When I toed the line at the Start of the UROC 100k in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I was as prepared as I could possibly be. I was injury free, training had gone well, and I had a phenomenal crew ready to handle me at every step of the way.
But one mile into the race, I already had doubts I’d make it. From the first step my legs felt heavy—as if I’d done a hard workout the day before instead of tapering for two weeks. And even more frustrating was the fact that my tried and true hydration pack was giving me trouble. Unlike any other time I’d used it, this time it was bouncing horrifically and every couple of steps the buckles came undone from the shearing effect. Five minutes into an ultra and everything seemed to be falling apart.
I walked for a moment to take a calming breath and readjust things. Stuffing my handheld in the back pocked seemed to balance the load and stop the bouncing and I was able to run again. I worried that the pause blew my chances of keeping up with the lead women and ruining my already long shot of getting on the podium. But sprinting to catch up with them was stupid so I focused on my original game plan–holding an easy effort to Aide Station#1.
Originally the plan was to cruise through #1 and simply drop the handheld with my crew. Not wanting to disrupt the balance of the hydration pack, though, I decided to hang onto it instead and pressed on to Whetstone Ridge.
It was a decision I’m certain affected the entire outcome of my race.
Those who follow my Facebook page know that I’ve trained on this section of the trail several times—each time it gets a little easier. Race day was no exception. I kept a conservative pace on the more runable sections and took care on the steep descents. I’m sure the lead pack of runners flew over all this without batting an eye, but I knew this was not the place for me to push hard. My goal was to finish this whole 22 mile section in 5 hours or less and with plenty of energy to spare for the back half of the course. Now more than ever I needed to stick to my own plan and not worry about what everyone else was doing.
I reached Aide Station #2 feeling better than I ever had before and was greeted with a bonus of seeing my crew there. Originally no outside help was allowed to be here but a few days before the race the directors changed their minds. The weather forecast was for extreme heat and they thought access to crew here would help. After all, this was an almost 12 mile stretch between aide stations!
I waved off their attempts to take my Patagonia Houdini vest ( I needed it to prevent neck chaffing from the hydration pack), refilled all three of my bottles, and headed out to put my training to the real test. This part was 3 miles of straight uphill leading to 6 miles of technical uphill. I’d learned that if I ran for 100 steps and walked for 25 I could power up the first massive hill without expending too much energy but hold a better pace overall than only walking. Sticking to my plan I made great time on this section and actually passed 8 people in the process.
But staying true to the theme of the race so far, there was a glitch. My right side water bottle was leaking this precious commodity all over my shirt. Unable to fix it easily, I drank from that one exclusively and more often than I would have normally so at least the water was in my body and not the ground. As a result, that bottle was empty way too early. With over 8 miles of intense climbing and technical trail to go and the temperatures rising drastically, I was in danger of blowing my entire race in the first miles…again! I’d said all along that this stretch of the race was not where anyone would win it, but it’s where we could all lose it. I felt like I was about to lose it because of a malfunctioning bottle.
But because of my glitch in the first miles, I hadn’t tossed my handheld and now had an extra 18oz of fluid in my back pocket. I rationed my intake until I arrived at the Aide Station #3—dry, but not so horribly dehydrated that I couldn’t bounce back. My crew pounced on me. While one of them sponged me off with cold water, another took off my pack and attached my pre-loaded waist pack, while yet another stuffed chocolate in my mouth. I drank while they worked, grabbed another peanut butter sandwich, then headed out again.
These next 5 miles were comparatively easy, even considering that the route gave us another mental sucker punch by bringing us within feet of the Finish line then turning away back into the woods. With fluids coursing through my blood again, and my fuel kicking in, I cruised along this section of gravel and grass road leading to Aide Station 4 at Skylark Pond. Sherry and Robin met me here, filled my bottles with cold water from our own supply and quickly sent me back out.
I was halfway through the race and feeling pretty good. I had no idea what place I was in, (I didn’t want to know), but had the general idea that I was in my typical spot in these races—behind the fast runners and ahead of the mid pack runners. It’s a deadman’s territory that I’m familiar with. But at this point I also started to see the first 50k runners heading back to Skylark for their finish. Getting and giving cheers along this section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, with all its glorious views and wildlife, was a huge mental boost. I turned onto the rugged jeep road for the climb to Aide Station #5 eager to refill my bottles and head right back out for the 2 mile stretch to the next Crew location.
The course had us running variations of road for the past nine miles. Now we were on singletrack again and I knew we’d not see road again for quite some time. While the trail is kinder to my body, it also requires a lot more mental effort as every step needed to be planned carefully, and naturally had a greater degree of difficulty in the climbs and descents. Along this trail I came across a mountain biker. We leapfrogged as we each struggled to navigate across the mini boulder fields on the trail. He cheered me on when we finally parted ways and I started to think that I’d made a mistake in choosing not to have a pacer. The extra energy from another person would be great right around now.
