This has to be the hardest race report I have written. Something about trying to encapsulate a failed event was out of my comfort zone. But after staring at the reminder sticky note and looking at the lonely draft document for the last few months, here goes.
Rik, Loni, John and I drove down together to the Skyline resort early Friday morning. All packed into my Subaru with a trailer full of camping and ultra gear. The trip went smoothly through 6 states when we ran into a 2 mile traffic jam in Pennsylvania. A truck driver who had called ahead on his CB said it was a motorcycle accident. And when the ambulances were called off Rik exclaimed, “Well, must be a fatality, that’s the only time I’ve seen them call of ambulances before.” His logic was there, but the reminder that death was near wasn’t the most comforting. As the pack started moving again a fellow in a truck next to us had noticed one of the bearings on my trailer was about to bust. So we promptly pulled off the highway and accessed the damage. I had said the night before that I wanted all of my tools to do this if needed. Sadly the bearing had seized to the axel so Rik and Loni headed into town while John oversaw my work. When they returned with the bearing puller it took me all of 10 minutes and we were back on the highway, continuing our journey south.
They Massanutten skyline was impressive to say the least after the essentially zero elevation for the previous 6 hours of driving. The ranch was as described to me on the drive down, “Disney-ish.” The 4 of us grabbed our race packets, set up camp, and enjoyed a (at least for me) very apprehensive dinner.
I awoke to a miserable stench. It would have appeared that the sites they gave us were on top of a septic field of some sort. The smell was unbearable and the 3 of us hustled to get our gear together and up the hill to the start. Rik and I shuffle back and forth somewhere in the middle of the pack, while John was off chatting up a few of his ultra buddies. I watched the large ticker count slowly down to the 5:00:00 AM start. With a kiss from Loni and a brief, GO! We were off down the road. The first 2.4 miles are on rolling pavement until we get to the Buzzard Head Trail. Rik and I take it nice and easy on the small climbs and descents. At the trailhead I quickly filled up my water bottle with what tasted much like hose water from a hose that had been sitting out in the sun for a week. It was wretched, and the time I had lost filling my bottles with the wretched water let Rik get out of my sights on the single track climb. I run/hike for a bit with a woman from Canada that states “unless home renovation is training, I shouldn’t even be here.” I catch Carl at the first look out. Carl is a runner that I know from years and years ago at the VT100. I guess in the heat of the day Carl had a pack of lady horse washers wash him down to cool off, and in the process, got him the nickname that I’ve known him since, horseman. The views are amazing from the top of Buzzard. The sun was rising; it couldn’t have been a more peaceful beautiful spot. Through the fog you could see a stream way below. Little did I know, I would have to run through said stream 50 miles later in the race.
The rocky single track terrain turns into Jeep and then gravel access road which makes running seem possible again. Good thing because I glanced at my watch and I was WAY too close to the cut off this early in the race. I run for a bit with Terry from upstate New York. Now when John had ran this race last year he was near a guy that said “this sucks, that sucks.” I had overheard Terry utter the word “sucks” oh probably 10 times in the mile I was running with him. It was kind of funny. I pondered for the next few miles if it was the same guy.
I got into the aid station ahead of Rik. Apparently I had passed him a ½ a mile prior when he was on a pit stop. We were 19 min ahead of the cut off. Ditched our lights, topped off our waters and were off
The stretch from Shawl to Veach was a lot like the VT100. Miles and miles of rolling roads, very run-able, this was good, because the reaper was right behind us and it wasn’t even 9am yet. Rik and I run with Marty the Doctor from Cincinnati & Paul from New Zealand. They helped pass the time greatly as we ran the road. The best statement had to be from Paul who said, “Australia is a great place, except for the Australians.” We arrive at the ever famous Veach aid station 28 minutes ahead of the cut off and grab breakfast.
Leaving Veach we head back onto single track trail and climb to the top of the ridge. Pancake rolled into a burrito with egg inside in one hand, the same method of creation but with sausage in the other. I was starving! Rik asks Marty about tightness in chest, swelling, shortness of breath, and feeling of impending doom (symptoms of cardiac arrest.) Marty responds with “you’re at Massanutten!”
Once I worked the sausage out of my system I felt ok. A light mist had started to fall which brought the humidity down a bit as we climb to the next ridge. The views were again spectacular and I was enjoying the ride a now increasing 34 min ahead of cut off.
