mile section of the course is considered the most brutal. It’s not really bad until the final 2.5 miles, up until then it’s some of the prettiest parts of the course with waterfalls, spring flowers in bloom and more gently rolling hills. Of course by the time you get to round three, four and five of those gently rolling hills, they are mountainous climbs, filled with rocks and it’s endless. Let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. Loop one was amazingly beautiful, the weather could not be better and the only plan was to enjoy the day and adventure ahead. The beginning of a 100- mile race is always mentally tough. It’s hard sometimes to wrap your head around no matter how many times you’ve done it. The plan is always to focus on just get to the next aid station. We make it to the top of the big powerline climb in a pace probably faster than most of our training runs. I was leading the way and feeling great and hadn’t really realized I probably took that a bit too fast. Sherri and I happily sat on a rock at the top waiting on Alex who it seemed was struggling a little more that day. On previous training runs we were all together on our climbs. I told Sherri I was sure he would bounce back. He was experienced and some days you start out slower. We dropped from there to our next car aid station, made a quick stop and continued on.

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From there you head a couple miles towards the park entrance which would normally be an aid station and where we had dropped water. It’s also where during the first two loops you are required to do an out and back on a connector trail to the Pinhoti Trail (hence at one time the race was called Double Tap, as you tap the Pinhoti twice). It’s nearly a mile down, and yes back up again with some steeper sections. It’s a happy moment when you have finished this section after the second loop and know you don’t have to do it again. That section can be a little warmer during the day so we thought a water drop there would be nice to have. Turns out we all were happy each loop to get to that water stash.

After that out and back, it’s another 5ish miles to complete the loop. Finally, a nice downhill section that is another incredibly beautiful part of the course. A long stretch of it follows a waterfall, has more flowers in bloom and is not nearly as rocky as other sections until you hit the bottom of the falls. Towards the end of the section to the finish of the loop it’s a lot of very rocky climbing. The final push is a section they call the “Switchbacks from Hell”. On the first loop they don’t seem so hellish but eventually they are from the devil himself.

IMG_2026We complete the first loop, try to quickly get what we need and head off for loop 2. Once we are through the next section and back to another car aid we are feeling a little more confident with nearly 1/4 of the race complete. One step at a time. During this section it became increasing more noticeable to Sherri and me that Alex was struggling. I was certain he’d recover and be climbing like the champ he is, but it was taking him a little longer to get there. At some point during this section he told us we could leave him. I assured him we weren’t going to leave him. We were in this together, we needed each other to do it, we were a team. In a regular race if I was with someone who was seriously struggling and told me to go, it would be different. It seemed sort of like hiking the Appalachian Trail (not that I have done that), but you wouldn’t just leave one person behind. The huge Powerline Climb was at the end of the section, Sherri and I knew at the top as we waited on Alex that it wasn’t looking good. We were getting very chilled waiting on him as the cooler weather towards evening set in. When Alex did get to us, he broke the news that he was dropping. I was crushed honestly but not surprised. We had talked about this race, trained for it and planned to do it together. Alex had even done the 100K last year with success, so this was a huge blow. We also knew deep down this was probably a smart decision. It’s a course that only gets harder and harder, and he would drop out now and continue to help us as our crew. We had come to realize by this point, that a crew would be really helpful. Every time we would come into one of our car aid stations, everyone is digging through bags, getting things here and there, trying to remember everything and if it was even at that location. After getting head lamps and warm clothes for the night, Sherri and I were headed towards the entrance and then our final down and back to the Pinhoti tap. We were moving quickly and eager to get that little section over with.

IMG_1999Second Climb Done!

