Monday, December 10, 2012

The Hard Core

Squishiness has proven a persistently annoying aspect of life on earth. Sure it made sense when all of us were buoyed in that great wet womb of our genesis. And we have made considerable strides with shells, plates, and bones now that we dwell on desiccating and gravity-ruled terra firma. Still, poke or gash us with even a meagre stick and we bleed.

My vulnerabilities have been all too apparent in the five weeks since I ran the Mountain Masochist 50 mile trail run. Hurricane Sandy, itself a mere droplet cast off from Mother Nature's sneeze, had spawned a system of storms that spanned the entire East coast. The Blue Ridge Mountain range in Southwest Virginia was lightly brushed as if by a passing coat tail. It was still enough to cause considerable trevail. By the time of the race on November 3 several inches of snow remained on the parts of the course above 2400' and front runners would have to break trail through some knee-deep snow drifts.

My plans to prepare for the Hellgate 100K were foiled by the fallout. Inflammation of the peroneal tendon on my left ankle cast a shadow over any training I tried. The pain was significant and only manageable by staying on my toes and keeping that ankle rigid when climbing. This might explain the continuous soreness of my left achilles tendon -- not an injury to be toyed with. Finally, a sharp pain at the top of my hamstring was eerily reminiscent of the “deep butt” high hamstring tendon syndrome that can be a multi-year injury for distance runners. The pain plagued me for the last several weeks and prevented me from running at speeds faster than six miles per hour. I kept expecting the pain to pass and to be healed enough to run one of the toughest ultras around.

I considered withdrawing. As the race approached it became clear that if I did start, I was just as likely to have to quit due to injury as to finish, and even if I did manage to limp through I would not be performing at peak fitness -- not only because I was injured, but because injuries had prevented me from training as I would have when healthy. A plethora of personal and professional responsibilities vie for my attention all the time. I could spend the weekend grading final exams, working on the house, or playing with my kids. The scale was perched right on the line between “go” and “don’t go.” The slightest additional weight would have made all the difference.

And there the scale remained even as we rode to event headquarters in Staunton, VA on Friday evening. JJ Jessee drove my van with Micah McFaddin riding shotgun. They were coming to crew for Beth Minnick, who rode in the back with me. We had our feet propped up and our heads resting on our pillows. I dreamily imagined that we were driving through the night toward a distant destination. And then I wished it really was so. Had JJ said he changed plans and was going to drive us through the night to New York City I would have readily gone gone along.

Not even the race director’s public provocations at the pre-race briefing could snap my head back into it. He announced that I had the current course record [11:03] and taunted that I wouldn’t be able to break 11 hours. I didn’t want to say out loud that I had serious doubts about my ability to complete the course at all. That I was getting ready to start anyway seemed completely surreal.

Even a sense of dread would have been better than the escapist fantasies I was turning to. I was about to be abandoned 66 miles from the safety of the finish, in the mountains, at midnight, and I was starting lame.

About the only thing that registered true at the start was the prayer offered by Frank Gonzales for David Horton. Though Horton seemed himself in every respect this weekend, he will be undergoing major surgery today [He is likely registering at the hospital as I post this]. The normal commotion of the start line gave way to complete quiet. While running ultras may be something people do for recreation, it would be hard to overstate the impact that Horton has had on peoples’ lives. He started the “ultra scene” in the East, and Hellgate is perhaps most representative of what an ultra means to him: huge withering climbs, brilliant wide-open vistas, plenty of brutal technical terrain but also miles of free running. More than that, though, Hellgate is intimate. Entries are capped to keep the numbers low -- 140 runners this year. Horton knows you. And he wants you to face your demons, even if it takes Forever to do it.

Many times, including at Hellgate in 2005, I have started a race with grand plans that were gradually worn down until I had to surrender and accept that my fate is subject to forces beyond my control. Hellgate 2012 is the first time I have started a race already surrendered.  I had no pretense that I could control the outcome. Of course that didn’t relieve me of the need to prepare -- just the opposite. I outfitted myself with great gear from The Aid Station. I got an amazingly bright Princeton Tec Headlamp and carefully arranged to swap out batteries. And I also left my clothes in the van so that if I did drop on the course I’d be able to get them from JJ and Micah.

As it turns out my fears were well founded.

The ankle and the hamstring hurt enough that I wondered what the other runners would make out of my visible limp. I stayed well behind the front runners. Despite the very easy pace I almost immediately started having stomach trouble. My dinner had not digested and my stomach became painfully distended. I drank water at the first aid station but it just made me more bloated. I picked up my hydration pack and gels at the second aid station but didn’t touch either until 2:30 am when my stomach finally started to empty.

