There are days when the race goes your way, and days it doesn’t. And then there are those days when the entire experience of the event overshadows the specifics of the race, and this was one of those days.
The background: I’ve done a handful of ultra-distance runs in the past year (my birthday run, Maryland, and Icy-8), but I felt like I couldn’t say I’d arrived as an ultra-runner until I’d done a Horton course in the mountains. David Horton is one of the most accomplished athletes on the planet (if you don’t know him, you should just go read about him here), and he brings his sick sense of masochism to the races he puts on in the mountains of central Virginia.
With almost 8,000 feet of elevation gain over 34 miles, I knew this race was going to be a challenge. But I also had heard that it was a gorgeous course so at least I would have nice things to look at while I was suffering. I was absolutely right on both counts.
Race weekend: I opted for the full experience – rather than stay home in Richmond and get up at 2 a.m. on Saturday morning to make the 5:30 start, I would travel on Friday evening and join the pizza dinner and bonfire at the Promise Land camp. Let me say here that, as somewhat of an introvert, it is completely out of character for me to willingly attend an event where I don’t know anyone, and everyone else already knows each other. Just being among all those ultra-runners was a little intimidating. Everyone looked the part – young and old, male and female, every last person was fit and trim and had stickers on the back of their crossover vehicles that made my 26.2 seem like a joke.
I felt a bit like a fish out of water until I ran into Daily Mile friends Tab and Larry, whom it was great to finally meet in person. After hanging out at the bonfire for a while it was time to head back to the tent and get things ready for the next morning – pinning my bib to my shorts, getting my CamelBak filled and reviewing the course maps one final time.
After a remarkably comfortable night of sleep, I awoke to Horton’s megaphoned voice alerting the drowsy campers to the fact that it was now 4:30 – 1 hour to start. I packed up camp and tried, unsuccessfully, to make use of the facilities, and I was suddenly worried about having to take care of business in the woods during the race. But there wasn’t much time to worry about that – it was time to get this thing started.
Start to AS3 (0-12 miles): The race begins on a gravel road and immediately starts climbing. The first mile is pretty subtle but people were already walking. Then the incline increased noticeably and I decided to walk as well – I’m still learning how to manage my effort over these longer courses and knew I didn’t want to blow it all on the first two big climbs of the day. After about 2.5 miles the course finally cut over onto some singletrack and I was able to start running again.
After 2,000 feet of climbing in the first 4 miles, we encountered a glorious section of the course that trended downhill on very runnable doubletrack. I cruised easily through the next few miles, passing several people and maintaining an extremely casual pace in the mid-8s. I caught a glimpse of a burning orange sunrise through the trees, but whenever I would look up to take in the gorgeous views I would invariably step into a hole or stumble over a rock.
I stopped at the second aid station to top off my CamelBak. My general fueling goal was to empty the CamelBak every two hours, which would put me right at 200 calories per hour. Of course in a race you don’t get the luxury of choosing when you refill – the aid station doesn’t fall at exactly two hours. In this case I hit the station at about 1:40 and still had a good bit of Tailwind left, so I topped it off with water and had a volunteer dump in more of the powder. But she poured a lot in and I worried that it had been mixed too strongly, which would mean more of the powder would be sitting in my stomach with every sip, and I would be getting less water to help it digest.
After AS2 we started the next big climb of the day. I started to feel fatigued but told myself I was just being a bit of a pansy. I knew the climbing would be hard but that I would be able to run again once I crested the top. It was nice to get this climb out of the way because I knew that there was only one more major climb left ahead of me around mile 25.
It was here that I first started to notice my stomach. It was exactly what I had experienced in Maryland last summer. It wasn’t anything overt yet, and I wondered if it was because I hadn’t been able to, uh, you know … before the race started. But I did think to myself that if my stomach ended up revolting later in the day, I could remember that it started around mile 12. Probably not a good thought to have, but it proved prescient.
After topping out at the course’s high point and crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway, we were greeted with another heavenly descent along a well-packed gravel road. I covered much of this in the high 7s and cruised into the Sunset Fields aid station, where I ate the most delicious Dorito that I’ve ever had.
AS3 to AS6 (12-26 miles): After Sunset Fields, the course took on a new character as it plunged steeply downhill on a far more technical trail than what we’d run to that point. A large group, including Larry, passed me out of the aid station and I watched as they sped downhill with amazing skill and agility. I thought I was doing OK but they quickly put distance between us as I gingerly danced between the rocks. It was one of those moments, like at the campground the night before, where I questioned what I was doing out there with all those “real” trail runners.
The group disappeared into the distance and I was alone for a while, passing the occasional runner on the way down, and the trail once again smoothed out for a bit – a nice reprieve from the rocky section. But soon I found myself in another small group just as the downhill trail once again became steep and rocky. This time I got caught up in the “conga line” – I was just a couple feet behind the runner ahead and could hear the footsteps of others immediately on my heels. If anyone in line stopped, it would mean almost certain disaster for at least a couple others. The pace increased and I just decided to see how long I could ride that train. I had to toss caution to the wind and just go with it, even as visions flashed through my head of what would actually happen to my ankle or knee or face if I made a wrong step. My eyes were jostling in my head and I tried my best to look to where I was putting my feet, offering up a silent prayer that the god of that mountain would spare me.
At last we were spat out onto the gravel road at the mile 17.3 aid station. But wait a second – the sign says 16.1! Suddenly I realized that those “Horton miles” – the 3 bonus miles that actually make this race a 54.7k – were not accounted for in the official race measurements. So even though my Garmin told me I was just past halfway, the sign said 16.1. It was a bit of a punch in the gut because I was feeling beat up after the last descent down Apple Orchard Falls and my stomach issues were starting to become more pronounced.
