Umstead Marathon 2019

This weekend’s training plan called for a 26 miler on Saturday, and lo and behold there was a trail marathon that very day down in Raleigh, North Carolina. Of course I signed up for it. Any time I can do a long run where someone else has dealt with the logistics and I can possibly score some swag, I’m going to do it.

And the race crew of the Umstead Marathon absolutely dealt with the logistics.

This is one of my favorite races to date. From Registration to Finish Line, every detail was attended to perfectly. Pre-race communications were excellent–right down to assigning us parking areas to use on race morning. Anything that wasn’t covered in the emails leading up to race day was included in the FAQ section of their website. Race morning had volunteers lined up, smiling, and being incredibly helpful and organized from the very beginning. I knew driving into the park on race morning that this was a well organized, thought out production.

After checking in and getting my race bib and goody bag, I loitered around the campfire blazing in the lodge that acted as Grand Central for the race. Though not particularly warm, it was a dry, not freezing place to meet our fellow runners, stow our pre-race gear, and prepare for what was coming. We received our pre-race briefing and motivating speech, then headed to the Start to be turned loose at exactly 9:00a. We were off!

Umstead Start
Warming up at the Start with new acquaintance Stephanie who traveled from Canada. Photo by: Vasu Madava

Once again I was in that mentally tricky spot of trying to keep this as a training run, while still pushing my effort a little—the top 15 males and females earned a wooden plaque and the lure of swag is always strong with me. I started mid-pack and tried to keep an even pace, but after the first turn-around at a mile into the course I was already third female. I set my eyes on the second place female and just followed her lead for the opening miles.

The course wisely starts us out on a small down-and-back stretch of dirt road—wide and long enough for everyone to spread out in every way. By the time we hit the single track there was no bottle necking and everyone was clustered in with similarly paced runners. This all changed quickly, however, as some sections were insanely thick with slippery mud. I started having flashbacks of the Holiday Lake 50k++ race a few weeks ago and started to dread another slog fest. For better or worse, this section also has never ending undulations of root infested hills and runners who started out too fast quickly found themselves struggling a little with this assault on the quads. Between the climbs, the descents, and the frequent appearance of mud holes, the train of runners spread out quickly.

Umstead Run Vasu Madava 2
Photo by: Vasu Madava

Somewhere along here I passed the second place female. She was running strong but I was ready to push the speed a little. Ahead I caught sight of a man who had a great pace on the flats and a smart attack strategy on the hills. I stayed about 20 steps behind him—not able to actually catch up to him, but close enough to consider him a bit of a pacer.

Eventually we broke free of the muddy singletrack and ended up on a hard packed dirt road, which we would stay on for a majority of the rest of the race. The next couple of miles had long, rolling hills—nothing horribly steep or high, but long enough that I decided to break into my hill intervals to conserve energy for the rest of the race. I caught up to my ‘pacer’ around mile 10. His name was Mike and we briefly chatted while catching our breath and rehydrating, but mostly we just ran with each other and fed off each other’s strengths. For the duration of the race, we were never more than a few footsteps away from one another.

We weren’t the only ones using these trails. It was a beautiful faux-Spring day and many families and local running clubs were out taking advantage of the rare sunshine. I was amazed at how cheerful and supportive everyone was. I hardly passed anyone who didn’t offer some word of encouragement. The course markings and volunteers at critical turns made it easy to zone out and just run without panicking that we were going the wrong way. Aide stations were perfectly spaced apart and manned with exuberant and helpful volunteers. We were greeted by name at each stop and treated like rockstars. Such an energy boost! But the race-provided bike support was my favorite thing out there. These riders cruised up and down this long stretch of road looking out for us all the entire time. They had extra water and Gu for anyone who needed support between the aide stations, and cheers and supportive words for everyone. That little touch by the race production team made a huge impression on me. This is a crew that has the runner’s best interest at heart and it showed at every turn.

This part of the course is a very long down and back. After turning around at mile 15, I was able to see the rest of the pack and assess how I was doing in the overall standings. First place female was far ahead of me and I had no inclination to try to chase her down. She looked stronger than I felt. Third place female wasn’t far behind me and I was certain she’d catch me before the Finish. I hoped she would—my shoe laces were starting to loosen and I told myself once she passed I’d pause to retie them. Everyone in the field was still moving fairly well, though some faces were starting to show the strain of the effort, and everyone cheered on one another.

Umstead Run
My friend, my pacer, my motivator, Mike. So glad we found each other so early in the race and spent so many miles together. Photo by: Dennis Geiser

Around mile 22, when the end seemed so very close, and the legs were starting to tell me they were done with all this running stuff, the course diverted away from the main path and down a side trail. Down. Way down. I picked up a little speed here and saw the first place female walking back towards me. She wasn’t as far ahead now, and the thought crossed my mind that if I really dialed it up I might catch her. But this wasn’t the day to go into the red…I had to keep this as a training run which meant holding my steady effort and finishing strong. At last we reached the turn around and made our way back up up up this hill, where again I could see who was directly behind me. Third place female was still not far behind though I think I may have gained a little distance. By now my mind and legs were getting so fatigued, and I was really hungry. I started to not care where I finished. I just wanted to get to that line!

At last we wove our way back on the trail we started with and just in time, reached the Finish Line. Mike and I Finished as we’d raced—within steps of one another. Though we didn’t talk much, we’d shared miles and miles of company and unspoken encouragement. We paced one another and probably pushed one another a little bit harder than if we’d been out there alone. Finishing together was a great end to the race.

Umstead Finish 5
We finished seconds apart. I’m so thankful we were able to push one another and Finish strong…and in one piece! Photo By: Dennis Geiser

I don’t usually linger very long after races. I get chilled about 6.2 minutes after I stop running and end up shivering so badly I just want to get into dry clothes, a hot car, and back to my family. But the Lodge was full of door prizes, warm food, cold drinks, a masseuse and that raging fire. I waited to see the third place female come through (she never did pass me which meant I never did get a chance to redo my shoelaces!), headed into the lodge to put back on my pre-race warm clothes, and hung around the fire talking to some fellow runners for a while. After stretching and rehydrating, I was ready to start the process of getting cleaned up, changed, and start the three hour drive home again.

Umstead Finish 6
Top three Women! I finished 2nd Female, and 13th overall with a time of 3:51 Photo By: Dennis Geiser

I can’t say enough good things about this race. After the Holiday Lake misery, this was Nirvana. Every detail was thought through in advance and from this runner’s perspective, it was a smooth day. I’m so thankful to the entire race production team, the amazing volunteers, the people of Raleigh, and all the sponsors who helped make this such a great training run.

Umstead Course
One day I’ll remember to stop my Garmin when I cross the Finish Line and not ten minutes later. But this was not that day.

 

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Holiday Lake 50K++

Anyone who knows me knows that I hate, hate, hate the cold, and that racing in wintry weather is my nemesis. For years I’ve had a strict rule against doing any races from December through March. But with multiple big Ultramarathons looming in 2019, my training runs were going to start getting long early in the year. So I cringed a little then signed up for the Lynchburg Ultra Series (LUS). Their races happened to fall on Saturdays when I needed to get in my longest runs, and any time I can do a super long run with the logistics taken care of by somebody else, and possibly earn some cool swag in the process, I’m going to do it!

It can be a challenge to run a race as a training run and not as an actual race—especially when bib numbers are assigned as seed numbers based on previous race results. So when I received bib # 103 for this year’s Holiday Lake 50k++, I knew I was in trouble. Part of me wanted to earn that seed placement and come in third or better, but I also knew I needed to keep this as a training run and not exert too much effort to try to finish a certain way. The season is too long and I have too many races to run for me to burn out or injure myself on day 1.