I broke the race into thirds. Two warmup marathons and then the race. The first marathon (OK, 22 miles) ends at Headforemost Mountain and I hoped to be there before 4 am. The second marathon ends at Bearwallow Gap and I hoped to be there before 8 am. The first marathon was nearly all miserable. I started to feel moderately better on the final climb to the Headforemost aid station. I had been able to eat and drink some. As long as I stayed on my toes and didn’t flex my ankle that pain was manageable. The hamstring only hurt when I opened up my stride. I was surprised to find myself in third place leaving the aid station. Jason Bryant had dropped and returned to Camping Gap. Frank Gonzales had apparently taken even longer than I at the aid station. That left Troy Shellhamer (my comrade on many recent adventures) and “some guy way out front” who turned out to be Alister Gardner. Despite my tutelage, which frequently includes sincerely offered tips on how to beat me, Troy was sporting a headlamp that included a blinking red light on the back. This is no doubt a great safety feature for road cycling but for a mountain ultra run through the night this better suited the purposes of his competitors. Unwittingly, Troy helped carry me through two critical periods of the race: the entire first third when I just wanted to shuffle past the miles in meditative oblivion (focused on the blinking red light), and the final third that I’ll detail below.

I fully recognize how bizarre this is going to sound and I myself am tempted to attribute to me some special strength of will or character but the truth is that we just don’t have the right model for how the human body works.

I was injured and feeling unwell. I started running at midnight by the light of my headlamp in the mountains. Four hours later I was being HEALED.  At 4 am I started the second marathon feeling the way I “should” have felt had I trained optimally, stayed healthy, and then tapered down to a complete rest and (of course) skipped the first marathon. One has to wonder -- would “go run in the mountains” be a better generic prescription for what ails you than “just take it easy”?

So I ran the second marathon with alacrity. After Jennings Creek (27 miles)  there are two long sustained climbs and descents on gravel and double track that allowed me to open up my stride and blow out the old carburetor barrels. I passed Troy and gapped him by what I thought would be an insurmountable distance. I had apparently suppressed the memory of all the technical single-track in the approach to Bearwallow Gap. I have an edge over Troy on open terrain, but he is very strong and, for a midwesterner, remarkably able to maintain his speed over rocks.

The race starts at Bearwallow Gap. I was about 16 minutes behind Alister and maybe two minutes in front of Troy. More importantly I was one minute ahead of my pace from 2006 when I set the course record. Considering that I had been as much as 23 minutes behind Alister, I thought both the course record and the win were still in play. It sure wasn’t going to be easy. After 44 miles through the night the running was work. Completely gone was the euphoria of the middle marathon. I gritted my teeth and almost felt myself pull at my legs to get them to keep running on the climb out of Bearwallow. Contouring around the mountain I caught occasional glimpses of Troy behind me.

On the technical descent before Bobblet’s Gap (about 50 miles) the wear of the run began to show. Cramps in my feet and calves made navigating rocks difficult. My knees hurt. I hadn’t refilled my hydration pack at Bearwallow and ran dry, which kept me from eating. My energy reached a low point just before the aid station. As I refilled and grabbed several chunks of boiled potato Troy arrived. He hooted at his sister who was crewing for him and I knew he’d be excited to be racing me once again so close to the end of an ultra. I overheard her say something about his “double espresso shot” and I figured he was getting ready to get even more amped up.

Sure enough he came cruising by me on the road descent after Bobblet’s Gap. I might have smiled to myself if I felt I had the luxury. This would be Troy’s first trip through the Forever section. It doesn’t help for someone to tell you about it -- you have to go through it. Taking it alone is tough. Leading someone may be tougher. Troy runs strong and steady -- I’ve learned that across the many miles we have now put in together. I was happy to once again tuck in behind him.

During a training run three weeks prior I had warned Troy that he shouldn’t wait until the last aid station to make his move on me. So I was just thinking “way to go!” after he had surged on the first downhill of the Forever section when I caught back up to him because he had tripped and fallen. He got right back up and shook it off but the surge was over. He led the full distance of that section with me right behind him. As my energy severely ebbed -- as it must -- so did his. Our pace ground down to a shuffle on those final climbs before the Day Creek aid station. When at last we emerged from the Forever section Troy looked like, well, Hell.

I had taken my caffeinated Clif Shot about 10 minutes before, and at the aid station I chugged a small cup of Mountain Dew. Alister had been through 10 minutes before so I knew he was no longer within reach. It was 10:10 and I knew exactly what I had to do to break 11 hours: run every step of the final three mile climb to the parkway. The last three downhill miles are a given -- I could run those fast regardless of what I had been through.

My body -- the squishy part -- did protest. Everything possible had been squeezed from it. “Nothing left here,” it said and just for proof my legs became leaden weights. “Good,” I replied, “then there is nothing left here to care.” And in fact I did feel that everything soft had been stripped away. All that was left was one simple commandment “run every step.”

