1) It takes a lot of snow to make a mouthful of water.
2) Dehydration quickly turns your hands and feet into blocks of ice in the cold.
3) Empty squares made of surveyor’s flags are where aid stations should be.
In Georgia, in March, these were not the meaningful insights into life I sought by running 100 miles.They were, however, three of the lessons I unfortunately had to learn over nearly 30 miles at the Double Top 100 miler this past weekend.
Three weeks ago Boston dug out from close to 30 inches of snow. It was enough that I had to shovel for about eight hours. It was enough that I had snow banks at my house that were about eight feet high. It was enough that Boston Public Schools were closed Friday through the following Tuesday. Saturday, as I ran through the mountains in northern Georgia, it snowed. There may have been about half to three quarters of an inch of the white stuff. It was enough to make everything look pretty and leave clear footprints. It was enough to make some roads slick. It was also enough to cancel a hundred mile race. 47.2 miles in.
In early November I sent an email to a number of friends saying, “Hey guys, take a look at this race I am looking at for 2013. Should be fun, and warm.” The Double Top 100, held March 2, would be a nice option to break up the cold-weather running of what has become a long and snowy winter in New England. So when David Huss pulled the trigger, booked his flight, and registered, Anthony Parillo, Michael McDuffie, Justin Contois and myself all jumped in as well. 100 miles, on a 50-mile out-and-back that was described as a some beautiful trails with a ton of elevation. Then I read some race reports from last year (the inaugural year). Runners many, many miles off course. Tornadoes ripping through the night before. A winning time over 24 hours. An elevation profile that ranged from 16K – 23K (of both gain/descent. My Garmin (which is usually pretty accurate) gave me almost exactly 9,500 of each for the 50 mile course). I frantically began emailing the RD, primarily about course markings. He reassured me that all things, especially course markings, would be much improved for this year (and, with the exception of one spot, the course markings were fine, though that one spot lead to many (most?) runners missing an aid station on a short, ~1 mile out-and-back stretch (that looked nothing like a trail) around mile 16. The RD had failed to mention any of this in the race briefing (we were told it was a 50-mile out-and-back, and no mention of this additional bit to the aid station was made. The stretch was described in the race packet, but it was not clear that it was an additional out-and-back).
Less than a week out from the race the RD sent an email that was not very reassuring – it appeared permits were not yet finalized, necessitating some tweaks to the course. At this point my financial (and training) investment had been made, so I was going. To top it off, when I checked the forecast on Tuesday for race day, all sites, from Google, to Accuweather, to Weather.com, to WeatherUnderground, were calling for scattered snow showers and highs in the mid to high 30s (this was not of too great concern personally – it’s typical winter weather in New England and I have the gear to be fine in those conditions. Alas, it was disheartening to think our “Spring Break” was turning into more of a winter washout. And, in my experience, scattered snow showers means one inch or less of snow, just about what we got). Talking with the other “Yankees” traveling with me, we all joked that we should be prepared to run this race completely self-sufficiently given last year’s reports and the forecast. Many Deliverance jokes, vocal banjo rhythms, and mentions of wild boars were made. In the end, our jests proved prophetic.
I had never traveled with a group like this to a race. It was fun. There were lots of laughs. There were lots of jokes about flatulence and biological needs (we’re runners after all (and guys), and, especially with a 3:00 AM Go Time, were concerned about “taking care of business” pre-race). Costs were shared, which helped lessen the financial blow, and we were able to enjoy the collective-nervous energy/absurdity around our chosen passion: running 100 miles.
Race day began at 1:52 AM. The RD had changed the start time from 6:00 AM, to accommodate a 36 hour time limit (as we traveled from Boston, we all bemoaned this and questioned our sanity. Perhaps it was that inner voice in all of our heads telling us that this would likely end badly). We suited up, in full New England winter-running regalia, and were greeted by a fresh layer of snow as we made it to the start line. 37 starters lined up, and when the RD’s phone chimed 3:00 AM, we were off, into the snow, to run 50 miles, then turn around and run those 50 miles back. Simple.
My ambition for this race was to feel like I ran a solid 100 miler (and, honestly, I wanted to win, but that, truly, was secondary to feeling like I ran well). I have been doing more hill training and wanted to put forth a solid personal effort. For the first 23 miles or so I ran with Joe Czabaranek, a very strong runner who, just 5 weeks ago, won the Winter Beast of Burden 100 Miler in New York (which Michael and Anthony also ate up and spit out), and is competing at Western States this year. I was very happy for the company because it gave me a bit more confidence that I was on course (while visions of last year’s race reports danced in my head), and Joe’s a good guy. Running via headlamp in the dark, the snow muffling our footfalls, was very hypnotic and the miles melted away. I was eating my homemade “energy balls” and drinking as planned. I chuckled to myself as I ran through a stream (the RD had mentioned only one river crossing at around mile 36.5). I reckoned my feet would just be wet all day. We ran right past the first aid station, and then stopped at the second, Cohutta Overlook (around mile 10), where, on a whim, I grabbed an extra GU (which proved to be a key decision, as it gave me 3 “emergency” GUs in my pockets). Leaving Cohutta, you drop onto what was my favorite part of the course. Even in the pitch black (it was around 4:30 AM), it was fun. The trail was winding and smooth and I commented to Joe how sweet it was. It was shortly after this idyllic stretch of running that the proverbial feces began hitting the wind-turbine.