Milford to Habron stretch was a nice rocky ridge trail. We knock the section out quickly and roll into Habron. I pack my water bottles full of ice while Rik tells the former runners (twins I guess) that he’s brought the next of kin to sacrifice. The sun has come out and the temps are rising, I tell Rik we need to grab some watermelon and go! While Rik settles in running with Caroline, a woman that trains with Karl Camp, I run ahead at my own pace feeling good as if my body was finally waking up. I catch up with a Brian from North Carolina and we talk back and forth for a bit, which helped the miles tick by. The long decent that I was warned about at the last aid station was no joke. “A quad killer,” one runner said as he screamed past me.
At the trail head there was a flour 4 mile mark with an arrow. 4 miles of long rolling pastures on hard packed dirt road. This is the kind of terrain I dread. The sun out in full blaze now, the humidity rolling off of the fields was Vermont in july-esk as we continue to descend into the river valley. I’m getting hot, scorching hot; I stop to dunk my head into a fast flowing culvert. It works to drop my temps and I’m able to jog a good distance into the crewed aid where Loni awaits. I rebuild a bit, an icy boost, watermelon, some food, checking my supplies in my drop bag and wait on Rik. A couple volunteering commented on our Team Robert shirts that made me all smiles. Just the boost that I needed to get out of there, looking back it was just I needed for this next climb. Now with a 46 min cushion to the cut off
Habron to Roosevelt
Warned of the long climb ahead I have Loni pack a 3rd hand held water bottle and extra GU’s. The 9.5 stretch is the longest unaided section of the course.
Rik, now hurting in the heat is forced to stop many times along the 1-2 mile climb.
Trying to choke down cantaloupe he’s falling behind me. While I’m not a strong runner, I do pride myself on my ability to hike. For having just run/hike/walked 25 miles I was feeling fresh as a daisy and I was staying ahead of my hydration, salt, and food intake. Things for me were as right as rain (pun fully intended). I even got to pose for a few photographers out on the trail.
After 3 more increasing longer rest breaks we make it atop the ridge. I’m getting antsy, part of me wants to push on, part of me knows Rik is suffering and I need to be here to keep him moving. I believe someone mentioned 85* with 90% humidity at the previous aid and in the exposed sections of the ridge I didn’t doubt it in the least. I’d run ahead, find a rock, sit down. I was starting to force Rik to drink and take salt every 30 minutes if not sooner. He’d complain, I’d give him a hard time and actually took out salt tabs and held that in front of him. TAKE THESE!
Somewhere on the ridge a fellow from Oakridge Tennessee with the nickname “sticks” from his walking sticks came past us and said we better get moving if we’re going to make the next cut off. He wasn’t too far off either. Our gap was now under 20 minutes. I jogged ahead yelling back if we’re really close I’ll come back to get you. I officially checked in 12 minutes ahead of the cut off. The sky’s had opened up in the 5 minutes coming into Roosevelt and I was soaked and getting cold. After new socks, and a warmer shirt, some food in my belly I felt like I could take on the world. Rik on the other hand kind of slogged through the aid station without much said. I caught up with him a bit further down the trail, already soaked through again.
Roosevelt to Gap Creek 1
I’m not exactly sure where the title gap creek is derived from, but the next 2 miles of trails could have been IN Gap Creek as far as I was concerned. We weren’t making good time; my heart was starting to get out of it. We had long periods of silences. The neat part of this section was that we got to run through the section that had burned a few years back causing the course to change. We got to run through the scorched graveyard of the woods. You could still smell the smoke with each footstep. Once at the top I trotted ahead again. I snapped out of my funk and was picking flowers along the way as an attempt to distract my mind from what I was doing and how far behind we were, and as a nice gesture for poor Loni’s who had been trying to keep track of us for probably somewhere around 12 hours at this point. I cruise into the aid station, rebuild a bit, wait again for Rik, who slowly trots in and then plops down in the chair. Bad news as far as I was concerned. I tried my best to get him out of there, knowing full well how close we were. Hell the reaper was there watching his watch.