No doubt we are fleshy beings held fast to the physical world. Our freedom waves in the breeze like a flag run up a tall pole. We mount ourselves to an infinitesimally thin yet absolutely liberating hard core. We must stake our claim, make our promise, and then hold fast no matter what. That is the essence of human freedom and the greatest joy of our longest runs.

Hellgate 2012 Results:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Back to Real Life?

I spent the first two weeks of July trekking with a small group from Damascus to Harper's Ferry on the AT. You could call it vacation -- it had that immersive quality that allowed most of my routine "life" to temporarily evaporate. For an average of about 10 hours per day I was consumed with the task of locomoting myself across beautiful - but difficult - terrain as quickly and efficiently as possible. Even the downtime was demanding: hydrating, re-fueling, packing for the next day, pitching camp, and finally recovering. All that focus is quite compelling. I asked one of my comrades in the adventure, Troy, why we put ourselves through so much difficulty. His response? This is when I feel most alive.

Maybe that's why coming back to regular life requires some adjustment -- and not just because I'm gimpy from tendinitis. So far I've just tried to switch modes completely. I haven't even tried to reconcile the world I lived in for the past two weeks with the world I normally live in. Like my son after his "Summer Scholars" camp, I am wishing it was next year already and I was in the midst of the 2013 Tour De Virginia. I keep wanting to tweak the stages and get the plan laid out, even though I have more pressing things to do. I want to process the 2012 Tour and write some kind of report, but I haven't been able to get the distance to even begin to really assimilate the experience. So let me just say that will be forthcoming...

For now -- I think I can say that I'm well enough. Nearly every required system responded to the demands I placed on it. I felt better than anticipated. My energy stayed high throughout almost every day. That has to be thanks in part to the help of my brother James who had everything we needed ready for us at the end of each stage. My feet did remarkably well. My other comrade Anne had horrific blisters starting from the first day. I had no blister issues (thanks to top-quality socks from Swiftwick and trail shoes from TheAidStation). I did fall more than I would have thought -- 5 times -- with some painful scrapes and bruises. Troy fell once, but he fell hard. Anne fell 13 times, with obvious and painful abrasions to show for it. I think we will all heal in short order and get on track for our next round of adventures -- whether they are escapes from, or approaches to -- real life.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Tour de Virginia ends at Harper's Ferry!

We're at TeaHorse Hostel finishing up breakfast Sunday morning and getting ready for our press conference (with Adam as moderator).  More details on the last few days to come soon, but for now, here are the times for the last 3 stages.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Times through stage 12

Adam called this evening with updates on times for the past several stages.  He said the boys are pretty tired and that Anne was still out on the trail.  They'll be starting at around mile marker 22 on the Skyline Drive tomorrow morning (Friday) and finishing where the AT crosses VA 50/17.  Loren and I are heading up to help out tomorrow and hope to catch the runners along Skyline Drive somewhere.  We're camping at Mountain Lake Campground tomorrow night, 127 Mountain Lake Lane, Paris VA 20130.  On Saturday night we'll be staying at Tea Horse Hostel in Harper's Ferry if anyone wants to come out and celebrate.  It's unlikely I'll have access to the blog after tomorrow morning.  You can try to reach me at 276-232-0395 if you want to arrange to meet up with the runners Friday or Saturday.  Thanks for following along on this adventure!  ~ Robin

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Stage 11 - Wed., July 11 (39 miles)

Sophie crewed for our runners again today and posted this note and pics on Facebook: 

I met the gang as they were coming into Turk's Branch Gap, about mile 11 from their starting point at Beagle Gap, where they departed at 7:15 am. Eric and Troy were together and they weren't needing much aid at this point and were moving well (about 4mph). Just minutes behind them came Anne, looking solid and strong. Her knee was giving her some issues after falling on it in earlier stages but she was still moving well and of course her attitude was upbeat and determined, which will serve her well in the next few days.

I met them two more times along the trail--at Rip Rap (mile 17 for the stage ) and Blackrock (mile 19). Since the weather was cloudy and cool, the trail was so runnable, they had access to aid with all the Shenandoah National Park amenities, and everyone was making such good time, the gang decided to add three miles to the day's stage at the end and then 10 additional miles today (Thursday) in anticipation of the last day's terrain and long miles -- 48-- so these changes will make the last day a shorter day of 35. Good thinking and a smart plan, IMO.

Anne and I hiked up to Blackrock together and I was able to snap some great pics which I will post. I also was able to run some sections with Eric and Troy--those guys are moving! Their pace after 400 miles and 10 days was faster than my usual pace on those trails on a good day! Whew!

