UTMB Race Report, August 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0889Running through the crowded street of Chamonix

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

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Headed back out after the first crew stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This is the MARC Video with Cherie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We can see la Flegere

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

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

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

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

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Zion 100 Race Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lightly raining but ready to get started

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

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IMG_8772Views from that first climb

Photo Cred: John Taylor

 

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

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

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Feeling a little better and the rain has stopped

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

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

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

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

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Ready to finish the last stretch

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

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A 100 mile finish is always sweet!

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

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

 

Georgia Loop Report

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

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

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

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

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Dropping Water at Woody Gap just before we started

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

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

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

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

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Quick Photo before we start this thing!

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

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We aren’t even close!

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

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

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

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

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Finally day light and our crew!

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

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

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View from Preachers Rock

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

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

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

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We made it!

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

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

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

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

——
NAT Geo Map #777

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Two Women! Two Challenges! One Goal!

YS6-21The Day we met “in the woods”!

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

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

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

UPDATE

Strength

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

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

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Two Woman!  Two Challenges!  One Goal!  Success!