Race morning came and I still didn’t know what to wear. The weather was going to be all over the place with temperatures dropping throughout the day and precipitation possibly cycling through just about every form possible. I have a tendency to overdress, but I also know I don’t do well when cold. I made the last minute decision to wear my coldest weather gear and headed out.

The start was in the dark and we began with an immediate uphill on the road. I didn’t want to start too fast but I also didn’t want to get stuck in a long line of slower runners once we hit the singletrack. I made my way to the front quarter of the pack and settled in. My closest group of runners included the first two females and for many miles we ran in a little train with me in the back—where I could see which roots to avoid and where the slippery spots were. I warmed up quickly and it wasn’t long before I started to debate if I should drop my sweartshirt layer off at the first aide station along with my flashlight.

I ate and drank according to my plan and held a steady 8:30 average pace. I felt strong, and almost hot, when we hit the aide station about four miles in. I dropped my flashlight but decided at the last second not to take of my sweatshirt. Race Director David Horton yelled that I was overdressed. To oblige him, I took of my hat and stuffed it in my pocket.

Three miles past the aide station my face felt the stings of the first drops of sleet coming down. I put my hat back on, zipped up my all my layers, and braced for the worst. Now that the weather arrived I knew the already soft trails were going to get sloppy quickly. I was already pushing my pace just a little more than I probably should have been, but I kept it up knowing that all too soon the path was going to become treacherous and I’d have to slow down significantly. I wanted to complete as many miles as I could before things turned ugly.

I made it to the halfway point feeling great. There had been a few creek crossings that froze my feet but nothing so terrible that I couldn’t keep running. I was fourth place female now and knew I wouldn’t be able to hold that to the finish, but I still had my sight set on coming in top ten female and ideally top 50 overall. I passed through the aide station and turned around to headed back the way we came to finish up the day.

Holiday Lake 50k

Like a switch, everything changed. What was a pleasant run on the way out had become my version of a nightmare. On the way back, the narrow singletrack now had to support runners coming in both directions. While I usually love seeing other runners on down-and-backs like this, this was just treacherous. With over 100 runners now stirring up the mud, the trails were quickly becoming a mess. A thin film of ice covered the leaves and dirt on the edge of the trail so even trying to step aside and let runners through was  dangerous. I finally broke free of this section only to find myself on a path now ankle deep with shoe-sucking mud. I slid with every step, even on the flats. Running was possible but fraught with danger and I opted not to risk breaking myself for this race. Jogging turned to walking, and though I knew my goals were probably going right out the window, I was determined not to end my running season in the first 20 miles of my first race.

As if the trails weren’t bad enough, the weather doubled down on itself. Rain turned to sleet turned to heavy snow turned back to rain and then continued to mutate as the temperature dropped further and further. Everything was wet. Everything was cold. I was miserable but also incredibly thankful that I stuck to what I knew worked best for me and had on as many layers as I did. I couldn’t feel my fingers. I only felt my feet when I went through yet another icy creek crossing. But my core stayed warm enough that I could keep going.

After too many miles and a lot of curse words, I got a break from the slop fest of mud and was now on the rock-hard jeep trails. Though easier to find footing here, the impact of the hard ground was painful on my cold tired legs. I settled in to my intervals and focused on keeping my thoughts positive. Significantly slower now, with a 10 min average pace, I was passed often though as long as I kept making forward progress, I was content.

With ten miles to go I found my second wind. My running intervals were longer and stronger. Every step brought me closer to the Finish Line and dry clothes. The trails were still messy but not nearly as bad as they had been just a few miles ago. My teeth were chattering and I found it hard to eat the chocolates I brought with me, but I kept going. My first stop at an aide station was at the very last one where I treated myself to some coke. They encouraged me to drink some hot broth but I knew if I had anything warm I’d never get going again. For once the painful cold was my strongest motivator. Fully caffeinated and with water bottles topped off, I headed back out for the final 4 miles.

I was the one doing the passing now and while my pace was still slower than before and my finish time was going to be possibly my slowest 50k to date, I didn’t care. Warm was on the horizon and I wasn’t going to stop until I got there.

Finally I broke out of the woods and back to the road where we started over 5 hours earlier. The downhill was painful and I ran on the softer shoulder as much as I could while still running the tangents. The muted sounds of the Finish Line hit my ears and I pushed harder. At last I crossed the line. 7th place Female, 26th overall and more than thrilled to have finished at all. Horton handed me the coveted top ten finishers Patagonia Fleece and after cheering in my friends Megan and Nelle, made a beeline to the warm-ish lodge to get changed.

Holiday Lake Finishers
In a stacked field, it was an honor to finish in the top ten with these awesome ladies. L to R: Megan H., Myself, Bethany P., Nelle D.

Holiday Lake 50k is one of those races that all the local trail and ultra-runners have done. I’m glad I have it checked off the list, but doubt I’ll do it again. Leading up to the race I found it very hard to get information about the race or the course. The website is lacking in basic information found on pretty much every other race website, and to even get a course description I had to put a shout out to some local trail running groups (who were fantastic about sharing Strava links and even videos of the course itself. Yeah runners!!). I heard there would be aide stations, but their exact locations and offerings were unknown. The Finish Line had no food or water at all. There was a table left over from the aide station that acted as the turn around earlier, but it had been abandoned long ago. All the food and drinks left out were soaked with rain and frozen over with ice.

The course itself was not that technical, making it a great race for a first ultra or trail run, but the lack of scenery and the long stretches on jeep roads made for a rather uninteresting loop. The short times we were on the trails around the lake were the most visually appealing, but some of that singletrack where there was heavy two-way traffic distracted from the view.

On the positive side, the race tee shirt and finishers shirt are wonderful. The design is creative and both are incredibly comfortable. The Patagonia fleece is a nice extra perk, though I wonder how long I can keep it white! The aide stations weren’t well advertised, but the volunteers manning them were exceptional. I was miserable in those conditions but at least I could run to try to stay warmish. They were out in the same horrible weather and I don’t know how they didn’t all turn into popsicles by the time it was done! Without a doubt, their cheers, encouragement, and enthusiasm made all the difference out there. It’s a wonderful feeling to be alone in the freezing cold woods and hear yelling and cowbells calling you to them. My (frozen) hat off to them all.

HOliday Lake Finisher swag

The base camp for Holiday Lake is a nice perk as well. Having the lodge to hang out in before and after the race made it ideal for mingling with the other runners and getting to share war stories afterwards. Indoor bathrooms are always a perk, and I know many runners took advantage of staying in the bunkhouse the night before the race.

Now that a few days have passed and I can feel my fingers again, I can look back at the race and be pleasantly content with the results. This was never meant to be a race for me and from the standpoint of a training run, it was very effective. I know what I need to work on now, and I’m one race closer to my goal of completing 12 ultras in 12 months. Next up, Terrapin Mtn 50k.

**Cover photo by: ArabelleBurkePhotography

 

To follow my daily progress, and mistakes, as I train for and race my 12 ultras in 12 months, including 3 100 mile distances, please Like and Follow me on Facebook at: Flag Lady Running

 

Race Across Durham Marathon 2018

Mud.

The theme of all East Coast races this weekend seemed to be Mud, and Durham Marathon 2018 provided plenty of it. In fact they had extra, which meant that the course had to be rerouted to keep us safe and the trails intact. While the concern for our lives is always appreciated, the new course cut the marathon short by 6 miles and instead of being a run across Durham, it was now a run part way across then back again.

