Friday, June 4, 2021

Capital Backyard Ultra Prologue

Friends Don't Let Friends Run Ultras: A Cautionary Tale


Here's the thing. You don't talk about taking a dump in normal daily life. It's basically taboo. But get some ultrarunners together and it's a Top Ten topic of conversation, guaranteed. We run for a long time. At some point you just gotta poop. It's part of the sport.

This race report "prologue" is about going Number Two. If you're not mature enough to handle an honest discussion of human shit, then, I dunno, go read something else.


We'd been running for something like 45 hours straight by now. Steve and I were all that remained of a starting field of 40+ runners. It was dark and cold and rainy. I had to poop. We were half-way through our 4.167 mile loop for the hour and had just passed a Port-a-potty. But we couldn't use it. A few hours early it was discovered that some person / rabid animal had previously dropped a turd *on* the toilet. ON, not IN. There was no way any human could sit on that crapper without also getting a giant smear of someone else's poop all down the back of their leg. And so, I continued on to find a nice place to poop in the woods.

Steve stopped first, saying he had to pee -- the cold weather and low effort level made peeing an all too common occurrence during the race. I decided it was a great time to finally take that dump I'd forgotten to take care of during the "interyardal" time last hour. I ran another 20 yards down the trail, then hollered to Steve that I was gonna take a shit and that I'd catch back up soon. His response: "I decided to take a shit, too." So, there we were, just two normal run-of-the-mill running bros, doing what running bros do: take dumps in the woods within earshot of one another mid-race. Memories!

After so many hours of running, I'd already fully utilized my supply of TP that I always carry in a baggie in my pocket. So, time to start selecting premium quality leaves I suppose! But, there was a problem. The ground was soaking wet so all of the leaves were damp and dirty. And to top it off, I'd managed to select a poop spot with a rather large supply of holly leaves. Sometimes you just gotta work with what you got. I did the best I could, then hopped back onto the trail around the same time Steve did. A variety of words were thrown around: "not ideal", "insufficient", etc.

Finishing out the yard / loop, my first order of business was to sprint to my tent, grab a new pair of shorts, and dart off to the Port-a-potty to complete the cleanup task that no amount of soggy leaves would have ever been able to handle. Thus far I've been trying to avoid direct mention, but there's no sense in making you read between the lines … there was smeared shit in my shorts and my butt crack, and it needed to be taken care of.

I tried mightily to resolve the situation with copious amounts of single-ply TP, but that stuff just wasn't up to the task. Wet wipes would've been great, but I didn't have any on hand. At this point, I need to mention, again, that I'd been running for 45 hours straight. Mental faculties weren't exactly in tip-top shape. I scanned the Port-a-potty for options. There was a mounted container of hand sanitizer. I contemplated using that 80% alcohol liquid mixture, but ultimately chickened out. I was not willing to subject myself to that amount of pain. Then, the solution presented itself! To the side of the toilet, on the wall, was a collection of condensation. Eureka! I'll MacGyver the hell out of this situation and blot up the condensation with a wad of TP for a homemade wet wipe! Lemme tell ya, it worked like a charm. My ass was clean and ready for endless hours of superawesomefuntimes!

Except. Well. Okay. Here's the deal. Hindsight is 20/20. I'm 99% sure I was sopping up your everyday ordinary atmospheric condensation. However … it pains me to say this … but ... there is a very small but non-zero chance I cleaned my ass mid-race with a wad of someone else's sopped-up urine. There it is. There. It. Is.

The real race report will be along shortly ...

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

2020 COVID-gate 100K

Dear John Andersen,

Did you beat me this year? Yes.
Did you crush my spirits in the Forever Section? Absolutely.
Is your Hellgate PR now better than mine? Sigh…yes.

So … I dunno, congrats or whatever.

I hate you so much, John Andersen. (PC: Becca)

But there are some things I need you to understand.

This summer I was in the best running shape of my life. I had low-16 5K fitness. I could knock out 3K of vert day after day. I'm only 35 and you're, what, 50? I could've crushed you in a race and barely broken a sweat. These are facts.

But then I (probably) got the 'Rona and missed out on nearly 7 weeks of prime training. Still, I knew I had a good base of fitness to rely upon. And the weather was going to be great. And you were getting older. I don't care how well you've been training. Honestly, how much longer can you expect to be able to run as well as the Miracle Year of 2018? Race Plan: Bearwallow by 8am, cruise to a sub-11:30 finish, handedly beat my nemesis. Simple.

Except, we know that's not what happened.

How did it come to this? How in the hell did I end up losing out on a podium position to you? How on earth did you beat me by 10 minutes?! TEN MINUTES!

John, have you forgotten that I no longer live in DC? I had to drive over 700 miles to get to Camp Bethel. I had to sleep in the back of my SUV at a random rest area off I-64 in Eastern Kentucky. Have you ever run Hellgate after a poor night's sleep, huddled under blankets in the back of an automobile, semis whizzing past, parking lot lights flooding your car's interior? I didn't think so.

You criticized me for going out too fast. But I arrived at Camping Gap only 1 minute faster than in 2018. I'm in better shape than I was back then. And this year, the running felt so effortless. You know that half my annual vert is on a treadmill, right? Smooth, constant climbing. What's that sound like to you? Yup. The Petite's and Camping climbs! And I didn't even have a watch, so it's not like I was chasing times or anything. Where were you? Were you walking? Yes, I was running with two people who would go on to break the course record, but the pace felt so easy. And when they started doing their thing on the Reverse Promise Land Section, I didn't chase. I wasn't being stupid! I was calm, cool, collected. I had no idea what pace I was running, but I had this feeling that something as crazy as 11:15 might be possible if I didn't run into any major problems. You'd roll into Bearwallow, struggling to beat the 8am time goal, asking about me, and then spiral into the depths of despair after learning just how far ahead of you I was. Someone would snap a picture of your sorrow. It would be incredible.

