Well, shit. That was hard. I mean, that was like... really hard. It also took forever, so settle in for a LONG race report!
I knew this race would be tough. After all, the historic finish rate was about 33%, and all the race reports talked about how brutal the hills were (very few switchbacks!) and how rocky it was (oh god. the rocks.). The course is notoriously slow across all levels, and did I mention it's 102.9 miles long? Oh yeah, and I guess on the (b)east coast, the name of this state is "Rocksylvania." (oh god. the rocks.)
If you are unfamiliar with my first 100 mile experience at Cascade Crest, suffice it to say that it did NOT go as planned. My stomach gave out at mile 25, and never really recovered. I spent the last SEVENTY-FIVE MILES of the race alternating between puking my guts out and trying not to puke my guts out, finishing as a complete shell of a human being. For weeks afterward, I didn't think I could ever attempt a hundred miler again. The race had broken me somewhere deep down, and it took some serious time to come back from that. Spoiler alert: I did come back from it, and for some reason thought Eastern States would be an awesome hundred-miler to sign up for. Why? Fuck if I know!
I had some injuries earlier this summer, but generally had a strong season of training and racing. I even threw in some heat training and did tons of research on the race to prepare myself mentally. My crew was going to be special: my parents were attending and crewing their very first ultra; my college buddy Kevin was coming to pace me about 16 miles; my darling husband had trained his buns off to pace me a total of 32 miles; and my sister, brother-in-law and nephew would meet me at the finish line.
The day before the race, we spent the day prepping: errands, crew bags, and a lunchtime crew meeting, where I went through my trusty crew manual and we talked generally about what to expect from the day. We drove to the start/finish for packet pickup, and ended the evening with a pasta dinner at a great local establishment. Back at the hotel, I pre-taped my injuries and typical blister spots on my feet.
At around 9:00, I went to bed and proceeded to... not sleep a wink. The aftermath of Cascade Crest had left me with a lot of apprehension about doing another hundred, and my fears were finally catching up with me. At 3:30 am, my alarm went off, and my stomach was a nervous wreck already. Great.
The morning was cool but not cold, and super foggy. The course starts on some roads, then bottlenecks everyone onto a narrow single-track that was 100% loose shale covered in snot - I mean wet moss. The fog reflected your headlamp beam right back to you, and made it impossible to see much beyond a few paces in front of you. Not that you could look anywhere else - the entire race, I had my head directed straight down at my feet to keep from spraining an ankle on the goddamn rocks.
The first 8 to 10 miles is a combination of loose rock, topply rock, stacked flat rocks, small pointy rocks, and several other varieties of rocks. There was tons of greenery in the understory and moss covering every surface, especially near the streams and creeks and rivers, which were ubiquitous. I chatted with a few lovely people, and the rocks kept me at a sustainable pace for most of these early miles.
As part of my race prep, I had made a temporary tattoo with aid stations and the elevation profile, in addition to my typical detailed and (in my humble opinion) highly entertaining crew manual. Throughout the race, people would occassionally see me and ask, "hey, are you the tattoo girl? Can I see where we are?" I'd pull off the trail with them, and we'd review the upcoming sections on my arm. A few times, people also asked me if I was the "crew manual girl" - guess my crew books are starting to be FAMOUS!
The Lower Pine Bottom Aid Station is after a short run on a paved road, and after all those rocks, I've never been so happy to run on pavement in my life. The first 18 miles had flown by, and I got to my crew feeling fairly good. My stellar crew took some time to ice me down, feed me, and replenish my stocks before sending me on my way again. One guy at the aid station told me he loved my unicorn hat and that his wife would go crazy for it - could he have it? I told him "I'm not sure she'll want it after this!" We both chuckled, and I headed out in great spirits.
For much of the next section I stayed with a local guy for a while, who told me, "west coasters are always so surprised at the trails out here because of the rocks, but I guess for me it's just normal." Oh my god. You poor creature. I'll never complain about a technical PNW course again. It was great to have company, and these sections were really very beautiful. I was taking salt caps about once an hour, drinking plenty, eating according to my plan, and everything was going SO WELL! I couldn't believe it. I had done a lot of work after Cascade Crest to make sure that I figured out my stomach issues, and here it was - working! Dare I even say... a great success?!