Because there were very few runners out there and we were all spaced out because of our starting times, we only saw other runners maybe a couple of times. One would be at the bottom of the out and back. We got down there and back out as quickly as we could move, and on to finishing loop 2. It’s dark now but we are feeling confident with Alex taking good care of us and helping us to manage the details. It felt sort of exciting heading into loop 3 when you know you are almost half way there. The next stop when we see Alex, he gives us the weather update. We knew rain was expected over night and had hoped those chances would clear out, but instead Alex convinces us to put our rain jackets in our packs. It proves to be an extremely important decision we probably would not have made had we not had him helping us at this point. Along with rain that is headed in, the wind has picked up. When you are hot a breeze feels nice, but when the wind is blowing hard and you can hear the trees hitting each other up high, you get a little nervous to say the least. Soon enough we are down on the lower section of the course and headed over towards the big powerline climb again when it begins to rain. It started slowly and we were quick to put our jackets on. We both put them on over our packs but mine won’t zip up if I cover my pack. The rain itself was very cold but it didn’t feel that cold out. I stayed warm and we both just kept moving. The rain got very heavy at times but when we got to the big climb it wasn’t a huge issue that we thought it might be with water running down it.
The rain had stopped by the time we were back to the car and Alex, where we both got changed into some dry clothes. Sherri’s jacket turned out not to be waterproof and she was soaked. We were hoping the rain was gone for good but the update from Alex was there would be more coming. Alex quickly got Sherri a poncho to use, I gave her an extra jacket for a layer under and we were off again. Seven miles or so and this loop would be done, we were more than half way now. The wind however was not going away and some of the ridges we moved across were getting a little scary. We were thankful when we once again dropped down into a lower section and eventually the wind let up a bit, but the rain came back just as Alex had forecast. It was towards the end of the night and early in the morning. I could feel that Sherri was struggling and also knew she hadn’t been eating well more recently. Just before we started up the long climbs towards the end of the loop I told her she had to eat, and when I told her she knew I wasn’t taking a “no” on that. When it leveled out briefly, I told her that when we finished the loop she would need to take some time and do a reset. Before I could really get into what that meant, she immediately said, “Trena, I love you, but….” I wasn’t totally surprised. While we hadn’t spoken a word of it, I could feel her struggle and saw it in her face. She and Alex had already discussed apparently that she might not be able to finish this, and her knees were now bothering her so bad, she knew it was time for her to tap out. We already knew my husband was coming up, and would be there shortly after we finished the loop. He could do at least 12.5 miles with me, and Sherri said Alex would pace me the last loop. I wasn’t worried about that part, I just hated to see it end for her. Sherri ran the final short section to get an official first 100K finish!

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Waiting for Ed to show up gave us time to get my watch and phone charged up, another set of dry clothes on and warmed up a bit. It was now much colder out, and I needed a jacket back on to get going. It was exciting to see Ed and spend some miles with him. It also happened to be our 28th Anniversary and we even stopped and took a photo at one of the prettiest views on the course. The rain was gone and the fog was starting to roll out. Ed had never paced me before in a race even though I’d done a lot of training miles with him. For me this was some of my favorite miles in the “race” as he encouraged me and assured me I was doing great and moving well.


When Ed and I finally hit the big powerline climb I knew he was wanting a little revenge himself from a few weeks back when he went up it for the first time. I told him not to wait on me during the climb, I would see him at the top. Just knowing he was ahead of me and after this climb, I only had one more of them to do, I powered my way up. From there it was a short drop back to Alex and Sherri crewing us. This was the point Ed was jumping out, even though he was willing to go further, 13-15 miles is his sweet spot and I knew I could do another 7 to finish the loop up. I was surprised when Alex was ready with his running gear on and ready to pace. It was a quick switch, grabbing what I needed, fast goodbye and back on the trail with Alex, who was now a whole new person. He had gotten some sleep, eaten and was moving extremely well as we powered to finish up the loop.

Alex and I discussed the aid station plan before we got there. I wanted to finally change my socks, get something to drink, get head lamps, grab my phone charger and I wanted some sweets for my pack. Skittles and Oreo’s and we were off to get this thing done. As we checked off each section just knowing it was the last time to do it, made it seem bearable. My feet were beyond sore after over 80 miles of rocks and climbs, but I knew that was temporary. It was dark just as we got to the bottom of the powerline climb so we put our lights on and got a snack. Up we went. Seemed like an impossible task but again just one step at a time with Alex encouraging me the whole way. Back to Sherri for the final time before the finish, and off to get it done. In my head I’m counting off the miles. Once we get over to the park entrance and our water stop I asked Alex to lead the way. I’m feeling like I’m moving so slow and think it would help if he leads and I can push my pace off him. When he asks if I want to run some, I quickly agree and we were off running until we hit the bottom and I was about tapped out myself. My climbing legs were almost gone and I felt like I had very little in the tank left. I forced myself to try and stay up with Alex, and the finish was my only focus. It was a bittersweet finish because I really wanted to complete it with Alex, and he had felt so great the last loop and a half with me. Alex will be back next year for his finish, and Sherri and I will be with him to see that he does!