But here's the thing I failed to realize until it was too late. I've been living in Missouri for over a year now and I never do sustained descents. The biggest hill in my area isn't even 400 feet high. And I've been too scared to prop up the rear of my fancy new treadmill for fear of obliterating it like I did with my previous one. I thought my legs were strong and durable, but by the time I started dropping down off Onion Mountain to Overstreet on that stupid, technical stretch of bullshit trail, I knew something wasn't right. My legs were heavy and my footfalls were clunky. It hadn't taken more than a few miles of early race descending to ruin my legs for the day. And if that weren't enough, my stomach suddenly went haywire with aches and stabbing pains. Going to the bathroom didn't help at all. So I lumbered down to Overstreet at a snail's pace and slow jogged my way over to Headforemost/Floyd's.

Apparently I said I felt "good" at Mile 24. That was a lie. (PC: Ridge RUNers)

You caught me not long thereafter. I was squatting in the woods, trying to resolve my gut issues, again, to no avail. But I was secretly glad you showed up, because I always run down to Jennings just a little bit faster when you're leading the charge. I left Jennings knowing my legs had betrayed me. My prerace plan was to attack the two climbs up to Little Cove, but we'd barely gotten started and you were already out of sight. The first climb was slow and pathetic. The subsequent descent was clunky and had no flow. We spotted each other's headlamps. I counted strides. Around 400. Over 2 minutes. Starting the climb up to the aid station, I figured you were nearly 4 minutes ahead of me. I chased you … slowly. On the approach to the aid station -- that long bend that takes 5 or 6 minutes to run -- I never once saw your headlamp. Either it was off, or you were way ahead by now. My spirits were crushed. I wasn't sure I'd be able to make it to Bearwallow by 8:15am, much less 8:00am. I was the most pathetic runner in the world.

But after a quick stop-off at Little Cove, and a much needed pre-packaged nutella crepe (seriously, the most amazing thing I've ever seen at an aid station in my life), I was ready for miles of smooth running on the approach to the Devil Trail. I never saw your headlamp -- maybe I saw it once, but maybe not, I can't say for sure. My legs felt heavy. And I was easily running 20-30 seconds per mile slower just trying to keep my quads from failing. But I could sense that I was gaining on you. When dawn came, I could tell by my location on the course that I was actually ahead of Bearwallow-By-Eight pace. Catching you was inevitable. I finally spotted you on a switchback. I shouted. You shouted. I counted my paces. 150 strides. Less than one minute! Hell yes! But then you disappeared. And I worked harder and harder. And everything hurt more and more. Why did you do that to me?

I rolled into Bearwallow, and you were still there chit-chatting Horton. Apparently the rule is if you make it in before 8am, there's no rush to leave? My dead legs somehow bridged the gap. I was elated! But then a drop bag snafu had you leaving seconds ahead of me. If only I could just catch up to you and let you pull me along. But no. You wouldn't allow it, because you're a dick. I just spent three damn hours, feeling like shit, trying to catch back up to you. And this is how you repay me? I thought we were friends!

Running is stupid. (PC: Ridge RUNers)

My climbing wasn't terrible, but my muscles were toast. 10lb weights strapped to each quad. I kept counting my strides, keeping you within sight. I knew that if I maintained contact by the top of the climb, I'd catch up by Bobblets. The Pretty Trail is my jam. The In-and-Outs are where I crush people's hopes and dreams! Except, not today. As the trail flattened out I tried to pick up my pace, and multiple muscle groups revolted in stabbing pains and cramps. I was ready to crush you, but my legs wouldn't let me.

I found you at Bobblets. How many damn times have we been in this exact same situation?! Except it's usually me casually waiting for you. This time, you darted off without waiting. God, what an asshole! I had to fucking sprint … SPRINT … to catch up. Do you have any idea how much that hurt? Two years ago we entered the Forever Section together, with so much pocketed time that our Sub-12 goal was a foregone conclusion. This year we were even better off. Last time around your gut betrayed you. You had to go scratch in the woods, and you never caught back up to me. I reigned victorious and all was right with the universe. As we made our way down to the Forever Trail this time, a thought entered my mind: if I can just maintain contact to the Parkway, there's no way he can beat me today. The Running Gods read my mind and immediately punished me for my cockiness. The gut pains that had subsided hours ago immediately came back in full force. There was no way I'd be able to ignore a jacked up stomach, spasming muscles, AND keep up with you. So, with circumstances reversed, I took a calculated risk and jumped off trail for one final poop … watching you dart off into the distance.

In the middle of the 2nd Forever Hill, I spotted you. 270 strides. 90 seconds. A glimmer of hope remained. Then I heard a terrifyingly loud shotgun blast. As I rounded the corner I saw four hunters standing on the trail. I fully expected to see them staring down at your lifeless body … ensuring my victory. But no dice. Soon after, my legs totally crapped out. 2% rocky grades might as well have been minefields. Before I got to Day Creek I knew it was over. You put in just enough effort in the Forever Section to break me. Fuck.

I estimated you were 3-4 minutes up on me when I rolled into Day Creek. Just far enough ahead to be out of sight. If my legs were in good shape, I would have attacked and ran you down in the final mile. It would have been glorious. The aid station volunteers said it was 10:33 as I left. With good legs sub-11:30 and a new PR was a guarantee, with an outside chance of catching you. But my legs had felt like crap for 7 hours straight. So, instead, I lazy hiked my way up the final climb to save whatever was left in my legs for a descent that wouldn't completely suck. I love that descent. I needed a good descent to console me. My climb may have been a train wreck, but my descent might still have been faster than yours. We'll never know since I didn't have a watch. But that's what I choose to believe, and it makes me feel a little better. You put 10 minutes on me in those final miles. Brutal. Call it 2 minutes from pooping. Another 2 minutes on the back half of the Forever Trail. And a solid 6 minutes on the final climb.

It's depressing. I'm depressed, John. How did it end up like this? I want to be happy for you, I do. But your PR is 8 minutes ahead of mine now, and you ran sub-11:30, and you podiumed, and you made me look downright silly at the end. And now I have 52 damn weeks to stew over this. I hate you so much.