But in order to be eligible for prizes, we couldn’t use pacers. Since I was right on the bubble of earning a top spot, I’d long ago decided to do this with Crew only.
I met them at Aide Station #6 and had the wonderful experience of having them stuff a popsicle in my mouth. Best. Popsicle. EVER. While I drank the delicious cold sugar, the girls swapped my hydration belt for my pack with leaky water bottle fixed. I left there mourning the fact that the Aide Station had already run out of oranges (“Don’t worry,” said Sherry, “We’ll get you some.”), but high on popsicle sugar and ready to tackle the Slacks Trail loop.
The first three miles are wonderful—runable and scenic. This was my third time on this loop, but it was my first time with all the previous miles under my belt. The downhills made my legs, which never felt good the entire day, feel even worse. Instead of tackling this decline and trying to bank a little time, I had to be content with an even pace and constant forward progress—even that felt incredibly difficult at times.
The trail crosses a waterfall and marks the start of the hard part. The final two miles of this loop are all uphill, some sections so steep I had to hold onto trees to keep from sliding back down again. I had to stop several times to get my heartrate down, slow my breathing, rehydrate, and mentally keep it together in order to keep charging ahead. At last I crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and made it back to Aide Station #6 which was now #7.
According to plan, I took longer here. I knew the next section was incredibly difficult and very far away from the next Aide Station. Somehow an entire Tupperware bin full of sliced oranges arrived in front of me. I had no idea how they appeared and was too mentally tired to ask, but it was something I thought about for a long time after leaving here. In between heavenly orange slices I was handed another popsicle. New bags of peanut butter jelly sandwiches were tucked into my pocket; a frozen chocolate bar in another. When I mentioned my aching legs, Sherry dove in and started massaging them. Seeing this, a young man generously offered his runner’s roller stick. As Sherry worked my thighs and hamstrings with the roller, I joked with the man that I felt like we were now intimately connected and I should buy him dinner or something.
Feeling like a new person and cheered on by all the other friends and families of other runners, I headed back to the trails for the final big push of the course.
My legs turned over nicely, my heartrate was holding steady, my internal dialogue was still positive, and I hadn’t fallen yet! I knew this section was very technical and could be a mental drain, so I smiled as much as I could, kept my feet light and floating over the billions of rocks as quickly as possible, and paced myself evenly. I held steady for the first ¾ of the route, but as the miles ticked by, the inclines resumed, and the next aide station seemed to never get closer, every step became harder. Physical and mental fatigue started to kick in and frustration at my slow time grew. I had outside goals of finishing with a time that started with a 13. It was still a possibility, but every time I had to stop and walk I felt that slip further from my fingers.
After what seemed like way too far, I finally broke through to the next aide station. Once again my awesome Crew was there, ready to take care of me both physically and mentally. My family was there too, visible but in the background to give Robin and Sherry room to do their thing. I’d dreamed about this Aide Station for a while. This was the final place to see my Crew. This was the start of the end. And best of all, this was where I picked up my music!
After getting washed off, lubed up, fed, watered, drank some coke, and handed my trekking poles, Robin put my earbuds in—music already playing. Instantly my body perked up. My knees started moving to the beat, and I trotted away from there blissfully surrounded by the tunes I’d trained with.
With poles in hand, I actually made great time for the first couple of miles. But the trail turned from jeep road, to wild trail, to mere vague space between trees. I was thankful not to be trying to thread my way though that nonsense at night but was plenty irritated with it as it was. Then came the water crossings. I knew they were coming and had actually looked forward to cooling off my feet. I’d even picked up a sponge at the last aide station so I could wet it in the creek and keep cool every chance I could.
But the climbs out of the water were insane. 8 foot mud banks with little to hold onto, my tired legs and brain had many unkind things to say about the designers of this course. For some, this kind of section is their dream trail. Not for me. I like to run trails…not do obstacle course racing. And for better or worse I knew there was another trail that ran parallel to this one that was much more runner friendly—especially for a section many athletes would be doing at night.
I plugged along until I came to the switchbacks. Thanks to the Bel Monte 50k, I knew this was coming and I knew it would be hard. After that race I’d changed my strength training program and how I trained hills. I’d even run up and down the notorious Priest mountain many times to prepare for this specific two mile stretch of course.
And it was still horrible.
Finally I broke through the top and scuffed my way to the final Aide Station—their Octoberfest music luring me through the woods. All hands on deck when I came in and they filled my water, gave me coke (with ice!!), encouragement, then kicked me out.
