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.

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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.

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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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Eagle Up 2018 Highlights

During the Eagle Up Ultra, I was in race mode and focused all my energies and thoughts on my race plan and goals. But now that it’s over and I’m starting to recover from the fog of running 100 miles, I’ve have time to sift through some of the highlights of the race that stuck in my memory despite my attention being elsewhere.

I’m forever grateful to the race production, the volunteers, and all my fellow runners for making this first 100 such a fun experience. We joked with one another, helped one another,  made new friends, and created beautiful and lasting memories.


Early in the race a vulture sat on a branch hanging across the trail, staring at us runners passing below. Nope…nothing ominous about that!


A deer jumped into the canal to get away from Ashley and I as we ‘snuck’ up on it in the middle of the night. Of course at first we didn’t know that…just heard the loud splash made by a large creature just on the other side of the bushes. Yes, our pace picked up a bit there.


A possum scurried along the trail in front of us at night, making me wonder if I was at last having one of those hallucinations ultras are famous for.


I shoved a giant piece of peanut butter and jelly sandwich into my mouth, right in front of the photographer. Oh so lady-like.


I smiled often and for no reason at all just to trick my brain into thinking that the pain in my hip really wasn’t that bad after all (it worked . . . a little).


Right before my final laps, the radar showed a massive storm headed straight for the race site. At the last moment, the storm split and went around the race site, then rejoined and continued on its merry way. As a result, we could see and hear thunder all around us, but at that moment it didn’t actually rain. I’d like to think that our collective stench created an updraft that pushed the storm away!


I passed a couple dressed as Where’s Waldo and Carmen Santiago, then a little later passed a couple dressed as pirates. Took me a while to figure out it was the same couple! I think they should get a time bonus or an extra lap bonus for creativity AND costume changes mid race!


Late in the race Ashley procured some popsicles for me. For finding me my ultra-crack, I will happily pay her next year’s registration!


I’d brought an umbrella for the family to use during the day since the forecast was originally for rain ALL day. They never needed it, but I used it as a crutch after the race when I walked back to the Finish Line to get more food and cheer in fellow runners. Note to self: pack trekking poles or an umbrella for all post ultra ambulation needs.


Late in the race, when the nausea kicked in, I thought it might be from getting overheated. Eric, the race director, was a little too willing to pour cold water over my head and neck! I think he was mostly happy to help get at least one layer of smell off me!


I gave myself a good chuckle when I headed out on yet another loop and told myself ‘Wow! I only have 20 miles to go!” Only. Only 20. There’s something wrong with me!


(Cover Photo by: Dave Alverson)



Eagle Up Ultra 2018

For two years I’ve wanted to do the Eagle Up Ultra in Ohio but my schedule kept me away. This year I made it there and now that I’ve experienced this great race first hand I won’t let anything stop me from going back!

We arrived on Friday morning and made camp with my friend Debbie. We had a great spot right along the run route so we could set up our own personal aide station which proved to be a wonderful perk especially later in the race. Our neighbor was a fellow Team RWB guy and famous at this race for his vigorous and enthusiastic cowbell ringing. Little did I know when we first met that the sound of his cowbell would be so motivational—I could hear it a mile before seeing it!

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Friday afternoon as campers started to arrive and set up along the course. Photo by: Buckeye Drone

We grabbed a meal at the local restaurant, picked up my race packet (free headlamp WITH batteries!) and purchased a couple of extra goodies from Brimstone Bicycles, then got my family situated in their hotel. I took advantage of one final shower and headed back to the race site to try to get what sleep I could in the tent before the race start.

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Awesome CrewMom Debbie and I ready to head to the Start Line

I woke up excited. I wasn’t nervous, which surprised me. I was fairly certain that barring any major injury, I could get in my 100 miles. The real debate was how long it would take and whether I could do more. With 24 hours to complete any distance we could, I had thoughts of using all of the time to go as far over 100 as possible. But I’ve also learned to take things one step at a time so I let that thought linger in the background of my mind but not be my driving force for the day.

After a respectful National Anthem, the horn blew and we were off. My goal was to maintain an easy 9 minute mile for a long as possible. I’d read once that the first 50k of a hundred miler should feel like the warmup—i.e. don’t go out to fast! So I held that pace but monitored myself carefully to be sure I wasn’t forcing myself to work too hard and expend too much energy too early.

