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.

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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.

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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 are 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.

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Vermont 100 Race Report

Hard to know exactly where to start with this race, but first a little background.  If you want to run an epic, historic, and even iconic 100 mile race, you really have to plan way ahead.  100 milers are more popular than ever, and the really good ones seem to be so popular that they either sell out quickly or have a lottery just to enter into the race.  That is how this race got on my radar to begin with.  A couple of years ago I started a journey towards running Western States.  As most of you know, WS is a lottery race and requires a qualifying race each year to just get into the lottery.  Each consecutive year you enter the lottery, the better your chances.  Miss a year and you start over.  All that being said, it seems that it could take as long as 5-7 years just to get drawn in the lottery, and given my current age (okay, I’ll tell you, I’m 53), chances are likely that I’m going to get only one chance to run WSER100.

Living in the Southeast doesn’t offer ultra runners many races nearby that serve as qualifiers for Western States, but that’s okay with me.  I got my first ticket from running the Georgia Death Race under 21 hrs in 2015, and my second ticket from the Pinhoti 100 in 2016, and for those two years I really wanted to be drawn in the lottery.  More recently, I’ve thought I’d like to take 7 or 8 years to get into Western States.  I want to fully appreciate the journey to get there and be able to take in the whole experience.  So I plan to find 100 mile qualifying races that inspire me, challenge me, and are epic to run.  At the beginning of this year, as I looked at races and listened to podcasts (okay I’m a bit of a podcast junkie), I heard people say over and over again how Vermont 100 was an historic race, it was well organized, and said to be one of the most beautiful 100s on the East Coast.  Sign me up!

I had been working with a coach who had also helped me pick Vermont as my “A” race and she had guided me in my training the entire year.  I asked local ultra runner and friend Janette Maas if she’d be interested in crewing me at Vermont 100 and she was immediately ready to help out.  Another local running friend and often training partner, David Yerden, had also signed up to run the race.  We didn’t know if we’d run the whole race together but we’d at least start out together, run a controlled pace and manage nutrition and hydration at least until later in the race, and hoped to finish together.  Vermont 100 has an excellent pacer program where you can sign up for a pacer and they match you up with someone who fits your goals and pace.  I signed up for one and was matched with a great guy from Boston, Pete Cannon, who didn’t have 100 mile experience but had several ultra races on his resume and was a strong runner.  At Vermont, you have to get to mile 70 before you can pick up a pacer, which is quite a bit later in the race than most 100 milers.  In the last two weeks before the race, another one of my good friends and favorite running partners from Knoxville, TN got in the race off the waitlist!  Stephanie and I had run several 50 mile races together and even the first half of a few 100s together, so I was looking forward to another strong running friend to keep me moving at a solid pace for at least the first 50-70 miles before getting to my pacer.

Off we went to Vermont and we saw some of the most beautiful views and sights.  On the drive out to the Meadows for packet pickup at Silver Farms in West Windsor, Vermont, I knew we had picked the perfect “A” race.  We went through registration, bought some Vermont 100 swag, went through the medical check-in, and went to the pre-race briefing.  David and Stephanie decided to get a pacer at the last minute just in case we didn’t stay together or just needed another person to keep them moving forward.  We skipped the pre-race meal and headed back towards town for dinner and to get to bed sooner because the race had a 4 a.m. start time.

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Just before our 4am start

For me, Vermont was one of the biggest 100 mile races I’d run in.  The gathering at the start of the race was huge with around 360 runners, crew, and tons of volunteers.  There was a lot of energy and excitement at the start, and I was trying to soak it all in.  We soon gathered at the starting line and with very little fanfare the race began.  We started in the dark with our headlamps on, and with most of the course largely on hard-packed road surfaces, it was easy, gentle, downhill running for several miles.  Because the course did not dump onto single-track trail, it was easy to run in the large crowd on the roads until many miles later when it began to thin out.  The roads were smooth and easy to run a good pace, but before long we were navigating around large puddles of water and mud in one section because they had received a good bit of rain in the days leading up to the race.  It didn’t seem like too long before it was back to easy, gentle downhill.  I think we got to the first unmanned aid station around mile 7, but we still had plenty of water so early in the race, we didn’t stop for long. They did have Coke, so Stephanie and I both filled our reusable cups and got a quick drink. The next unmanned station came around mile 11.5.  There were actually a few people here to help us, and again offered water and some Cokes.  We filled our smaller bottles, got more Coke and headed out.  It was finally at mile 15.4 when we got to a fully-stocked aid station and we all took a couple of minutes to grab something to eat and top off our fluids.

The first time we would get to our crew chief and enabler would be at mile 21 – a beautiful little stop in the road called Pretty House.  It was beautiful and I remember the huge crowds of people cheering for us as we arrived.  Just getting to Janette was a huge boost to our spirits, and as we ran from AS to AS, checking one more off the list always feels good.

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Pretty House AS, Janette getting our first “proof of life” photo

 

From there we ran through one more unmanned AS and then back to Janette at Stage Road AS – mile 30.  My pacer was also working at that AS during the day so it would be a chance for him to see our pace and check how I was feeling.  Somewhere between mile 21 and mile 30, my feet were starting to feel the pain from running on the hard road surface.  I knew the toughest challenge for me might be the road surface.  I’m not a road runner and don’t really have good road shoes that I love.  I had spent several weeks trying out different Hoka models to find a good cushioning pair of shoes but wasn’t happy with the room in the toe box.  I normally run in Altras, which I love.  But the zero drop of the Altras on the road surface is a killer on my hamstrings, as I pronate and am a heel striker.  I’ve been happy with Topos, shoes that are fairly new to the market, but they don’t have a large amount of cushion.  With no luck finding another pair of shoes that I loved, I went with my Topo’s to start.  In a last minute purchase, my husband bought me a pair of Adidas trail shoes which I had used for a total of 28 miles before Vermont.  I loved them, but didn’t dare start my race in them, instead putting them in my drop bag at mile 47.

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How could you not love this race!

So coming into mile 30, all I could think about was looking at my feet and doing what I could to patch things up and get through the next 17 miles to the pair of Adidas in my drop bag.  Pete came over to check on me.  He was super cool and took care of my pack and continued to bring me food as I sat in a chair assessing my feet, wrapping my small toe and changing socks.  Hoping that was good enough to get me through the next 17 miles, I also took some Aleve after we hit a large climb headed out of there.  We went through three more AS before we got back to Janette at mile 47.  I was feeling good and my feet were doing considerably better, although I had been counting down the miles to changing out my shoes.  I hate taking too much time at aid stations, but I’ve learned that it’s sometimes necessary to fix things before they become big issues.  When I got my shoes off, I was happy I had no blisters.  The issue was just the beating my feet were taking on the hard surface.  The change of shoes and fresh socks were a small piece of heaven at that point, although the damage was done.  I knew I could make it and was in a happy place.

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We are all still moving good and having fun!

 

We now had a 22 mile loop heading out of this AS, Camp 10 Bear, before we’d be back to this same aid station and pick up our pacers.  We also knew there was a big climb just ahead of us.  We had all been running great and at a steady pace all day, but Stephanie was beginning to struggle a little at this point.  Her hip was bothering her and her legs were not feeling good.  The hard road surface was getting to all of us.  We chatted briefly with her, afraid of her falling further behind or continuing to struggle.  I didn’t want to leave her behind, but I also really wanted to run my own race at the pace I was comfortable with.  I knew I had trained hard coming into this race and was still feeling strong.  I was so happy when Stephanie seemed to rally during this loop.  While she got behind between the aid stations, she was always close behind as we came into each one.  It got dark before we got back to Camp 10 Bear at around mile 70.  We picked up our pacers and Pete jumped in to help refill my pack as I sat a minute, put on a dry shirt and drank some cold Coke.

