Time – 5 hours and 18 minutes; elevation gain just over 6000 ft; place overall 5th; place men 4th; place age group 1st; pace 10:00 min/mile; pace corrected for getting off trail 9:50 min/mile.
This is very detailed. If you don’t want the details … read the short version.
This has been the most difficult race of the season. Despite being the longest race to date the terrain was also the most strenuous. The weekend revealed many lessons learned as well as much to be proud of. BM 50k is held in Sherando Park south of Charlottesville, Virginia near the Blue Ridge Parkway. I traveled to the area with a couple of Trailhead friends and stayed with one of their sisters in Charlottesville. This brings me to the first lesson learned. His sister was 45 minutes from the race site and the race start was 6:30 sharp. The combination of not getting up early enough and getting on the road a few minutes late translated into arriving at the starting line 7 minutes before the beginning of the race. On the ride over I was sensing that there would be little time to waste so I readied myself to essentially open the van door and start racing.
Once we arrived, at 6:23am, I leaped from the van with my two drop bags in hand and rushed up to the race check in to drop my bags off. This is where the race director informed me that the truck for the first drop bags (aide station 2, Camp Marty) had already left. He mentioned he would try to get it up there for me with the caveat that I might make it there before my bag. I handed him my bag and figured that that was the best I could do at this point and made my way to the starting line at the top of a huge earthen dam. No time for the typical prerace bathroom break as the race was about to begin.
As I am standing on top of the dam it is still dark and I am surrounded by 300 other racers (the 25k, 50k, and 50 mile all starting simultaneously). The scene was mildly chaotic with 300 headlamps (minus myself, partly due to lack of planning and partly because we were only running in darkness for less than 30 minutes) darting in various directions and me wondering “which way are we going to start running? I’ve got to make my way to the front of this crowd so I don’t get to the single track behind everyone and their mother.” It was at this point in time, 6:29 am, that I realized my hands were empty. I was lacking one crucial ingredient to my days “success,” my water bottle! I had forgotten to grab my water bottle and now I am about to begin the longest most difficult running event I have ever done. Perfect.
As many of you might know, I used to be an engineer. So in a split second my brain revs up and begins to formulate a potential solution to this problem. Solution 1: there were enough aide stations to get though the race (not ideal but workable), Solution 2: assuming my drop bag makes it to Camp Marty (~mile 7.5) I could take my Gatorade bottle I had filled with nutritional drink and just carry it in my hand for the remaining 25 miles (again, not ideal but better than solution 1), and Solution 3: well, honestly, there was no solution three b/c at that point it was 6:30 and off to the races.
I steadily started making my way past as many people as I could prior to entering the trail. Once on the trail people were moving slowly in the darkness even with headlamps so I was able to pass a few more. The moon was full and the dawn was on the distant horizon so once away from the throngs with the blinding headlamps the trail was quite run able and the beginning portion was quite fast. It felt great to be running and out of the stressful prerace environment. The predawn air was fresh and cool as I tried to settle into a groove.
The trail quickly turned skyward (the first of the two massive climbs of the day) gaining 1500 net feet in 7 miles. This portion of trail was nice with few rocks and great scenery in the predawn light. There were dramatic rocky outcrops, waterfalls, and switchbacks. It was steep but I was able to slowly run the entirety. It was about halfway up that I passed Anne Lundblad (Ann and I would exchange places numerous times over the next 15 miles until she vanished into thin air) and came up with my solution 3 for my water bottle conundrum. Solution 3: perhaps I was lucky enough to have placed my water bottle in my first drop bag. Yeah, if that were true then I could just pick it up in 3 – 4 miles at Camp Marty, perfect! I would like to place all my chips on solution number 3.
After crossing the parkway the beauty of the course truly revealed itself in one of the top 5 sunrises I have ever seen. Across the valley the sun was beginning to crest the distant summit and any stress still lingering from prerace melted away and I knew that whether solution 3 worked out or not everything would work itself out. So I kept plodding along. I ended up grabbing something to eat and drink at an aide station as I crossed the parkway. This was brings me to the second lesson of the day (the first was don’t show up 7 minutes before the longest race you have ever done) which is: don’t drink coke and eat a peanut butter sandwich at mile 4 of a 32 mile race. My stomach sloshed for the next 23 miles.
As I approached Camp Marty the moment of truth neared. First, did my precious drop bag even make it? Yes! There it was lying on the tarp with the other bags. Second, will I have to resort to solution 2 or would it be 3? As I opened my bag I knew the day was going to be fine. My water bottle was there, right where I had put it. I slipped it on and crammed my short pockets with every GU and gel block I could and headed out for a well deserved decent.