Last 4.5 miles. I was thrilled! My Garmin’s battery died miles ago so I had no idea how my time was looking. I knew I would finish with a time more than 13, but now I was afraid I wouldn’t even make my 15 hour goal. I went back to my roots and started my interval rhythm of running 100 steps and power hiking 25. The first 2 miles away from Octoberfest were back down the dirt jeep road we came up hours before. When that spilled onto the Blue Ridge Parkway I felt fully recovered from the previous uphill section and knew I could keep up my intervals and maybe even make up some time.
At a picnic table on the side of the road, I saw my Crew again—with the same man who offered me his roller earlier (his runner was a little way behind me and our crews ended up spending the whole day together). We all knew they couldn’t render aide, but they took pictures, cheered, and screamed in excitement that we were all so very close to the Finish. A few minutes later they drove past me—honking the horn and cheering some more.
Just before I turned off the Blue Ridge Parkway and onto the final grass road into Skylark, I looked to my right and saw the most spectacular sunset I’ve ever seen. Bright red, bordered by the amazing mountains, I decided to race the sun to the Finish.
As if the terrain and the heat weren’t hard enough on us runners, the Finish Line was at the top of a hill. And to get to that hill you had to climb a hill. I did my best to hold onto my intervals, not knowing how close I was to getting or missing that elusive black sub-15 buckle, but the grade was steep and picking up the legs required a huge effort. Then, halfway up this hill and a short burst to the Finish, I met Sherry. She had my American Flag unfurled and ready to go (after receiving a blessing to do so from the Race Director. She didn’t want anything to even remotely look like I was getting aide outside the legal stations). The sun dipped for the last time behind the mountain behind her and I finally let myself believe I was really going to do this! I was actually going to finish a 100k race!
She beat me up that hill, taking pictures and cheering me along until I made the last turn to the lawn with the Finish Line.
The previous finishers, all incredible athletes with amazing resumes and finishes and big names in the trail world, were gathered in preparation for the awards ceremony. With the last rays of sunlight streaming behind them, I saw their shadowy figures applauding my approach to the Finish Line. I raised Old Glory as high as I could to the end.
I made it.
With a final official time of 14:38, I received the coveted black buckle, finishing as the 6th female across the line and 1st place in the Masters category. I’d unknowingly secured my finish place miles and miles ago when I passed those 8 people leaving Aide Station #2—yeah for hill training!
Sherry and Robin and I embraced and celebrated all the work it took to get me to this point and I probably would have cried if I hadn’t been so tired! They whisked me away to a private corner of the lawn and helped me change and wash off the first layer of sweat and dirt before attending the awards ceremony where I received my very first ever ‘Happy Gilmore’ check for my Masters Finish.
It wasn’t the net time I hoped for, but I was absolutely thrilled with the final outcome–especially considering my earlier glitches and the challenges all the athletes faced out there. The heat was extreme, which I love, but most don’t. Aide stations ran out of water and other supplies early on. Without enough hydration, the heat affected runners to varying degrees of severity. This year had a nearly 50% drop rate with most of those directly related to heat/hydration issues. One runner told me the second aide station ran out of water before half the field even made it there! Another runner explained that he’d only been allowed to fill one of his water bottles. That decision to hold onto my handheld at the very first aide station probably saved my entire race.
Thankfully the trail community is awesome. Crews were sharing supplies with one another–the Tupperware of orange slices that suddenly appeared for me at Aide Station #7 came from another crew who could appreciate my sadness that they’d run out of oranges right before I got there. Friends, family, and crew all cheered and encouraged and helped everyone else’s runners. I’m so thankful that Robin and Sherry got to see first-hand just how amazing and humane the trail running community is!
Later that night we drove down the Blue Ridge Parkway to aide station 9 to pick up my friend Eric. Along the way we passed several racers pushing hard to make the final cutoff. We honked and cheered and hopefully gave them a boost. My utmost respect to those who never quit and worked so hard, for so long, and kept pushing it as long as possible.
Prepping and training for this race was a long process but it paid off in the end. After all my recon runs on as much of the course as possible, I was able to give my Crew a specific list of what I needed/wanted at each aide station and my best guess of how long each section would take. We’d packed all my own supplies to be as self sufficient as possible and with few exceptions I ended up sticking to the plan.
It’s a very technical course and I’m still learning to embrace this kind of race, but UROC was a fascinating way to dip my toe into this side of trail racing. Sharing the trails and getting verbal support from the elites was a thrill for sure! I have this race in pencil for next year, but first I need to savor the fact that the hard work I put into prepping for UROC paid off. Time to celebrate, then get back to work to finish preparing for EagleUp Ultra next month!