I had woken up at 0100 ready to go only to realize I was four and a half hours ahead of my alarm. The morning was beautiful; there was a slight chill but nothing I wasn’t already used to experiencing. I was in go mode from the moment I officially woke up until mile 37 when I got to Coach. My stomach was in knots. I didn’t talk much. I was very focused, very determined and very much in ‘get this shit done’ mode. Long runs don’t overwhelm or intimidate me anymore, but a 12 hour cutoff sure does.
I checked in again, labeled my drop bag and final bag using the required red duct tape and my bib number, then we walked to the bathroom. As I stood in line, another runner said you know you’re a real trail runner when you can pop over into the woods instead of waiting in line and I said we’d have plenty of time to pee in the woods so I’m gonna go ahead and use toilet paper. We all laughed.
Then we headed back to the start area to wait out the final 10 minutes. Coach helped distract me since I had told him I was about to throw up yet still I managed to get the usual banana eaten and swallowed. The sun had barely peaked over the trees when the 50 milers were told to get on the other side of the Start/Finish line. Coach promised he’d be at the final 13 mile point to run me in, I chatted with a fellow Richmonder, and then we were sent on our way.
We crossed a bridge where a lot of tents were set up below. One runner yelled, “Cockadoodledo motherfuckers! Time to rise and shine!” The laughter helped me relax a little. My right shoe came untied before we had gone a mile, I did not tie it until that first aid station at mile 5ish which was a brief pause before we started heading up Iron Mountain.
This was the first of many 2+ mile steep climbs. I tried eating one of the portables on that first hour and decided quickly they were not going to work. I threw it out, pocketing the empty foil, knowing the aid stations were well stocked so wasn’t worried. A lot of the race is a blur after this point because I was determined to keep putting one foot in front of the other without stopping.
I arrived at the next aid station and began to eat grapes, bananas, cantaloupe and watermelon while a volunteer filled my bladder with more water. I stuffed more fruit in my pockets, included two gels just in case, then grabbed a handful of grapes and another banana to eat as I walked. This is pretty much how the visit to each aid station went.
Funnily enough, almost every aid station seemed to be in a gap, or bottom, which meant a climb followed. After the aid station at the bottom of Round Top, the mountain that isn’t Double Top, we climbed again for almost 2 solid miles. We got so high I was at the top of many trees and still climbing. It was absolutely stunning and not for the first time I wished I wasn’t running a race so I could stop to really take it all in. But at the same time something happened with my breathing so I had a hard time running (I had just taken an Aleve only 4hrs after taking the first one so I’m pretty sure that’s what either caused the problem or exacerbated the issue). Once that subsided, I started running again and fast.
Catching up to a runner, it was the guy who had said he saw me and Coach looking over the beer selection the night before. He said something like, “Hey, you caught up, got your second wind!” I told him of the breathing issue and he said I had it figured out and now here I was, ready to pass him. We chatted for a while and at the next aid station loaded up, headed out and eventually I left him behind.
When we arrived at the aid station at mile 28, Fellow Richmonder said the next five miles were the worst of the whole route. I had already suspected as much because of reports from previous runners and I knew Mt Rogers was coming up around mile 30ish. That was where I was going to be getting the most elevation gain and holy fuck was I right. I climbed a lot of switchbacks for 3 miles and then straight up for 2 miles. My legs were soooooo tired, I still have no idea how I made it up any of those hills. I’m also pretty sure it was on that climb that I tore something in my left calf.
The weather was beautifully perfect, there were a lot of rocks, so much climbing, but I made it. Somewhere around mile 30 I celebrated myself by saying out loud, “Holy shit, I am doing the damn thing!” It suddenly hit me hard that I was going to finish this race and well under the cutoff. My confidence surged.
At some point before the aid station at mile 37 – I only remember aid station miles – I was running downhill on technical single track when I stopped briefly because there were some large rocks. I felt myself being pushed from behind, not quite so gently, but not hard off a cliff either. I said out loud, “Okay, okay, I’m going, I can do this!” I’m pretty sure it was my dad helping me along, telling me I was capable. That realization helped and put a large smile on my face; another Godincident as my mom calls them. That’s how he was, always telling us to just do it, whatever ‘it’ was, and stop our whining.