But I felt great. I spent a couple of laps with Kyle who was completing his first 50k. We got separated at one of the aide stations but at that point he only had half a lap to go and I know he achieved his goal. Later I spent time with Mike who had an incredibly strong, steady pace for all of his 100k distance. We leapfrogged each other the entire time and the sloshing of his water in his camelback was actually helpful—like trotting along with a metronome to keep on pace! I passed a couple dressed in costume–once as “Where’s Waldo” and later dressed as pirates. I admired their enthusiasm!

I averaged a 9 minute mile pace for the first 50 miles. By then, though, my right hip started to hurt more than it should have at that point (a lingering ache that started post UROC 100k three weeks ago). I decided to not shoot for the most miles goal, but rather focus all my energy into completing this 100 the fastest, strongest way I could but still be able to walk away and live to run another day. I took some Midol for the pain and kept plugging away. The next 20 miles I ran 10 and 11 minute miles, with one fluke 9 minute mile where the Midol, food, and caffeine must have all peaked at the same time.

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Starting lap 3 and shoving a PJB sandwich in my mouth

The course was a loop and earlier I was afraid that constantly retracing my steps would become a mental barrier for me. But it never did. In fact, it was fun to see the way the course looked with each passing hour—the way the light hit the leaves differently, the way the river came to life when the other campers came out in their canoes, the way the path softened after a brief rainstorm then drained quickly. It was fun to see the same safety guys at mile 2.5-ish as they made sure we took the right turn over the bridge. They cheered us on and commented on our progress all day . . . and all night! Later in the night, when fatigue started to set in, the now-familiar landmarks along the course helped spur me on.

The terrain was also a concern for me at the beginning. My training for UROC focused on the climbs. I’m now used to inclines and descents and learning how to tiptoe across boulder fields on single track. This course was one step away from road which makes it a great first trail race for people, but also means no variation in the way your muscles are used. I feared the lack of mountains and a course that encouraged more running than hiking would wear me down too quickly. But in reality, the lack of significant elevation change made a nice change from the battlefields of the Shenandoah Mountains. I could mentally zone out and just enjoy the people and the scenery without worrying about tripping on a random root and faceplanting onto a sharp rock. What a treat!

There were two main aide stations, with the primary one being at the Start/Finish Line. This had everything an ultra runner needs or wants from chicken broth to bacon grilled cheese sandwiches. Every time I passed by someone made eye contact and asked what I needed. Thanks to our personal aide station just a few yards away, I only stopped at this official one long enough to grab a quarter of a Peanut Butter and Jelly sandwich or some watermelon, then head out as fast as I could.

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Our personal aide station was stocked with everything from Altoids to roller sticks to duct tape. And we used it all.

At mile 75 the nausea began and the wheels started to come off. It struck quickly. One moment I was trotting along and enjoying the experience, the next I started to feel like the early days of pregnancy! I knew it was because my stomach was empty (we later calculated that I only took in about 1000 calories the whole day). I knew chewing some Altoids would help (Thank you for that tip, Debbie!). But I was half way between aide stations and had none of that available to me. I had to slog along until I could get to what I needed. And that would have worked—were it not for the campgrounds with the people building a very smokey fire. That thick smoke pushed me from “Ugh, there’s something I need to deal with” over towards “I’m gonna hurl!”

Thankfully my stomach never actually reached that point and the Altoids I picked up at camp helped a lot. I grabbed ginger ale at the main aide station and knew that I should eat something. But nothing looked like it would sit well. I wanted saltines but didn’t think to ask if they had any and instead settled for two potato chips and headed back out again.

This next lap I kept moving though I did need to start some walk breaks. Half way through the lap I started to feel a little lightheaded and when I came back through the main aide station I asked for a pacer–mostly so I didn’t wind up passing out into the canal. Thankfully an angel named Ashley stepped up even though she had just run a 100 mile race a week ago! Immediately I felt better. She got my mind off my stomach and encouraged me to keep pushing forward harder than I would have done had I been on my own. We got along well and I had fun getting to know her and sharing a similar sense of humor. Someday I’d love to return the favor and pace her through some of her upcoming adventures.

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My heroes, Ashley and Brian. They saw me through the final miles and helped me be able to actually enjoy my Finish!