Having the course change the week before the race is tough, but the alternative was to cancel it. Given those two options I appreciate them putting in the extra effort to host the race the best way they could with the conditions they had. In the end, it was a wonderful run that makes me eager to go back next year and explore those trails more.

It rained most of the night on Saturday but was only a slight misting by the time the 10 Mile racers lined up for their 8a start. I was a bit jealous of them–they were going to be on the trails first so their ‘sloppy factor’ was going to be a bit lower than ours. But running in the mud is just one of the perks of trail racing so I wasn’t too fussed about it! After seeing them off, I killed time by listening to ‘The Greatest Showman’ music to get fired up for our Start at 9a, and debating whether or not to wear a shirt with long sleeves or not.

After a pep talk and safety briefing at the Start (follow the White blazes, if you fall get back up, help one another) we were off. The first two miles were tricky if only because everyone was still jostling for position. I didn’t want to start too fast, like I did at Blues Cruise 50k, but I didn’t have the distance to start too far back and creep my way up, like I did at Mountain Masochist 50 Miler. And just how does one pace for a 20 miler?!

Durham Marathon pro shots (3)
Having too much fun! Photo Credit: Amy Rossi

Two miles in we’d already passed through inches thick mud, light and fluffy sand, and wet rocks, but had found our little pockets of like-speed runners and the attempts to pass one another became less frequent. Soon we climbed up to the road and ran across a bridge. This brief respite from the trail let everyone spread out a little more and by the time we hopped down the (slippery) stairs on the other side and back onto the trails I was in a cluster of runners that I would eventually stay with the rest of the race–though our spots in this train of forward motion would vary with the terrain. Quietly we ran along the trails on the other side of the Eno River–careful to watch our footing while maintaining a good pace.

Trying to learn from past mistakes, I watched my speed closely. I wanted a good effort on these ten miles out, but wanted to conserve energy for the return trip. We were told that the middle ten were the hardest, so in these opening miles I tried to find that balance of banking time and saving some juice for the end. I was occasionally passed, but only once by a female. I never lost sight of the people ahead of me though, and felt reassured when I saw Pink Shirt Guy and Orange Shirt Guy, and Crazy Shorts Guy, just ahead of me in the woods.

There were creek crossings, there were mud pits, there were sections of incredibly dry and thick sand, there were slippery stairs and there were hills, but none of it was too bad. Even the middle ten miles we were warned about weren’t any worse than what we have on the trails around here. Still, I walked the steeper hills and pushed hard on the flats, hoping that on the return trip my attempt to control effort would pay off.

1 mile from the turn around I started to see the lead runners coming back. There is something highly motivating about getting a ‘Great job!’ shout out from Michael Wardian as he breezes past you. I figured he’d be 4 miles ahead of me so to see that I was only 2 miles behind him put some pep in my step.

Durham marathon Michael
Amazing athlete and all around nice guy, Michael Wardian cruising along the trails

I also saw the lead females. The second and third place females weren’t too far ahead of me and one of them looked concerned, but I never saw the woman who had passed me so easily earlier on. I wondered if she was actually running the 10 mile course…or perhaps wasn’t racing at all and was simply out to get her regular morning run in?!

At the turn around I felt great. Unlike the BelMonte 50k run this year, when the thought of retracing my steps deflated me, I now felt ready to turn it up and finish these final 10 miles of my race year as strong as I could. I passed two guys at the aide station, and another one a few feet after that. They were the ones who had passed me earlier and I fully expected them to regain the lead once they refueled, but never did.

The first 5 miles of this return trip were fun. I got to see the rest of the pack as we navigated sharing the singletrack. This is always the best part of a down-and-back. There is so much energy shared when runners encourage one another and throw out the occasional high-five. This section, though more technical than the final 5 miles would be, passed quickly and felt easier than it did on the way out.

Eventually, though, I found myself in the familiar No-Man’s territory–behind the fastest runners, ahead of the mid pack, and alone on the trails. A man named Mike wasn’t too far behind me and would often catch up to me on the hills, which I continued to hike instead of run. He encouraged me not to slow down and said his goal was to stick with me. We were a bit of a team, and it was comforting and motivating to know he was right behind me. Sadly at one point I turned and he wasn’t there. I didn’t see him again until the Finish Line, but his presence on the trail absolutely helped me push harder than I probably would have on my own.

Durham Marathon pro shots (2)
Rock hopping on slippery rocks is hard on tired legs, but better than wading through cold water! Photo by: Amy Rossi

I passed a few more people along this stretch but was never the one being passed, which gave me more energy. Finally I climbed the slippery steps back to the bridge and knew I had 2 miles to the Finish. For better or worse this was a fairly flat section, which meant no more walking breaks. I dug deep and pushed my pace as hard as I could, clocking an 8:10 mile and an 8–my two fastest miles of the day.

I crossed the Finish Line in 3:09. My 2018 race season was over!

Durham Marathon pro shots (5)
The day done! Photo by:  Amy Rossi

Originally I thought this race would be a one-and-done, but I think I’ve changed my mind. This race has great production value–the tee shirts are possibly THE most comfortable shirts I’ve ever seen, the course is great for beginner and veteran trail runner alike, the Finishers Medals are unique and handcrafted, and the volunteers were spectacular. I never stopped at an aide station but they were full of energy and seemed to have plenty to offer in terms of both drinks and foods.

Given all the logistical struggles they had in the week leading up to the Start of this race, I was impressed with the quality of this race. I’m sure some people were fussed by the changes that had to be made in order to let this race happen at all, but I know that the directors did everything they could to give us a great day of racing–and it paid off. I lingered longer at the after party than I have at any other race and was a little sad when it was time to clean up and make the three hour drive home–although rinsing off the sweat and mud DID feel good!

I thank everyone involved in this race for making my last event of the 2018 season so fantastic!

Durham Marathon bling

The Race Across Durham Marathon and 10 Miler supports the LIFE Skills Foundation–a group dedicated to helping children and young adults who are aging out of Foster Care and assists with things like Housing, Education, and Financial Literacy.

I ran this race in honor of SSG Joseph Granville–a military veteran who took his own life after struggling with PTS. On average, veterans commit suicide at a rate of 22 per day. That number is astronomical and we must do more to help those who serve our country. If you have a veteran in your life, please check on them and let them know you are there to support them.

ssg Granville

 

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Mountain Masochist 2018

I want to complete the Lynchburg Ultra Series in 2019 so I decided to check out the final race in that series, the Mountain Masochist 50 miler, this Fall and hopefully be a little more prepared for what I’d see next year. And since I have three 100 milers already scheduled for 2019 I decided to train for Mountain Masochist by using a 100 mile training plan to build up my foundation.

A few weeks before toeing the line at Mountain Masochists I started to wonder if I’d even be able to finish it. The elevation profile for this race is beastly, the cutoff is tight, the weather in the mountains in November can be iffy, and I was exhausted. My last couple of training runs, including BLUES CRUISE 50K, were horrible. I felt physically and mentally depleted and I started second-guessing every part of my training.

faceplant
Training is tiring. Can I just take a nap?

But I knew I’d put in the hard work. I’d lost a lot of my speed since I’d focused on strength endurance, but I knew I was physically and mentally stronger than I was for my first 50 miler earlier this year (see Bull Run). I just had to have my race plan and stick to it.

On race eve, my Crew Chief Robin and I headed to Montebello and got all my gear sorted out and reviewed the To-Do list for each aide station where I’d meet her. She asked what my goals were.