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Double Top Covid 100, touch-less, self-supported, and self-reporting race was over. It was a journey and an adventure. Many lessons learned for sure. Taking care of yourself for 100 miles with no “real” aid stations is tough, I won’t ever take one for granted again in a race, nor will I ever fail to thank the volunteers. It’s often the little things they do for you that you don’t realize how helpful it is. Trails are best shared with friends although sometimes your best laid plans don’t go as you’d like, but we can adjust and adapt. And sometimes the toughest climbs come with the greatest rewards!

A Well Planned Break

As I am writing this, I realize many of us are taking a break from running that we did not plan to take due to the Coronavirus or Covid-19. However, I started a break back in the late fall after I finished Grindstone 100 in early October and waited until after Christmas to really get back to things.

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Not just a runner

Let me share with you why I decided to take a break and some thoughts I now have after trying to get back in shape. If you know me or have followed me for any period of time, you might be asking, “Why would you take a break?” My ultrasignup account shows that I completed some amazing races over the last couple of years, all of which I have thoroughly enjoyed. But just like you, I’m more than just a recreational runner, I’m a wife, mom, sister, daughter, friend to many, employee and so much more. Our lives are made up of so many parts, and honestly when real life hits hard, running is not at the top of my priority list. So, for the last year and half my family has been dealing with many life struggles that have not only been difficult to navigate through but have added an incredible amount of stress to my daily life.

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Hellbender 100 Finish

It began when one of my daughters got married and after a magical wedding, their relationship quickly fell apart. We then began our journey through deep waters we had never tread before. The heartbreak and stress of that relationship ending took a serious toll on me just as I was about to go run UTMB. I had trained so hard for months and was able for the time to push everything down and move forward. Just a few months after UTMB I developed issues with my Piriformis. Trying to quickly resolve that issue, my coach at the time and I developed a plan to work through it with PT, strength training, deep massages and even dry needling, all of which got me through my next big race at the Hellbender 100. I could feel my Piriformis was not completely healed although it was much better and considerably improved.

I had several other big 100s left on my 2019 calendar and continued to move forward, still continuing to work on my piriformis and manage the ever-present stress that tugged at my heart as well. Then the unthinkable came crashing into my life. First, my biological mother who had been estranged from all three of her children for over 16 years, suddenly “surfaced” with major health issues and was unable to take care of herself in any way. My younger sister, who lived in the immediate area jumped in to try and help her, even though we both felt very distant and unsure about what that would look like. My sister, in her generosity, which frankly I didn’t feel at that moment, promised to help her get moved into a permanent assisted living facility. Our biological mother had suffered a massive stroke after a hip surgery and was paralyzed on one side, unable to speak well, walk, feed herself or care for herself in any way.

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Some of my summer running fun at Lake Tahoe

Just when it seemed like my sister had it all under control, her husband was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and passed away 10 days later. While I rushed to my sister’s side to help her, one thing that ended up on my to-do list was my biological mother’s care which included finding a place for her to live, dealing with her condo and belongings, and transitioning her into what was now her “new” reality as well as my sister’s. My biological mother was someone I distanced myself from when I was in my late teens because of her physical and emotional abuse. I maintained a relationship with her on a limited bases until she pushed all of her children away 16 years prior. Emotionally I had never dealt with her or my feelings regarding her. The moment I first saw her, a shell of a person, helpless and sitting in a wheelchair looking like no one that I knew, I realized that inside I was still very much afraid of her. Maybe not so frightened that she could reach out and hurt me physically but very much afraid that she was still verbally able to harm me.

The unbelievable amount of stress mounted as I was in Washington, away from my husband and immediate family, and trying to assist my sister with her husband’s final arrangements and taking over the details with our biological mother. When I did come home, I went on with my training and a summer of races that seemed to help me hold it all together. Then I got the call from my sister, who’s plate was full coping with her new reality, taking care of her immediate family, making major life decisions and grieving over the loss of her husband, that she was tapping out. Our biological mother had soon turned difficult to deal with, and I needed to now step in and take over completely from across the country.