Early in the race I’d been told I was the lead female. I knew I couldn’t hold that, and I didn’t want to try to. I had to stick to my plan and whatever result that got me was just fine. Now that I was in the final painful miles, I wasn’t sure where I stood in the rankings. I had to decide for myself if it was worth pushing hard through this discomfort and force myself into the red zone and physically destroy myself trying to hold a win I may or may not have already lost, or dial it back and simply do what I could to finish my race and enjoy completing my first 100–and live to tell the tale the next day. I chose the latter and reined in the effort a bit. Besides, my closest female competitor was none other than Connie Gardner. If I’m going to be beaten by someone, I’m thrilled to have it be her!

After a couple of laps with me, Ashley jumped back into volunteer mode at the aide station and Brian came out to help me on my final loop. With his help, I finished the lap and ran across the finish line with a smile. I’d completed my very first 100 mile race in 19 hours and 30 minutes and was in shock! It was a better finish than I ever could have hoped for, and even though I lost my first place female spot somewhere in the final laps, I know I ran the best race I could on that day with those conditions. In the end, I was third place overall, and for my first 100, I’m beyond pleased!

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Getting my Finish Line hug and first 100 mile belt buckle from my friend Eric….priceless

I’m thrilled that I chose Eagle Up to be the scene of my first 100 miler. Everything about this race is spectacular. The volunteers went above and beyond at every opportunity, and their energy never wavered for the entire 24 hours. In between the two major aide stations, there were two unmanned water stops (which meant there was a chance to refill hydration almost every mile!). Those unmanned stops always had ice cold water, plenty of cups, and no trash. Whoever was in charge of maintaining those spots did an excellent job. The race director helped at the main aide station and encouraged every runner all day long. He greeted everyone as they crossed the Finish Line with a hug and supportive words. I’ve been to some races where I never even saw the Race Director!

Due to crazy circumstances, I had to do this race without a crew. But all the support offered by the entire production staff, as well as a couple of friends I knew out there already, I never noticed that I didn’t have a team helping me in the background. An extra bonus was meeting two friends of Debbie who came to crew her. They very cheerfully and generously helped me too when I came through our personal aide station, and were especially helpful when I finished and needed my elixir of life–chocolate milk. Everyone helped everyone else, offered supplies or advice, and in general encouraged each other so we could all achieve our goals or more. What a great atmosphere to race in!

I learned a lot. Next time I’ll carry Altoids with me. I’ll bring my own package of saltines. I won’t change clothes half way (it felt good, but in the end the time loss wasn’t worth it and the ‘ahhhh’ factor didn’t provide enough benefit to outweigh that loss), I’ll take less time at the aide stations later in the game, and I’ll establish a better interval routine for when I hit that run-walk stage.

Next year I’ll be back. I don’t know what my goal will be—beat my time, beat my distance, crew someone else to help them meet their goal… but this is one of those races and experiences that needs repeating!

UROC 100k 2018

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.

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My awesome crew. L to R: Running Guru Sherry, Rockin’ Robin, Crewmom Debbie

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.

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Starting the Race with Eric, who introduced me to the joys of ultra racing when he invited me to pace him at Burning River last year.

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!

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CrewMom Debbie trying to take off my Patagonia vest, convinced I was too hot. She gets full credit for a good effort.

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.

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These awesome ladies got many compliments for how efficient and prepared they were as a Crew. They got me in and out as fast as possible while still making sure I was all good to go.


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.

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Eating and drinking on the run has always been a challenge for me, but after a lot of trial and error and practice, I’ve learned a good PB&J sandwich is like rocket fuel for me.

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.

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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.

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Smiling to hide the pain!

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!

UROC Russell (50)
Having aide stations so far apart took its toll on me. But Sherry is ready with supplies and mental support to get me back out for the final leg of the journey.

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.

UROC (47)
Much further along in miles, but in far better spirits than when I arrived at AS #8!

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.


UROC sunset
Gorgeous sunset. Smoke from the forest fire that burned all weekend can be seen here. We could smell it several times during the race, but Forest Service kept us all safe. Photo by: UROC

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.

UROC (54)
Utterly exhausted

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!

UROC Francesca Finish1
Exhausted but ecstatic! L to R: Sherry, Erin, Robin. Photo by Francesca



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.

UROC (57)

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.