Rik warns me of the climb we have ahead. He’s already dreading it while I’m ignorantly blissful. No idea what lied ahead, no worries, I can hike I figured. Well between my hiking ability and the fact that I was still semi rested from having a bit longer at the aid stations then I’m used to helped me up and over Jawbone with only a few water breaks to catch my breath. Rik, on the other hand, wasn’t in as good of spirits. Feeling kind of defeated I encourage him to try to pick up the pace a bit. Along the ridge we catch up with Brian again. He’s in a rough spot himself so I try to encourage him to run with us for as long as he can. It was at about here where we came to a vista on the ridge. I looked back at both guys and said “hey guys, do you think it’s bad when you can see lightning BELOW you?” It was no joke; there, in the valley below, was a storm that Zeus himself would have been proud of. As the clouds start to roll over the ridge we start to pick up the pace hearing the thunder approaching. The lightning getting closer, the thunder cracks getting louder, we’re now running perhaps 8 min/miles which is a shear miracle at this stage of the race after what we’ve been running for the last 12 hours. The trail off of the ridge nowhere as close as we had hoped it would be. We smell sulfur, we duck our heads, now in full sprint, but seriously, what good would it have done us. We were on a treeless rock ridgeline sprinting through 1-4” deep puddles. I’d never run so fast, so hunched over, and still manage to stay on my feet. I’ve run in fear before, from coyotes, from lose dogs, etc. but never have I run that fast from what I figured could have been death. As the worst of the storm seemed to fade, we finally reached the trail off of the ridgeline. Murphy’s Law I’d suppose, but upon reaching the trail head and catching another runner, he said he had hail where he was. The runner mentions we’ve got 30 minutes to reach the Visitors center that’s 2.8 miles from where we were. Rik tells me to go ahead and he’s going to drop. I felt sick to my stomach. We came all of this way. I had stayed back to keep you moving and now you’re going to drop? Not get pulled because we were slow, but just throw in the towel. Part of me felt a little cheated. Part of me knew that his heart wasn’t there. Looking back I’m surprised he didn’t drop earlier. Well either way I knew that I was going to have to run some of this pavement if I was to make it to the center in time. I made it, with 12 minutes to spare. So either the runner had his time and distance wrong, or I had just run the fastest 3 miles of my life, 45 miles into an ultra. Perhaps the running gods saved us from a worse fate as our slowness saved us from what was described to me as ¼” hail at the aid station.
Visitors Center-Bird Nob-Picnic Area
I grab my jacket, headlamp, and whatever food I could cram into my pockets and prepared for another long climb. I meet up with another runner that says he’s doing this for the first time himself and his buddies are already long gone. And he was just going to go until he ran out of time. We say we’ll run together for a bit, just to keep each other company as the field has spread pretty thin by this point. Unfortunately for that plan, like my father, hiking was not his forte’. Combined with the fact that a few of his friends were heading down Bird Nob as we climbed slowed him to a crawl and he was out of my sights less than 5 minutes after we said we’d stick together. It was getting darker and darker. Had I gone the right way? No matter how bright your headlamp was, the rain coming down and the fog limited your visibility that even if you FELT like running, you really couldn’t without going off the trail. We get to a barrier, I can’t see any markings, and I don’t see any glow sticks. I think I’m sunk, water supplies dwindling, cold, wet, and lost, in the middle of nowhere. I get pissed at myself and figure I couldn’t have missed the turn and run down this road. I’m glad I did, through the fog I could make out a moving light and maybe 2 minutes after I started to run I found myself at the top of bird knob having a nice cup of chicken soup. There’s another runner in there. He’s hard to recognize all bundled up in the dark. But as he’s leaving I notice it was Marty the doctor. So I hustle out of the station and we run together for a bit. Sticking together for the rest of the climb down and into the Picnic area, laughing about how he could never convince his kids to do this. And here I was, pushing on without my dad, in the dark, alone, on unfamiliar terrain. With the power of both of our lights we’re able to get off of bird knob only falling a few times. Not too bad I figure, after the climb up I figured I’d fall at least a half a dozen times on the way down between the mud and rocks. As we see the Picnic area we thank one another for being there on the last crazy stretch, stating that if either of us were alone we’d have never made it as fast. This was good because once again, I had less than 20 minutes to the cut off. The aid station was a mad house, people scrambling around, crews packed under this pavilion, volunteers scattered. I wanted to change my clothes a bit but Rik warned me not to and if I needed anything special they’d see me again in a couple of miles at Route 211. I sadly agree only taking some chicken soup and push on.
Down the road, and back onto the trails it’s dark. I’m lonely, feeling depressed. I see a light in the distance behind me. I start to wonder how long it’ll take him or her to catch and pass me. Turns out that wasn’t my biggest concern. I hear water roaring ahead of me. I figure we must cross over a culvert. No such luck, it appears the trail goes right through. Perfect! I’m going to be washed away only 1 mile from a road and die. It was about as Eeyore as it could get. I reluctantly splashed through and tried to trot for a bit, desperately trying to stay warm. I start thinking about how good it’ll be to get that water bottle of red bull, my mp3 player and lube my butt in under a mile. That thought faded fast when I approached a second water crossing, a deeper, faster running, wider water crossing. If there was anyone without shouting distance they would have heard the loudest F bomb a young man could muster after 57 painful miles.
