The day I was supposed to do my 31 mile training run the Northeast was hit by a winter ‘Wind Bomb’ and heading to the mountains was simply not safe. I know I’m far over on the crazy scale, but 80mph wind gusts and giant oak trees being uprooted is beyond even my limits!
Luckily the BelMonte Races were the next weekend and they still had openings. Since their course shares a lot of the back 50k of my upcoming UROC 100k, I figured that was my best option to get in my long run safely, run with aide and companionship, recon the course, and score some bling in the process–because whenever you can bling you should.
BelMonte offered a 25k option, a 50k option, and a 50 miler. We all started at 6a from the Royal Oaks campgrounds, but the two mile stretch on the Blue Ridge Parkway helped the ~300 runners spread out. My plan was to try to stay near the front of the pack so that when we hit the single track of White Rock Falls I was in good position. The tricky part was to not get swept up with the 25kers at the front since they would be able to push the pace harder than I wanted to. In the end, my first three miles averaged an 8min mile. Possibly too fast but it was mostly downhill and it did put me in a good pocket of runners when we hit the trail.
White Rock Falls is gorgeous. The trail is just what I expected–well maintained with lots of roots and rocks, short but steep climbs, and one water crossing that was easy to do without getting wet. After the road start, this trail put my mind at ease and I let nature relax my mind. With one final climb, we crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway to hit aide station #1.
This aide station, and the few that followed, were lackluster compared to all the other trail runs I’ve done. This particular aide station was water only (as advertised, so no surprises there), but thankfully there was a swarm of cars and families there to cheer us all on. Their presence helped mentally boost us as we slipped over the side of the parking lot and onto Slacks Trail.
Mostly downhill at this point, these trails were technical, laced with snow, rock infested, and offered stunning scenery. I tried to look up and enjoy the view, but any time I took my eyes off the trail I risked tripping over one of the multitude of mini-boulders and sharp rocks. At this point I was first place female, but I knew it was only a matter of time before that changed. I wasn’t going all-out on this course. It was a training run and CrewMom Debbie had given me strict instructions not to race it. And a wise person *always* listens to CrewMom. But I was also interested to see how long I could hold this position while still running ‘my race’.
After a second aide station manned by two or three people, and no markings to tell us where the trail went from there (something I noticed they fixed by the time I came back through hours later), we headed downhill.
And I mean DOWN. HILL.
2 or so miles of straight down. Switch back after switchback where I wanted to run but also had to be careful because it was so steep that it would have been easy to get out of control and fall for days. There was a fine line between banking time on this hill, and destroying my quads for the rest of the day. I tried to find the happy medium. Halfway down this steep descent the faster 25kers were headed back up. Their turnaround was at the bottom of this mountain so I got a chance to see the super fast runners tackling this incredible climb–and was reminded that in a few hours I’d be doing that too. It was a sobering thought.
With even fewer runners ahead of me now, the 50k course continued on from the bottom of the steep descent with another 5 miles of more gradual downhill. This old jeep trail was very runable, followed a pretty stream, and thankfully only had a few blow downs from the storm the week before. The handful of stream crossings weren’t too bad and I only got my foot a little wet on one of them. The scenery was lacking, however, so after a few miles of little to see and no other person out there, it became a little mind numbing. I pushed the legs slightly, knowing this was the easiest part of the course, terrain wise, and held an average 8 min pace.
In hindsight I should have fueled and hydrated better on this section. Logistics was a major reason why I didn’t. For me to get to my water bottles, I had to take off my gloves (which are really $1 wool socks from Walmart) and release the tab on my hydration vest to pull the bottles out. To put them back I have to manipulate the bottles back in, cinch up the tab, then put my gloves back on. This stretch was not technical and I was making decent time without much effort. I didn’t want to break my rhythm just to take a drink and risk tripping while dealing with the bottles. I have a new hydration pack that shouldn’t require so much work and I’ll likely end up using that at UROC instead, but it arrived only the day before this race and was too new for me to use for this long a distance.
At last I reached the next aide station. Here were more people to cheer and the enthusiasm after the long quiet stretch I just came from was much needed. Turning onto Coal Road I finally got a glimpse of the runners ahead of me. One was the leader of the 50 miler race. He looked relaxed, steady, and strong.
Coal Road was a disappointment after the jeep trail. Little scenery, not quite trail, and lots of hills made this a mentally difficult stretch. Although only a couple of miles long, it felt like an eternity and I was thrilled to see the next aide station marking the 50k turnaround.
I was also scared.
It was now time to retrace our steps. All of them. And I knew this was going to be almost entirely uphill from now on. My pace was going to drop and I only hoped that in the end, my time averaged out to be fairly decent.
The return trip was agony. The ~6% incline was unrelenting. A stitch settled in my right side and grew more and more painful with each step. My low back tightened and it felt like I’d been stabbed. A blister began to throb and ache in my right big toe. My hamstrings started to yell at me, and mentally I was having a hard time knowing that I was going to have to do this entire course all over again. It was hard to catch my breath, and my rhythm was all off. Compared to the way out, I felt like I was running in molasses and dreaded the fact that I had over 17 miles of running to go.
I stopped often. I tried to stretch. I tried to catch my breath, but I was deep in the hurt locker.
When I arrived at the turnaround marker for the 25kers, I knew the hardest part was coming up. I grabbed two sticks to act as trekking poles and started hiking. I’ve done lots of hill training, I’ve done lots of hiking, but based on how I performed on that mountain, you’d never know it. I was passed twice and was now second place female. The woman who passed me was powering up the incline as if she was strolling down the beach. I followed her for a short stretch but she was soon out of sight.