“#1, Finish. #2, Finish within the cutoff time. #3, if the doves are flying, the angels are singing, and the unicorns are pooping rainbows I’d like to finish under 10 hours.”

Screenshot (116)
Elevation profile with approximate location of Aide Stations. Having this was incredibly handy during the run to brace for what I’d see between stops.

Friday night it poured. Saturday morning it drizzled. When we parked at the Start Line the sky was clear, the air was warmer than predicted, and I was ready to stop thinking about this beast and just run it.

As per usual, I was the dork dressed to the nines with layers of clothing most people would consider way too warm for this weather. But I knew we would be getting very wet very early, and even though the air wasn’t too bad, mixed with mountain water I was very susceptible to getting too cold and never being able to bounce back again. I didn’t want my race to end in the first 5 miles!

Mountain Masochist phone pics (2)
Let’s get this party started!

At last we started and headed into the night. Everything about this start worked out in my favor. I began at the back of the pack and was forced to move slowly as the herd wound its way around the pond and bottlenecked at the first gate. I had to stay slow as the train eeked it’s way up our first incline until we broke onto the road. I trotted along instead of ran as the mass of people jogged down the road and settled in for the long haul.

Much sooner than I anticipated, we had our first stream crossing. After all the rain the week before and then again last night, rock hopping was absolutely out of the question. Still, a line of runners had formed to the right with people hoping to find a way to get to the other side without getting wet. Originally my plan was to do whatever possible to stay dry as long as possible. That plan now flew out the window. I passed about 10 people as I stepped left and just dove right into the creek and to the other side in two steps. I felt the wet, but not the cold and happily continued on my merry way.

About a million stream crossings and small inclines later, I was still pleasantly warm and the feet were drying quickly. We passed the first aide station, which race director Todd told us would be liquids only and encouraged us not to stop here unless we had to (as a courtesy to the people who own the land but let us use it for this race). I gave my bib number and kept going. The pack had spread out now, and I fell in with a couple of guys that I would end up leap frogging for almost the entire duration of the race. Their paces were steady and matched my goal for this section, so I kept them in sight and let my brain turn off as I simply followed along. This stretch had about a thousand massive puddles we had to skirt around (maybe only a few hundred puddles, but it was still too many!) and by the time we arrived at AS #2 I was fed up with them all. Here most dropped their headlamps and some met with their crew, but I kept my flashlight and pushed on through knowing Robin was just a couple miles down the road at AS #3.

Holding onto my lights was a great decision. This section had the dreaded tunnel—at least it was the tunnel I personally dreaded in the days leading up to the race. By all accounts this was a long tunnel with deep water and very slippery. I feared this monster would be my undoing. Cold water and I are not friends. But prior to the Start I hadn’t really appreciated just how wet we’d already be before even hitting this spot. By the time we actually arrived at my nemesis, I had been wet, then dry, then wet, then dry again about ten times over. This tunnel was nothing.

But it was dark. Yeah for the handy flashlight! With it I could pick my steps a little better and kept myself in ankle deep water instead of knee-deep. Good to note for next year!

Mountain Masochist phone pics (10)
Every aide station was a sight for a sore eyes. The volunteers were incredible and provided us with whatever we needed…including the encouragement to get going again!

I found Robin at the next aide station where we quickly ran through my To-Do list and I headed back out again. For the next 11 miles, I worked hard to keep my head in the game and keep my pace slower but steady. From now until I saw her again at The Long Mountain Aide Station, it was essentially uphill. I resorted to my tried and true method of running 100 steps, then walking 25. The inclines weren’t too bad and each one was very runnable, but they were long and I knew there were a lot more to come. I had to hold steady and not drain my energy this early on. I passed some people, but more passed me. I didn’t let that bother me. It was still too early to worry about what place I would finish. I just had to plod along and focus on the long game.

There were instances where someone would be just about to pass me as I took my final steps of walking and started running again. I hope they didn’t think I was being a jerk about being passed! But then again, if they were worried about what I was doing they would have seen that I was doing intervals and wouldn’t have cared.

Mountain Masochist Wayside (1)
Around the halfway point and still smiling. The three of us leapfrogged one another and encouraged one another up yet another long climb  Photo By: Christopher Miller

Finally I reached Long Mountain Aide Station at mile 23.05 and once again found Robin. This is a huge aide station and since it was essentially the mid-point, we scheduled this to be my longest stop along the way. I changed my top, changed my socks, changed my shoes, ate a lot, drank some more, and listened to Robin cheer me on and tell me that I was doing great.

She knows I don’t like to know what place I’m in until later in the race, and sometimes not even then. I have to run my race my way with the conditions I’m given at that moment. If it’s just not my day and I’m giving it everything I have, knowing if I’m first or last doesn’t change what more I can do. I hadn’t seen another female since before the first aide station and was pretty certain I was mid pack and out of the running for getting one of the coveted Patagonia fleece vests given to the top 10 Finishers. I wanted one, but was okay if I didn’t get it this year. It would give me a goal for next year.

I left Long Mountain feeling dry and warm and ready to climb some more. When I saw Robin again at the 9th Aide Station at mile 28.19 I was done with the longest of climbs and still felt great. I ate a little more, listened to her pep talk and headed out again.

The next section coming was the Loop. Originally Robin was going to meet me here since Aide Station 10 and 11 are in the same spot. But at the Athletes Meeting, race director Todd warned us that the area is mayhem during the day. This loop is on a popular hiking trail and with such a nice day, with the foliage at it’s peak, the already busy spot would be packed. He suggested that if we didn’t have to have crew there, to skip it. We decided to heed his advice and I’m glad we did. There was no way Robin would have been able to be at that aide station then get to the last crew access aide station 3 miles down the road in time to meet me. It was chaos up there. Cars everywhere—which was tricky since our race course brought us down the single lane road they were trying to come up, people milling about all over, dogs eager to greet us sweaty and salty runners . . . mayhem!

But the loop was gorgeous! By far the most technical trails we’d seen thus far, but certainly not difficult. There were a lot of hikers out there who generously stepped aside to let us run through and cheered us on as we passed. Seeing other people was a huge mood boost, and a subtle reminder that the day was slipping by. We had to be back at the Finish before 6:30p if we wanted our race to count, and it was already midday. It was time to get moving.

I finished the Loop and thought I’d grab a sip of Ginger Ale at the aide station. There was a crowd and just as I was about to stop to wait my turn, someone touched my arm. It was Brian, who’d I’d been leap frogging with since the opening miles. He nodded for us to get going, and I followed. I’d really been craving that Ginger Ale for the last two miles, but he was right—Robin was just down the road and I felt too good to be lingering unnecessarily.

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The last Aide Station to meet with Robin. Still feeling strong, but unaware that things are about to change!

I felt great. We were on the flip side of the race now. Now was the time to turn up the gas a little and push the pace harder when I could. My Garmin says that Brian and I were averaging an 8 min pace for this section. We chatted some more then he fell back to fuel while I walk-ran up yet another hill to get to Aide Station #12—the last time I’d see Robin before the finish.

It was here that everything changed.

When I checked in with my bib number, they told me I was 5th place female.

Wait…what?! I thought I was mid pack!

But no, wait a minute, the first female was part of the small group of people who were allowed to start the race a couple of hours early. They are ineligible for awards and don’t count in the overall standings, so really I was 4th.

WHAT?!

Euphoria ebbed when I looked back and saw the next female scream up the hill to the aide station. Her name was Megan, she looked fresh as a daisy, and was herself ecstatic about our overall place in the race—her even more-so since last year she wasn’t able to finish. This year she was crushing it!