But I am consoled by a few irrefutable facts:
  • I ran those first 21 miles faster than ever before, and it felt downright effortless. You were nowhere in sight.
  • My time from Jennings to Little Cove was probably around 6 minutes slower than 2018. I could tell. I could feel it. That won't happen next time around.
  • In 2018 we crushed Little Cove to Bearwallow in 1:33. This year I felt like I was giving up 20-30 seconds per mile … and I probably covered that ground in 1:28-1:30. This is where I crush your spirits next time around.
  • I ran Bearwallow to Bobletts 2 minutes faster than ever before, with cramping legs. Imagine what will happen when I'm feeling good. This is where you completely give up next time around.
  • The Forever Section felt like a bumbling trainwreck, but when you adjust for the poop break, I ran it as fast as ever before. You'll never be able to catch me next time around.
  • My legs won't be shot next time around. I will attack that final climb and descend to the finish faster than you could ever possibly hope to run. You don't stand a chance against me.
  • I'm flying in next year. A full night's rest in a climate controlled room with a comfy bed.

Your Nemesis,
--Chris Roberts

P.S.: Next Sissygate, I'm breaking 11:15, maybe even 11:00. You're on notice.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Ode to Becca's Rain Jacket

So I could go on and on and on and on about the joys of this year's Hellgate, but instead, I'll just give you a few random bullets and jump straight into a poem.
  • I had part of my big toenail surgically removed earlier in the week.
  • I had to drive 11 hours to get to Camp Bethel, and slept overnight at a Kentucky rest stop.
  • I inadvertently switched my contacts right before the race, throwing me into a low-grade migraine. I didn't solve that riddle until 2 days later.
  • failed me.
  • It was miserable.
  • I didn't die.

Ode to Becca's Rain Jacket

Camp Bethel for the fifth time,
The Eagle Year!
I've known heat, frozen bottles, snow,
And even a Sissygate.
But never a Watergate.
You know the kind,
Torrential, freezing rains,
Hell on Earth!

My will is stronger than other runners,
My last long run confirmed as much.
30 knot daggers of freezing rain to the face,
Sopping wet for hours,
Then bone chilling cold.
That's what I wanted.
That's what I prayed for.
Hubris? Sorry, I'm not familiar with the word.,
A godsend most days.
But not this day!
Light rain?
Temps barely under 40?
Piece of cake!
I'll don my Houdini and be on my way.
Swishy-swish rain jackets are for suckers.

Along Onion to Overstreet, reality sets in.
I strip down and upend my drop bag.
New shirts, new gloves, new beanie, new jacket.
No, not a rain jacket.
Patagonia Wind Shield Hybrid Soft Shell, Grecian Blue.
But it's dry and warm
…for now
If the rain picks up, I'm screwed.

Down to Jennings I go.
Hubris rains down upon me,
With an inversion layer to boot.
Soaked to the bone,
Low heart rate.
Frozen torso,
Cold and alone.
I'm screwed!

At Jennings I hide under a canopy,
Dan arrives, he says he's okay.
But his voice betrays him -- please end my misery!
John is there, too, in and out like a pro.
I hitch my ride to his rain-jacket-covered carriage,
Hoping companionship will fight off the cold.
It doesn't.

At Little Cove, Helen hands me a grocery bag,
It's all she has.
I contemplate an homage to John Kelly,
But I could never pull off such an iconic look.
John stays behind.
I'm alone in the dark now,
So cold and so terribly alone.
How the hell am I going to make it to Bearwallow?

I arrive!
Sound the trumpets,
Raise the banners.
I'm demoralized, dejected, defeated.
Soaking wet, freezing cold, numb,
Starving and thirsty.
Barely able to eat or drink.
How much farther to Camp Bethel?

And then, the Hellgate Miracle!
Hark the Hellgate angles sing,
Glory to Becca Weast!
And her 20,000 HH Inov8 Stormshell Jacket.
Lightweight, waterproof, taped seams.
Now, if only I could use my frozen fingers.
Becca, would you be so kind as to dress me?
Thanks! That's better, much better!

And just like that, I am off.
Well, technically, after 15 minutes of standing around shivering,
And Horton plying me with soup and broth until I nearly puke.
But yes, I am off,
Off into the cold, wet unknown.
And I am warm and cozy and dry.
Caringly wrapped in a 2.5-layer polyamide Pertex Shield.
I've never known an embrace so loving, so kind, so form-fitting and comfortable.

(Photo Credit: The Lifesaver)

Monday, October 14, 2019

5X Grindstone - More Than a Race

"A million suns won't fill you up if you can't see the wine flowing over your cup." -- Brand New

Look at that sexy elevation profile!

Some races are just that, a race, an event, something you sign up for and then move on from when it's over. Other times they're more, they're something special, something you connect with. For me, the Grindstone 100 is a very special race. The beautiful setting in the mountains of Virginia. Its 23,000' of substantial and varied climbs and descents. Its sections of smooth and runnable trail, and its other sections of rocky hellscape. The unique 6pm start on the first Friday of October that forces some runners to spend 2/3rds of their race running in the dark. There's no other way to put it, Grindstone is an incredible, classic 100 miler.

For me, personally, Grindstone is also something much, much more. It's family, it's coming home after an extended absence, it's a weekend I look forward to all year long. Grindstone is the race that made me fall in love with ultra running. It was my very first 100 miler, and for the fifth year in a row I'd be towing the line. This time was different, though. 5-timing at Grindstone awards you a big honkin' buckle, something I was very much looking forward to finally earning; in a way, it would signify I'd become a veteran, an elder of a race that had come to define much of who I am as a runner. I intend to keep running Grindstone in the future, but I knew coming into it this year that it'd be my last time starting for a while -- there were other fall 100s to experience, and I wanted to start spending time volunteering at Grindstone and helping other runners achieve their goals. Moreover, after moving from DC to St. Louis a few months prior, the mountains of Virginia were no longer in my backyard, and I was very much looking forward to seeing them again. In a way, too, I was coming to Grindstone this year not just to run it, but to say good-bye to trails that I'd come to know and love, trails I was unlikely to run again for some time.