When I thought the incline couldn’t get any worse, it did. By the time I reached the aide station (our second visit to aide station #2) I didn’t think my legs could take me one more step. Just when an external energy boost was needed most, there wasn’t one. Two very mellow people manned the aide station now and the reception was muted at best. One tried to tell me I was first place female–it hadn’t even registered that another female had come through only five minutes before.
Knowing I needed fuel I actually paused to peruse the offerings here. The boiled potatoes with salt sounded good, but they had a thin layer of ice on them. The half bananas were ice blocks as well. I grabbed a handful of frozen gummy bears and left the dreary spot.
At last the terrain leveled out to the point where I could start running again. It was painful, but the more I ran the better I felt. My saving grace was the fact that with no way to go further up, I was now running downhill again. Though the trail was the same boulder infested, technical ridge from before I could actually move faster than a walk. My stitch was gone. My breathing eased. My back stopped hurting as much, and I felt like I was back on track.
My pace picked up, just in time for my luck to run out and trip over one of the rocks. Thankfully I was going downhill so I had some air time to plan my landing. For the first time ever, I rolled out of the fall and was back on my feet before I fully comprehended that I’d fallen at all. I kept running, brushing off the leaves and dirt, and saying a little prayer of thanks that I hadn’t landed on one of the sharper rocks that littered the trail.
I passed one of the men I’d leapfrogged with almost the entire time. He’d looked so steady and strong all along, I was surprised to see him walking on a downhill. I asked how he was and he said his leg was giving him trouble. After making sure he was okay to keep going, I headed off and made a mental note to tell the people at the next aide station to look out for him. A few hikers making their way up Slacks Trail kindly stepped aside to let me through and cheered on my efforts. Amazing how much of a boost a few kind words from strangers can give! I felt like a whole new person now–proving the Ultra adage that however you’re feeling now, give it a mile. You’ll feel different–for better or worse. In my case, it was for the better.
I emerged from Slacks Trail to aide station #1 at a scenic view pulloff on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I knew this was going to be a water only station, but I had no idea it would be completely unmanned. There was no one here to tell about the man I passed. Had there been a real emergency out on those trails, how could we possibly relay that in time to be of any help? Cell signal was sketchy at best. Once again I said a prayer of thanks that my fall wasn’t any worse because now I knew no help would have been available if I was seriously injured.
Though my water bottles were running low I was too scared to refill here. These water containers hadn’t been monitored for who knows how long. I’m just enough of a cynic to have concerns that some punk put something nasty in them. With five miles to the finish, I decided to just ration my water intake and keep going.
Back on White Rock Falls I felt my legs churning over nicely and enjoyed the gorgeous views again. I knew we were supposed to look for a secret password out here but my brain was getting tired and I was afraid I’d not see the sign or be able to remember it. I clambered over some of the larger rocks and hoped the race director would know to put the sign in a place where we’d be looking up and not someplace we would be trying desperately to avoid stumbling over boulders.
She did. She found a flat spot right between sections littered with rocks, and the password matched its location. The irony made me laugh in spite of my fatigue.
I felt good, but my legs were tired. Every cell in my body was tired. The long uphill coming back took everything out of me and I was ready to be done. Just after the final water crossing, the girl behind me passed and kept on flying down the trail. I glanced at my watch. Mile 31. Had it not been for the extra 4 miles tacked on to this course, we could have had quite a 50k Finish Line moment there, but alas, there was more to come.
I eased up considerably. My training run was for 31 miles and I still had many weeks to go before my ‘A’ races. I had no desire to ‘leave it all out there’ this time and push hard to the finish. I wanted to train my tired legs and mind to push through, but I couldn’t afford to go into the red and need days and days to recover either. I kept moving forward, walking often, and met the sight of the Blue Ridge Parkway with a mixture of happiness and dread.
Only 2 miles to go. This was great! But a lot of it was uphill and it was all pavement. Since I no longer needed to plan each and every footfall, I took the time to look up. I kept an eye out for deer or other wildlife as I plodded along. I scanned the sky for birds and the mountainside for fallen trees. I passed a couple of hikers, and one very cheerful and encouraging woman finishing up her 25k. Second place female was in eyesight for now, and there was no one behind me.
I started a walk-run method with 2 minutes walking and 3 running. It was exhausting, but I averaged a 9 minute pace here and finally made it to the finish.
There was no sprint to the end. I jogged my way down the path and tried not to crash on the stairs (finish line on a set of stairs?! They needed an air mattress at the bottom to cushion our falls!). The race director handed me my medal and congratulated me on third place female finish, then encouraged me to refuel, warm up by the bonfire, and join in the awards ceremony in 30 minutes.
I chatted briefly with the second place finisher and looked for first place but she had already left the race. I was only 14 minutes behind her. She must have had important plans, which might explain her fast pace!
I changed and stayed by the fire until the awards, then I too packed up and started the trek home. My legs were on fire. My whole body shook. That was the hardest course, mentally and physically, that I’ve done. Sadly, much of that will be seen again in my upcoming UROC race, so I’ll take these next couple of weeks to sort through the failures and success of this race and try to better prepare for the 100k.
But for now, I need to eat all the eats, drink all the drinks, and enjoy a day off.
To follow my daily journey as I train for my first 50 miler, 100k, 24 hour race, and 100 mile race, join me on my Facebook Page, Flag Lady Running.