After sharing the beautiful trail with these amazing athletes, I am seriously motivated to consider the Tour de Virginia in the future..."


That's Anne scaling the rocks.

These fellows sure are sticking together.

Robin adds:
I spoke with Troy this evening and learned that the runners tacked on an extra 4 miles to their run bringing the total for the day to 39.  I was surprised how energetic Troy sounded.  Knowing they have just 3 days remaining must surely contribute to some extra endorphin production.  If I understood Troy correctly, I think he said his total time for today was 8:44, Eric's time was 8:55, and Anne's time was 10:11.  I'll need to double check that tomorrow.  Troy commented on plans to add an extra 10 miles to their stage tomorrow so instead of the planned 34, they'll be doing 44.  This change of plans is due to the relative ease of the terrain on this section of the trail.  He said they'll be ending at a place called Elk Wallow on Skyline Drive tomorrow evening (Thursday).  I can't wait to hear what tomorrow brings for the runners.  

Stage 10 - Tuesday, July 10 (41 miles)

Sophie Speidel crewed for the runners today and posted the following on Facebook (Thanks, Sophie!)

Facebook post: Tour de Virginia runners are currently on day 10 of their 14 day stage run on the Appalachian Trail through Virginia. All are looking mighty good despite last week's big heat and averaging 40 miles a day--they arrived at Reeds Gap this morning feeling great! So impressed...and I love Anne's dress :-)

Sophie's longer post:
All three runners left Crabtree Falls/AT intersection at 6:50 am after hitching a ride from Montebello Campground with a guy who had a 4WD truck. Eric, then Troy right behind him, arrived at Reeds Gap at 11:30. They looked good considering they had just climb Three Ridges! I went down the trail looking for Anne and we made it back to Reeds at 1:00. 

After refueling and hydrating, Anne took off after the guys and I went to Humpback Rocks where I met up with Anne's mom Susan Riddle. The guys came in exactly three hours after leaving Reeds Gap (9miles) and they were NOT happy with the rocks on that section. Anne got there about 4:30 after leaving Reeds, switched out her shoes, and started to make good time to Rockfish Gap. The guys also cranked out a very fast section from Humpback to Rockfish in 1:30 for 7miles...impressive! I had to take off for home at that point but they were scheduled to finish the stage around 6:45 for a sub-12 hour stage for 41 miles. I just got off the phone with Susan Riddle and Anne is scheduled to arrive at Beagle Gap by 8:30.

Tomorrow I will crew for the first 20 miles, but the runners have the luxury of the SNP waysides at Loft Mountain and water spigots at campgrounds along the way after that. All seem to be in good spirits and "smelling the barn!" it was a blast to be part of the fun today.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Stage 9 - Monday, July 9 (41 miles) Rebekah's account

Rebekah crewed for the runners today and posted the following on Facebook:

Stage 9 - 41 miles: Though the temps were lower today, the humidity was very high. I was able to crew the entire stage and each time I saw the runners, it looked as though they had jumped in a lake. They all had very solid days and each enjoyed the miles not having to worry about water and supplies. I was able to provide 5 aid stations with fruit and snacks. They did get caught in a bad thunder, lightening, and rain storm. Nevertheless, they all finished strong.

We even had a little excitement getting them out of the ending point. I took my Honda station wagon for a 4 miles jaunt on a road marked for 4-wheel vehicles only. There was one particular point that was pretty scary. I got in and out (with my runners) by the skin of my teeth. Whew.  But, we aren't sure how to get them back in the morning. I have had to return home and the tour van cannot make it all the way in. They may need to hike an extra 2.5 miles up to the trail before the stage even begins. Stay tuned.

Eric - 10:45
Troy - 10:22
Anne - 12:17

Robin's addendum to Rebekah's note:

I talked with Eric this morning and learned that a guy in a pick-up truck drove the runners to the start.  Somehow people keep showing up out of the ether just when they are needed along this Tour.  

Stage 8 - Sunday, July 8 (34 Miles) Nursing experience comes in handy

After a relatively restful night, the runners were slow to leave the comfort of Rebekah's home on Sunday morning.  Gone were the 6 am starts.  We practically had to push them out the door at 6:20 am for the 45 minute ride up the mountain to the starting point.  Adam shuttled them to the start while James, Loren, and I stuck around and treated ourselves to some breakfast goodies Rebekah had spread out like a buffet fit for calorie deprived ultrarunners.  Just last night Troy was estimating that they are running around a 3500 calorie per day deficit.  That's a pound a day.  Jenny Nichols recently asked me if I could tell if the runners had lost weight.  "Well, it's hard to say," I told her.  "Eric had to loosen up his shoelaces yesterday and Anne's knees are so swollen."  The runners legs are pretty well torn up with bug bites, scrapes, heat rashes, stinging nettle irritations.  It's hard to see the weight loss for all the fluid retention.  And that brings us to today's stage.  A new malady, a new affliction and the reason for the title "Nursing experience comes in handy."