With only 30 miles to go, it’s not quite the home stretch, and we know there’s a lot of race left, but it feels much more manageable with just a 50K left.  Pete led the way as we all left Camp 10 Bear and headed up another huge climb.  We had heard, as well as read in race reports (okay David did most of the race report reading), that the last 30 miles of the course are some of the toughest miles.  Of course, all runners know the last 30 miles of a 100 mile race are the toughest.  This is when the wheels come off, you often hike at night, and in general just slow down.  None of us were expecting an easy 30 miles to the finish but we all knew we’d finish.

Pete led us up the hill at a good pace.  I had told him that at night I like my pacer right in front of me.  I like for them to worry about keeping me on course and I can just focus on their feet and the trail.  If they stay moving at a good pace, I’ll push myself to keep up.  This was a nice section of single-track trail which we had waited for all day.  Single-track are some of my favorite trails to run, and we did just that.  David and Stephanie stayed not far behind as Pete led the way and pushed us all at a good pace to the next AS.  It didn’t seem long, and a few miles later we got back to Janette again to crew us at the Spirit of 76 AS.  What else would you call a mile 76 AS?  I raced in to see Janette, grabbed food and some Coke and was off again.  At this point, both David and Stephanie were behind me, but I knew they had their pacers and also knew we were all finishing this race.  It was time to run my race, I was feeling great, and Pete was doing an excellent job leading the way and guiding me through the night hours.  I was still hiking the hills strongly and keeping a good pace on the downhills, as well.  It didn’t seem like any time at all before we got back to Janette at the mile 88 AS.  I needed to change out my headlamp that seemed to keep going through batteries and grab some more food.  Just as we were headed out of the AS I checked my headlamp and it wasn’t working.  I used Pete’s backup headlamp for the rest of the night.

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Seeing my enabler Janette for the final time before the finish and grabbing my spare headlamp

 

The next 7 miles or so were probably the toughest miles for me, but for no specific reason.  I still felt pretty good, I didn’t have any stomach issues, my legs felt great, I was still eating and drinking well, and my feet were still basically status quo.  Pete’s headlamp wasn’t as bright as mine and I think with some fog or dust in the air (I could never quite tell what it was), and just being in the real early morning hours, my mind was slower and it added up to slowing down.  The sun came up and for the first time I took off my pack to get my camera out and take a picture of the sunrise.  It was beautiful!  Now that I could see the course again in the daylight, I was taking it all in and enjoying every minute of the journey!  This was my happy place!

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Enjoying this gorgeous Sunrise!

We now had just 5 miles left and we took off out of the last manned AS.  They had some good food there and we grabbed some, knowing there was no more until the finish.  There was one more unmanned AS just 2.5 miles down the road.  I threw away some trash but otherwise just kept going.  I hadn’t heard that the last 2.5 miles of the race were really tough, but at that point, mentally, they are all tough.  My Garmin had run out of battery life a long time ago, so I had no feel for what my time was.  I kept pushing as much as I could and was excited to see the finish line, although those final miles seemed all uphill and really long.

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Just after my finish!

Two days before my race I spoke with my coach and we discussed my race plan.  Plan A was to finish.  This was my Western States qualifier and I had to finish this one.  That’s always Plan A!  I would have been more than happy with just finishing.  Plan B had a time range I’d like to finish in!  After putting in really long weeks of training, I’d love to see that pay off.  When I finished and saw the clock, I was in shock!  I was definitely well within my Plan B time and it was a new PR for me.  I had stuck to the plan my coach and I carefully laid out, went out conservatively, kept up with my hydration and nutrition, and saved myself to finish strong.  I was really proud of executing the plan we put in place, and I spent the day with some of my favorite running friends and enjoyed a beautiful course and an awesome day!

If that was the end of my Vermont 100 story, it would be a success!  But really, the best part of the race and the highlight of months and months of hard work was getting to see David finish his 100 mile quest!  It had been a while since he’d seen the finish line of a 100 mile race and getting to see him finish strong and claim that finish brought tears to my eyes.  We enjoyed a great race together with Stephanie, and all of us finishing was a great moment!

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Words just can’t even begin on this one….

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This calls for celebration!

 

 

SPOILER ALERT:  Major WSER100 Stalker Write-Up

For the past two years, Rebecca Watters and I have each thrown our names into the Western States Lottery.  Having one ticket each the first year and two each the second.  Not good odds for either of us for either year’s drawing.  The first year we texted back and forth as we watched the live lottery drawing.  Rebecca was hoping not to be drawn, but I was desperately hoping to hear my name called. Neither of us were drawn.

For this year’s drawing in December, we planned to go for a run together that morning then sit in a coffee shop and watch the lottery drawing live.  She ended up being sick that morning and we didn’t do either.  But again, we watched it live and texted back and forth.  Rebecca didn’t want in the race again this year.  She had a lot going on in the spring, wanted to buy a home, and was getting married in the summer.  It just wasn’t the best timing for her.  So we watched again with her hoping not to be drawn and me wanting to get in.  I could almost hear them call my name and imagine going.  With only 30 or so names left Rebecca texted me saying, “thank goodness I haven’t been drawn.”  Sad face for me, I wanted to hear my name called out.  Within 5 minutes of her text to me, her name was drawn. “OMG you got in” I texted her. Her reply was “Holy Shit.”

Rebecca soon asked me to help crew and pace her, and I could not have been more thrilled than if my name had been drawn.  I wasn’t sure if she asked me because she knew how badly I wanted in, or if she knew I would help her out because she had paced me several times and knew I’d return the favor.  She knew I was organized and had crewed others before. Honestly, Rebecca is the best pacer, and the times we’ve spent on the trails with her pushing me through my race have been some very happy moments for me.  So for me to go and help her was a win, win!  They didn’t draw my name but I felt like I was a lucky lottery winner!

I’m not sure if Rebecca knew or realized just what a WS junkie I had become over the last couple of years.  I followed the elite athletes on social media, listened to tons of podcasts, knew the runners, followed the races, and pretty much become a WS stalker.  Maybe not the creepy kind of stalker (ok, sometimes my friends think it’s creepy), but I’m awestruck and inspired by so many of them.  For me, it’s not just about the elites, either.  Many times its the stories from the back of the pack or just average runners like me that inspire.  The older folks still out there getting it done – those are the stories that give me the chills.

WS1My stalking report wouldn’t be complete without at least a couple of pictures!  The Pixie Ninja, Kaci Lickteig had a very inspiring and hard fought finish this year!

 

But this was Rebecca’s race, not mine!  She made the travel plans, arranged the lodging, and rented the car.  Myself, her fiancé Michael, and his sister Katie were there for support.  When she and I met a few weeks prior to the race to go over details, I had put together a notebook and felt comfortable with how the crewing would go.  On paper, crewing can look easy, and compared to running the race, it is easy.  On the other hand, if it were that easy, the elite runners and others wouldn’t have 5 to 10 and sometimes more people on their support teams. Most of us know that CREW stands for Cranky Runner Endless Waiting, so we were well prepared for what we thought was to come.  It would involve miles of driving, hours of waiting in the hot sun, long hikes or shuttle rides, carrying chairs, coolers and gear into each aid station where they allow crew access to the runners.

