Me: You’re the man! Roll through here and you’ll make up ground over Sherman.
Me: Just keep an eye out for the turn. Don’t miss the turn. That will really screw you up. Where is that turn? For that matter, why haven’t I seen any course markings?
Me: Now I’m really pissed. I am going tear through this thing!
Me: Where is this little climb over Sherman? I’m going to kill it!
Me: The sweat is pouring off me. My legs are completely hammered. This mountain has no end.
Most of us live completely suspended in self-delusional fabrications. We are the disembodied characters at the center of the stories that others know of us. That bugs me. My best reason for running a 100 mile race through the mountains is that the activity inherently resists the kinds of contortions most of us can insert into our narratives. 100s are bluff proof. At some point in every 100 that I’ve run I’ve had to let go of my preconceived notions of how it would go, and how I would handle it, and just accept the circumstance as presented to me. The 2011 Old Dominion 100 unfolded in just this way.
I was in reasonable, but not top, shape. I had gotten in some long days, and some good heat runs. I have a lot of ultra experience behind me. The OD 100 was the first of four 100s I scheduled for this year. My goal was to run in such a way as to win. I guessed it would take me 16 hours if the weather was cool and 17 hours if the weather was hot. I had never been on the course, but I had looked at the stats and asked others who were familiar. I was glad that other established ultra runners entered and that the race looked to be competitive. I exchanged messages with both Neal Gorman and Jon Allen before the race. Keith Knipling was running, as well as Jeremy Pade and Karsten Brown.
The first 50 miles went as well as I could have hoped. I spent many early miles with Jon, and then a bit later with Neal. Both runners make good company, and I look forward to running with them again. I was by myself in 2nd place when I passed the 50 mile mark in 7:29. I felt the time was appropriate considering the cool morning temperatures and the easy running terrain of the first half of the course.
Both those variables changed considerably in the afternoon. Temperatures rose steadily and the protracted technical trail sections took a big toll on me. I was losing time to Neal, who had been at or near the lead from early on. I wasn’t concerned, however, because I knew that the miles from 70-85 would likely determine the race. I was biding time, trying to keep up with my fueling and hydration, and trying to stay efficient.
After mud-hole aid station at mile 70 I began to pick it up again. I ran uphill on an open double track section and by the time it turned downhill I was really moving. This was just the momentum I was hoping to build, and at just the right time. I stayed very alert to course markings. It didn’t help. After mile 73 the course flagging stopped. I followed the double track until I came to a road at about mile 75. I knew I was close to Elizabeth furnace, and that I could access it from the road. I also knew that the course followed a trail into that aid station, not the road. If I wanted to find and follow the prescribed course I would have to backtrack. Fuming, I ran back up the long slope up the double track. I scanned both sides, looking for any sign or course marking. Nothing. Finally, I came to the last of the orange flagging. I felt relief and anger at the same time. I felt relieved that I hadn’t missed a marked turn. I felt angry that someone screwed up my race. I didn’t have time to worry over that much, though, because my biggest problem was still navigating to a place I had never been with no course markings.
I ran down the double track for the second time. I was 80% sure that the turn was an “abrupt left” that I recalled from the course directions. I came to the first left turn and scouted it out. It led to a small campsite and then narrowed into an unpromising track. I abandoned it. Continuing downhill, the only other reasonable possibility was a trail marked by a sign that said simply “hiking trail.” I went for it. It had no flagging, but it contoured around the mountain a bit and headed downhill. That fit with my recollection of the course map. Just before I came to the road on that trail, I ran into fresh flagging. It led to a crossing that in turn led to the Elizabeth Furnace Aid Station.
photo by Bobby Gill
I was seething mad. How did Neal get through that section? Why was no one out on the course replacing the flagging that so obviously was missing? I certainly wasn’t going to pass the aid station without ensuring that someone got out to the critical turn and marked it. I stormed in to the pavilion and hastily convened the pow wow. Once I felt I had been heard I tried to gather myself to get what I needed for the “charge” over Sherman’s. I knew I had lost my head, had lost at least 25 minutes, and had lost valuable energy at a critical time. I gathered my hydration pack, trekking poles, and stuffed a mouth full of noodle soup into my mouth, chomping as I stormed out of the aid station.
The energy carried me about a quarter of the way up that monumental climb. By the time I got to the jug of water at the bottom of the other side, I was little more than a deflated heap. I trotted painfully along the gravel road. When the next technical ascent started I had little to give to it. Karston passed me on that, and I didn’t have the energy to care. I didn’t see much reason to continue at all. I hadn’t come here to death march and just finish in 19 hours. The last half-mile of trail before the 87 mile aid station is slightly downhill and runnable. I started to trot again, and softened a bit on my conviction to quit.
I came into the aid station and announced what I had been considering. My family, who had been following and supporting me all along, was there. Robin gave me “the pep talk.” Gavin just said, “Don’t quit Daddy.”
I just said, “OK, I’m going.” I wasn’t happy about it, but the race was bigger than me. My family is bigger than me. The mountain is bigger than me. I picked up the pace to a survival shuffle that carried me the final 13 long miles into Woodstock.
photo by Bobby Gill