By late morning, temps were in the low 80s and humidity was off the charts, but fortunately most of the course was shaded. During the heat of the day, I'd stop at water crossings to dip my hat and rinse my face with the icy cold water. Then, right around Mile 30, the skies opened up, and I ran through the pouring rain like a kid, giggling like an idiot for miles and miles. The only problem? I had worn my waterproof Altra Neoshells, which were perfect early on to keep my feet dry, but now, with this downpour, became foot-sized bathtubs. I needed to get to the next crew stop and get a change of shoes, stat.
I was making insanely good time, and got into Ritchie Road (mile 38) ahead of schedule. I walked in with my hand raised and four fingers up. At the last stop, I had forgotten a few things, so had been rehearsing the four items I absolutely needed from my crew: dry towel, fresh socks, fresh shoes, blister tape. We got my sopping wet shoes and socks off, but the water had completely dislodged all the KT tape and blister tape I had so meticulously put on the night before. I ripped it all off, decided to go without any KT tape, and slapped some fresh blister tape on a few problem spots. I grabbed some food at the table, and the guy who had asked about buying my hat was there - he asked me if I'd reconsider. I told him I'd think about it, but the price was going up: simple supply and demand, buddy.
From here, I really just had a downhill to Hyner Run, so I took off and saw my crew again in just about an hour, still feeling great and running fast. A veteran had suggested that I'd want my poles for this next section - thank GOD I listened. It would have been absolute torture without hiking poles.
This section starts with a fairly long uphill, then runs along a ridge, dipping into and back out of hollows. Some of these were so steep that the guy behind me resorted to turning around and climbing down backwards on his hands and feet, like a ladder. Luckily, with my poles, I was able to move forward to some degree, but my toes were being smashed into the fronts of my shoes and my poor toesies were trashed. Eventually, I made it through to Halfway House, mile 55, where Mark was awaiting his first pacing section. The sun was just setting, we grabbed our headlamps, and took off into the night.
And then, it happened. It. The sudden, out-of-nowhere, familiar creep of stomach trouble on the horizon. No no no no no no no no no no this can't be happening, no no no please no. I grabbed the Tums out of my vest and shoveled them into my mouth. At this point, it was a minor twinge, nothing too serious, but I couldn't eat and was not drinking as much as I should. The temps had cooled significantly, and we did our best to keep moving. But I slowed down. Way, way down. Shit. So much for all that extra time I had banked.
There were some uphills on this section that I remember feeling very epic, likely because everything feels epic when your stomach has gone to shit. We struggled to the top of a climb, where there was supposed to be a "water only" stop. The angels at this aid station not only had water - they had also made pirogi and potatoes and had a fire going with folding chairs - in short, heaven. They were absolutely amazing and got Mark all fueled up, and I even managed to eat a few potatoes. Score! Calories!
A few miles later, we were approaching Slate Run (mile 64). Mark and I had a plan: I would sit, get a fresh, dry shirt and my arm warmers, and in the meantime try to get some Gatorade and soup broth into my belly. I managed to do all of that, dropped off Mark, and picked up Kevin. Kevin and I left the aid station, stepped onto a trail, and 50 feet later I was puking my guts out in a bush.
After my stomach stopped heaving, I turned to Kevin. "Ugh, fuck. Ok. Let's go." This was his first ultra experience, and he was a bit taken aback. "HA! .... Wait, seriously?" "Yeah dude, let's go." I took a Pepto chewable and with my freshly empty stomach, actually felt fine enough to do some running, so we moved quickly while I could. We spent the hours chatting, catching up, and generally just having a great time. I also fell into a great rhythm: stop at an aid station, sit and try to keep something down, start running, puke in the bushes, take another Pepto and run for a bit. Fortunately, this "only" happened three times, and during the long stretches between, I was able to keep down quite a bit of water. As long as I was staying hydrated, I knew I'd be fine.