We saw our runners off at the 5:00 a.m. start in Squaw Valley, California.  The excitement of the start of the race was off the charts!  We watched the elites gather, dared to speak to a few, and even got a quick selfie with a couple of them.  We stood at the start to watch, knowing that what was ahead of them wouldn’t be easy.  The day would be long and hard, but exciting for us to watch it all unfold.  With the gun shot they were off and we headed to our cars.

We had to drive 3 1/2 hours to get to the first aid station, Duncan Canyon.  We stopped along the way to get ice for the long day ahead of us, knowing we wouldn’t be anywhere near a store for many hours.  We knew being at the first aid station might be our only chance to watch the top runners come through.  Of course, we are there to support “our” runner, but this was our one time to take in the front of the race while we waited for Rebecca.  After a long drive to get there, followed by a long hike from where we parked the car, we just missed seeing the lead runner.  We heard the crowds ahead cheering him on, but we missed by just a few seconds getting to see Jim Walmsley pass through the AS.  We had time to get there and settle in before seeing the next group of top males following each other through, some 30 minutes later.  They came through one after the other, so fast we could hardly see who they were, but we recognized some of the names and saw the bibs with an “M” in front of their number, marking them as one of last year’s top 10 finishers.  This year’s field of men, as well as the women, was probably one of the most competitive in the race’s history.  The race always attracts many top athletes, but this year’s field seemed to be especially strong.  We chatted with other crew teams, including several of the elite female’s crew teams.  In ultra running, not only are the runners some of the friendliest people, but their crews are equally as nice and happy to chat with you.  I spoke with one guy from Magda Boulet’s crew, and he offered to introduce me to Ann Trason at the Dusty Corners Aid Station.  Sadly, we wouldn’t get there before her team was gone.  Ok, so I’m name-dropping a little bit here, but I told you I had become a stalker, and I need to add a few more.  Andy Jones-Wilkins (AJW) is a ten-time top 10 finisher at WS who I met for the first time at the Georgia Death Race a few months earlier.  Along with other notables like Tim Tweitmeyer, AJW is a fixture of volunteering at WS.  These past heroes inspire me as much with their volunteerism as they ever could as an elite runner.  Many claim it’s a selfish sport, but to see the elites spend their later years giving back to the sport they love is a huge testimony to their spirit and the rich history of the race.  To me, it’s much like the elite runner that’s having a bad day, yet refuses to quit or drop out of the race and seeing it through to the finish.  We would end up seeing a lot of those stories before this year’s race was over.

FullSizeRenderOf course I had to stalk the Coconino Cowboy himself, Jim Walmsley! Super nice guy and I hope to see him have his day and win WS!

 

The state of Georgia had several runners at WS this year, all getting into the race from the lottery except for Jackie Merritt, who won her entry through a Golden Ticket 2nd place win at GDR this year.  Even though she is a new resident to the state and we love to claim her as a Georgia home girl, we know her heart is probably still up north where she moved from.  Most of the Georgia crew teams spent the entire day and night together, taking care of our runners one by one, and helping each other with their runners at times, too.  We also checked on a couple of runners that didn’t have crew at certain aid stations or had no crew at all, and helped when we could.  We know it’s nice to see a familiar face when you’re racing far from home.  One secret gem in our crew teams was Janice Anderson.  She probably wouldn’t want me to say anything, so keep this quiet.  I may have overwhelmed her with my WS excitement and elite and famous ultra-stalking.  Janice is quiet, but her experience at WS gave us a wealth of information even though it had been 13 years since she had been back.  She was a top 10 finisher several times and raced against the likes of Ann Trason and Nikki Kimball!  I felt like I was sitting amongst secret ultrarunning royalty all day, because no one else knew who she was.  Janice was there crewing and later pacing for her brother who was running WS for the first time after years of entering the lottery himself.

At the first aid station, I started chatting with a guy who was crewing another runner.  He possessed a wealth of information about the race we didn’t have.  By the second aid station, I learned that he had not only crewed and paced at this race for some 16 years or more, he also used to be married to a previous F6 women’s finisher back when Janice Anderson and Ann Trason were running the race!  I was quite impressed.  He shared some tips, but mostly just chatted as we waited for our runners.  Each time I saw him, he asked how my runner was doing with a sincere and genuine care.  At the track in Auburn, he would find me again to give me a big hug and bid me farewell.

Katie, Michael, and I took care of Rebecca every time she came in to an aid station we could access.  We would give her cold cokes, put ice in her pack, change her socks, patch up blisters, and tend to her needs.  Her day was typical of many runners in these tough conditions – slower than they expected but steady and relentless.  Watching each runner from Georgia work their way through the course, overcoming each struggle or obstacle, was an inspiration to all of us on the sidelines.   They didn’t complain and they didn’t give up!  We knew it was tough. We saw many of the elite runners struggling, as well.  All we could do was offer words of encouragement and tend to their needs.  We tried to keep their focus on the finish line.

After nearly 29 hours of crewing, Katie and I met Rebecca and Michael (who had paced her from Rucky Chucky) just past Robie Point for the final mile into the stadium at Placer High School.  She had done it!  The long journey to Auburn would be over in just a few minutes when she crossed the finish line.  Within minutes of her finish, the final Georgia runners would also cross the line and we would celebrate with each of them!  We had watched their journey and knew how tough it was.  We knew they did not take it for granted.  They had worked hard and kept moving.

My trip to Western States 100 would not be complete without watching the final WS finishers cross the finish line in the final hour before the 30 hour time limit had expired. This was called the Golden Hour. It was two years ago when 70 year-old Gunhild Swanson crossed as the final finisher with just seconds to spare, creating a video finish watched by more people than any other finisher.  Then last year we saw the heartbreaking scene of 72 year-old Wally Hesseltine missing the 30 hour cutoff by just under 2 minutes.  Both had come back to finish this year, but the Fire and Ice of the day got the best of them before they made it to Auburn.

I was sure there would be no finish to top Gunhild’s.  I also knew that the last hour of the race was just one more reason why WS is so special.  Those finishers were cheered on as if they were first place runners.  In our hearts and minds, we knew how tough it was for them to get there and celebrated what they had accomplished.  It’s the very spirit of the race that’s in the hearts of these final runners.  Never giving up, never losing hope that they could finish.  As I saw one last runner hit the track with around two minutes left on the clock and surrounded by a large support group, my heart started to race.  Hurry, hurry, HURRY!  We started screaming.  When we knew he was going to make it, another runner hit the track!  It seemed as if she had less than a minute to get around the track.  My heart could not take it!  Screaming for her like I had never cheered for any other athlete before, and seeing her cross the line and all but collapse was not just the icing on the cake but the cherry on top!  This was what WS was all about!

I had seen it, been a small part of the 2017 WS100 experience and would take home unforgettable memories!  I was also leaving my heart in Squaw and hope to be back for it when my lottery ticket is drawn and I’m there to run it myself!  #seeyouinsquaw #Ileftmyheartthere

IMG_7158One of my favorite times was going up the escarpment the day before the race, being in the snow and taking in the views!  I never told Rebecca before the race just how tough it was to even walk through that snow.  Soon every runner found out for themselves!