Grindstone weekend was everything that I hoped it could be, and more.  After Summer had been stubbornly over-wearing its welcome, Fall finally rolled in mere hours before the race start, and runners were blessed with undeniably perfect race conditions. The daytime was sunny and warm, but not too warm. Humidity was low. The mountain peaks and ridgelines embraced runners with crisp, light breezes and the rustling of leaves. The nighttime was cool and clear and pleasant. This was not a year of soupy humidity or never-ending downpours, it was a year for PRs and a high finisher rate.

I'm Number One!

As one of the more experienced and accomplished returning runners, Clark Zealand -- the RD -- honored me with my first-ever Number One seed. I viewed it mostly as a joke, but I was nonetheless moved and appreciative of the distinction. There was good, healthy competition at the front of the field, particularly for the men. Positioning for the Top 5 runners was still being decided coming into the final aid stations. And due to some nearly unfortunate luck on the part of this year's winner, I was mere minutes away from stealing the victory. Despite taking a wrong turn on an unmarked section of trail after the final aid station, Paul Jacobs corrected his mistake in the nick of time and secured the overall victory.

There's a 19 on that clock! Photo Credit: No Clue.

Apart from running, I soaked up my Grindstone weekend chatting with old running friends and enjoying their company before and after the race. I was grateful to see many friendly faces volunteering at the aid stations. I shared tales of the trail. I cheered on other runners. I soaked in the atmosphere of one of my favorite weekends of the year. And then, after I received my 5X buckle, I said my good-byes, and began my 700 mile trek home from Camp Shenandoah. On the way, I reflected on the weekend, finding myself nearly in tears, but also earnestly looking forward to spending a long weekend next year manning aid stations and helping other runners achieve their lofty dreams.

The infamous Wicked Good Grindstone cookie. The real reason we sign up for this race.

Here is a more detailed accounting of my race for anyone interested:

My race was, all around, a fantastic experience. After coming so close to breaking 20 hours in 2017, I was laser-focused on achieving that goal this time around. Moreover, I wanted to make amends for my disappointing 6th place slog-fest last year and hopefully break into the Top 3. While my training leading into Grindstone was nothing to write home about, I felt that after 5 years of running I finally had a reliable base to hold me up in longer races.

For the first 100K, I diligently adhered to splits that would secure a 20 hour finish, and my effort always felt calm and controlled. I unexpectedly moved into first place around Mile 17, only realizing it after repeatedly being gifted with spiderwebs to the face. But it didn't last long because I got swallowed up by a hole soon thereafter -- sinking waist-deep into a leaf-filled depression on the edge of the trail formed by a recently upended tree. I was going downhill and travelling fast, so the experience was rather jarring. I laid there, momentarily dazed, and a gaggle of runners flew by. Next thing I knew, I'd ceded 7 or 8 places. After regaining my composure, I kept at it, maintaining my own effort, and not worrying about the seemingly unsustainable pace of those front runners.

Around Mile 30, along the rocky, technical descent into North River Gap, my mind flowed into a state of utter upheaval.  Usually, it takes more than 80 miles before I'm overcome with emotions, sobbing while fast-hiking up an absurdly steep mountain trail. This time was different. I had begun to reflect on how much Grindstone meant to me, on how great it was to see so many of my East Coast running friends, on how this was my final time racing Grindstone for a while and that it felt like I was somehow, along every single mile of the course, saying good-bye to a close friend. It became too much to bear. The emotions were too high. It was nearly impossible to properly focus on my running. Despite being perfectly positioned for a great race, I gave up all competitive aspirations. I'd be happy to just phone it in the next 70 miles, taking it easy, enjoying saying my good-byes to every stretch of trail along the way.

Accurate representation of me running down Lookout Mountain.

I thought about how Horton would've called me a sissy and that I'd need to suck it up and run, but I didn't care. Trying to cast aside those powerful emotions would be to discredit them. I wanted my 5th Grindstone to be a "meaningful experience", but how could I ever achieve that if I were to stubbornly suppress all of those feelings that were welling up inside me? How could I expect to look back fondly on this day if I spent the bulk of it fighting off emotions that powerful? So there I was, stumbling down the trail, in the dark, ugly crying like Claire Danes. It took everything I had to resist the urge to just sit down and let it all out. After nearly an hour of this headspace, I rolled into North River Gap, and at one point I just stood there, blankly staring off at the drop bags, choking back tears. I found Clark, muttered something about being a little emotionally overwhelmed, then reached for a handshake as I fought off the urge to give him a hug and bawl onto his shoulder.

For the first miles of the nearly 2 hour climb out of North River Gap, I was still an emotional wreck. But then, in an instant, something changed. Just after the top of Grindstone Mountain, I stopped and closed my eyes, focusing on the feeling of the crisp autumn breeze against my face and the mesmerizing sound of shaking leaves in the surrounding trees. I experienced a freeing fullness of being. I was a part of the trail, and the trail a part of me. I was grounded, focused. I didn't need to cast aside my emotions, I could embrace them and still run with purpose. And, perhaps, too, I now fully understood Spinoza. But no time to add philosophical musings to the fray, I had to get back to running!

I calmly rolled into the Turnaround, feeling fresh and collected. I made note of how far ahead the other runners were, but stayed the course and felt no urgency to attack. I was on 20-flat pace and there was no way more than a couple of those runners would be able to keep it up. Instead of frantically bombing the 3000' descent back into North River Gap at Mile 65 like I did two years ago, I took my time and took care of my legs. And just before the aid station, after more than 30 miles of solitude, I finally overtook a runner. I made quick work of the aid station just before the break of dawn and energetically climbed the technical trail back up Lookout Mountain. In years past, this section of the course had always, without fail, crushed my spirits. But my legs felt great this time around and I just floated along. Lyrics from Brand New and Janelle Monae danced in my head and put a pep in my step. I went back and forth with 5th place for a bit, before he flew down the next descent to Dowell's Draft at Mile 80, clearly at an unsustainable pace. I didn't panic because I knew those legs would be trashed by the time he got to the final miles. I rolled along, doing my own thing. And ... I felt amazing! Suddenly, Alicia Keys was blaring inside my head -- This Girl Is On Fiyaaaahhh!