After one of my bouts of bush-vomiting, a guy ran past, yelling, "You'll recover!" "No, I won't," I grumbled to Kevin. People kept telling me that at Cascade Crest, and I was stupid enough to believe them and get my hopes up and start to expect it. This time I knew: this was my life now. I had to accept it and move forward. One foot in front of the other. You know how this goes.
Some overnight sections out there with Kevin were ridiculous. One area seemed like there wasn't even any trail - just fields of rocks and roots along a creek with some trail markers here and there that you'd have to hunt for with your headlamp. The other funky thing about night running, especially when sleep-deprived, is the tricks your brain plays on you. Is that a fluffy cat looking at me on the trail ahead? Nope, just a rock. A box of eggs? Nope, rocks. A huge lizard? Oh no that's right, it's a fucking rock.
But nighttime runs are always so magical, and my pacers kept me aware of how cool it was to be out there. Going into the night, the sounds of treefrogs slowly tapered to an eerie and complete silence. Then, shortly before the sky started to get light again, the song birds sang us and the rising sun into the next aid station: Backwell, mile 80. I took off my cold-weather layers, changed into a fresh shirt and put on my Hokas to give my poor feetsies a soft spot to land on these godforsaken rocks. I dropped off Kevin and picked up Mark for the last 22 miles, and called out to my prospective hat buyer on my way out. "Price is still going up," I told him, "multiple offers coming in!"
The sunshine woke me up a bit, and I optimistically took a pocket full of pretzels, even though I hadn't been eating much. Mark was also doing an insanely good job of keeping me as happy as possible - he had asked friends and family for dumb (aka awesome) jokes, which he would randomly pull out and read to me at the worst parts of the trail. I may have rolled my eyes outwardly, but inwardly, they were pure gold. Thanks to everyone who contributed - they cracked me up and did a LOT to boost my mood when I was struggling.
On the next few hills, I slowly nibbled on the pretzels in my pocket, dissolving them completely in my mouth to make it easier on my stomach, and managed to eat about a dozen of them, which - PRAISE JESUS - jump-started my stomach. This was new. I have never recovered from a stomach issue before, and when my newly recharged tummy grumbled in hunger, I could have cried.
Pretty soon, we came upon a sign: "Smile! Last Hill before Sky Top!" at the bottom of a short, steep hill. "Wow," I thought, "according to my tattoo, if we're already at that aid station, we're making AMAZING time again!!"
What the sign should have said is, "Fuck you! You have a massive, 800-mile-long climb before getting to the next aid station!" Ok, it wasn't actually 800 miles, but it sure as shit felt like it, and the sign felt like a sick joke. By the time we got up there, I was beat up and a bit surly, but the aid station crew was the sweetest, kindest group of people on the planet, and I couldn't stay mad at them.
A few more brutal hills and we were close to Barrens, the final crew aid station. The crew could see us coming, and from up ahead I heard ... could it be ...? MY SISTER! Yelling, "JESSIE!! YOU BEAUTIFUL TROPICAL FISH!!!" which almost made me snort-laugh. We came into the aid station, and she had everyone in stitches with her mega-high energy and goofy jokes, which hyper-charged my mood. I sat down in a chair for a few minutes with my eyes mostly closed, and my mom asked me, "What do you need?"
"I need to be done."
At this point, someone at the aid station sang music to my ears. "After a few steps on the trail over there, you're in the single digits!" I looked at Mark. "Let's go."
A fire was LIT under my butt. I fucking RAN. I ran and I ran. I ran downhills and flats and some uphills. I ran until my stomach hurt again, but at this point I didn't give two shits about my stomach. I WAS IN THE SINGLE DIGITS! I would stop to bend over for a second on my poles, almost ready to puke, then snap back up and run again. We came to the final aid station at mile 99.1 and I ran through it, yelling "192, IN AND OUT!!" Maybe because I hadn't used my legs at full-tilt during my stomach issues, I had plenty of gas left in the tank, and I kicked it up about three notches.