I took some time here to refill bottles, drink some broth, and get my final cheer and hug from Robin, then headed off. I knew it was only a matter of time before Megan passed me and about a mile up the road she did. I was excited for her. Clearly she felt great and after disappointment from last year finishing so strongly had to feel amazing for her.

I, on the other hand, could feel the Bonk creeping in. I couldn’t catch my breath, I felt depleted, and I was starting to have the dangerous ‘this is so stupid, I hate this’ thoughts. Now I was walking more just because I didn’t have the energy to do more than that. I knew I was getting dehydrated and in need of calories. I just had to make it to the final aide station and take care of things.

I finally made it there and immediately drank two cups of coke. I ate some oranges. I stretched and breathed and waited until my heartrate slowed down a bit. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to slow down in order to speed up, so I made myself wait until I was sure I was fueled up and calm enough to head back out.

While there, a group of three runners approached—one of them being the 6th place female. Great. I was going to be passed again. If this kept up I wouldn’t finish in the top ten after all.  She asked how I was doing and I told her she was about to pass me.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said. “You’ve got this.”

I took her words to heart and headed out again, braced for three more miles of climbing before the final 5 miles of downhill to the finish. This was it. These were the final miles. This was where I needed to give it all. I trained for this. Now I had to do it.

The climbs were difficult, but I wasn’t alone. The threesome quickly caught up to me and we trudged uphill together. I was glad they were there. Even though I was certain they’d pass and fly past me as soon as we reached the top, suffering in the company of others was a huge mental boost!

We finally reached the top and began the long descent to the Finish. About a mile down I looked back and didn’t see anyone. They hadn’t passed me after all. The further down I went, the stronger I felt. My feet hurt from all the pounding on the rocks but that was the only glitch, and I knew that finishing fast was the best way to cure that. I pushed harder and faster. I kept checking back but never saw anyone, and that encouraged me to turn it up a little more. There was no reason to hold back any more.

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The Finish Line in sight at last!   Photo By: Christopher Miller

At last I turned to the Fish Hatchery road. Less than half a mile to go! At the final stream crossing (really?! 0.1 miles to finish and I have to get wet again!) I looked back and saw two guys that I hadn’t seen at all since we left the 9th aide station, when I saw one of them get into the back of a waiting car. Their sudden appearance right behind me, when I had just checked and saw no one, caught me off guard.

One passed me just as we approached the Finish Line, but I didn’t care. I looked at the clock and saw that I was coming in under 10 hours.

Under ten!?

Fifth Female?

Are you kidding me?!

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DONE!

I was ecstatic and bursts into tears as I crossed that long awaited Finish Line. Robin caught me and held me up/congratulated me as I collapsed with exhaustion and shock.

Robin had been a Saint all weekend: running around after me, racing to get to the next aide station before me, cheering me, handling sweaty clothes, shoving food in my face, and being personal photographer. But now she kicked into even higher gear. She knows from UROC 100k that once I finish, I am mental mush. Without being fully aware of it all, she had me changed into dry clothes, wrapped in a warm blanket, drinking chocolate milk, and resting while she checked on the awards ceremony schedule and got the car.

After a shower, some soup, and the two of us squealing with excitement and chattering about each of our experiences through the day, we made our way back to the Finish Line for the awards ceremony. It was fun to see everyone again, although people were sometimes hard to recognize out of their running attire!

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L to R: Megan who conquered Masochist race demons, Me, and “Don’t Sell Yourself Short” motivator also named Erin with our Top Ten Finishers vests

 

My muscles were sore and achy all night so I didn’t sleep much, and the time change just made the night feel eternal. Just before dawn I got up and dressed and headed outside to walk around. The sunrise was stunning, and the quiet gave me a chance to pause and give thanks for the amazing weekend we’d had.

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Robin and I retracing some of the race route (and picking up a few white flags from the race) while doing a recovery hike up to Spy Rock on Sunday morning

Weeks before the Start I’d started to dread this race. I read enough race reports and talked to enough people to be worried about what was out there. Coupled with the poor final training runs, I had doubted whether I should have even registered for this one. But I’m glad I did. It was a beautiful race and for the first time in my short ultra career, I feel like I nailed my training and race strategy. I couldn’t have asked for a better race day, and as I head into my final races of 2018, I’m re-energized and excited about what next year will bring!

Mountain Masochist Stats
Since I never remember to stop my Garmin, these stats include 3 minutes worth of me hobbling around the Finish before I stopped it.

 

To follow my daily training and adventures as a Mother Runner, please follow my athlete Facebook page at: Flag Lady Running

 

 

 

Blues Cruise 2018

Last year the Blues Cruise 50k was my ‘A’ race for the Fall; I trained specifically for that course and elevation profile. A few weeks after Blues Cruise I was going to run the 8k in Richmond then go immediately from that Finish Line to the Start Line of the Richmond Marathon, so my training plan included a lot of speedwork and fast tempo runs.

I toed the line of Blues Cruise 50k in a very different place than I did last year.

This year my goal has been to build a strong foundation of mileage and endurance before training for next year’s long list of ultras. Speed has been on the back burner, and I signed up for Blues Cruise itself simply because it’s a fun race and I happened to have a 30 mile training run planned for that same weekend.

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Part of me was realistic about goals for this race and knew not to expect the same epic run I had last time, but another part of me remembered how great that day was and since I was a stronger runner now surely I could come close to repeating that performance.

Wrong.

First, the one loop 31 mile course reverses direction every year. Last year was the ‘hard’ direction making this year the ‘faster’ loop.

Lies.

This year all the hills would be in the first 20 miles. While the elevation itself isn’t very remarkable, the grade is. Most of them had such sharp inclines you simply had to walk up them, and running down the other side was often treacherous—especially since the course was covered with wet leaves on top of a muddy trail. It was really hard to find that balance of making good time, finding my stride, yet not burning out my legs in the front part of the course.

My plan was to go out strong and get towards the front of the 380+ runner field, then settle in to my own pace and chug along to the Finish. Last year this plan worked perfectly and I entered the single track as the lead female, never to see another woman the rest of the race. This year the lead pack bolted from the Start Line at 7min/mile pace. And I was passed by four women in the first mile. Holy Smokes! I reigned in my own pace and convinced myself that I just had to stay strong and steady. No way could these runners hold that pace for the duration of the course. I’d just do my thing and wait for them to burn out.

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Still smiles at the first aide station, but already very aware that this was going to be a very different experience than last year!

My plan worked a little. I passed three more women in the second mile—when the hills started to come, but then was passed again by a woman who was cruising along with a strength and comfort that I knew wasn’t going to wane anytime soon. About 50 yards ahead of me was a younger runner with a long ponytail and wearing what looked like a Nathan’s teal pack. She stayed about 50 yards ahead of me for almost the entire duration of the race. She amazed me. She didn’t look like she was going that fast but she had a strong and steady pace that didn’t falter even on the hills! She rolled along with the strength of a freight train. At one point she went the wrong way and we called her back to the course. This was where I ‘passed’ her, but I had a feeling she’d catch up to me in no time. I wasn’t feeling speed today and she was obviously in a strong cruise control.

Still, I decided that if she didn’t pass but was close towards the finish, I’d pull up and let her regain the lead. I didn’t want to ‘beat’ someone because of a wrong turn. Sure enough, two miles down the road she chug-chug-chugged her way right on past me and sailed on ahead. I was able to keep her in my sight until the final 5 miles.