Loren and I set off for Sunset Fields at the leisurely time of 10 am, stopping at the convenience store along the way to purchase the much appreciated ice and arriving around 11 am.  With a 27 pound 2 year old at my side or riding on my shoulders, a cooler with sodas and a 10 pound bag of ice, a coffee can filled halfway with water and 2 wash cloths (for runners to soak their heads and rinse off sweat), and a backpack with a change of clothes for the 2 year old, some snack crackers for the runners, a towel, and a water bottle, we set off down the trail to the AT crossing.  While it was just a third of a mile to the AT crossing, I felt as though I had trekked much further.  Once we got to the crossing, we settled in to wait for the first runner.

Eric was the first to arrive, talking hurriedly about how he had heard that Troy had fallen and torn up his hands pretty badly.  While I was planning to head back to Emory after this aid station, Eric thought I might need to stay longer in case Troy needed to be taken to a hospital.  I assured Eric I would help in any way necessary and off he went.  Just 10 minutes later, I heard Troy talking on the phone (no surprise there) and moving deftly along the path.  He didn't seem that bad off, but one look at his hands and knee and I knew he must have been shaken up pretty badly by his fall.  He indicated that he sees this kind of thing in urgent care all the time and he was quite certain that he needed stitches, but he was not stopping the stage.  By the time he got to an urgent care center, he figured it would be too late to stitch the wound, so he was just planning to super glue it that night.

I'm not sure if the heat was causing Troy to hallucinate, but he told me that 6 nurses came to his aid after his fall.  6 female nurses out for a hike with antiseptic and steri-strips on hand to tend to their ailing comrade (Troy's a nurse).  This seemed a little too mystical to me and when I told Eric about it, he said, "Only Troy.  Only Troy."  The nurses lifted Troy's spirits as we was pretty shaken up by the whole incident.  By the time he got to my aid station, he was carrying a wadded up bit of cloth to cover his wound and indicated the steri-strips had fallen off after an hour.  He lingered very little at my aid station and pressed on.  It wasn't long before Rebekah appeared after having crewed for the runners a couple other times already that morning.  She asked me to wait for Anne while she headed on to meet up with Eric and Troy down the trail.  When Anne arrived, she seemed in good spirits and seemed to be moving along fairly well.  I learned later that Anne had quite a low point between my aid station and the seven miles when she next saw Rebekah.  At that point, with 10 miles remaining for the day, I heard that Anne was ready to throw in the towel.  She had had enough.  Somehow she pressed on and finished the stage at the James River.  I was fortunate to get to talk with Rebekah Sunday night to hear how the stage finished out.  She shared that Anne had talked with her husband, Mark Lundblad, and daughter, Ellie, that night, and they encouraged her to press on.  I think 12 year old Ellie said something like "What would your fans think if you quit now?"

The last time I saw Eric and Troy today was at a point about 10 miles from the finish.  When Eric arrived, I told him about seeing Troy and eased his mind about Troy's well being.  I also told him Troy was only 10 minutes behind him to which Eric replied, "I don't want to take a man out while he's down."  Eric took his time drinking a soda, refilling his pack with ice, and chatting with me and Rebekah.  It wasn't long before Troy arrived.  He dropped off his trekking poles figuring he could no longer carry them given his wound.  He and Eric would finish out the day together, clocking in at 9 hours 7 minutes.  Anne's time for Stage 8 was 11 hours 24 minutes.

Rebekah helps Eric with a refill
Even a hand injury that needs stitches doesn't get Tory down

Troy gives Eric the lowdown on his injury

(I don't have any pictures of Anne from today.  I think I got some video when I saw her at the aid station though.)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Stage 7 - Saturday (42 miles) Queen Anne and the Vespa mandarinias

Anne, Troy and Eric
6 am start the morning of Stage 7
Honey has been a recurring theme on this tour.  James learned how to catch a swarm of bees while we were at Wood's Hole Hostel.  Prior to that, he met a man who shared tips on how to tend bees.  Across the street from Four Pines Hostel was the most extensive collection of bee hives I've ever seen.  James gifted me with a jar of local honey today.

Today's post is titled "Queen Anne and the Vespa mandarinias."  I had intended to call it "Queen Anne and the Worker Bees," but after I learned worker bees are all females, that hardly seemed appropriate.  "Queen Anne and the Drones" wouldn't have fit either since the drones are known for lazing around the hive waiting to mate with the queen.  Though in some sense, drone may have been appropriate because once the drone has done his duty, he dies.  Perhaps Queen Anne is waiting to make her move and ensnare the two males remaining on this Tour de Virginia, discarding them as she forges ahead to the finish.