UROC (61)
We had to have some fun with Eric’s ironic choice of tee shirts for the weekend!


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!


UROC swag




Bull Run 50 Miler

When I registered for Bull Run 50 Miler, my first race at that distance, I knew I’d need someone to come with me primarily to help me after the race and drive home. I asked my friends and super-awesome runners Michelle and Vicki to come be my brain post race. They said yes instantly, despite having never been to a trail race or an ultra. Little did we all know how critical their presence would be on race day!

The weekend started with a humorous drive to the race site for packet pickup and athlete briefing. Once checked in we had a great chat with former race director Bob and gained some valuable insight into the course itself. When the athlete meeting still hadn’t started 40 minutes after it was supposed to, we decided to leave—we still needed to get dinner, check in at the hotel, and get everything finalized for the morning. A fellow racer who had done this a handful of times before gave us the low down on logistics (follow the blue, don’t cross the red, stay on the trail, etc) and we headed out.

BRR pre race 1

At this point I was still very calm. The weather, which had looked absolutely hideous earlier in the week, looked much more promising now and while some predictions still called for some rain early on and snow in the afternoon, the amounts and duration were much better. Since Michelle and Vicki were going to be there and were determined to be as helpful as possible at every aide station they were were allowed to go to, we discussed what I might need at which point in the race, how best to ‘handle’ me at the stations, and the importance of kicking me out to keep pressing on to the Finish. We settled in for sleep and braced for whatever the morning would bring.

The morning brought dry ground, dry sky, and no rain. The temperature was low 40s which was higher than originally called for, and it looked like this would be the perfect weather for a long haul race. We arrived at the race site, found our parking place (thanks to the most upbeat, well organized group of parking volunteers ever!) and finished getting ready for the run. With final words from Quatro, the current race director, we set off.

Having looked up this trail on AllTrails, I knew that this part of the course would be fairly flat, and thanks to the heads up from other runners, I knew this was a challenging part of the course if only because it was too easy to start too fast and blow the rest of the race. Thanks to the ~1 mile loop around the parking lot at the beginning we were spread out by the time we hit the single track and I settled in behind runners going my pace or slightly slower. This section of the course is gorgeous and very runnable. The well groomed trails  brought us down to the river, across creeks (yeah for those bridges and stepping stones that meant my feet never got wet!), and around historical battle ramparts.

Screenshot (89)
Not quite the elevation changes I’ve trained for for UROC, but enough to keep the legs fired up!

Vicki and Michelle met me at the first aide station and cheered me on enthusiastically as I pressed on. From that aide station, the course makes a lollipop. Where the stick of the lollipop meets the loop, it wasn’t clear which way to go. Several of us went Left when we should have gone Right. We ended up doing the exact same course (and mileage and terrain) as everyone else, and the marshalls told us to just keep going. For better or worse it gave me the chance to see where the other women in the field were.

BRR JKS Imagery 5
Photo By: JKS Imagery. My thanks to them! He was cheering on his wife and graciously took and shared pictures he grabbed while waiting.

I was currently first place female. But judging by how close the others were and being able to tell that this was *not* their first rodeo, I knew it would be practically impossible to hold first the whole way. While it would have been a real hoot to ‘win’ my first 50 miler, I was also mindful of the fact that this was a training run and to push hard to place a certain way could derail my UROC goals next month. Now more than ever I needed to stay in my brain and run my race my way today.

BRR Centerview 2d
Returning back to Centerville Aide Station

We came back through that first aide station, I ate my peanut butter and jelly sandwich square, drank well while the course was still flat, and gathered more cheers from Vicki and Michelle as we passed back through the Start/Finish/Hemlock aide station at mile 16. I felt great. I felt slow. I felt on top of my nutrition and hydration plan and was on track to meet my goal—make the first 26 feel like a warmup.

This section of the course was slightly more technical but mostly runnable and I arrived at the Marina aide station (mile 21 feeling great). Here was the first place I stopped. As soon as I arrived Vicki told me to open my mouth, which I did without thinking, and she shoved a piece of chocolate in. Best piece of chocolate ever! While I stood there chewing and breathing, she and Michelle refilled my water bottles, crammed a new bag of PBJ sandwiches in my pocket, then shoved me out of the station and on my merry way. Nascar pit crew in the making!

BRR Fountainhead Crew
Me realizing something was just put in my mouth, but not yet understanding it was wonderful chocolate!