 

 

 

Dark Sky 50 Miler Race Report

This race really deserves its own report, for sure. Truly one of the most beautiful races I have run but that’s getting a little ahead of things, so let me back up some.
My friend Stephanie Johnson, from Knoxville, TN asked me several months ago to come join her on this 50 mile run. We run at about the same pace, have run several other races together, and enjoy each other’s company. She had lodging figured out, so I was all in! With Stephanie planning the details, I barely even looked at the weather or race information prior to heading up to Tennessee for this inaugural race.
The weather looked great, other than some rain the day and night before, and the course looked to be mostly runnable with around 5,000 ft of climbing. No problem. I met Stephanie and her parents at the camp site (A.K.A. lodging) the afternoon before the race. Later, her friend and running buddy from Knoxville, Bobby Trotter, joined us at the campsite. Bobby was going to crew and pace us. I had met him at other races and was happy to see our friend. Later that night as Stephanie and I were falling asleep in our tent, listening to the rain come down, we discussed our “goal” of a sub 12 hr finish for the 50 miler. We both agreed that we were very capable and felt this would not be a problem.
We were up and ready for the 6:00 a.m. start time. It had gotten light out long before that and the sun wouldn’t set that night until just before the 14 hour cutoff time. (You can do that simple math!)

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Our group of friends just before the start

We started on a simple 2.7 mile loop just a hundred yards from the starting line. Right away, the scenery was a beautiful section of single track trail, and we ran under huge limestone overhangs. The trails were technical, single track with gently rolling hills, which suited both of our running styles well. We came out of the loop feeling comfortable that we had started off at a good pace, not too fast, and about the front of the middle pack. We headed back to the start area and then had 2 miles of road before dropping onto the Hidden Passage Trail for the next 4.5 miles. Every section of trail we ran on was prettier than the one before. We encountered endless limestone overhangs that often had water dripping off the side of them. We would run under and through these overhangs as we worked our way along the single track trail. The vegetation was green and luscious from the recent rain and was well hidden from the sunlight in the dense forest. We enjoyed seeing the moss and ferns along the way, while keeping a close eye on the technical trails. We had completed nearly 9 miles when we came to our first AS, which was water-drop only.

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A “proof of life” selfie early in the race!

There were several other runners at this AS, but we didn’t need any supplies and kept moving. The few runners we saw there would be a few of the only other runners we would see throughout the race. We were never passed by other runners during the entire race, so we continued to believe we were strongly in the middle of the pack. We experienced our first rough patch in the next 4.7 miles to the first full AS. We followed a creek that was very shaded and the trail was very wet from recent rains. It probably never dries out much. The trail was more technical, covered with rocks, and we had to cross lots of wooden plank bridges. The wood on the bridges was so slippery that it required great caution to carefully get across them. Just as we got back into our running groove we would have to stop to cross another wooden bridge. This would be the only section where I took a fall when my feet came out from under me on a wet rock and I fell on my left arm with no time to try and catch myself. Luckily the landing was soft and I was up and off again with no injuries.
We were very happy to get through that section and see our crew, Bobby and Stephanie’s parents, at the 13.6 mile AS at Divide Road. I took off my long sleeve shirt while Stephanie got rid of her jacket, got our packs refilled and were quickly on our way. The next 6 miles were some of our favorite running of the day. The scenery was beautiful and we were able to run almost the entire section before we went to the top of the John Muir Overlook. From here, we had amazing views of Big South Fork, then we descended into our next AS at Long Branch. We now had 6 miles to another water drop and then 4 more miles before reaching Charit Creek AS.

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A short section of our muddy rocky fire roads

These 10 miles turned into our least favorite section of the course. It was beautiful, and most of it was beside a large flowing creek, which in many ways made the section enjoyable. But the “trail” was basically flooded fire roads that were rocky and covered in not just water but shoe-sucking mud. At times, we were diverted onto trails that took us around muddy sections, and other times we tried hard to find our own paths around the mud. The scenery was no less beautiful, however, and we even enjoyed one stop at a large creek to soak our feet and wash the mud off of our legs.
We finally got through the next AS and arrived at the Charit Creek AS where we were met again by Bobby and Stephanie’s parents. Stephanie changed her socks and shoes while I changed my socks before we headed out for the first of 2 loops around the 4-mile Twin Arches Loop Trail. The scenery was unbelievable and we decided that a second time around this loop would not be bad at all. Bobby joined us on our second loop and took a few pictures of some of our favorite sections.

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Running through the arch

After one final time through the Charit Creek AS, we were off on the home stretch of roughly 11 miles. We knew the climb out of Charit Creek would be a big one, probably the longest climb of the day. The 2.8 mile climb to Gobblers Knob seemed longer, and at times endless, but we continued to run as much as we possibly could. We had another 3 mile stretch of mostly fire roads as we continued to the final AS. We had passed one runner on the way to that AS, and then another guy we had passed early in the race surprised us by showing up right behind us as we were headed out. After a one mile drop down to Rock Creek and a water-drop AS, we were back on the John Muir trail and then the Hidden Passage Trail again. The trail finished as they put us on 2.3 miles of jeep roads before we were back on the Picketts Park Hwy and a 2 mile stretch into the finish line.

We knew we had run strong all day, kept a steady pace, passed only a few runners along the way but was never passed by others. When we finished in 13:35, just 25 minutes before the cutoff time, we weren’t a bit disappointed! We ran well all day and finished strong at the end. We had even dropped our pacer somewhere in the last 4 miles. We knew we were solid, middle of the pack runners, but only a few other runners came in behind us. Lots of runners ended up with DNF’s and left us near the back of the pack finishers. Almost all of the runners finished well behind their estimated finish times.
In the end, the race course could have had a few more “confidence” markers (although we never once got off course) and the aid stations could have had more “real” food such as PB&Js and cold Cokes. A little less mud would have been nicer, as well! But the course itself could not have been more beautiful or the running company any better!

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We started together and finished together!

Badger Mountain Challenge 100 Miler

I don’t know if most ultra runners are like me; after a big race it’s hard to sit down and process what you just completed and accomplished. It’s a little overwhelming to think through.  I first heard about the Badger Mountain race when I was running with my friend, Mike Bloom, about a year and a half ago.  It immediately caught my attention because it was in my hometown of Richland, in Washington state.  I had no idea a 100 mile race was run there.  Then Mike went on to tell me it was a great race, he was going back to run it again, and I should come join him.  Mike is an Army Ranger and said he could get us crew and pacers, and it would be a great time.  Note to self: Ultra Runner Amnesia sets in shortly after running something, so don’t trust even your best friend or running buddy no matter how great it might sound!

2017 was the year Mike and I were both able to get the race on our calendar and we made our plans to go run it.  I was so excited to run a race in my hometown, spend time with my parents and family, and run in the hills where I used to ride motorcycles as a kid.  Ok, so it’s already sounding a little too good to be true.  I haven’t lived there since I was 18, and just to save you on the math, that was 34 years ago.  When my mom told me my room was ready for me, I got a chuckle because I hadn’t ever lived in their current home.  They had probably moved 10 times since I was 18!  There’s no doubt my parents were excited about me coming and that was very endearing to my heart.

Mike took care of finding us crew but we both struggled to find pacers.  I knew people in my hometown, but no ultrarunners.  Our fall back plan was to run together.  Mike felt sure I’d be stronger, and he didn’t want to hold me back, but we’d at least give it a go and see how the race went. Anne Chrispo-Taylor, a runner from Georgia who had moved to Portland, Oregon was running it, as well.  So I would know at least one other person, and we know ultra runners are friendly – you can chat and run with most everyone.  Well, if it’s a big enough race and others are around you.