While Eric and Troy are duking it out with one another, chatting it up, and intent on not letting the other get too far out of sight, Anne spends the day in relative solitude.  Unlike Troy, who is nearly always connected to some electronic gadget or another, Anne passes the time tuned in to some other thoughts and sensations.  I've often asked Eric what he thinks about all that time while he's out on the trail.  He thought that was quite a bizarre question.  I wonder what occupies Anne's mind all those hours she's out on the trail by herself.

I saw Eric and Troy at the 20 mile mark today as they crossed VA 220 near Daleville.  It was hot, extremely hot, and they were more than grateful for the ice cold sodas and the chance to fill up their packs with ice water.  When Anne came along an hour and 15 minutes later, she too was grateful, telling me that if no one had been at that spot, she would have considered ducking into the convenience store to purchase a lemonade.  She wondered aloud if that would be against the rules.  Seriously?! She's worried about some manner of rules on a day like today when any normal ultrarunner covering 40+ miles in 100+ heat would be seeking any form of hydration necessary to maintain some sense of equilibrium.

20 miles in on Stage 7
I next saw the runners at an AT crossing near the Blue Ridge Parkway with about 8 miles to go for the day.  Loren and I had walked down the trail a ways to wait for them to arrive.  After about an hour, I heard voices, realized it was Eric and Troy, and then noticed they had stopped.  They had not yet spotted me.  If they had seen me and Loren, I imagine Troy may have not let the stream of curse words spew from his mouth.  It turns out he had been stung in the rear by a wasp.  Our male runners were getting a little taste of their own Vespa mandarinia today. Fortunately I had the Flip camera with me and caught Troy's reaction to that incident on film. Adam should be posting a video soon. I was somewhat surprised to see Troy and Eric still together at this point.  I recall Eric telling Troy that he could certainly try to take it out and pull away from him, but doing so on a 100+ heat day might prove detrimental to Troy for the following stage.  Ahh, the psychological games these boys are playing with each other.  This Tour is finally beginning to feel like a race to me.  These guys are serious about competing with each other.  Eric and Troy snagged some more fluids and headed on towards the finish.  Anne came along just 1 hour and 30 minutes after Eric and Troy had come through.  She looked strong as ever, barely pausing to get any aid, and pressed on for the remaining 8 miles.  Another stage was coming to an end for the runners.  7 down, 7 to go.

Eric looks like he's suffering pretty well here,
but in reality he's rinsing off his face.
I've seen him look much worse, but I
am quite certain he was glad for the stage to be over.

Adam looked refreshed.  He went to his
grandmother's house today and did laundry for
runners.  I think he may have taken a nap too.
How could you, Adam?  Don't you need to be
suffering along with the runners?

Stage 7 is in the bag. Time to head to Rebekah's house.

Rebekah's lovely home was quite a treat Sat. and Sunday nights

Video from Stages 3 and 4

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stage 6 - Friday, July 6 (39 miles)

Eric's birthday bouquet with next day's lunch

I've often heard Eric express his gratitude for the chance to spend the day on the mountain, moving through space under his own power, up and over mountains, across streams, around obstacles, in any manner of weather.  He's certainly fulfilling that freedom on this Tour.  Today (Friday, July 6) he celebrates his 44th birthday.  What a way to celebrate.  After today's trek, cumulative mileage for the Tour is 247.

Stage 6 route began at the AT crossing at VA 601 and ended at VA 311 in Catawba for a total of 39 miles

I arrived at the McAfee Knob parking lot at VA 311 at 6:30 pm with our two year old daughter, Loren Rose.  Eric had gotten a ride back to Four Pines Hostel with the owner, Joe Mitchell.  Troy had just finished for the day and opted to catch a ride back to the hostel with me, while Adam waited for Anne and Rob to arrive.  Back at the hostel, Eric was freshening up with a shower before his birthday dinner of hot dogs with chili and boiled salted potatoes.  James tells me the potatoes are an old tradition of salt miners.  They were quite tasty.   With today's extreme temperatures, the salty meal was a perfect fit for the runners.  

Anne at the supply trailer - time to prep for the next day
Ouch!  Rob's legs took a beating today.
Once Anne and Rob returned to the hostel, we were grateful another stage of the Tour was officially completed. I sensed a foreboding in the air though as Rob seemed pretty distant, not just your typical end-of-the-day fatigued kind of distant.  He had had a pretty rough day, made even worse by the realization that he had another six or so miles to go after he saw a sign to the hostel where we were staying.  Apparently, the hostel is pretty close to the AT, but today's stage ended at the top of another long climb several miles beyond the hostel.  Eric had contacted James during the day to tell him to go out to that section of the AT and put up a sign telling our runners to keep going.  Nothing like having your hopes dashed that you might be nearing the end of a long, hot day, only to realize you have many more miles to go.  I also heard some grumblings about Dragon's Tooth which was scaled towards the end of this day's stage.