The next short segment was another nice downhill-ish cruise on a gravel road and I resumed my standard “easy” pace in the mid-8s. But then came mile 19.5, and we made a sharp right onto a singletrack trail to begin the teaser climb just before the last huge climb of the day. I was still running when I could, but I was starting to feel worn down and getting worried about my fueling situation. I was 3:45 into the race at this point, on course for a finish somewhere around 7 hours. But I knew that my energy would fall off quickly if I couldn’t get any calories. I sipped when I could but the Tailwind was starting to upset my stomach – something that had never happened before with this product. Again I wondered if it had been mixed too strongly. I had been drinking at least a cup of straight water at the last two aid stations to aid my digestion and it seemed to help a bit, at least until the water started upsetting things, too.
After getting a refill and a couple Doritos at aid station 5 (and then dropping the chips on the ground, and then picking them up and eating them), I started to ascend the slow, steady climb along a forest road. My Garmin died around mile 22 and I really started to feel alone. There was no one around me and even my watch had left me high and dry – for the rest of the race I would have no idea what time it was or how much real distance was ahead of me (since I knew I couldn’t trust the aid-station signs). After a good bit of climbing and, in a bit of a departure from my normal state of being, really hankering for some kind of human interaction after more than 4 hours of lonely effort in the mountains, I jogged in to AS 6. I got some water but could only eat about two tortilla chips. At this point I knew the nutrition situation wasn’t going to get sorted out and that it would now become a test of how much suffering I could endure for the next 8 miles.
AS6 to finish (26-34 miles): I knew all along that the climb up Apple Orchard Falls from miles 26 to 29 was a doozie – it’s pretty much what people talk about when they talk about this race. But until you reach that 2,000-foot climb at mile 26 of a race, you just can’t appreciate what a ridiculous and maddening situation it is in which to find yourself. There was nothing I could do now but walk, slowing to a trudge and perhaps a stagger as the steepness increased and my onboard nutrition stores dwindled. Hearing other racers approach behind me, filling the air with their inane conversations, enraged me. I didn’t understand how people could be in such good spirits.
While the climb was brutal, the real issue is that my body was running out of fuel. I hadn’t taken anything substantial in hours and I felt utterly empty. Every attempt at an effort beyond slow walking caused my stomach to churn. I was familiar with this experience after what I went through in Maryland, and I was perpetually running a diagnostic on myself to make sure I was suffering within the realm of safety. As long as my vision was still clear and I wasn’t lightheaded or dizzy I was OK. I was really starting to worry about dehydration and got angry whenever I felt a drip of sweat fall away. My mantra became “I’m still in control” – meaning that I was still in charge of the situation even though my body wasn’t playing along. Actually, everything else felt great – my legs felt strong and nothing was sore – it was just my stomach. As slow as I was going, I never stopped on the way up.
Somehow, through waves of despair and hopelessness, I made it to the top and trudged into the Sunset Fields aid station. I grabbed a cup of water, sat on the curb and closed my eyes as nausea washed over me. I have no idea how long I sat there, but it was probably a good 15-20 minutes. My eyes were closed and I heard the steady stream of runners come into the aid station, complain about the climb they had just finished, and then carry on. I thought of how nice it would be to quit, to just look over at a volunteer and say “I’m done.” Even though we were only about 5 easy miles from the finish it felt like it might as well have been another 20.
But then I thought about the shorts. At this race, you don’t get a medal or a shirt for finishing – you get a pair of shorts. They’re nice shorts, but still -I honestly hadn’t been all that excited about them before the race. I have plenty of running shorts already. But in that moment I suddenly realized that I had to get those shorts. It’s funny what inspires you in those moments.
I had no plan of when I was going to get up off that curb or what I was going to do next, but then a fellow runner who I had passed on the ascent a while ago came up from behind and said, “You look how I feel.” I remember that she had looked like she was suffering when I passed her. She stayed with me for a few minutes and coaxed me off the ground with her encouraging words. I stood and knew immediately that I wasn’t going to get much farther without puking. I made it across the Parkway and veered off into some trees as my new friend carried on down the trail, not realizing I was not still behind her. Sure enough, I lost it all, right there in Sunset Fields.
I felt a little better but knew the feeling wouldn’t last. I started a fast walk down the trail, and experimented with actual running. My legs felt great and were eager to run, but every time I shifted my gait from a walk to even a slow jog, the bouncing would cause my insides to churn. All I could do was humbly walk the last 5 miles, trying my best to be gracious to the runners who passed with concern and encouraging words before trundling on to their own finish.
Post-race: My friends greeted me enthusiastically when I crossed the line and offered knowing words of support and encouragement when I told them what happened. I guess that’s the heart of the ultra community – these people know what it means to endure and suffer, and they know that bad stuff happens out there on the trail. There’s no judgment. There was no judgment even though almost everyone there was talking about their next 50- or 100-miler and I had just struggled so mightily with a simple 50k.
It would be easy to be disappointed after a performance like this – months of training and preparation derailed by stomach issues. But I left with an overwhelming feeling of happiness and accomplishment. I never doubted that I would finish the race, but it was satisfying to have pushed myself through the struggle. Sometimes I think that’s why I have gravitated toward ultra-running – not to finish fast but to experience true discomfort and see how I handle it. If that’s the case, this race was a resounding success. And, besides, I guess spending almost 9 hours on my feet is good training for a 50-miler!