I’d like to give you some background on this race but I don’t have much.  The race website clearly states it’s a tough course with 14,000 of elevation gain and a 32 hr cut-off.  They don’t require a qualifying race but do suggest a very tough mountain 50K race prior to taking this on. Weather is also a huge DNF factor in this race with possible freezing temps at night and often high winds on the ridge. I run in Georgia on the Beast Coast, so how hard could this really be?  I doubt they have anything on the Dragon Spine!

I met Mike at the race an hour before the start.  My mom dropped me and all my gear off with Mike, and our one crew person, also named Mike.  Yes, ALL my gear!  I took a checked bag when I flew out that weighed over 50 lbs!  Before you laugh too hard, I used every bit of it and was darn glad I had it!  The coach I’ve been working with since last summer also encouraged me to take more than I need to be prepared.  I didn’t regret that for a minute, and Mike Nielsen, our crew, was happy to handle it for me.  I have to say that if you ever get the chance to have someone with a military background as your crew, whether they are a runner or never been around an ultra race before, you have no worries.  You will be in very capable hands.  You never would have known this was his first time to crew, and he pulled out all the stops to keep us warm and well taken care of in the brutal weather conditions, and even commented when he knew I hadn’t been eating enough.

Mike greeted and introduced me to several of his friends he knew from his years of living and racing in Washington state as we waited for the start.  As predicted for the week leading up to the race, it was indeed raining at the start, and was expected to rain most of the day.  Not the way you want to start a 100 miler, but you learn to roll with it.  Soon we were off and this race starts with a climb up the front of Badger Mountain!  Welcome to the Badger Mountain Challenge! Later, without a doubt we would definitely view this as one of the easier climbs on the course.  It was a nice smooth crushed gravel path that wound it’s way to the top using switchbacks, then down the other side with similar trails and to our first AS and crew stop.  This looked like it might be much easier than expected!

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Just before the start

From the aid station, we crossed a paved road and then climbed up Candy Mountain with similar trails and switchbacks.  Five miles into the race and a couple of the mountain climbs done.  Once we got to the top of Candy, the nice crushed gravel trail abruptly ended and the real race course began.  We encountered a steep downhill with loose rocks and at the bottom we went through a culvert (my first culvert in a race).

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Culvert under the Freeway

We then had many miles of road, which for the record I don’t like.  Did I say I don’t like roads?  I may tell you a few more times before I’m done.  We ended up running a total of 34 plus miles of paved roads.  The course had been changed just weeks before the race due to some of the private land no longer being accessible for the race.  What was originally going to be a 50 mile loop done twice, was now an out and back course done twice.  So after we made our way through the culvert and several road miles we got to the next AS where we met our crew again.  We then had 4 more miles of paved roads that wound around vineyards and orchards before we literally dropped onto trail again.  We looked across a steep valley that had a climb going straight down and then straight up – probably 300 ft of elevation going down and up.  This kind of straight down hill trail jams your toes into the front of your shoes!  It wasn’t a mountain but it was a BAH (Big Ass Hill)!  If you had to only do it once you probably wouldn’t give it much thought, but knowing you had to go up and down this thing a total of 4 times wasn’t a particularly comforting thought this early in the race.  A few more  miles of rocky jeep roads brought us to the Orchard AS.  The next few aid stations were a little closer together and we got to our crew again in about 3.5 miles, then another 1.5 miles of paved road before we hit the McBee Parking AS.  This became a sort of home base for our crew for a few hours.  We would now climb up McBee Mountain and cross a 4 mile ridge to the turnaround AS.  First, we had to get up McBee Mountain.

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Coming into McBee Aid Station

It was still raining while we climbed to the top of McBee Mt, and the mountain was covered in fog, so there was no visibility.  That was probably a good thing.  The climb was roughly one mile of very steep single track trail, so steep you climbed on your tip toes.  You think that when you get to the top, it’s all good.  But it’s raining pretty good when you hit the ridge, and the wind is blowing around 40 mph.  The trail on the ridge is 4 miles of very technical and loose rocks with more climbs to get to the turnaround AS, and the wind is trying to blow you off the mountain.  We finally got to the AS and some much needed shelter from the wind.  But that brief sense of accomplishment was overshadowed by the thought that you must first get back across the windy ridge and then you’ll have to do it all again on the second out and back.

Mike and I stayed together and as we headed back across the course.  We would solve any issues that came up when we saw our crew and began to talk about the plan once we got back to the 50 mile turnaround. At the 50 mile mark, you can drop your race down to that distance.  If you choose to keep going it will now be a DNF if you quit later.  Just for the record, we never discussed it.  The rain had finally stopped by this point.  We got to the AS and changed into dry, warm clothes for the night, dry socks, and I also had some blisters to patch up.  Mike was already dealing with chaffing, IT Band issues, an ankle he had rolled, and blisters as well.  We made our stop as quick as possible.  I took time to send a text message to my mom, letting her know that Mike and I were doing well, we had stayed together, changed into warm clothes and were heading back out.  This relieved her from a sleepless night of worry.  Soon we were off for the second out and back.  Even as we left, several other 100 milers were sitting there, deciding whether they would go out for a second time.

We were now warm, we had our head lamps, knew the route, and what was coming next.  We had a great power hiking pace and were stilling running well on the downhills and flats.  As we got to the culvert for our second time, the first place runner was passing us and heading back to the finish line.  We were now on the long road section.  Did I already mention I hate the roads?  We made our way back to McBee Mountain, roughly 70 miles into the race.  Mike got his gloves and we bundled up, ready for what we knew would be the toughest part of our race.  The first time climbing up McBee Mountain, we kept a good climbing pace.  This second time, it was a slow, painful climb, just the beginning of our greatest struggle in the race.  On the way up, we said that if we could just make it to the top we wouldn’t complain about the ridge.  But nothing could have prepared us for the high winds and freezing cold that awaited us at the top.  We fought through the cold, strong winds just to move forward over the very rough, rocky ridge that seemed endless.  There are no words to describe how brutal the weather was on this ridge.  My hands were cold, and although we both had our poles with us, I had to put my hands in my pockets, even with gloves on, to keep warm (tucking my poles under my arm).  It seemed like forever until we got even close enough to see the turnaround AS on top of the far off hill on the ridge.  With the wind blowing so hard and having our hoods, buffs and hats pulled up high, we couldn’t hear each other to talk.  So we had to settle for hours of listening to the wind and fighting to stay upright on the trail.  Once again, finally getting to this AS gave us much needed shelter from the wind and cold.  As soon as we ducked in there, we were greeting by lots of other runners who were taking their time and trying to warm up.  Gunhild Swanson was volunteering at this AS after running the 50 miler during the day.  What an incredibly kind and inspiring woman.  They served us warm soup, waited on our every need, and even gave us hand warmers before we headed back out to fight our way once more across the ridge. (Tip I learned from Mike here, put the hand warmers in your gloves on top of your hands, not in the palms.  The veins are on top, and that is the fastest way to heat up your fingers.  Just another advantage to running with an Army Ranger).  It seemed like the ridge would be our last great hurdle, but we both knew there were still several more good climbs, as well.