Time for the evening check-in
What Rob really needed at this point was some food and time off his feet.  As Rob began his meal, our new thru-hiker friend whose name I didn't catch (I'm sure James and Adam know it) was still working on his dinner.  He had already finished off a gallon of whole milk and four or five venison burgers which he ate on his homemade plate fashioned from a cardboard box.  Several other thru-hikers arrived that evening and I began to wonder if any of our guys would get any sleep if they chose to stay in the garage.  I imagined the thru-hikers weren't as concerned about going to sleep at a reasonable hour as I doubted they had plans to start hiking by 6 am the next morning.  I asked Rob if he needed help setting up his tent, but he indicated he planned on sleeping in the garage.  I learned the next morning that Rob had bailed on the garage arrangements some time during the night to seek other sleeping arrangements.  A sound night's sleep wasn't in the cards, but then again, I wonder if anyone has gotten a decent night's sleep during this Tour.  A few snapshots from our time at Four Pines:

Don't touch my Nutella!  Nighttime preparations for tomorrow's lunch.
Eric's regular lunch on the Tour includes
two almond butter and Nutella sandwiches and an apple.

Ahhh  , the stick!

Anne's blistered feet.  Man she's tough!

Pack is prepped for the next day.  Thanks, Rebekah, for making
laminated mileage charts for everyone for every stage of the Tour!
Adam reading the hikers' guest book at Four Pines Hostel

Saturday, July 7, 2012

2 down, 3 remain

By now you probably know that Rebekah had to call it quits after Thursday's long 46 mile day.  You can read what she's processed about the experience so far on her blog.

After a long night spent battling whether or not to press on today, Rob threw in the towel.  As you can imagine, it was an extremely difficult decision. I understand that Rob's achilles tendons were really bothering him and he was having other over-use injuries that would have only been exacerbated by proceeding.  While he would have loved to join us at Rebekah's house this evening, he decided it would have been too difficult knowing he wasn't able to join us after completing today's stage.

So that brings us to now, relaxing in the cool comfort of Rebekah's house after a delicious dinner of BBQ chicken, roasted potatoes and carrots, salad, baked beans, fresh baked bread, iced tea, apple crisp with ice cream, and two other desserts I can't recall.  You can imagine how much the runners appreciated this feast (I'll write more later about what a great job brother James has done crewing and cooking). 

Today's run was extremely hot, high of 103.  I'll write more tomorrow about my observations of the runners.
Of course, it would be great if Eric or Anne or Troy could write about their day, but they are too busy with the little spare time they having packing their supplies for the next day, eating, and trying to get some sleep.

At the present moment (9:29 pm on Sat.), Eric, Anne, and Troy are strategizing about plans for tomorrow.  Looking ahead to the end of the Tour de Virginia, Eric says, "basically, it's going to be the last person standing." He and Troy are having a lively debate about the rules of the Tour de France in terms of finish times (rounding to nearest minute, etc.).  Troy reminds us about the notion of rounding to the nearest quarter hour for the Tour de Virginia.  Wouldn't that help the timekeepers keep track of total times?

Weather forecast for tomorrow is a high of 99. "Well, that will be cooler than today," says optimistic Annie. And she continues,"so we'll just survive tomorrow, and we've got it made in the shade."

Eric is pressng me to get to bed so I'll stop for now.  I'll post pictures tomorrow night.  Adam will post a new video soon.

Stages 5, 6, and 7 times

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Stage 4 - Wednesday, July 4 (41 miles)

"So at what point does this adventure begin to seem a little . . . . . . absurd?" I asked.

Troy, relaxing at Woods Hole Hostel after Stage 4
"Right about now," said Troy as he headed off for the longest day yet of the tour, 46 miles for Stage 5 of 14.  It was 5:45 am and Eric and Troy were the last ones to leave the trailhead after our overnight stay at Wood's Hole Hostel.  Rebekah, Anne, and Rob had left about half an hour earlier.  Yesterday evening was my first chance to see the runners since they began this adventure.  I'm not sure what I expected of the runners or the hostel, but I was a little surprised by how much it felt like I was in the Twilight Zone.  As the runners filtered in yesterday evening, they weren't very chatty, more quiet and pensive, or just plain exhausted.  They got to work prepping their supplies for the next stage or tending their blisters, scrapes, hunger, and dirt covered bodies. There was a distance in their presence.  I've seen Eric in this state before.  One look into his eyes after a long, treacherous night at Hellgate and I knew he was battling some internal force challenging him to quit which, by the way, he didn't do.  The runners weren't quite in this state, but I did sense they were feeling the miles and maybe beginning to question their willingness to explore fatigue in quite the way this adventure is calling them to.
Eric freshening up in the outdoor shower at Woods Hole