Then I made it to my drop bag and Coach at mile 37!
That meant there were only THIRTEEN MILES LEFT!
And that I had just run the longest distance of my life!
I was so very happy to see each aid station volunteer. Coach said later he was relieved to see me in such a good mood because he was really worried I’d be an emotional mess. I affirmed for him that it was the best run ever and couldn’t have asked for a better day in the woods. I went to church all day, y’all, and it was fucking amazing.
I changed my shirt and my socks, ate a bunch of watermelon and a banana, loaded up on more fruit and off we went to conquer Iron Mountain again.
More ups, lots more rocks. Still more running. We got to run through the random meadow a second time which I was so excited to share with someone and excitedly proclaimed to Coach when I had first run through that meadow I had to force myself to keep running because I really wanted to stop and look around to really take it all in (notice the trend here?). He shook his head and sighed, I’m pretty sure of it. That urge to stop and look around is what separates the racers from the runners, I am definitely the latter.
Coach really helped me get through those final miles. I was so glad he was with me when I fell for the first time in the whole race because my right calf cramped up so bad I screamed and told him to hurry up and get it out. He enjoyed that reaction and laughed about it for the next several miles. We walked a lot more ups, he said holy shit this is a hilly route, I said I’ve already power hiked at least 10 miles of ups and was so very tired. There was one hill he had to literally push me up to keep me moving because I wanted to sit down and rest. Thankfully that was the last big hill.
Several times he would tell me to get to running and I would start swinging my arms and walking faster but couldn’t quite get to running. We laughed about that on the way home. At the time I was trying to warm up to the movement and I remember it feeling like I was actually running. Somewhere around mile 47ish my knees decided they had enough steep downhill so Coach came up with the plan of ‘floating’ down instead of running. That worked. It was unfortunate though because we love running downhill and I was missing the freeing feeling of flailing down steep hills.
Over the course of 13 miles, I told Coach how easy the race was and 3 miles later how much I hated being in the mountains and would be happy to never hike another damn mountain in a very long time. And 3 miles later I wanted to live in Damascus forever. He laughed and laughed and laughed. He later said he enjoyed hearing a runner’s thoughts out loud since he had always had them stuck in his brain.
I whined and moaned and complained and even cried a little bit because I thought we had only 1 mile left but really it was two (I think there’s a picture somewhere of me actually pouting). Coach was awesome breaking that news to me, he let it settle a little before he told me how slow we just did the mile before that one. It was somewhere around this point that I tripped over yet another rock and yelled, “Damn fucking rock! Hey, too bad your kids aren’t here so they can tell me I said the D and F word.” What I didn’t know until we finished was that Coach picked up that Damn Fucking Rock and carried it the final two miles so I would have something with which to remember the race. He said the Universe screamed at him to pick up that rock, so he did. It was not a small rock.
The best part was when I saw the road through the trailhead. I yelled so loud, “OMG, IT’S A ROAD! I’VE NEVER BEEN SO FUCKING HAPPY TO SEE A ROAD IN MY LIFE!” Coach said he’s going to tell everyone that I was happier to see the road and no more dirt. And then I was running over the bridge again and catching up to another trailrunnergirl who I said, “We kicked ass you know,” to as I passed and she said, “I was wondering when you’d catch up to me again.” And then we turned left and there was the finish line and Coach was running ahead of me to get the picture below. And then I FINISHED! In 11 hours, 21 minutes, 47 seconds.
Y’all, this was the hardest and most fun thing I have ever done in my whole life. I got to see so many beautiful and amazing pictures of nature that I will remember forever. The mountain laurel forest. The large family of cairns. Looking down from Double Top. The sound of the wind in the trees. The streams as we crossed them. The one stream had many moss covered rocks, a brilliant green on the slate grey. There were so many rocks.
I was able to run so much of this race because I trusted my body to know what it was doing. I didn’t think, I just flew. Muscle memory and experience running technical single track served me well at the moments I could feel the jello jiggle of tired legs.
But the best thing is I learned that I am amazing and I just did the damn thing. I am a badass.