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Grindstone before my much needed break

I had run my big summer races and last on my schedule was Grindstone 100. I knew I was struggling to even get totally excited about it but I had planned it a year ago, knew I wanted to run it, and felt so close. Emotionally, I knew I was done as well. After finishing Grindstone, I told my coach I needed a break. I had been using a coach for 3 years and have loved it, but knew I didn’t want the stress of a schedule or being accountable at the time. After pacing at Pinhoti 100 the first weekend in November, I needed to go back out to Washington to handle things in person. What became the next most difficult thing for me was the clearing out of my biological mother’s condo. I had grown up with a completely different person in many ways, and what she had become in the past 16 years was unbelievable and something I was not able to process. She had become a hoarder on an extreme level and her condo was not safe to enter without a hazmat suit and face mask, and I was tasked to retrieve items before it was sold in “as is” condition. How I made it through that without completely falling apart was simply by the Grace of God, my family supporting me, friends by my side and some laughter. It brought back a childhood of memories I did not want to revisit or process.

There you go, I needed a break. The stress had mounted to a point that was affecting me on so many levels. My job gets very busy between Thanksgiving and Christmas and I saw this as a perfect time to take that break from running and reevaluate things after the first of the year.

My racing calendar for 2020 had already started to take shape, as I got into the Lavaredo Lottery and began making plans to run it along with a few other races. Lavaredo was on my bucket list after doing UTMB, and I knew I needed to get back to training after the holidays. That would not be quite as easy as I was expecting. I had taken a much needed mental break and cut way back on my running. I also put on several pounds thinking that it would be easy to drop it all in the new year and get back to my normal lifestyle. As a final gift to my already difficult time, I had slammed into menopause like a train wreck when all the stress started, making getting my personal health back under control one more hurdle.

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Climbing my way back and enjoying the views more than ever!

Bring on a good challenge! If we didn’t like a little struggle and adversity, we wouldn’t be strong ultra runners. It’s not always pretty, but always worth it. So do I regret taking a break? It’s certainly not as easy to just get your fitness back as we like to think, and of course I’m not a young 30 or 40-year old either. The thing about ultra running, or even running in general, it’s all a journey. Life is a journey.  Sometimes we have to run to keep our sanity. Other times we can’t run due to injury and for me, I found a time that I mentally had to step back. Now as with everyone of us, we are finding a forced break due to a global pandemic. Who would have ever predicted this? After spending the last three months working my way back, I do know that we will all make it back, wherever back is. We will be more creative to stay active in the meantime and possibly do more strength training and core work. It may require a little more effort on our part, but I think we will also find a whole new appreciation for what we enjoy. The mountains will be more beautiful than ever! The views from the top of the climb may be the rewards we had never appreciated before! The sights and sounds around us will be seen and heard brand new. We won’t take for granted a single starting line again, and possibly not celebrate a finish line quite the same.

I’m not afraid and we are not alone!

Grindstone 100 Race Report

It’s always a little difficult to know where to start with these race recaps. Let me start by telling you this race got on my radar when my friend Jenny finished it last year. I knew it was a tough mountain race, and these usually get my attention. I immediately reached out to Brad Scott, who had crewed/paced Jenny, and asked if he would consider helping me next year. Not long after that I found myself in a conversation with Jen Raby and Andy Jones-Wilkins about Grindstone, and let’s say it wasn’t hard to convince me. With Brad and Jenny on board to help, it was very easy to push the register button when the race opened several months later.

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If you’re looking for a race report that gives you blow-by-blow details about the course description, the tough climbs, all the rocks, and in general what a grind the race is, you don’t need to read any further. There are lots of other reports full of those details, and I read a few of them myself. Grindstone 100 has a few unique elements that add to the difficulty of the race. I’m a middle to back-of-the-pack runner, and I’ll share more about how I tried to prepare and deal with the challenges I encountered. Keep reading if that interests you.