I overtook another runner. Then I calmly cruised up and down Crawford Mountain and stumbled upon two more runners at the Dry Branch Gap aid station at Mile 88. Less than a mile into the final four mile climb, I made my move and blew past them. Despite the steep, rocky sections up Elliott's Knob, and the fact that I was 90 miles into the race, I never stopped to hike. I was flying. I went from dancing right on 20-flat pace to suddenly being 10 minutes ahead of pace. As I turned off the top of Elliott's, I could see 2nd place -- the presumptive dead legs guy -- no more than one minute ahead of me. I descended with purpose, but remain controlled. I blew through the final aid station with 5 miles to go and knew without any shadow of a doubt that I was finally going to break 20 hours at Grindstone. Now, I wanted to see how much lower I could go.

I kept on charging, soon working my way into 2nd place. I didn't let up, all the way to the final mile of the course. I normally run this section as hard and fast as I can, but the way I was running was putting my old efforts to shame. Then, as I turned onto the dam, mere minutes from the finish, I heard something odd: cheering. I didn't know what to make of it since I was in 2nd place and only two aid stations prior I was told the leader was 30-40 minutes up and looking good. I rolled into the finishing chute at 19:47 elapsed. The emotions of the day came bubbling up, but somehow I held off the tears, shook Clark's hand, took my buckle, and had a well-deserved seat just off the finish line.

Paul Jacobs was there, having finished literally 3 minutes ahead of me. I was 3 friggin minutes away from a victory at my favorite 100 Miler! Oh well! It didn't matter. I was over the moon. I ran a perfect race, negative-split the course like a beast, had an absolute blast, PR'd, demolished my sub-20 goal, and secured 2nd place by passing three runners in the final 10 miles. I could not have asked for a better race. It was the perfect end to my 5 consecutive years at Grindstone. I will cherish the memories of this weekend for the rest of my life.

My cup runneth over…

It's okay, you can be jealous of my amazing buckle.

Top Finisher handshake!

Muchos Gracias:

An especially big THANK YOU to my wife and in-laws for letting me disappear for 4 days straight and for looking after my kiddos. I really missed having my wife and daughter crew me this year, but was so thankful to now live nearby Mimi and Poppy, who willingly shouldered some of the parenting responsibilities in my absence.

Thank you to all of the volunteers at Grindstone! This race wouldn't be possible without you. I am so excited to start volunteering alongside y'all next year.

And thank you to Clark, for always putting on a great race, hosting an incredible weekend, and giving hundreds of us runners memories that will last a lifetime.

Post Script:

As of last year, the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries disallowed trail markers on a 3 mile stretch of the course. Despite having run the course 4 previous times, I missed a critical turn off of a gravel road at Mile 4. It was badly overgrown and did not look like the picture I had in my head of the turn ... and Horton wasn't there like usual to help everyone out. So, really, it's like 50% VA DGIF's fault and 50% Horton's fault, with no remaining fault allocated to myself or my fellow runners! After a few minutes I convinced myself we'd missed the turn and I rounded up the front pack to retrace our steps. Along with another 2 or 3 groups of runners we picked up on the way back, I'd say 50+ people missed that turn. Ouch! All told, it cost the front of the pack 12 minutes, but had zero impact on the top finishers since all of us made the mistake together.

I negative-split the course in 10:02/9:45.

I was the only runner to go under 10 hours on the back half of the course.
I was the only runner to run the "Final 50K" from NRG under 7 hours (6:46).

This is totally not a thing, but I seem to now hold the record for fastest 5x finishes: 107:40:35 (21:32:07 average). The previous best looks to have been Keith Knipling with 111:11:41 (22:14:20 average). Who's gonna step up and better that mark?!

Me and fellow 5X-ers, Nelson Hernandez and Brian Hulbert.

After a couple years suffering through palate fatigue with my Huma gels, I had zero problems with Science In Sport gels. I probably had 14 of those, along with 2 Huma gels early on, and a few Clif Blocks. The rest of my nutrition came from a steady supply of Tailwind, aid station potatoes, and strategically placed Starbucks Frappuccinos in my drop bags.

As always, I did my best Jeff Browning impersonation, dressing in Patagonia gear and sporting Altra Lone Peaks. And I rocked a sweet pair of knee-high Injinji stars and stripes socks, cuz 'Mericuh!

Also, I drove a total of 23 hours to and from the race ... the sub-20 hour race. Ugh.

And finally, here's a homemade Flyby chart showing how, according to Horton, I "should have run faster!"
Race FlyBy.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Old Dominion

Here's an answer to the question: "What do you think about when you run?"

WARNING: Much of this race report attempts to accurately convey my mental state during the 2019 Old Dominion 100. Know that I was pissy and moody much of that time, and combining that with my natural predilection for being a sarcastic ass yielded many thoughts that were perhaps comedically dark and possibly offensive. So … if you get easily offended or have no taste for dry, sarcastic wit, or find the occasional F-bomb to be in poor taste, then just click that little "X" at the top of this window and go on about your day. If you wanna know what really goes on in the mind of a runner mid-race, then read on!

Before you conclude that I'm a cranky, angry little man that hates everyone and everything, I have to say upfront that I am incredibly grateful to the race organizers, the volunteers, and all the crew/spectators I saw along the way. The Old Dominion 100 is a truly unique race with an incredible down-to-earth and family feel about it. Despite what you might read down below, I am thankful for having participated in the race and respect the hard work and dedication of everyone involved. Also, though I continually rail on the race for being flat and on roads, it does have a surprising variety of grades and terrain in the undeniably beautiful Fort Valley, which is nice … that said, they took the gravel and paved roads up to an 11 and I'd really like them to be way down at a 1 or 2. Personal preference, but there it is.

Okay, so why was I running Old Dominion? Well, it's the closest "mountain" 100 miler to DC. I wanted to run one of the old, classic hundred milers out here before I packed my bags and headed back to Missouri later in the year. Massanutten would've been a better fit for me, most likely (despite the ungodly amount of rocks), but it came only a few weeks after Hellbender's 25K feet of climbing. So, I opted for the tamer Old Dominion a few weeks later in the calendar. Plus, the buckle is downright glorious!