This section from the Marina to Fountainhead was tough if only because it was so runnable. The trails were nearly free of roots or rocks, had only a few steep climbs, and gave me no excuse to walk. I was thankful for the chance to zone out and simply run, but the small rolling hills were tricky—too small to walk up, but steep enough to change my breathing. I battled between trying to bank time and trying not to burn up too much energy here. I arrived at Fountainhead happy to be done with that section and ready to tackle the infamous Do Loop.

BRR Fountainhead 1

I should not have been so eager.

I’d raced the Do Loop at the Women’s Half Marathon held in this same park back in September. I remember the steeper, long climbs and was actually looking forward to a change in terrain. But back in the summer the trail was easy to see and there were plenty of other runners out there to follow. This race day was very different. Trail markers were few and far between and the trail itself was smothered and covered with leaves. It was difficult to see where to go. This loop is famous for ‘trapping’ people in an endless loop and as my legs grew tired and the trail became harder and harder to see, I started to fear I’d be one of those people. The trees were marked with horseshoe shaped paint, but the blue ribbons marking the course for this specific race seemed incredibly far apart. I was in a constant state of doubt about if I was on the right course or not.

At last I made it out of there but was mentally fatigued at this point. As I exited the loop I saw another woman entering it. I knew there were 2-3 girls between the two of us so I knew it was only a matter of time before I was caught. The question was when…and by how many.

BRR Fountainhead post Do Loop
Feeling a little defeated but Michelle wouldn’t let me stay that way for long!

I finally returned to Fountainhead where my NASCAR pit crew once again changed my tires, refilled my tank, washed my windshield, told me I looked great, and shoved me back on the trail. Here we repeated our steps through the well groomed, rolling hills path. This time there was no need to rein in my pace. I ran every possible runnable section as hard as I could and forced myself to push through the ache building in my thighs and that pinching pain under my big toe that I was certain was a blood blister forming.

BRR Frank Probst Marina 3
Photo by: Frank Probst. Bless him, he was out there all day in the cold getting amazing pictures of us crazy runners!

At mile 39.9 I entered an aide station about 30 seconds before the next woman arrived. I grabbed what I needed then headed back out, wondering if there was any possible chance she was going to drop at that aide station! But she looked like she was just warming up and I knew it was only a matter of time. At mile 41, she passed me. She had the energy to chat a bit. I did not. She told me she’d just completed a 50k race two weekends before and her legs felt tired. Then she flew past me as if carried by the wind. I didn’t know whether to hate her or kneel before her chanting ‘we’re not worthy, we’re not worthy’!

Speedy First Place Female and genuinely sweet, Anna Piskorska

I averaged an 11:30 pace from Fountainhead back to Marina aide station and was thrilled with that. But now everything hurt. My legs struggled to keep turning over. Downhills were painful. Uphills were painful. Running flat was painful. Vicki and Michelle did their best to fire me up at this last aide station and knowing that the next time I saw them would be at the Finish Line was a nice boost.

Still….it hurt.

BRR Frank Probst Marina
Photo by: Frank Probst, finisher of all 24 prior Bull Run 50s. This was his first year not racing it.


The day before I’d heard the story of a man who ended up taking a wrong turn and instead of heading back to the Finish ended up repeating the front portion of the race. I did NOT want that to be me. My body was not going to handle any extra mileage today. I looked for every blue ribbon and steered well clear of the red. But when the course brought us back to the river and over rocks that looked painfully familiar, I began to wonder if I too made a course error and was heading the wrong way. Yes, these were the blue ribbons, but are the blue ribbons for NOW, or are they still up from the first time we headed out? Just like on the Do Loop, doubt and fear filled my brain and drained me mentally. At last I passed the sign that said “One Mile To Go” and instantly felt lighter.

After one long final climb, Vicki and Michelle met me with Old Glory and I dug deep to push hard to the finish. My time goal was to finish under 9 hours. I ‘sprinted’ to the finish with a stop time of 8:58. The third place female came screaming through the finish line a mere three minutes later. Only about 15 minutes separated the top three female finishers!