Joe and I were comfortably cruising down the trail when we came to a flashing light followed by about 20 flags placed 3 feet apart. The RD had told us that there would be these lights at confusing turns, but this light appeared to put us through a bushwhack in the woods, while the trail clearly continued to the right. Flags had been spaced every eighth to quarter of a mile before this, so we figured someone had come along, picked up a bunch of flags and messed with the course markings. Still, we decided to follow the RD’s direction and go with the flagging. We marched about 20 yards through the woods and saw another blinking light and flags heading down what appeared to be a more legitimate trail. We followed the markings until we reached an intersection with two arrows, side by side, each pointing a different direction, with flags off in both directions (as an RD myself, I always make sure that you can only see one arrow in any direction). One lead down what appeared to be a trail, while the other appeared to, again, head-off through the woods. We stood there for a minute before deciding to go down the hill, onto the non-trail “trail.” Turns out we made the correct decision, as we got to the Mulberry Gap Inn Aid Station. There were some lights on, and there seemed to be a lot of commotion. There appeared to be hundreds of empty liquor bottles on a porch, and a couple of cars and trucks pulling in and backing out. Turns out the volunteers (who were very accommodating) were just getting there too. We filled up our water bottles, used the bathrooms, and were off again, back up the hill, confident that we were on course (I heard later that only 13 of 37 runners were able to make it to this aid station, many suffering from the same confusion Joe and I experienced).
4 miles later we reached the Double Top aid station, at mile 20.5, at the base of the biggest climb of the day. It is also where our first drop bags were. Again, Joe and I arrived with the volunteers and the gear (which, I guess, was being driven to every aid station, as the race was happening, by a single U Haul, with a trailer attached to it). The U Haul driver was very apologetic, saying the roads were really bad and he had had trouble making it to the aid station, but he had drop bags in the back of the truck, so we rooted around to find them, and I filled up with my homemade energy balls. I asked the volunteer that was there to help me put my “energy balls” into my handheld’s pocket, insisting that she put all of them from my drop bag in (she was going to leave three or four behind). I felt a bit odd/pushy, but, again, this proved to be a key move, as it gave me some (much needed) extra calories. I thank that kind lady for acquiescing.
The climb up the gravel road started off fine. I was comfortable and felt like I could easily make it the 4 miles to the top. Perhaps it was this hubris, but about 2 or 2.5 miles into the climb I told Joe I was going to walk for a second - my quads were starting to feel weak and I began to worry about the return trip. Joe continued running, about 100 yards up on me for the next several miles. I began having flashbacks to my day at Western States in June - every little bump began to feel daunting and my uphill legs were growing weaker. I started feeling really disappointed in, and angry at, myself for being so weak and not crushing this hill (I had been doing 4 miles on a treadmill at 15% in training, so this should have been easy right?). I began to realize that (probably) my greatest weakness and limiting factor as a runner is my mind - I am too quick to doubt myself, my training, and ability. I tried to get out of this funk with music, but my little iPod shuffle was frozen and not working correctly, so after a few minutes I just unplugged and continued to chug along, trying to dispel the negative thoughts. I made the next aid station my goal (I was out of water), which was just a mile beyond the crest of the climb. I topped out, saw Joe up ahead, and ran, expecting to run a quick downhill mile to the aid station. That mile was the longest I have ever run. That’s because it was actually 23.
When I reached where the aid station should have been, I saw a great number of flags put into a square, which was empty inside. “Odd,” I thought, but I plugged on, figuring the aid was just ahead. About four or five miles later, I saw another “empty square.” I knew I had beaten the volunteers to the aid stations at this point (we had been so close to doing that at the previous ones). I was totally out of fluids at this point (about 10 or 11 miles since the last aid), but knew my drop bag was just another 5 or 6 miles up the road at the Tearbritches Aid Station. I had planned my calories so that I would have enough of my energy balls to make it that distance. I got to the Tearbritches and my heart just sank. There, right where I could imagine all the happy volunteers, was, yet another, empty square. While I did not panic, I stood there for a minute or two, considering my options: stay here and wait for someone from the race, or move forward, hoping the water drop 4 or 5 miles up the trail wasn’t frozen. When I started shivering, I thought the best course of action was to move (in the end, a wise choice - it would have been more than two hours before someone from the race arrived at this location. While I appreciate their efforts, I am not certain why it took this long - if a car got up two hours later, why couldn’t it get up two hours before, when the RD knew the pace we traveling?). This was the point that I began to think my race was over.