When we finally dropped off the side of the ridge, the sun began to come up and we were back on downhill single track, allowing us to make up some time and finally run for the first time in quite a while.  Back at the next AS, I changed shoes and socks, and repaired more blisters for the last 20 mile stretch, knowing there would be around 7-8 miles of road.  Did I mention I hate the roads?  I thought I did.  I texted out a few updates and we headed back towards the finish.  We knew we had plenty of time and had hopes of moving at a good pace and making up time on the road sections.  We started to come across more and more struggling runners as we just kept moving at a steady pace.  The next time we got to our crew, I handed Mike my phone to charge so I could get it back at the final AS and have it with me at the finish.  While we started out running sections of the road, it became a struggle to keep a running pace.  Mike was really hurting between his ITB, chaffing, ankle and blisters, but he never complained.  He’s army strong!  We headed back over Candy Mountain, feeling a little more hope knowing it would be our last really tough climb.  The back side of it was straight up and covered in loose rocks, making it extremely slow going at mile 94.  Once we hit the top, we were back on the crushed gravel switchback and we could again move at a better pace.  Mike tried as hard as he could, but a shuffle was all he was able to do.  We made it across the last road and to the final AS and crew.  We knew we had only one last climb, back up Badger Mountain with switchbacks, and then downhill for another 2 miles to the finish.  I sent my mom a final update letting her know I was about an hour from the finish.  Mike was visibly in pain but never said a word about it.  The wind was strong at around 30 mph and it was again hard to have a conversation without being right next to each other.  I went slow with Mike as we made the long climb up Badger Mt.  I told him the good news was we would finish.  The bad news was we wouldn’t make it in sub 30.  If we wanted to sit at the top of the mountain for a while we could be DFL, but of course we had no interest in doing that.  Once we crossed over the top ridge and onto the downhill side of the mountain, I began to finally run again.  I knew Mike was moving slower but I was ready to get out of the wind and end this race.  I ran the last 2 miles downhill at a good pace and was happy to be finishing strong.  Just as it started straight up Badger Mountain, the race ended coming straight down, and there was a nice cheering crowd at the finish. With my Mom, Dad, and sister there to watch me, I have to say it was one of the sweetest 100 mile finishes I have completed!  The perfect ending to a very tough course in my hometown!

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Getting my buckle from the RD, Jason Reatherford

Ten minutes later, Mike came down the mountain.  I met him and ran the last few hundred yards to the finish with him.  We had done it together!  It was a team effort that kept each of us going.

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Buckle Up!

And it was a team that got us through!  Mike Bloom and I were just the runners.  We could not have made it without the help of Mike Nielsen, who crewed us, the awesome AS and race volunteers, Jason Reatherford, a great RD, our family and friends supporting us, and those of you who followed our journey as we conquered the Badger Mountain Challenge 100 Miler!  NEVER AGAIN!  Did I mention I hate the roads?

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Me, Mike Bloom and Mike Nielson, somewhere mid race

Pinhoti 100 Race Report, November 5-6, 2016

Most race reports seem to start with some back ground story, I didn’t want to disappoint you.  Last year I lined up at the starting line with my friends, Carrie and Lisa with our eyes focused on the finish and that coveted buckle.  I could give you a long list of what went wrong from non-stop train to freezing overnight rain but in the end it was a DNF.  We had a great 65 mile run but didn’t make it to the finish line.  I knew for certain I wasn’t done with Pinhoti.

After the Cruel Jewel 100 miler under my belt in May (or maybe that’s on my belt), I seriously started looking towards Pinhoti.  I enlisted the help of a professional coach and signed up once again for race.  It wasn’t long before both Carrie and Lisa offered to help crew and pace me or do whatever I need to make it to the finish.  Later, one of my favorite running buddies and pacers, Rebecca Watters, offered to help pace me as well.  I knew I’d want her help to get me down Blue Hell and out to Porters Gap.  Blue Hell left both Carrie and Lisa a little too black and blue from last year to want to pace that section.

Another one of my favorite running buddies from Knoxville, Stephanie Johnson decided to join me for Pinhoti, so I knew I’d have good company along my journey.  David Yerden, running powerhouse and friend, asked if he could also join us. After struggling in his last few 100 milers, he thought hanging together would give him a little extra support until he got to his crew.  David could help us set a good pace to meet our goals, and we could keep him from going out too fast. Stephanie would have crew and pacers at mile 41, and David would pick up his crew and pacers at mile 55, Adams Gap. I knew I had all the training, support, help and mental strength to get it done this year. I was ready for my redemption but I also sensed it wouldn’t come easy.

I sleep pretty well the night before races, because at that point there’s no reason to stress when there’s nothing else you can do.  We all arrive at the race start on Saturday morning with plenty of time to greet many of our friends and use the bathrooms before go time.

p4Kirby, David, me and Stephanie ready to roll

As we lined up ready to start I immediately find that my Garmin watch battery is low.  I took it off and handed it to my crew so they could charge it and give it back to me at one of the next aid stations.  I feel so insecure without my watch, but maybe it would be good to just to just trust those I was running with and run by feel.  Pinhoti always starts in a sort of cluster, with lots of runners going down a short stretch of gravel road before lining up to squeeze onto the single track trail.  Most of the way through the first couple of aid stations were on and off “conga lines”.  Right away, we got a nice pace rolling and were moving comfortably, not too slow but not too fast, either.  We came through the 2nd AS at Shoal Creek and were 50 minutes ahead of cutoffs.  My heart sank.  Last year we were 45 minutes ahead of cutoffs at this point and never managed to get much more ahead the entire day.  Immediately my first thoughts were how are we going to make it?  Both David and Stephanie reassured me that we were doing great, we’d picked up enough time, and we would continue to build upon it.  My crew had just gotten my Garmin back to me fully charged so I could start keeping up with our mileage, but I felt completely lost on our total time since my watch was off for over 13 miles.

The next few sections run smoothly for all of us.  We were all very quick to get what we needed at each AS, and Stephanie and I had our crew to remind us to eat and check on us.  We slowly began to pick up some time as we moved through AS 3 & 4 and then out to AS 5 at Lake Morgan.  We all had drop bags at Lake Morgan, as it was our first chance to have one and we had no crew access there.  I had put a cold Coke and Ginger Ale in my bag in a small soft ice cooler when I dropped my bag off the night before at the race meeting.  Stephanie and I both enjoyed that nice treat.  BUTS (Birmingham Ultra Trail Running Society) was running this Aid Station, so David and I got to say hello to lots of our BUTS friends.  Ronnie Robertson took mine and Stephanie’s “proof of life” picture here at mile 27 and posted our status update on Facebook.

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Morgan Lake AS

We had a long 7.5 mile section from Morgan Lake to Blue Mountain AS. In the past this has been just a water drop so we weren’t expecting an actual AS.  I had run out of water in my pack several miles out from the AS but still had Tailwind in my water bottle in the front of my pack.  This section felt endless as we were anxious to get the Blue Mtn AS and begin the climb to Bald Rock at Mt. Cheaha State Park. When we finally arrived at Blue Mtn we were surprised to find people, food,  and supplies, not just bottles of water.  We all filled up quickly, grabbed food and headed out.  David knew lots of the runners and we climbed up the last stretch to the top with a runner he knew.  It was not far from the top when David started feeling rough.  He said he sort of felt low on energy, so Stephanie gave him some Vitamin B chews and we discussed what he might need to do when he got to the top of Cheaha.  Stephanie and I had our crew and pacers waiting for us, and David wanted to make sure that he could continue to stay with my pacer, Rebecca, and I when we headed out.