BRR Flag Finish 2

As if Vicki and Michelle hadn’t already been a super star crew, they kicked into high gear at the Finish. I’d warned them that I was probably going to be mental moosh at this point and would rely entirely on them to guide me through my recovery needs. They took it to a whole new level. I’m not entirely sure how it all happened, but before I knew it I was drinking my chocolate milk, wrapped in a warm blanket, with shoes and socks being pulled off my feet and slipped into more comfortable attire. I stank to high heaven and these two friends didn’t bat an eye!

BRR Finish Post Race

Thankfully awards were only a few short minutes later. I was already freezing cold and teeth chattering so shortly after receiving my water bottle for finishing as First Masters Female, we trudged up the hill (another hill?!!!) to take the best shower of my life. Once again my crew rocked it! I was standing under hot water, not remembering exactly how I got there, while the two of them gathered all that sweaty stinky gear and made sure I left nothing behind. When I finally dragged myself away from the steam (mostly because I simply couldn’t stand any more!) all my clothes were laid out ready for me to pile on. They even found a chair for me to collapse into. I sat there semi-savoring how exhausted my body felt while Vicki grabbed a brush and did my hair, and Michelle dried my feet and helped me get compression socks on.

You reach a whole new level of friendship when you’re willing to dry a runner’s fugly feet!

There are those in the ultra community who consider using a crew to be a form of cheating. I am not one of those people. If a race allows it, I see no reason not to take advantage of that. I am absolutely certain that having them at so many points along the race was critical to my finishing the way I did. Knowing it was only ‘X’ number of miles before I heard Vicki’s screams and encouragement, and having Michelle stuff more chocolate in my mouth and kick me down the path, made those painful miles bearable. And having them take charge at the finish allowed me to just enjoy the accomplishment and turn off my already tired brain.

BRR cold crew 2
Michelle and Vicki, the Superstar Crew

On the way home they chatted about all the incredible people they met along the way, their awe of the fantastically strong and polite athletes out there, and how well run the entire race was. From all the goodies and helpful volunteers at each aide station right down to the meticulous (and stunningly accurate) Crew Directions to get from one place to the next, they were beyond impressed. I’m forever thankful to all who put on this race for showing my road running friends just how awesome trail and ultra running is!

My first 50 felt more painful than I would have thought. I’ve looked back on the race and feel like I ran it the best way possible. My hydration and nutrition was better than it ever has been on a long run, I held my pace well even when I didn’t want to, and I managed to charge up the steeper hills with a good march instead of an amble. I simply fatigued at the end and the mental struggles from being unsure if I was on course or not wore me down. There were more runnable sections on this course than I was prepared for and in the end my running muscles just wore out. Good to know for future and upcoming ultras.

UROC 100k is in a month and while the terrain and race plan will be vastly different from this, I learned so much at the Bull Run 50 that I hope will help me press on to the best possible finish for me there…including how awesome having chocolate shoved into your mouth is!


Final Stats:


2nd Female/ 59

20th Overall/233


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.

Bel Monte 50k

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 Start
At the Start Line with Jamie and Omar, fellow Team RWB runners. I have my hydration pack on under my sweatshirt…or I’m pregnant with puppies. Hard to tell from this shot!

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.

Sort of.

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.

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.

Bel Monte Hill up
Up we go…and this isn’t the steepest part!

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.

BelMonte Pace and Ele
Pace with Elevation overlay. Lotta white in the pace on that massive incline at mile 26!

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.

BelMonte Map

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.

BelMonte Fire

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!

BelMonte Awards
Myself and Second Place Female, Deanna Nappi

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.

BelMonte Milkshake
The traditional post-race milkshake!

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.

2018 Colonial Half Marathon

Yesterday’s Colonial Half Marathon in Williamsburg VA was the exact opposite of my previous experience here in 2005. Then it was my very first race longer than a 5k–I thought a longest run of 8 miles was enough training, didn’t know that wearing shorts in 30 degree weather was a bad idea, and was still running in tennis shoes bought off the rack at Walmart.

My how times change.

This year the weather was warm, my shoes were appropriate to my needs (thank you Lucky Road!), I had my trusty American Flag companion in hand, and this course was now a part of my training plan rather than my peak. Despite running 18 miles the day before (Sugar Hollow Loop), I felt great and thought I had a chance of doing well in my age group. But since this was a training run, I also wanted to be careful not to push my pace too hard.

After an escort to the Start Line by the Colonial Fife and Drums, we were off. I started in the middle of the pack, hoping that would help me keep to my plan of holding an easy 8:30 for the first four miles.