Eric and Anne ready for some homemade pizza

Neville, in apron, with some of the dinner prep crew
Wood's Hole Hostel is a light and airy place, both because of the idyllic country setting with an 1880's log cabin, farm animals, and gardens aplenty, and because of the friendly, welcoming owners, Neville and Michael.  The hostel was a treat for me, but I think it may have been more of a mixed bag for the runners.  Papa bear Grossman was a little protective of his cubs when he was told everyone needed to pitch in to help make dinner.  Eric explained the runners needed time to recover.  Neville and Michael explained this is how their hostel works, with everybody pitching 
in or as my stepmom says, "Many hands make light work." Eric must have convinced Neville because our runners stayed out of the heat of the kitchen, with its 400 degree oven prepping for the pizzas, and dinner was made with the labor of our 12 year old son, 10 year old daughter, Neville, her niece and nephew, myself, and three thru-hikers.  It worked out just fine.  
Rob with his pizza

Crew co-leader Adam enjoying another day of the Tour

Crew leader and chef James with his and Eric's dad, John

"I haven't cussed him yet," Anne told me.  I told Eric that Anne had this to say last night.  "Oh, it's coming," Eric replied.  How could it not?  Today, Stage 5, was their longest mileage yet (46 miles).  I'm anxious to meet up with the runners and crew again tomorrow night (Friday) in Catawba to see how Stages 5 and 6 have played out.  With some luck and careful self-maintenance, they may be as blissful as my daughter, Catherine, is at Wood's Hole.  Well, I can hope.

Tour de Virginia Times through Stage 4

Tour de Virginia video - the early stages

Thanks to crew member Adam Bolt for creating this video showing our runners in the first couple days of the Tour.  Ann shows off her blister and shares her "technical" trail accident, Troy shares his story of bonus miles, Rebekah tells of her hammock misfortunes during the storm,  and Rob shares his tale of being ensnared by blowdown.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Stage 2 - Monday, July 2 (35 miles)

The glycogen stores are not yet depleted and so Eric tells me everyone is still feeling pretty good after today's 35 mile day from VA 603 to VA 617.  I haven't heard any stories from today's trek yet, but I'm aware the tents and hammocks are hanging out to dry at Ron Diss' (Eric's colleague) house in Rural Retreat where the runners and crew are camping tonight.  Hopefully tonight's rest will be uneventful, compared with last night, as tomorrow brings another 38 miles.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stage 1 - Tour de Virginia (Sunday, July 1)

After yesterday's prologue, a 7 mile run from Damascus to the TN/VA border, the Tour de Virginia began in earnest today with a 40 mile trek on the Appalachian Trail from Damascus to VA 603 near Troutdale. Rob French, Anne Riddle Lundblad, Troy Shellhamer, Eric Grossman, and Rebekah Trittipoe set off together on this journey of 550+ miles that will take them from the TN/VA border to Harper's Ferry, W.Va. in 14 days. It's no surprise that this event began as a community affair.  The ultrarunning community is known for being just that, a community.  While not everyone has the guts, stamina, courage, or endurance to tackle 550+ miles in 14 days, there are plenty in the community who are excited to come out and support such a feat.  Today, Jenny Nichols brought her two boys, Jack and Todd, out to support the runners with lemonade, cookies, and other goodies.  With temperatures in the upper 90's to low 100's, the refreshments were a welcome treat.  Guy Love and Rick Gray joined the runners for part of today's run and Beth Minnick came out to support the runners as well.  Thanks, Beth and Jenny, for posting these pictures on Facebook. 



Guy Love and Eric

Jack and Todd with Rick Gray and Rebekah Trittipoe

All smiles at the end of Stage 1, the first 40+ mile day

Sunday night brought severe thunderstorms to the area.  While I slept somewhat peacefully in the comfort of my bed, I wondered what was happening with Eric and the runners and crew out on the mountain.  I learned today that the night was better for some than others.  Adam Bolt, a member of the support crew, and Rebekah were unprepared for the storms as they slept in their hammocks.  I hear they ended up inside the van where James, Eric's brother and the other member of the support crew/chef, slept.  Sounds like a cozy night in the van.  I'm certain the runners and crew will have plenty of opportunities to get to know one another in ways not yet anticipated or imagined. I hope to be able to share some of their stories with you here as the next two weeks unfold.