The year was already lining up to be a little too heavy with 100 mile races for my liking. After having run Hellbender 100 in April, which nearly took it all out of me, I was very apprehensive and nervous about Grindstone. I couldn’t really even focus on it until after my summer of back-to-back races at Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Miler and Badger 100 (in Wisconsin), and then H9 50 Miler (in north Georgia). My coach and I talked while I was recovering from those races. I’d never done back-to-back 100 milers, and I was finding the recovery to be long and slow. I felt like my body wasn’t recovering like I wanted. I’m no longer young and while I usually recover well from races, my schedule may have been too much. All of this made me even more anxious about Grindstone, notoriously one of the tougher races on the East Coast, or as we like to call it, the Beast Coast. Ultra runners on the West Coast often say our trails in the East are much more technical (which means rocky and rooty), and if that’s the case, Grindstone is the Crown Jewel that showcases technical!

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My coach and I allowed my body time to recover at its own pace. I slept a lot, tried to eat well (okay, but it’s summer and I do like ice cream), worked with my PT/trainer each week, had a few massages and another round of dry needling and acupuncture. As the race got closer, I finally got very excited about the race itself, although maybe a little obsessed over how tough it was going to be. Spoiler alert: those fears were well-founded. One of my biggest concerns was the 6:00 pm start time. With a 38-hour cutoff, I was going to be out there for 2 nights. Barely feeling recovered, I wasn’t excited about the evening start. If you’ve been friends with me for a while or followed me for any length of time, you also know this isn’t my first rodeo at 2-nighters. I finished Cruel Jewel in 39 hrs and change, and UTMB in 46 hours. It’s tough. Let’s face it, staying awake and managing running, eating, drinking and fatigue through 2 nights, not to mention staying ahead of cutoffs, can be rough.

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Since I do have a little experience with this lack of sleep thing, let me tell you what I do. It may not work for everyone, but it seems to help me. First, I don’t consume caffeine in my daily life. I drink coffee, but its decaf, so not much caffeine consumption. I’ve changed how I eat and drink during big races, and my plan now is to not drink Coke (which I only do during ultras and it’s my absolute favorite) until the later hours of the race.   I had just read an article prior to running Grindstone which discussed 200 mile races and managing sleep. The take-away was to not take in caffeine or sleep the first night of the race and wait until the second night, if possible. Even if this works, it doesn’t reduce how hard it is to stay awake and run through two nights in a row. Again, I think my anxiety about the difficulty of this race was well-founded. I don’t think any 100 miler is easy. There are just too many things that can go wrong and usually do. It’s basically 100 miles of problem-solving. But the less sleep you have, the harder it is to think through and solve those problems.

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Brad Scott had crewed and paced me in my very first 100 miler!

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Brad Goodridge helping to keep my nerves under control before the start

Just weeks before the race Jenny told me she was no longer going to be able to help. When I talked to Brad Scott we knew we needed at least one other person. So I want to give a huge shout out and thank you to Brad Goodridge for being there to help me out on very short notice. With my team of Brad Squared in place, my nerves began to settle.   I decided to fly to the race to avoid a long driving trip there and back. My pre-race plan was to fly in the morning before, then rest, rest, rest. Eat well, get a good night’s sleep in a comfy bed and rest some more on race morning. Together with my crew, we headed to the campground (where the race started) for the pre-race meal and pre-race briefing. Then with 3 more hours until the start of the race, I crawled into a hammock and stayed off my feet. I even managed a little nap. Runners and crew all gathered for the start, chatting away and taking photos with friends. With a later start time, I knew as soon as the race started my anxiety would settle down.

Let the fun begin! Seriously let’s get this thing get started!

While I did read a few race reports and descriptions of the course, I didn’t memorize details about where the climbs were or their length. I’d looked at the course profile and knew there were many steep ascents and descents. I remembered the first 5 miles were mostly rolling, and after the first aid station would be the first of many big climbs. I also read there would be many false summits. During the entire race, I hung onto that piece of information and never let myself be convinced I was at the top of any climb, because you almost always were not.