Rik and Loni wait for me at Route 211, they laugh about how the previous runners through were bitching about the water crossings. I concurred with everything that was said. I grab what I need and quickly hustle out of the aid station saying I’ll see them back at Gap Creek in no time. 5 minutes up the trail. F me, I didn’t re-lube. My stride had already deteriorated to what could be described as a Cowboy after a long days ride. Strike 1. Oh well, what can you do, I’ll just turn on my mp3 player and hope that distracts me enough to get the next 7 miles. Wow those songs looped back quickly, where are the rest of my songs? Oh perfect, that’s right, I had intended on updating the playlist and copying everything back onto here, but failed to do so. Yeah, 7 miles, so anywhere from 1-3 hours time, I had the grand total of 6 songs, which if played on loop 3 times over, took me a grand total of 25 minutes to get through. Strike 2.
The climb is wearing on, the old logging road wasn’t too bad on the feet, and then the slick side sloped single track I’m sure would be a ball in daylight and on fresh legs. I go to take a swing from the freshly packed ice and red bull water bottle. WTF is that flavor? It tastes like coffee. I examine the bottle with my headlamp, no that’s red bull colored, what the hell is going on. I can’t drink it. It’s awful, I tried to drink it for a half a mile or so hoping it was an acquired taste like alcohol, but alas I couldn’t stomach it, so I helplessly poured it out, figuring it wasn’t worth the weight on my belt. (Strike 3)[I later found out Loni had started to pour coffee into the bottle before realizing what she had done, and then just topped it off with red bull stating, “Well, I couldn’t taste the difference.”]
I was a broken man. Then I turned a corner and was like, oh great, another stream crossing. Actually no, the trail didn’t cross. It ran UP this bloody stream. IN THE MIDDLE! I slosh ahead, tunnel vision starting to wear on me. I started not to care about my feet being wet or being in the stream. I was too tired to even be pissed about not getting my red bull fix when I really needed it. I looked at my watch, looked ahead at the trail. I sat on a rock, I cried. There was no way I could make the cut off. And even if I did, could I even push on? Do I even want to push on? I got out of the stream and onto the road. The road that Gap Creek was on! I figured I might have a chance to make it if I could jog a bit. So I did, for a few feet, but the rash had debilitated me to hardly what one could describe as a trot. I started to hallucinate. I was seeing things just outside of the light cone. WHAT WAS THAT? I started to freak myself out a bit. Looking at my watch obsessively, wondering if I could make it, battling back and forth with my demons telling me to just sit down and give up.
I see light ahead. I look at my watch. I’VE MADE IT! Wait, no, that’s just a party, that’s not the aid station. SOB! My spirits sink again. I plod on. Looking at my watch, and looking ahead on this dark lonely dirt road. I see the timer tick over 2:15 am, still no sign of the aid. I know my race is over, I’m depressed, disappointed, I stop and sit on a rock along the road and put my head in my hands. After a minute or two I stand up and walk the rest of the way into the aid station. I got there a measly 9 minutes after the cut off. Which was the icing on the cake; I didn’t miss it by an hour, or get lost, or get injured. I missed the cut off by ONLY 9 minutes! I was disappointed in my crew for not getting me that red bull or getting me out of the stations faster. I was disappointed that dad dropped and I was going it alone. But most of all I was so disappointed at me. Why couldn’t I have run that last stretch of road, or not have stopped there to pee, or do this or that. When the volunteer said “are you ready for your night to be over and to be in a warm bed” it almost made me sick. I responded “no, but I don’t think I have a choice now do I,” and reluctantly handed over my bib number and sat silently by the fire. After about 5 minutes of pondering I joined Loni and Rik in the car and after checking up to see that John was still pushing on we went back to camp and to sleep.
John managed to survive the Stonewall division and collect another buckle to add to his collection. As for Team Robert, we went home with our tails between our legs, wondering what the future held and knowing that Peak was just a few weeks away.
From the race Director post race:
“Fifteen years is a long time to remember, so it's hard to rank this weather. There have probably been more violent storms, hotter and colder temperatures, and a wetter course. But we don't remember a prior occasion with the mix of these bad things all at the same time that we received this year.
One hundred and seventy-three runners braved this weather and 101 finished. It was the fourth highest attrition rate in the history of the event.”