Along the way I fell in with two other men, Jeff and Mike, going my general pace. Over the course of the next 20 miles of the course we ran semi-together—each of us taking a turn as the lead runner. This was a Godsend. I was struggling to find my rhythm and hold my pace, so having others around to help ‘pull’ when the energy was faltering was perfect. We naturally rotated positions in our little train of runners.

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Seeing an aide station was exciting, having to cross a mud pit and a hill to get to it was not!

At mile 17 I met with Sherry at the aide station. I was rough. She knew I wasn’t having a good day and met me prepared! Before I could complain about anything she had chocolate in my mouth, and was changing out my water bottles. A volunteer draped a cold cloth over my neck, and Sherry chased the chocolate with pieces of cold watermelon. Two miles down the road from that aide station her nursing started to kick in and I felt a little better. I found my stride a little more and could feel my brain kicking in again.

Unfortunately, this part of the course is more exposed than the front half, and the sun was now blazing directly down on us. Heat started to play a bigger role and I found myself dousing my head with cold water more than drinking it. I felt badly for the large pack of runners behind us who would be hitting this section when it was even more hot outside. Eager to get done before the temperatures rose too much more, I reset my mind and urged my body to give a little more.

At mile 20 we could celebrate being done with the hilliest part of the course and relax into the idea that the last 10 miles were ‘flat’ and runnable. Only problem was that my legs were fried from the front 20 of climbing and running any kind of a pace seemed comical. Plus, it was hot! I decided to do intervals and ran 5 minutes, walked 1. This helped me get my heartrate down, and let my legs transition into running mode. Slowly I shortened my walking break and tried to push the running pace. By the final 7 miles I was running almost entirely and holding a fairly decent pace for the day—though certainly making no speed records! Jeff was right behind me and matching me footstep for footstep. Just behind him Mike pushed hard with all he had and we three arrived at the final climb together.

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The elevation profile doesn’t really do it justice, but the views of the Blue Marsh Lake make up for it….a little!

This was actually a runnable climb, but it was long, and it was now very hot, and I was very done. I happily walked the whole thing and the three of us rejoined at the top and began our final push to the Finish Line.

“Bring us in, Erin,” Mike said, and the three of us did our best impersonation of a sprint down the grassy field to the Finish Line.

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(L to R) Mike, Jeff and I sprinting to the Finish. Poor Sherry didn’t have much notice we were running in and did a great job capturing the moment at the last second!

 

Done! My time was nowhere near last year’s, but I didn’t even care. Just getting here had taken all I had in me. Thanks to my running train, I was able to move fast enough to get third in my age group, and 6th female overall—I earned the coveted second paddle to complete my set.

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At the Finish waiting for my paddle. I look like I’m being sassy, but really I’m stretching my hips!

I crashed to the ground and enjoyed just not moving anymore. Sherry met me with my recovery BCAAs and chocolate milk and I grateful guzzled them both. Nearby someone had connected a hose to a spigot so I made my way there and took a shower, trail style. Getting out of my wet, stinky, skin hugging running clothes felt amazing! Clean(ish) and in dry clothes again, we hung out at the Finish for a little while longer. But the bugs were bad and we had a long drive home, so Sherry helped me waddle to the car and settle me in.

This run was painfully hard and frustrating in that it was the total opposite of last year’s efforts. It’s hard to remind myself that it’s because the training is so very different from what it was. But I did learn a lot and I know now how to tweak my training plan for next year. I will definitely be adding in more speedwork—which by then will be safe to do thanks to foundation building I’m doing this year. This race had no taper (I ran 27 miles at Yeti as a volunteer just the week before) which also makes it very different from my previous experience here, but many of my 50ks next Spring won’t have a taper either so this was good practice to learn how I need to pace myself for that series of back to back races.

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Me with Mike and Jeff. We strengers relied on each other more than we thought we would but together we made it to the end

Blues Cruise is still an amazing race. Never having to retrace your steps during the race is a nice treat, the swag is out of this world generous and high quality, and the aide station, hands down, are the best in the business. Pagoda Pacers put on a great event and even though it wasn’t my best day, that had nothing to do with their production.

Next year the course reverses itself again. What others call the ‘hard’ direction, I found to be the easier one (climbing hills when already eager to walk at the end of a long run is a lot easier, I think, and having leaf cover during the hotter part of the day is definitely a bonus) and I’d love to run it again, but it IS the week after Yeti 100 so I doubt I’ll be up for it. This may be my final Blues Cruise for a while, but I’m definitely sad about it. Maybe I can talk Sherry into running it so I can Crew HER!

 

A very special Thank You to Jeff and Desiree and all the staff at Lucky Road Running Store for helping me get my trail shoes all dialed in for this race. I certainly wouldn’t make it to the start of any of my races if they weren’t so great at keeping my feet and legs happy and healthy!

 

Check out my Facebook athlete page to follow along on my daily training for upcoming races: https://www.facebook.com/FlagLadyRunning/

Blues Cruise 50k (17)
The sad thing about Sunday races is no Chick Fil-A milkshake, but we made due and settled for what we could!

 

Yeti 100 Volunteering

CrewMom Debbie, for all her wisdom and tricks about conquering ultra distances, has yet to do a 100 miler. Yeti was going to be her first foray into the racing side of the insanity she already knew too well. But when Yeti 100 sold out in minutes and she wasn’t one of the lucky ones to get in, we decided to go there anyway and work the race as volunteers.

Thursday we arrived—tired from battling the crazy drivers on the Interstates, and eager to see what the Yeti Army was all about. We started by working at packet pickup. This is one of my favorite places to work a race. You get to see everyone and hear a little bit of their backstories and their ‘why’. It makes it even more exciting when you see them out on the course to know what their motivation/goal is for the day.

It was pouring rain outside where the runners lined up before entering the small hallway where we set up the pre-race goodie parade, so we tried to get everything as organized as possible so as to move runners through the line and into the bar as quickly as possible. By the time the last of 200+ runners made their way through, we had it down to a science.

The Yeti swag was impressive! We stuffed the awesome logo-emblazoned swag bags with a warm looking pom-pom hat, a technical race shirt with a race appropriate design, stickers, a race bracelet and a skateboard. Okay…the skateboard didn’t really fit IN the bag, but the design was out of this world cool!

Around 9p we said farewell to our fellow volunteers and super-organizer Samantha, and headed to our hotel to catch some sleep.

yeti 100 8
The calm before the Aide Station Storm!

Our shift at the Abingdon aide station didn’t start until 11a so we enjoyed sleeping in—a rare treat for two very busy mothers—and taking our time over the hotel provided breakfast. We arrived in time to help finish setting things up and eagerly looked down the trail to see our first runners come our way. Slowly they started to trickle in—the first ones clocking in a lightning fast 4:30ish 50k times to start their long day. We set to work filling water bottles and bladder, stuffing food into athlete’s hands, answering questions and waving goodbye as they flew through.

yeti 100 9
Debbie, in appropriate Yeti attire, helping the second runner into the Aide Station

After the first wave of speedsters, the middle of the pack runners arrived and were a little more willing to loiter at the aide station.  Some needed a gentle nudge to get going again, others hung around and waited for friends or spouses to catch up so they could proceed together. The last wave of runners needed a little more TLC and support. Many had no other crew with them, or family acting as crew but not really understanding how to be helpful yet. We popped blisters and taped feet, we rolled tight muscles and gave tips for fighting nausea. We let them rest, then kicked them out of the nest. This was just the beginning and they had to keep going!