I knew heading into the race that it was unlikely to be my cup of tea. There's a lot of gravel and a lot of running and not nearly enough climbing and descending. The race claims 14 "significant" climbs over 14K total vert, but no, just no. There's maybe 6 or 7 non-hills, and even then only a couple of those are real climbs. Having previously run Vermont, which also was not my cup of tea, I knew what I was getting into. Like it or not I was going to be doing a lot of flat running all day, so better get used to the idea!

My ultimate goal was to finish without a headlamp. I came oh-so-close at Vermont a couple years ago. Given that the last few miles of the race were in the town of Woodstock, I could comfortably achieve that by finishing somewhere in the vicinity of 9-9:30pm. That'd give me a 17:00-17:30 finishing time. It seemed doable. Secondarily, I wanted to podium, but really, I just wanted to run 100 miles without a headlamp. I ended up finishing in 18:06, with a headlamp, taking 3rd place. It wasn't what I wanted, but whatever. It is a bit of a dick thing to say I wasn't pleased with an 18hr podium finish at Old Dominion when plenty of people out there would give their swollen right nut to have that kind of performance. Oh, sorry, did that little turn of phrase catch you off guard? Well, it'll come up again in a little while, I promise!

I started the race at 4am, one of the few runners without a light. Despite there being no moon in the sky, it didn't bother me at all along the pavement out of town. As I crested the first climb of the day -- the Woodstock Tower road climb -- at roughly 5am, the day's first light was just beginning to creep into the mountains. My legs felt stiff and heavy and my stride a bit clunky, so I was hoping the next couple miles of trail would clear things out. Only, it was mere miles into the race and I already had an upset stomach. At the top of the second hill along the Massanutten Trail, I'd finally had enough and deposited my offering to the trail gods. Suck it, Orange Blaze! Sadly, this did not alleviate the pain in my gut and I spent the entire first 50K of the race with an uncomfortably tight lower intestines that was bad enough it noticeably impacted my stride, to say nothing of my general demeanor.

Somewhere around Mile 20, steps after a photographer snapped my picture, I sucked down a fly and it stuck to the soft tissue at the back of my throat. I spent 2 minutes standing there, hacking and coughing and gagging and downing an ungodly amount of liquids to try and clear it out. I've never thrown up in a race before, and that was a close one!

I lumbered along to Mile 32 running all but roughly 1/2 mile of the course thus far. My legs didn't feel right, my stomach was a mess, I was sick of running, and the gravel roads were starting to piss me off. One of the aid stations I lolly-gagged into had nothing but gatorade, fun size snickers, and pringles. God Damnit! What do I have to do to get some fresh sushi or organic pesticide free berries around here?! On to the next aid station.

Just before the first drop bag at Four Points -- Mile 32 -- my stomach had had enough again and I was forced to dive over a guardrail on Camp Roosevelt Road and relieve myself in what I later observed to be a small patch of stinging nettles. Excellent! At least I didn't wipe my ass with those leaves! Nevertheless, for the next half hour my butthole itched to holy hell. Ultra running! Huzzah!

I strolled into Four Points just before the 5 hour mark, over 20 minutes back of what I'd hoped for. My stomach accounted for some of that time, but it was clear that my legs just weren't up to the challenge today. I chugged a frappuccino and headed off to tackle the middle section of the race having already admitted defeat on the day.

I hiked most of the next hill as an FU to the race. Make me run non-stop for 50K, well I'll show you! As I ran back down yet another non-trail section of the course I vowed that I would despise everything about this race from here on out. I came across a snake and instantly thought, "if that thing bites me, maybe I can quit, wouldn't that be nice." On the one hand, I was actually hoping for an excuse to be done for the day, and on the other hand I knew that my body was fully capable of making it to the finish of this candy-ass flat hundred. A ways down the road I straight-up kicked another snake so that it'd get off the road. You're welcome, fellow runners, I just saved your life with my bravery.

I then entered the Apocalypse Now section of the course -- the bombed out, fire-damaged, logged section of Duncan Hollow -- and began repeating the mantra: this is stupid, I hate this. It was slow going, but at least I was on a trail for a little while. And, at some point my stomach finally stopped making me want to keel over in pain. The trail fucking sucked because it was filled with bullshit Massanutten rocks and there were 75 horseflies attacking me every step of the way. I fucking hate horseflies! It started getting warm enough that I was needing to douse myself with water at every creek crossing to fight off the heat. At some point I came up to one of the 752 aid stations along the course, which was literally a couple old folks and two mules with some cases of water bottles along the side of the trail. Bonus points for originality and for the dedication!

Then, it was back to the horseflies … and a healthy dose of taint chafing. Yeah, I knew you wanted to know about that.  A little later on, I stopped for a legit two minutes because … my shoulder hurt. No, seriously. That's how much I stopped giving a shit. Somehow my shoulder -- it wasn't even my arm that was holding my bottle -- started hurting. Like, stabbing pains. I let it just hang there to try and minimize the pain. Every footfall, especially downhill, was excruciating. And so I stopped mid-race to massage my god damned shoulder. Fuck my life. Eventually the pain subsided, but the shame remains to this day.

After a long and not at all steep road descent back to Four Points -- Mile 47 -- I found myself 40 minutes behind schedule. Terrific. I knew that there was a quasi-climb up ahead but I had no real understanding of what it would be like. It ended up being an exposed 6 mile dirt road climb in the heat of the day. Right at noon I got excited because it was Jarmans O'clock and I was climbing a shitty exposed road. That excitement quickly dampened and I ended up just being plain sick of it all. It was a total "douche grade" climb, but I ended up walking entirely too much of it because I just Did. Not. Care. Around the 50 Mile mark I transitioned into my no-gels phase of running, where the mere thought of consuming a gel made me want to hurl. In the first 8 hours of the race I downed maybe 500 calories of gels and a few hundred calories of Clif Blocks. Afterwards: zero. Perhaps an epic calorie deficit was swiftly coming my way!