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Only 1.5 miles into the my crew sees me go through the camp ground

I enjoyed the first 90 minutes of daylight and getting through the first aid station, but on the first steep climb I was seriously questioning myself. I was already struggling on the climbs. My breathing was heavy and I felt like I was so slow. After reaching the top of an out-and-back on Elliott Knob, where you punch your bib, you come back down and hit single track trail. I finally felt more comfortable and settled into a steady pace. I always found myself around other runners and I enjoyed chatting with them. That made the night hours and climbs pass quicker. I came into the first aid station where I saw my crew at Dowells Draft mile 22, and I was running happy. I had settled in, found my pace, and was nowhere close to the cutoff times, and I was quickly off again. It would be another 15 miles and a few more mountains to climb before I would see my crew again.

Knowing this race would most likely take me two nights to complete, it meant 24 of the 38 hours could be in the dark. I felt that a good waist light would be a huge help and a worthwhile investment. I have a Petzl Headlamp that I love and it’s very bright, but I get tired of wearing something on my head. I purchased an UltrAspire 800 lumens waist light and had taken it out a few times before Grindstone to test it. It uses rechargeable batteries, so I tested how long they would last, and how I could get them to my crew to charge them between aid stations where I saw them. Being able to see well at night, especially over very technical terrain, turned out to be a huge help.

I came into mile 37 and found my crew in the car, thinking they had just missed me, but they quickly helped me get what I needed before I began one of the longest climbs on the course. Brad Scott, who had crewed this race the 3 previous years and knew the course, made sure I changed into dry clothes. It was still several hours before daybreak but he also knew it would be much colder up where I was headed. He was right, so it was a great call on his part. I also knew I had not been eating well. I made it a point to sit there and get lots of food in me before leaving. Mentally, I was well prepared for the climb ahead as I had been told by another runner how long and steep it would be. Again, I knew there would be false summits, so I kept that in mind as well. After finally grinding it out to the top of that long, endless climb and getting to the next aid station, daylight came and I began seeing the front runners heading back towards the finish. I got to greet many of my other friends who were running and we encouraged each runner as we passed. It was now only 6 more miles to the turnaround where I would pick up Brad Scott to pace me.

Brad started pacing me at the turnaround

It was indeed colder, foggy and windy at the top and the location of the turnaround aid station. It was nice to now have company and be able to chat and catch up on the day. It was also a huge help to just have someone there to encourage me that I would make it. The thought of getting close to cutoffs was not how I wanted this race to play out. I’ve learned that 100 mile races with cutoffs over 30 hours means it’s hard and you need the extra time. I just wanted to finish this thing, but I also wanted to have a goal. With a 38 hour time limit, I gave my crew a pace chart using a 34 hour pace. I thought that might be a bit out of reach for me but would be very happy to just finish. Having Brad assure me that I was on a good pace even though I felt I was still sucking on the climbs was a huge mental boost for me. It seemed like we got back to the 65 mile aid station in no time and we saw Brad Goodridge, who was now crewing both of us.

We enjoyed nice views during the day

I’d like to think that I’m easy to crew for, but in a 100 mile race where you are up for two days and your crew is also, everyone gets tired. I have a large “crew” bag for any possible supplies (and probably too many things) I might need. I’d say most of the time I don’t need much of it, but I try to come into the aid station, sit down with my bag and take care of things and get what I need. Sometimes it might be a change of shoes, clothes, new batteries, etc. I try to be as self-sufficient as I can, but it’s nice to get help from my crew digging through the bag to find all the stuff I need, or take care of my pack. In any 100 mile race, and especially a long one like this, you have to remember your crew is probably very tired and cold, as well. Crewing is not an easy job. The aid stations at Grindstone were all extremely well run with great volunteers. They were always quick to offer their help in filling your pack, getting you food or drink, and were very good at telling you how far to the next aid station and what to expect ahead. They also made sure you didn’t sit around too long. At this point in the race, I pretty much knew each section ahead started with a long climb, so I eventually quit asking them what to expect.