Yeti 100 3
Foot surgery, Aide Station style

Just before our aide station’s time cutoff, I ran up the road a mile and encouraged the runners still out there to dig deep and put some pep in their step so their day didn’t have to end just yet. Most perked right up again when they realized how close they were to the turn around. A few dropped here—some due to medical issues, others because they ran out of time. They weren’t the first to do so and they certainly wouldn’t be the last.

When our aide station closed at 4p, we helped break down a little (the same spot would serve as the Finish Line in a few hours so not everything had to be put away) then headed back to the hotel to rest. Debbie was due back out on the course to meet with her friend and pace him for those arduous middle miles, and I was eager to help at the Damascus aide station and see if anyone needed a pacer for the final 16 miles in. Around 9p we headed back out to the course and went our separate ways.

I arrived at the aide station just as the final runners were making their way through for the second of three visits here. Some just barely made the cutoff, but looked strong and eager to keep pressing on as long as they could. There was a nice lull in activity before the front runners arrived again, but this was a great place to wait it out—two bonfires blazing away, an indoor toilet, chairs inside a screened gazebo. I chatted with a few of the other volunteers, watched the moon rise, and stared at the stars until the clouds rolled in and blocked my view.

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Damascus Aide Station at night before the racers’ final pass through here

Not long later, the first runners came through. Most had their own crews waiting for them and after brief pauses continued on their way without needing much from us. Slowly more runners trickled in in various stages of delirium. As the night wore on, they lingered longer and longer at the aide station and needed more support. Some asked us to time them so they could catch a couple minutes of sleep. Others needed help with basic dexterity like pulling out water bottles and getting food to their mouths.

One batch of runners came in in rough shape. Like the flu passing through a school, severe nausea seemed to have hit a slew of runners all at once. Soon everyone was sipping ginger ale, working on drinking some chicken broth, and trying to get their systems to calm down enough to carry on.

One runner I recognized as having been the leader into the Abingdon station a few hours earlier. Sean the Run Bum was nursing him through the nausea and encouraging him not to give up just yet—he was in no danger of missing the overall race cutoff, but if he could get going again, he had a very good chance of sneaking in under the 24 hour mark. His name was Jared and he had no crew or pacer with him, so I offered to run him in.

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On a whim I took this picture of Jared coming into Abingdon earlier in the. Little did I know I’d be running with him 12 hours later!

I was surprised at the look of relief in his eyes. I think part of that was shock. But that’s what happens in ultras like this…random strangers are suddenly willing to run through the woods with you at night! I grabbed my hydration vest and flashlight and we headed out. Though his stomach had settled a little, we knew running would only rile it up again, so we started with a brisk walk. For miles we walked and talked and got to know one another. I couldn’t help but think back to my own 100 when Ashley did me the favor of jumping in to pace me on my final miles too. Just having company after hours of solitude was a nice boost. I hoped I could pay it forward with Jared this time.

The trail was gorgeous, even at night, and he was able to keep up a fast walking pace. We arrived at the final aide station. Jared was tired and his stomach still wasn’t 100%, but we only had 8 miles until the Finish. Completing the race was in the bag. He could walk slowly…backwards…on his hands and make it under the overall cutoff, but could he do it under 24 hours? We were cutting it close but I could see in his eyes he was up for the challenge. We decided to run-walk to the finish—walk the trestles, run everything else. To my surprise, once he got going, he hauled!

According to my Garmin, our average pace was ~11 min miles, but when I broke it down further, we were anywhere from an 8 to an 8:30 pace while running. He managed to keep up this run/walk pattern all the way to the end for a phenomenal finish time of 22hrs 36 min. He got his giant bear hug from RD Jason Green and received the coveted double buckle for finishing under 24 hours. I fought back tears. Seeing someone work that hard and never give up, and be rewarded for their efforts is an incredible sight!

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Tired, but done. Jared got the double buckle!

I hung out with Jared at the Finish for a bit, making sure he had what fluids and foods he needed/wanted (which naturally wasn’t much. The stomach isn’t instantly cured just because you reach the Finish Line!) then he went to find his fiancé (who had just breezed her way through her very first 100 miler as if it were a walk in the park!), and I went to my car to change and catch a nap.

I thought I was done.

I woke up an hour later, freezing cold and eager to check out the action at the Finish line. With coffee in hand, I found Michele, who I’d worked with while this was the aide station, and we caught up on the amazing stories of the day. She was in charge of documenting racer’s official time, so she was seeing every amazing final push to that Finish Line and all the tears that naturally followed.

The sun came up, runners kept coming in, and soon it was the final crunch time. The Alvarado aide station 8 miles up the road was about to close. Runners who missed that cutoff would not be allowed to continue on. The 1p deadline to reach the Finish Line was a firm one, and if you weren’t at the final aide station in time, you weren’t going to be able to push hard enough to get in before the final cutoff.

Then came word that there was a glitch with the volunteers who were supposed to be running sweep. We had no one to follow the final runners and clear the course. I offered to drive up to Alvarado and sweep the course. It actually worked out perfectly since Debbie and her runner were not going to make the cutoff. She was going to meet me there and drive my car back while I ran.

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The course by daylight. So many gorgeous trestle crossings!

The trail looked and felt completely different in the daylight. Families were out for leisurely strolls and bike rides. I could see the raging river now and the rock formations on either side of the path. The trestles looked more artistic in the light and the multiple gates across the trail suddenly seemed a lot easier to manipulate. I ran my pace for the first 4.5 miles before catching up to the final racer. She had her poles out and was walking. Though she was moving well, it was not the pace that would get her to the Finish before 1p. I asked if she could run, even just for 20 seconds, and she did.

Her name was Brooke and it was instantly clear that she had a lot of motivation and strength still in her. She was absolutely capable of crossing that line in time . . . with a little nudging. We started running intervals. I made sure she drank some more and she ate some of my Skratch gems. We quickly made up the time and she was still charging along. We came upon the next two runners about a mile to the finish. Everyone was moving well, but we were close to the cutoff. I kept texting Samantha our updates and she sent back word that they need to run!

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Brooke (R) after showing that course just who’s boss out there!

Soon we rounded the final corner and could see the Finish Line. Tears came to everyone’s eyes. Just before the Finish we caught up to the Janette Mass who would become the DFL racer of the day. Hunched over her trekking poles and moving with a determination that would not be denied, she crossed that Finish Line and fell straight into the arms of Jason.

Done!

Samantha and I high fived and hugged. Michele and I hugged. I made my way to Brooke and gave her a hug (the motivation behind her finish is an incredible story that needs to be told. I hope she tells it!). Then Debbie and I found one another and dragged our stinky tired selves to the car.

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The Abingdon Aide station/Finish Line crew! (Missing Debbie who was probably taking care of yet another runner out there!)

I often tell people that volunteers get the best seat in the house, and we really do. We get to see the struggles, the determination, the tears, and the triumph. There is a rush to playing even a small role in someone’s accomplishment, and that’s a powerful high.

As I get ready to toe the line at Blues Cruise 50k, I will remember the faces and stories of this weekend. I will remember the dry heaving at the aide stations, the blisters, the sweat, the grimaces, the endless bladders and bottles to be filled, the tears at the Finish Line, and the hugs doled out. I’ll be back at Yeti next year, without a doubt—hopefully this time as a runner, though being a volunteer certainly has its advantages!

Training at St. Croix

“St. Croix? Where’s that?”

“It’s in the Virgin Islands.”

“Oh . . . Where’s that?”

And that right there sums up part of what we loved about our vacation in St. Croix. It’s a place people have heard of, but aren’t sure from where. It’s a beautiful haven that exemplifies all that is amazing and wonderful about the Caribbean, but isn’t the overpriced tourist trap that so many of the other islands have become.