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Carrie and Lisa had some warm chicken bone broth waiting for me.  I drank a good amount of that, some Ginger Ale, and ate bacon Rebecca handed me.  A quick change of my shirt into something dry and I was ready to go.  David was sitting in a chair and I knew he didn’t look ready to roll, but Stephanie was already ahead of us and I wanted to get started.  The three of us caught up with Stephanie and her pacer on the road just before headed down the Steep Lake Trail, better known as Blue Hell.  One of the things people will tell you about running Pinhoti 100 is “get down Blue Hell before dark.”  This section can be so tricky, but we had gotten here with daylight to spare.  Navigating this section in the dark, rain and fog last year was not fun, this year proved to be much better as Rebecca led the way for David and I.

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Picked up Rebecca, one of my favorite pacers at Mt. Cheaha

Once you get down Blue Hell, it’s 1.2 miles of paved road and then a turn onto FS600-3 for another 1.3 miles to the next AS.  David started to slow down while running on the paved road, where it had become dark.  Rebecca got out her handheld torch light so we didn’t have to put on headlamps just yet.  The handheld gave us all plenty of light to run on the smooth road, but David continued to fall back.  Rebecca moved into her awesome crewing mode of trying to pull David out of his slump by giving him some food to eat.  We knew he was continuing to struggle and he said he didn’t want to slow me down, so after turning onto the fire road Rebecca told me to keep going, get to the AS and we’d get me taken care of and then get David what he needed to turn him around.  When we got there, I was feeling good and we waited as David sat down and my crew tried to assess what we could do for him.  He didn’t look like he was feeling very well.  I drank more broth and drank some Ginger Ale.  I knew David had 10 miles to his crew and pacers, and I desperately wanted to see him get there.  David urged me to keep going, and I suggested to Carrie and Lisa that we try and reach his pacers and have them come to this AS to help him.  Leaving David after 45 miles together, not knowing how his race would end, was heartbreaking for me.  The reality that your race can turn on you at a moment’s notice was hitting home for me.  I was all too aware of the carnage that gets left on this course.

Rebecca led the way as we left Silent Trail AS and David behind, and onto 7 miles of very rocky technical trails.  This was a very long stretch but it went pretty fast as now Rebecca and I had time to catch up with one another.  She helped set a good moving pace for us, running the flats and downhill’s, hiking the climbs, trying to bank more time ahead of the cutoffs.  We got into Hubbard Creek AS, mile 52 where I sat down for the first time.  I had got some Coke and a chicken quesadilla and was sitting for a minute to eat while Rebecca filled my pack and grabbed some food for herself.  There were lots of runners here and the aid station workers were eager to wait on us and get us what we needed.  I drank another Coke and ate a lettuce wrap that was offered to me, as well.  I quickly got to my feet so we could keep moving.  I knew we didn’t have much time to waste and my never ending fear of timing out was kept me motivated.  The next AS at Adams Gap was a short 3.2 miles away where we were updated that David’s crew and pacers had reached him and he was moving.

The section between Adams Gap and Clairmont Gap was the beginning of rough, rocky fire roads that started a beat down on my feet.  This section of the course had been closed earlier in the week due to fires, and although they were under control, there was still lots of smoke.  We reached Clairmont and kept going on to Chandler Springs, but still had to run a couple more miles on rough fire roads.  Once we hit the single track trail again, we were able to keep moving at a good pace to get to mile 65.  I felt a huge sense of relief getting to this aid station, because this was where we dropped last year.  But even though I felt great and I was moving well, my angst about finishing wouldn’t go away.  As I grabbed my poles for the climbs ahead, I had one last 3 mile stretch to go with Rebecca and hoped to bank a few more minutes against the cutoffs before she left me at Porters Gap AS.  I drank more broth at Porters Gap, said goodbye to Rebecca, and Lisa jumped in to pace me for the climb to the Pinnacle AS and on towards Wormys Pulpit.  Lisa and I both ate a little after our climb up to Pinnacle.  She tried to get me to eat more, but I felt really good and while my stomach wasn’t bad, it wasn’t great, either.  Looking back on it, I think my stomach was actually good but nerves and stress were getting the best of me.  Lisa and I maintained a good hour plus lead on the cutoffs, but that didn’t help settle my nerves.  I knew this race can take down lots of runners in the last few miles, so we kept pushing and moving.  After leaving Wormys Pulpit we were on more rough fire roads, and my poor feet were feeling the pain.  Just before leaving the ridgeline, the course finally got back on the trail.  We ran what we could and dropped down into Bulls Gap where Lisa would jump out of pacing duty and I would pick up Carrie for the final 15 mile push.

Now I was feeling the pinch.  Everyone at Bulls Gap was cheering on the runners and waiting for the last ones to come through for the last 15 miles, but I knew there was still no guarantee of finishing. Terry, who was crewing for Stephanie, assured me that I had 5 hours to go 15 miles, I had time, and I was going to finish.  Carrie and I quickly left the aid station and we started down what I knew was 15 miles of almost all fire roads and then a final stretch of paved road to the finish.  We started out running the initially smoother fire roads before I negotiated with her to allow me to power hike instead of run/walk.  With each step, I was now struggling as my feet were in so much pain.  We had all worked way too hard for me to get to this point and not find some redemption in finishing this race.  Carrie helped me put my head down and get it done, while I tried not to complain, at least not too much, anyway.  Once we finally got to the final few miles and the paved road, which is the most excited I have ever been to see paved road (if you know me at all, you know I hate running on roads), Carrie texted Lisa and let her know we were headed in.  Lisa came out and met us, making the final mile and a half a celebration and victory lap for Team Unicorn as they guided me into the stadium towards the finish line.

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This buckle took me 165 miles to get! 

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Team Unicorn’s Redemption, take that Pinhoti 100!

215 runners toed the start line, and 145 would cross the finish.  David along with many others will be back for his buckle.  Without the support of my team, Carrie, Lisa, and Rebecca, I never could have crossed the finish line.  David and Stephanie got me through the first half of the course, setting a great pace for us and encouraging me along the way.   Coach Sally guided me through my months of training to reach my goal.  My best friend, greatest supporter, and partner in life, Ed took good care of my sweet Summer and son at home so I could go do my crazy.  I couldn’t have done it without each of you. Thank you all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rim to Rim to Rim, Grand Canyon, September 26, 2016

I’m not sure how to even begin to tell you about this adventure.  It’s not a race but just a very well known run to do in the ultra running community; unless you are an avid hiker or trail runner the term “Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim” probably means nothing to you. For ultra runners it’s a bucket list item. For me (and my group I went with) it meant going down the Bright Angel Trail from the South Rim to the Colorado River, then following the North Kaibab Trail across the base of canyon and up to the North Rim, and then reversing direction all the way back to the South Rim.   The route we went, totaled 48 miles which we would complete in less than a day.

I should probably give you a little back ground here.  I had never been to the Grand Canyon before.  As hard as that might seem to believe, at 52, this was my first trip.  I had seen pictures and we’d been planning this trip for almost a year now.  My friends Carrie and Lisa, who I’ve run many ultra marathons with over the last couple of years, have also enjoyed some other great running adventures together. Carrie had done this trip a couple years ago with friends of hers from Wisconsin (where she grew up) and some of them were planning a trip back to experience it once more.  There would be room for Lisa and I to join them on this return trip to the Canyon.  With their previous experience on this run, we left all the planning and details to them.  A date was picked for late September 2016.

So with our plans all set, Carrie, Lisa and I flew into Phoenix on Saturday, September 24th and drove from there to Flagstaff, Arizona to meet up with the Wisconsin crew and another runner from Georgia. Another local running friend from Georgia, Janet was joining us for our run, but because of her tight schedule she would only be able to run down the Canyon to the River and back up, also called Rim to River.  Later that afternoon we all converged on Flagstaff where we spent the rest of the day and most of the next day, before heading over to the Grand Canyon.