The first 250m or so is downhill which I’ve learned over the years can be a race breaker. With fresh legs and high on adrenaline, it’s easy for runners to start off too strong on a downhill only to have their quads scream bloody murder at them later in the race. I, however, already had tired quads and had no problem restraining myself on the decent. Even the subsequent uphills I eased up on and kept my ‘perceived effort’ low. Imagine my surprise when my Garmin chirped out the end of the first mile and showed a 7:52 pace.

So much for my plan.

In the thirteen years since I first ran this course, I’ve learned that the first miles of a race are a lie. I’ve learned that no matter how good I feel at mile 2, it is unwise to push myself to go faster/harder. Holding back at the start of a race has been a hard lesson to learn, but a valuable one. At the same time, as the course brought us down a rarely used back road and into the woods, I felt like I was taking it easy. Once upon a time, an 8:30 pace was my warmup pace. Maybe now it wasn’t?

I didn’t want to overthink it. This was just a training run. I felt good, I felt relaxed, I was enjoying the beautiful weather. I decided to ignore the watch and run entirely on feeling.

The first six hilly miles or so of the course are lonely. After the first 2 miles we were on a quiet (paved) trail that looped through the woods. Runners were spread out, aide stations were few and far between, and only a handful of spectators made it out this far to cheer on their loved ones (although those few deserve full credit for the energy they brought with them. Their cheers and encouragement were profound!).

A boisterous aide station met us at the end of this path where we connected onto a road that looped around an office park and lake. Signs of life in the form of people driving to Starbucks and taking advantage of the beautiful day by playing golf gave me new energy. Another rowdy group of college kids met us with another aide station before we tucked back into the woods to take the same paved trail back to the Finish line.

At this point in the race in 2005, I wanted to kill myself. My legs felt like ice blocks, my knees ached, and I could barely muster up a shuffle. Today, I was still holding a sub 8 pace and felt great. Although I never saw the front of the pack, I thought I might be somewhere in the top 20 women overall. Every half a mile or so I passed another female and thought maybe, just maybe, I could do well in my age group after all.

Colonial Half

One spectator told me I was 15th female overall. A mile later I passed three more women on a hill and wondered if I could possibly eek out a top 10 finish. But with only three miles left, there was only one more woman visible far ahead of me, and she looked uncatchable.

Two miles to the end, I was determined to finish strong and glanced at my watch more often in an attempt to force myself to at least hold this pace. It was getting harder, but I never felt like I was pushing my limits. On one of the longer uphills I passed a man who then stayed on my hip. We ran together in silence, each pushing the other–not as a competition, but as one runner helping the other finish the day with our best efforts. Without him there, I may have eased off and slowed with the growing fatigue. But together we pressed on harder than we would have done solo. He was from Staunton and though no stranger to hills out there, was surprised at the terrain of today’s race. This is definitely a course where hill training is required!

Side by side we retraced our steps from the beginning of the race and wound our way through the campus of William and Mary. We were closing in on the last female ahead of me, and if I had another half a mile of course I might have eventually passed her, but we arrived at the arena with her decidedly in the lead. I raised the flag high, sprinted the last 100 yards, and crossed the finish line pleased with the day’s efforts.

After rehydrating, congratulating the other finishers, and getting changed, I checked the overall results board. Third place in my age group! Not bad for a training run. Since I couldn’t stay for awards, I asked the woman at the results table if I could accept my award early. She double checked the age group specific results and did not see my name. In fact, the first place female in my age group had a time ten minutes slower than mine.

A quick conference with the timing people and we learned that I was actually First Place Masters. In this race, the top ten finishers of each gender get awards and are pulled from overall standings. That left me as the fastest female in the Masters Category (which in turn pulled me from age group results).

I was shocked! She handed me my award–a versatile Under Armour backpack filled with UnderArmour hats, gloves, and gear. Not a bad way to finish a training run!

Colonial Half Masters win

Now I have a day off to stretch, relax, and flush out the legs before an easy training week leading to Saturday’s 50k training run. If it goes half as well as this weekend’s runs, I’ll be thrilled.

*To follow the daily training adventures as I attempt my first 50 miler, 100k, and 100 miler(s), follow me on Facebook at Flag Lady Running!*