Around this point in the race I also started developing an odd hitch in my stride. Why? Because, my right testicle was painfully swollen. Actually, it wasn't the testicle itself, but rather the epididymis. Oh, you don't know what the epididymis is? Did you miss that day in 7th grade health class? Well, Google states that it is "a highly convoluted duct behind the testis, along which sperm passes to the vas deferens." Fun Fact: Epididymitis, inflammation of the epididymis, is often caused by a bacterial or sexually transmitted infection. You're welcome for that thrilling health lesson! But yeah, let's just stick with describing the situation as a swollen right nut (I told you we'd be revisiting this subject!). It hurt. So bad. For miles. And miles. And miles. All told, I'd say there was about an hour of extreme discomfort, then another hour or so of much more tolerable pain, and then it just kinda sorta dulled out into nothingness and the inflammation went away. I'm really glad we had this opportunity to sit down together and talk about my testicles, it's been a lot of fun!

Anyways … I walked into the 51 Mile aid station, "Mountain Top", which is not at the top of the damned mountain, feeling cooked, and frustrated at having to look at green mountains yet being stuck on a glorified logging road. After downing a dozen strawberries and a bunch of coke the volunteers convinced me to take a freeze pop for the road. It was magical! That is, until a mile later when I couldn't get the sugary residue off my teeth. I was told I was 17 minutes back of the next guy, which I thought was Rich Riopel in 2nd place. I figured if I caught him then I caught him, but I wasn't going to bother myself with actually working hard to do so. My pity party was just getting started!

After cresting the mountain, I continued to run along a god-forsaken road for hours and hours. This bit was particularly frustrating as right fucking next to me was a trail. I literally ran along a road for multiple miles while staring off to a trail not more than 10 yards to my right. At one point a gaggle of dirt bikers putzed along said trail and I momentarily felt glad that I was on a road. Dirt bikers are the worst with their loud, obnoxious douchebaggy vehicles spoiling every decent quality about the natural forest they are riding in. Ugh!

At the next station, Edinburg Gap -- Mile 56 -- I downed an entire watermelon, then proceeded to the "ATV" section of the course. I knew I was going to hate this section before I even saw it. It was a 10 foot wide scar in the forest, meant for lazy ass losers to have "recreation" time in their dumb CO2 spewing vehicles. Scores of rednecks and bros, hobbling along in their Jeeps, thinking they're all cool as they replay images of decades worth of Jeep commercials in their minds. Whoever designed these trails put mountain bikers' absurd trails to shame.

At one point along the ATV, sorry "OHV", trail I came upon a freshly washed Faux-Jeep Baby Cherokee. It was so cute! It putzed along the 2% grade descent at a comfortable 5 mph. The guy literally had to stop and let me pass. He was going so slow. This runnable section of trail actually perked up my spirits a bit, but the prevalence of cars still had me feeling pissy and mean spirited. Right then and there, I decided to make up a story of how that cute little Baby Cherokee ended up getting passed by a runner in a national forest, and here is that gripping tale:

Dad: "Hey family, who wants to head to the forest for the day?"
Kid #1: "Me, me! Are we going to go hiking?"
Dad: "Nope."
Kid #2: "Mountain biking! Hooray!"
Dad: "Nope."
Mom: "Are we going to go on a picnic where you assume all responsibility of the kids and I can just sit in the shade and guzzle a bottle of cheap Rose and read a book?"
Dad: "No way. This is going to be so much better! Let's take our glorified crossover out on the trails and go off roading! Who needs to enjoy nature with exercise or a picnic when we can take our cliché suburban airconditioned non-SUV and pollute the beautiful forests of our National Parks System with our internal combustion engine. It'll be so much fun you guys! We'll roll along at a blistering 5 miles an hour, because I'm too afraid of messing up my delicate crossover suspension system. Then, eventually, a runner will pass us by, rendering me totally emasculated and insecure, eventually bringing about an era of familial discontent that will inevitably lead to divorce and the dissolution of our family. And I'll spend the rest of my days hanging out, alone, at Dave and Busters, getting shitfaced every night on Coors Light while trying to hit on college girls half my age and uncomfortably staring a bit too long at the bartender's breasts. Then I'll stumble to my depressing 1-bedroom bachelor pad, reeking of stale pizza and dirty socks, and cry myself to sleep and dream of better days. … So, who's with me?!"
Kid #1: "That sounds awful. I'd rather go over to Billy's house and play Fortnite. See ya."
Kid #2: "Yeah, you suck dad. I'm gonna go hang out in my room and do homework or something, anything to get away from you."
Mom: "Sorry, honey, but that's the stupidest idea you've ever had. But you feel free to go out there by yourself if you really want to. I'll just head over to my coworker Kyle's place and hang out. You remember Kyle, right? Tall, handsome, muscular. God, I could ride that all night long. … Shit, did I say that out loud?"

Ok, back to the running bits! I rolled into Little Fort -- Mile 65 -- actually feeling pretty good. I was still bleeding time, but I had actually spent some quality miles on trails. Granted, they were trails for cars, but whatever, I guess I'm at that point where I'll take what I can get. I'm an optimist at heart.

I spent some time lazily hiking up a lame 300 foot road climb, then ran along some more gravel roads that I'd seen earlier in the day and tried to not get run over by redneck families on their 4-wheelers.

I eventually popped out on the Mudhole Gap Trail. I was told by an anonymous source that Keith Knipling loves this section of trail and wants to have babies with it. It was like 3 minutes of real trail, and then a few miles of quasi-trail … but covered in bits of fucking gravel. With the Old Dominion, even the trails are gravel! So yeah, apparently Keith Knipling has atrocious taste in trails. Gross, Keith, gross.

Okay, I have this theory. The Botts family, that started and maintain the race, are secretly Virginia gravel kingpins. They have backroom deals with politicians all over the place to get their overpriced gravel strewn out throughout the region, even in the forests. Directing the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run is all a ruse to prematurely wear out the gravel roads and trails they maintain so that they can come back in and lay more gravel at a hefty profit, compliments of John Q. Taxpayer. I'm sure there are plenty of off the books money exchanges with local politicians. These folks are raking in millions with their gravel racket!