Climbing out of Tearbritches, I kept stopping to look back at the aid station to see if anyone was coming. I yelled out some curses to the gods of anger, frustration, and doubt (a dangerous combination) that were taking over my mind: “WHAT IS GOING ON HERE? IS THE RACE CANCELLED? WHAT THE HELL SHOULD I DO?” At this point I had no water, but still had my emergency GUs. I began rationing my calories. My hands (I think from dehydration) become complete blocks of ice - I had no sensation in them. There were tons of stream crossings, and the thought of indulging my thirst was a real possibility. But then I considered that I had already taken significant time from my family and work (as a teacher, it is not exactly desirable to miss consecutive days of school during the school year), and did not want to risk more time away laid up with Giardia. I began grabbing handfuls of snow and eating it off branches. I cursed the situation. I grew angry. I grew sad that I was probably not running 100 miles that day. I lost my zen. I got caught up in the thought that the race was not unfurling as I had imagined. I failed to accept the situation simply as the situation. I got caught up fighting my personal struggle and failed to embrace my struggle simply as a struggle, neither good nor bad. I firmly believe the RD could have done much more to be better prepared for the weather, but that still does not mean I should have let my frustrations get a grip on me that much.
It was probably around mile 44 that I began to get control of my mind again. There had been 1 gallon (of 5) not frozen at the water drop. I only had 6 miles to the turnaround. The water and GU helped to thaw my hands (I think). I ran a climb. I “tracked” Joe, seeing where his stride lengthened and shortened - it was actually kind of fun (in our post-mortem, I learned all my fellow TARCers were doing it as well). It might have been the combination of the water and emergency GU (which, reading about "unbonking" after the race, was almost definitely the case), but I began to think I could rally to complete at least 100K, maybe even really suffer through 100 miles. I just needed some steady calories and to accept a slower pace. It was most definitely not going to be the race I had hoped for, but I thought I could finish. Maybe. And then, as I came down a hill, I saw a beautiful site: Bear Pen Aid station, fully functional, with heaters, food, and fluid. Tom Wilson wins the prize for MVP of the Double Top 100 in my book, single handedly setting up his aid station and making it ready. I felt pretty miserable, but was happy that I could finally find out what was happening, as it had been 28 miles since my last contact with anyone from the race.
Kena, the co-RD, was there to tell me the race was cancelled. I guess the roads were impassible for most cars. She looked pretty miserable about it and apologized profusely. I didn’t put up much of a fight. I had figured this was likely the case, and, over those last 28 miles had pretty much determined my day was done, despite the blossoming hope I had felt at the water drop. She offered to let me run to the mile 50 turnaround and I seriously considered it. But it was unclear if there was anyone there, and she was going to wait for Anthony, who had also made it through Tearbritches before they began stopping people. I debated this choice for a long time (as I ate some Pringles and drank some soup). It was unclear if there was anyone at the turnaround (other than Joe, who had decided to continue to there), and the thought of standing in the cold was not very appealing. Tom had a great thing going at Bear Pen, and I thought it would be good to wait for Anthony. My day was officially done when I took a chair and sat next to the heater.
Did the RD make the correct call? I would have seriously struggled to run another 30 miles without support and without my drop bags (that would have been about miles 53 – 81), much less finish another 50. My frustration lies in the fact that, as an RD myself, I see a number of basic steps related to the planning and preparation of the event that could have been taken to prevent this sort of situation and, once it was clear things were completely messed up, steps that could have been taken to explain the situation to those of us on the course. I have offered my ideas (and concerns with his handling of this situation) to the RD, in a hope that future events will improve. I am further frustrated by his failure to respond to me personally (addendum: he has since gotten back to me). This event could be a lot of fun.
What is done is done. Our posse bemoaned the fact that none of us were as physically wrecked as we had hoped (writing that, I realize it is a bit perverse. However, I think this really is part of the allure of these events – you push your body to a point of such pain and discomfort, but actually come out a more complete and stronger person for it. Truly odd. Truly sick). Joe joined us at our cabin that afternoon and night, we shared war-stories, drove into town for some not-in-anyway mediocre Mexican food, and generally shot the bull. With my not-totally-wrecked body I can continue to train, and the experience may have even sparked the idea for a new TARC event. If nothing else, the experience has established a new rule in our house: I can only run well-established 100-milers (or, maybe, at least, events run by well established groups/RDs), and, ideally, ones my family can follow online. Not much argument here.
I realize what surprises me most about this weekend is that I never felt annoyed with any of my traveling companions, not even after the “race” when I typically get anxious about getting home to Liz and the boys. I don’t think I have ever spent such an extended period of time with a group of people (in this case nearly four days), without feeling at least some twinge of aggravation toward someone else. Perhaps it was all the fart jokes. Perhaps it was the commiseration (in lieu of celebration) of a goal not met. Perhaps it was that we all shared a singular drive and purpose for the weekend. Whatever it was, I can’t wait to travel with these guys again and celebrate a proper 100 mile finish.
Gear note: for the second race in a row, I wore my (incredible) inov-8 Trailroc 245s with a great pair of Injinji 2.0 socks. After spending about 46 miles with pretty wet feet, I finish with zero foot issues. That is pretty impressive.