My first look at the Grand Canyon, trying to take in what we are about to  do

Our group met up at 4:00am the next morning in the Bright Angel Lodge for a quick group picture before heading down to the trail.  We all have our headlamps on and know that it will likely be a couple of hours in the dark before the sun comes up.  We carefully travel this first steep downhill section in the dark and hit the Indian Garden camp ground just as the sun rises.  This is my first trip to the canyon and in the canyon, so I’m in awe as I take the whole trip in.  I tried to take a few pictures to capture it all, but later when it seems that my iPhone camera just doesn’t do it all justice, I forgo taking more pictures.  Most of the pictures I’m sharing are from Carrie’s snap on camera she wears on her pack.

Our group at 4am and some early photos on our trip down

Once through the Indian Garden Camp Ground area we head down to the Devils Corkscrew section, taking us further and deeper into the canyon.  Soon after we left Indian Garden area two members of our group from Wisconsin told us to all go ahead and not wait on them.  They were only doing the Rim to Rim and staying overnight on North Rim before taking a shuttle back the next day.  So their pace plan would be much slower, and the rest of our group moved ahead.

From Indian Garden down the Corkscrew to the Colorado River

Typically on a run, I would think the whole way down a big hill how I would have to come up it later, but those thoughts didn’t run through my head.  I was really so busy taking in the moment and knowing it would be so much later and mostly likely dark before I was going up, I didn’t think much about that part.  The Devils Corkscrew sections is 3.2 miles that winds you down to the Colorado River.  Then it’s another 1.5 miles along the beautiful Colorado River to what is called the Silver Bridge where we would cross.  It was at the water stop just after crossing the bridge that Janet, our Georgia friend must turn back.  After a bathroom break and water fill up the rest of us head to Phantom Ranch where we stop again, this time for some famous Lemmy’s Lemonade.

The Colorado River crossing and Lemonade at Phantom Ranch

Once we leave Phantom Ranch it’s 7 miles across the base of the Canyon before we start to climb out the North side.  The temperatures were beginning to rise as we made our way across the canyon floor.  I still found myself in awe with each turn and step as I wanted to take it all in and enjoy the moment I was in.  It did seem to get quit warm before we reach Cottonwood Campground on the other end of the canyon base.  There was shade there along with another water stop and chance to eat some snacks and assess how everyone was feeling.  All was well as we headed out just a few miles to the Pump house Station which is the last water and bathroom before going up the North Rim.

From Phantom Ranch to Cottonwood Campground

Now we reach the first real climbing, 3.7 miles up to the Supai Tunnel. Our group of 5 now begins to really spread out more as we climb and chat a little less during this time. Carrie, Lisa and I climb at a more steady pace up the canyon as the other 2 trail behind. The views from the North trail are incredible and somewhat scary as we climb, with a Canyon wall on one side of us and a drop off just on the other side.  Because I’ve not done this before and have done little to no research, but am following the plan set out before me, I really have no idea where we are with regards to the top of the climb.  I hear talk about the tunnel and then certain miles to the top but all of that means nothing to me.  So we just keep climbing and climbing.  Once we finally reach the bridge and Supai Tunnel it’s still a few miles from the top.  We finally get to jump out of the path of the Mule Train coming down, we had waited all day to hopefully see some mules.  During the last few miles of climbing, I start thinking about the Lodge on the North Rim and how I might run down there (1.7 miles) after getting to the top to bring us all back some cold Coke.  After the afternoon in the heat nothing seemed to sound better, and we knew the others were a little ways behind us and might also enjoy a cold drink.

The views coming up the North Rim were spectacular

Once Carrie, Lisa and I got to the top and took our packs off, I looked around for a ride to the North Rim Lodge in hopes of finding cold drinks.  A very nice guy and his son from Georgia (of all places) gave me a ride there.  I did some quick scouting and found that other than a fountain drink there were not sodas or water sold in cans or bottles.  So off I went, running back, empty handed, to the rim trail entrance to meet up with the others and keep them from waiting too long for me.  The others had just gotten in and were assessing how they all felt.  One girl from our team was not feeling too well due to the heat down in the canyon and was resting hoping to feel better.  We discussed who was headed back and when we might go.  I was feeling really good and ready to head out but no one was ready to commit to going back with me.  Carrie opted to stay with her Wisconsin friends until they figured out if the one would be feeling better and able to go back, and Lisa and I headed back together.  Once we left the North Rim we soon realized we would have no way of knowing for certain if one or all of them were headed back or staying the night on the North Rim.  It would be more than 12 hours before we would find out the answer to that question.

Lisa and I were both feeling really good and ran down the North Rim, being a little more careful on the turns and stopping only briefly to get drinks at the water stops. Within a few miles we come across the other two from our group who are only going to the North Rim and saying the night there.  I’m sure they were happy to see familiar faces as we exchanged some conversation and continued down.  We made it back to Cottonwood Campground in what seemed pretty good time.  We both needed to refill our packs, use the bathroom and eat a snack before heading out from there.  Our next goal would be to keep pushing and get as far as we could in daylight, although we went ahead and got our headlamps out while we were stopped.  Once it got dark we found it getting harder and harder to keep our running pace and began mostly hiking the later section to Phantom Ranch.  We came into the ranch as it was definitely dark and were happy Phantom Ranch store was open and we could get some more Lemonade.  We knew less than a mile from here would start our climb back up the South Rim.  I remember us crossing the Silver Bridge and thinking in the dark just how long it was, during the day it seemed to be much shorter and faster to cross.  The climb out would take Lisa and I several hours and most of it not really knowing exactly where we were in the climb with the exception of major land marks like Indian Garden and water stops along the South Rim.  At one point during our climb Lisa and I stopped, sat back against the Canyon Wall, shut our headlamps off and looked up.  We looked at the dark canyon walls in the night with the sky above filled with bright stars everywhere.  Carrie had told us to do this, and it really was something amazing to take in.

Lisa and I finally reach the top of the Canyon and head back into Bright Angel Lodge to have our photo taken by the same lady who had taken it that morning.  She was amazed at our adventure, while we were too tired at the moment to take in our accomplishment.  In many ways, maybe you can never fully take it in.  Lisa and I head to our hotel room for some cold Chocolate Milk and snacks we had waiting for us, warm showers and a warm bed.  I laid in bed afraid to fall asleep for fear of not hearing Carrie come to the door knocking and needing in after she arrived.  It would be several hours later before she would come knocking and me dozing on and off in wait.

Lisa and I just after we finished, also a picture of a neckless that my work (David Douglas Diamonds and Jewelry) made for me before I left for this trip.  I put it in my pack and carried it with me on my R2R2R adventure.  Once Lisa and I got back to our room, I dug it out and put it on.  I’ve been wearing it every since.

The next morning before leaving we would take another look at the canyon and get a whole new perspective of the adventure we had been on.  Rim2Rim2Rim was an  incredible  journey, but not one to be taken lightly.  Our group all runs long distances and tackles some pretty good elevation change on a regular basis, but it was still a challenge to take on the climbing involved in the mile deep canyon.

We take a look back to see just what we did, or really the beginning, the green section down the middle of the big pictures is Indian Garden which is about 5 miles down.  The enormity of the Canyon is more than I can take it.  I’m sure I’ll go back to explore it again!