At one point, dropping down the ridge above Elizabeth Furnace, I spied the Shenandoah Mountains off to the East. Look at those majestic sons of bitches! Real mountains! Two to three thousand foot climbs! The Real Deal. Not like this shitty midget Massanutten Mountain crap. Please, just get me out of here, I hate this place, I want to run over there!

After some more gravel trail, I finally hit the legit trail just outside of Elizabeth Furnace and rolled into the aid station -- Mile 75 -- nearly an hour behind schedule. However, it was now 5pm, the heat of the day was gone, and I had some real climbs ahead of me to look forward to. 75 miles of boredom and worthless running to finally get to the good stuff. In a way, the Old Dominion is a lot like this allegory that I whipped up whilst running:

Dad: "Hey sweetheart, do you wanna go catch that new movie you've been wanting to see?"
Daughter: "Gee willikers! That'd be great, dad. I love you so much! I'll go get my jacket."
Dad: "Well hold on there, sport. I didn't say we'd go right now! First, I need you to write a 5,000 word essay arguing that mountain bikers are objectively better trail stewards than runners and hikers. When you're done, we can go see that movie."
Daughter: "God damnit, dad. You're the worst! I hate you! I wish mom had given me up for adoption when I was born!"
Dad: "Me too, kiddo, me too."

Okay, so I was at Elizabeth Furnace, working through my drop bag, getting ready for the long anticipated fun part of the course, when who strolls over? None other than Jack Kurisky! I was doing the whole solo schtick but decided I'd allow him the opportunity to fill my bottle with some ice, you know, keep him busy, give him something to do, make him feel special. Good thing Old Dominion doesn't have a real Solo category, or else some stickler might've reported me … for a non-volunteer putting a handful of ice in a bottle. (Enter Hardrock joke here, if you're into that sort of thing). Anyways, it was great to see a friend after nearly 13 hours of not loving life. As always, he was extremely supportive and upbeat, and he sent me off in a much better mood than I'd come in with. And to top things off, I was told the guy in front of me "just left one minute ago". Oh man, I'm only a minute behind Riopel and I'm just now entering my comfort zone.

With a fresh state of mind, I hit the trails leading up Sherman Gap. I heard it was steep and a little gnarly, and that it'd be friggin awesome! Only, I had to run through 2 miles of bullshit rollers to get there. What the hell?! I want steep climbs and I want them NOW! Finally, I got to the gritty section of Sherman Gap and slow-hiked my way up for nearly 30 minutes. It was heavenly. No more running for me, just hiking up and falling down … the way it should be. I wish Shermans was twice as high!

As I flew down the other side of Sherman Gap, I quickly overtook Riopel. Only … it wasn't Riopel. It was some random old dude. Random old dude, where the hell did you come from? I could've sworn there were only 2 people ahead of me. Nevermind, you're going slow downhill, you must not be in the race. Moving on.

At the bottom, I hit a 2 mile stretch of rolling road. Ugh, more friggin road. But it leads to another steep climb. I'll take the bitter with the sweet right now. Life is all about compromise, that's what the Buddha says. I cruised into Veach East -- Mile 83 -- and exchanged some sass with the VHTRC volunteers who kept trying to push their idea of a fun time: soup and broth. It's 80 fucking degrees out dude, get that shit away from me! As I left I heard cheering. Damn it, random old dude is an actual runner. I really don't wanna race right now.

Random old dude caught up with me. We exchanged pleasantries. Then he went off ahead of me up Veach Gap. I, on the other hand, lazily hiked. Why? Because I'm a slow hiker. But most importantly, because I'd been running all damn day and I deserved this, so leave me alone! After the crest, I went flying down the hill. I quickly overtook random old dude, who was hobble jogging his way down the mountainside. Into Veach West -- Mile 86 -- I went. More coke, more fruit. More sass about broth. No, kind volunteer, I don't have a drop bag, it's friggin Mile 86, who has a drop bag this far into the race, leave me alone! Onward to more fucking gravel and pavement!

My legs were feeling good and by the next aid station -- Mile 91 -- I was ready for the final climb. I was going to no walk this non-trail bastard. I got to a stretch of road I'd already visited back at Mile 65. I'd lazily walked it that time, but the sun was setting now, the race was almost over, and I was feeling great, so I sprinted all the way up. Well, not a sprint so much as a shuffle jog, but you get the idea. I ran right on by the little aid station up there just as nautical twilight was beginning, begrudgingly turned on my piddly little Petzl Bindi, and started tearing ass down the mountain into Woodstock. It took me 61 minutes to get to the top in the morning and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to get back to the finish in less than an hour. I heroically flew down the pavement for 1000 vertical feet, crossed the North Fork Shenandoah River, sprinted at a blazing 10 minutes per mile along the rolling asphalt, kept running along the rolling asphalt, ran some more … still more running … Jesus Christ when the hell can I stop running … okay, sweet, Downtown Woodstock, only 2 miles to go … aaaand, FINISH!

Riopel was there. He finished less than 20 minutes before me. And he had this to say about the race: "I liked the roads!" God damnit, Rich, you're a disappointment.  Also, there was no Top Finisher Patagonia schwag … what bullshit!

That first 75 miles was terrible. That last 25 was much better. I was faster than everyone else in that stretch, so suck it, fellow competitors! Never in my life have I had so little fun running a 100 mile race.

And for the record, no, I'm not coming back. I got my buckle, I'm done. Those valley roads and all that pavement and gravel will haunt my memories until the day I die. There's mountains right friggin there, so why in the hell are we running on these god forsaken roads?! Next time I get into States, you won't be hearing me talk about a Grand Slam, nope nope nope.

I'd like to thank my wife for solo parenting for 2 days, dealing with a sick kid, and for having to clean up kiddo car seat vomit all by herself. She puts up with a lot just so I can go run for a long time in an angsty, pissy mood.

The End

P.S.: Hugs and kisses, rainbows and unicorns!