St. Croix is an American territory just East of Puerto Rico and its location put it directly in the path of Hurricane Maria last year. This Cat 5 storm attacked the island with vengeance, and while they are slowly recovering our trip around the island showed that there is still extensive damage. Many hotels still aren’t running yet. Some restaurants are struggling to reopen. Homes still have tarps instead of roofs. The landscape both above and below water were damaged and have yet to regrow.

But the Crucians are full of smiles, good cheer, happy greetings, and a never-give-up attitude. From the moment we exited the plane (by using both the front AND the back doors! How great it that?!) we were warmly welcomed.

For our first visit here, and since it was our anniversary present to ourselves, we splurged and stayed at the Buccaneer resort.  One of the perks of this resort was the hiking trail that circumnavigated the entire resort. Though not long, the hilly terrain made it challenging enough. I found out later that this hiking trail and the gated neighborhood next to the resort were the best places to run on the island as far as safety goes. The local roads are very winding, not very wide, and have no shoulders. It’s hard to be visible no matter what you do out there. So even though the resort trail itself is only 2 miles long, it was the best and most convenient option for getting in my daily runs and workout.

The first day I did my twelve mile run on the hiking trail alone. That meant 6 loops, but the scenery and hilly terrain made the time pass quickly. The first corner brought me up a hill to a vista of the ocean crashing on the rocks below. The second turn brought me  alongside the golf course and up a false flat that led to a 20% grade hill. Thankfully it was short because that one was a lung buster! The top of this hill had a water station for the golfers and it became my personal aide station as well. Between staying hydrated in the midday sun and dousing myself with cold water to keep from overheating, I emptied my water bottle at least twice per loop.

The second mile of this trail brought me back to sea level and down a path that was littered with large crabs, hermit crabs, and iguana that constantly scurried back and forth in front of me. By my last lap, however, the iguana at least gave up and just stayed on the side and let me pass. The last section looped around three holes of the golf course and past another convenient water stop (ice cold water every time, without fail. Heaven!).

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Whenever possible, photobomb an iguana.

The next day I ventured into the neighborhood next door and wove my way through the roads leading to phenomenal mansions with breathtaking views of the Caribbean. To get these views, however, one must go up hill . . . a lot. The inclines were insanely steep and longer than they were at the resort, but I forced myself to run up them all and continue to power through once at the top. This neighborhood also offered a great safe place to work on my downhill as well.

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The top of one of the hills in the neighborhood. None of the hills had massive elevation, but they were everywhere, and steep, making for a great challenge.

Working off a tip from a fellow vacationer, I headed down one of the roads and found a magical path, about a mile long, completely enveloped in some kind of mangrove-style tree. Just when I wondered if I should turn back, the tunnel gave way to a massive beach in its own little cove. Several people were here sunbathing, swimming, and snorkeling, and I was tempted to join them, but I was afraid I’d never get going again if I stopped, so wet my hat in the ocean and headed back out again.

St Croix Erin (10)
Low ceiling and the potential to be a creepy trail, but the other side of these trees had massive mansions and I was already in a gated community so kept on going!

After a couple of days running around the resort, I was ready to venture outside the gates and check out the rest of the island. We rented a car and headed East to Udall Point–the most Eastern Part of America.

Rule #1 driving on St. Croix—drive on the left! It’s the only place in America where they drive on the left. The roads aren’t very wide so left is sometimes a rather relative term anyway, but the occasional intersection did have us repeating this rule to ourselves before actually executing the maneuver. The roads are just as hilly as the rest of the island and more often than not we found ourselves climbing the peak of the road with no way to see where the road went on the other side. Blind turns were the norm. Definitely not a safe place to run without an escort of some kind to make the runner more visible.

Thankfully the road to Udall Point is less trafficked and easier to be visible, so I hopped out there and ran the road up to the point itself. This run was beyond phenomenal. Again, the terrain was full of hills, some rather steep, but the majestic Atlantic Ocean in front of me and the shockingly blue Caribbean Sea to my left distracted me sufficiently. It was hot, but I had my water (and refills in the car) and the trade winds blew strong and consistently so I didn’t feel hot until I turned into a protected cove. And the view at the end was jaw-dropping.

St Croix Russell (13)
The Caribbean Sea as viewed from Udall Point. Buck Island can be seen in the distance

We spotted several trails leading from this road down to some beaches on the Atlantic side of the peninsula, but I was hesitant to take them. Though Russell was my driving escort, I was running alone, and I couldn’t see what the trails looked like once they wrapped around the mountains. We also knew that they eventually led to the protected beaches where sea turtles make their nests. Those beaches are closed during the nesting season and we didn’t want to accidentally go out of bounds on our first visit out here! But those trails are noted and WILL be run by me in the near future!

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The view of one of the trails from Udall Point. Below is the protected beach. Even from this vantage point, we could see the tracks of the turtles from the sea to their nests.

By now I’d accumulated almost fifty miles of running so took the next day to focus on strength work. The resort gym wasn’t anything phenomenal and didn’t have a BOSU ball so I needed to add on something more. How about some Hill repeats?! The main road in the resort led straight up hill to the big house where the restaurant was. By tacking on a bit of the hiking trail too, I could get in one mile with two hills that climbed 60ft in 1/4 of a mile each. Doesn’t sound like much, but it felt horrendous by the fourth repeat!

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Friday I needed to get in fifteen miler. I felt comfortable enough now that I could play with the roads in the gated neighborhood next door and combine that with the hiking trail in the resort itself. By doing this I could mix up the terrain a little, hit my water resupply stations along the golf course, and keep the gate guards entertained as I passed by them multiple times. The best part of this run was the finish. I ended at the beach, kicked off my socks and shoes, tossed my Garmin onto the towel and waltzed straight into the ocean.

BEST part of the run.

Russell brought over a swim noodle and I just floated in the shallow waves, savoring the way my legs ached and throbbed from approximately 2000 feet of climbing over the course of the hot run. I lay back and let the cool water soothe my body, until Russell came back over to me and put a cold drink in my hand. Not looking and thinking it was more blessed ice cold water, I took a huge gulp.

Whoops. It was a Planters Punch, not water. Nothing like chugging rum and fruit while bobbing like a buoy in the ocean!

Saturday morning I got up early and ran a tempo paced 8 mile run around the resort. I use the term tempo lightly though since the hills definitely slowed things down a bit, but I maintained my perceived effort the whole way and averaged a 7:40 pace per mile. By the time I got back (with a final cool-down dip in the ocean) and we headed out to catch our flight home, I was more than happy to sit for the entire journey back!

The runs were extraordinary in their beauty and difficulty, but the entire island and the Crucian people impressed us. There are still areas that are struggling to recover from Hurricane Maria, and the cruise ships still can’t make it into port yet which greatly affects the economy of St. Croix. But it won’t be long before those return too and jobs come back to the area.

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Nothing beats a morning that starts with fresh coffee on our private patio overlooking the Caribbean Sea just a few feet away!

We’ll definitely go back. Training there was amazing, but as a vacation place it was perfect too. The food was exceptional (Caribbean lobsters are HUGE!) and the tiramisu at Duggans Reef Restaurant is worth coming back for alone! It was a perfect place to train, and mentally recover from a busy year–and just in time for the Fall races to pick up again. In a couple of weeks I’ll run the VHTC Women’s Half Marathon again as a lead in for the Blues Cruise 50k. I have just enough time to ease my way back to reality after a week in paradise!

[To follow along on my daily training ups and downs, and lessons learned the hard way, please see ‘Flag Lady Running‘ on Facebook]

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