The decent was long and progressively steep. My pace was slowed when I obtained a slight stitch in my side. I was able to fight it off with decreasing my pace and controlling my breath. Once that was under control I gradually picked up speed with the decent catching Ann and the other racer who passed me while I slowed with my stitch. The three of us entered into the next aide station (mile 13.1) together. Anne and I ran right through it and started off on a 5 mile dirt road section with gently rolling hills. This was a perfect opportunity to stretch the legs out.
Anne and I exchanged position multiple times during this stretch until I looked back at one point and I wasn’t even able to see the guy who passed me on the down hill section earlier. We were moving pretty good and after another mile or so I decided it to be smarter to back it down as we entered trails again. This is the point when I looked up and Anne had vanished. I would occasionally see her on long straight sections and then at the finish line.
This began the second massive climb of the day. I wish you could see the elevation profile for this section. Picture an exponential curve beginning at ~1600 feet and ending at ~3600 feet with multiple creek crossings (knee deep and foot drenching). I was able to sustain a run up until the last mile and a half of the climb. This is when the trail began to have switchback after switchback. I lost count of them. Apparently, the person who made the trail and the switchbacks got tired of making them because the trail ended with a portion of trail that as I rounded the final switchback appeared to be at twice the grade of the trail I was just on and just continued going up and up. What a sick joke. At this point the self talk was quite high as I constantly encouraged myself to not stop, just keep moving.
I finally reached the aide station at the top of that gnarly climb, Camp Marty again. I quickly moved though and as I was exiting I heard the support staff cheering on another runner. Perfect, I’m getting passed. I encouraged myself to not worry about that, start running, and keep running. While trying to negotiate a bag of cliff blocks and get passed at the same time I ended up missing the clearly marked left turn off the current trail. Thankfully, the racer passing me did the same (I think he was just too excited to be passing me to notice). After a few minutes we both were feeling like something wasn’t right. We basically had to bushwhack though the trail (this was a trail that in theory 300+ participants had previously traversed today) which we should have known wasn’t right. We ended turning around and of course finding the trail clearly marked.
At this point I was less than 9 miles to the finish and had a very rocky ridge line and decent in front of me. More self talk was used to encourage me to keep running. As the time ticked by on the last rocky ridge top of the day I noticed another racer creeping up on me. This was devastating. Here is an example of some of the “self talk” I have been referring to. “Shut up Dave, don’t look behind you, and keep freakin’ running!” So I did, but it wasn’t enough to prevent him from passing me. I slowly watched him run out of my view, “just keep moving!”
Reviewing the course map and elevation before the race I noticed that there was a nasty decent coming. Finally, the course turned off the ridge and headed down, and fast. For those of you who read my report of Black Mountain Marathon you remember the last section I describe as a “quad check.” This decent was three times as long, just as steep, and down a washed out/rocky poor excuse of a trail. I knew I wouldn’t let myself walk down it so I just let it rip. After a few hairy moments of turned ankles or clipping my toes I told myself to get focused b/c if I fall then I will not be finishing the race.
One third of the way down the decent I saw the racer who had just passed me on the ridge walking down slowly. This fueled my fire for one last push. I focused harder on my foot placement, ignored the burning in my feet and quads, and just kept rolling down the trail. I finally popped out at the final aide station. Some of my TH friends yelled encouragement. I was in such a stupor I couldn’t find the water at the aide station so I just said forget it and ran through. As I headed out I asked my friends how much further and was delighted to find out only 1.2 miles. I was so close.
During my decent I had not only passed the last racer to pass but I had actually caught the one whom passed me 8 miles earlier. My TH buddy Monk was yelling at me to catch and pass him. I gave it everything I had and I was gaining on him during the paved section but as soon as the course went back to trail and a few switch backs I was done. I looked over my shoulder once more and was delighted to not have anyone in site. I put my head down and tried to run with the most strength and best form my tired body would allow. I crossed the finish line in 5 hours and 18 minutes. I did not hit my goal time of 5 hours or below but I gave it my best effort. Upon crossing the line my friend cheering me on mentioned that I was looking a little green in completion validating my sloshing stomach for the past 25 miles.
It was a great experience and a great trail. As always I wonder how I will run further but inevitably I do. In a few weeks time I will have to as I attempt my longest event yet, a 50 miler. I will take the lessons learned and apply them to my races in the future. For now, my body is recovering nicely. See you on the trails.