At this aid station I knew I wanted to change shoes. Usually my plan is to not change shoes unless I have problems with my feet. My feet felt really good, but I knew the later miles in the course would be rockier. So my plan was to switch from my Altra Timps to a more cushioned shoe, the Altra Olympus. Another really good call. Soon, Brad Scott and I were off again, heading over the next mountain and 15 more miles before seeing Brad Goodridge again. After a lot of good climbing, another aid station, and more long climbs, we finally had some great downhill running. It was dark, and Brad and I enjoyed the game of “catching the carrot.” We would see the lights of other runners ahead and would keep moving strong until we caught and passed them. We played this game the rest of the race, chasing down and passing people over the final 35 miles. I didn’t feel like I was climbing strong, but I was climbing steady. I wasn’t stopping and I wasn’t slowing down. Now into the second night, I was taking caffeine and for the most part not struggling to stay awake. If I can keep moving at a decent pace, I usually stay more awake and focused.

We came into the Dowells Draft aid station at mile 80 to be greeted by not only Brad Goodridge but several other friends who were now helping out at this location. Shannon Howell and Kelly Boone waited on me, getting me food and helping me take care of things. We were out of there quickly with their help. Thank you! It was still quite a long way to the finish but began to feel closer. The aid stations at Grindstone are all a little further apart than many 100 milers, between 7-9 miles. With the long climbs in between, it would take some time. All I could do was follow Brad and just keep grinding it out. Oh look, there’s another “carrot!” We were both starting to feel the lack of sleep creep up on us but we tried not to focus on that. We finally made it to the mile 87 aid station, but I don’t remember what I did or needed. All I remember was Brad Goodridge telling me there was just one more aid station. It sounded so close but I still had 14 miles to go, and it would include a very rocky technical section.

As we made our way up Crawford Mountain, it became very foggy. The fog made it hard to see, it was misting, and the wind was picking up. We tried not to think about it as we worked our way across the very unstable rock sections. We heard what sounded like large branches crash down and my heart started racing. We were now on a new mission to get off this mountain and into the aid station. Just as we turned onto the Chimney Hollow trail and had only 2.5 miles to the aid station, Brad told me his kidney had been hurting for maybe 8 miles or so. Wow! I wasn’t expecting that. There was another runner with us who had been struggling to follow the course, and he happened to be an ER doctor. We surmised that Brad may have been dealing with a kidney stone, although Brad hoped it was just sore from getting jarred on the rocky sections. Nearing the aid station he kept stopping and even went to the ground on his knees, waiting for the pain to subside. I felt so bad for him, knowing that my husband Ed had dealt with a kidney stone just 4 weeks ago. I knew it was painful, if that’s what he had. I also knew he wouldn’t be able to pace me to the finish. As long as Brad was okay, I was totally good with getting myself to the finish. I came into the aid station and told Brad Goodridge what was going on, and that Brad was not far behind me. I quickly got what I needed as Brad Scott came in, leaving him in good hands I headed out for the final 5 mile section.

This last section was not marked, however. You followed white markings on the trees until you got back to the campground and then followed pink flagging to the finish. When we started the race it was daylight and following the runners in front of us was easy. It wasn’t as easy to follow the white markings in the dark, with no one leading the way. The ER doctor, Mike, came out of the aid station right behind me. Brad Goodridge had loaded the course onto the All Trails app on my phone before the race. The app was now very helpful to make sure we stayed on the course. Mike and I shared the last five miles together and crossed the finish line in 35:16. Brad Goodridge told me afterwards that I had come into each aid station right on my goal pace. I had no idea I was even close to it, as I always felt like I was struggling.

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Doc Mike and I at the finish!

I know for sure I could have never finished Grindstone without the help of Brad Squared! It’s a tough race with lots of things that make it challenging. Having experienced crew was very helpful for me and a big part of my finish. My love for this sport is all about the friends I’ve made along the way and the trails I share with them.

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Couldn’t have done it without these two! Thank you!

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Tahoe Rim Trail 100 Race Report

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

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

IMG_0473Getting to hi to Maia at packet pick up

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

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

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

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

IMG_0436Seeing Sherri and Russ was always the best!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0468Lucia captured this picture of me coming into the finish

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

IMG_0416Rusty Nail and I before the race already friends

Hellbender 100 Race Report

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

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

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

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Some people did better at studying the course

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

IMG_1744Almost time to get this started

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

IMG_1746Summit of Pinnacle but no view

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

 

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

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

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IMG_1758Mt Mitchell Summit and not quite so cold

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

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

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

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

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

 

Elevating Your Run Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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