As a final middle finger, the course "ends on a downhill," which, like much of the rest of the course, is deceiving. These downhills were more like cliffs that you fling your body off of and try to stay vaguely upright, while skirting across loose rocks - or worse, not a rock in sight and you have to half slide your way down, hoping not to wipe out completely. Oh yeah, and halfway down we were warned to keep an eye out for the RATTLESNAKE DEN. I was expecting some little snakes off in the woods somewhere. NOPE. There it was - a rock immediately next to the trail with at least three snakes underneath. Each one was probably as thick as my wrist. Christ.
Safely past the snakes, we started seeing people who had hiked up to cheer on the runners, which meant we were close. They each gave us an account of what was left: "a quick climb to some rocks--" rocks? shocking. "--then a half-mile downhill, then through the parking lot to the finish line!" And so we kept bombing our way down this steep hill until suddenly... there was no more hill. There was a road. We crossed into a parking lot and onto the grass. The finish line was up ahead, my family was screaming their heads off to my right, and I ran my little tush as fast as I could through the finish line. I got my buckle, and had a chat with the RD that went something like "that was fucked up, dude!" The guy who finished just ahead of me buckled to the ground and wept openly. A few minutes later, some people helped him over to a chair next to mine, and he told me that he had cried for the final 3 miles of the race. I don't blame him.
I took my shoes off and walked down to the lake with my crew to soak our legs and feet. The sun was shining, kids were playing, and my crew got me food and beer, which I DEVOURED. After the final finisher crossed the line, it was time to leave this blissful finish line. I plopped down in the car and grabbed a pillow, but it never made it to my head - I passed out with it in my lap, holding onto it for dear life lest they make me go back out to those rocky trails. At the hotel, they left me in the car like a sleeping child who missed her afternoon nap, then finally got me inside and into a tub full of Epsom salts.
Mark told me they were ordering pizza. "What kind do you want? Hawaiian?"
"Yes, that's exactly what I want."
"That was a joke. Hawaiian pizza is disgusting."
"No, Hawaiian. I need Hawaiian pizza."
And so I managed to pull myself together and make it out to the pool deck, where we soon had pizzas and a big crew party with my wonderful, supportive, loving, special crew who got me to the finish line. I ate half of a pizza and drank a few glasses of wine, then we all said good-bye and headed home or to bed, with me feeling on top of the world.
Finish time: 34:26:23
Distance: 102.9 miles
Elevation gain: 20,000' +
11th female finisher (out of 16)
100th overall finisher - LUCKY #100! (out of 121)
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Neoshells, Altra Lone Peak 3.5, Hoka Stinson ATR 4
Pack: Nathan VaporHowe 12L Race Vest
I could not have done this without my stellar crew. Mark, as always, was Crew Captain extraordinaire. He anticipated what I needed, and then made an EXCELLENT pacer, cheering me up in just the ways he knew I needed. Kevin conquered his fears of snakes, vomit, and probably a few other things to spend a night in the woods with me, and it was a goddamn blast to spend that time with him. My mom and dad were totally on top of their crewing and documentation duties, taking photos at every chance, making notes on my progress, and being enormous cheerleaders to me and the other runners. My sister brought her signature high energy and some truly incredible signs to cheer me on, giving me a spark of energy for the last 10 miles that helped me make up some lost time. My brother-in-law and nephew were so fun to see at the finish line, and I believe they were also responsible for the chocolate babka, which will be a vital part of my recovery process.
Thanks to the volunteers - every single one of you made me feel better about being out there, and I can only hope you know how infectious your positive attitude can be. And thanks finally to the race director David, who not only put on this incredibly impressive event, but also helped me recover a lost bag of items (though he hilariously kept all my Snickers as payment). I don't think I ever want to run in Rockslyvania again, but I am so glad to have been a part of this wonderful local running community for a weekend.
FINAL THOUGHTS & LESSONS LEARNED
You know, it's always easy to fall into the trap of thinking you could/should have trained harder, done better, prepped more. I'll always do that - I think we all do. But this race showed me that actually, I have put in the time, and my legs are fucking STRONG. The fact that I ran so much in the last 10 miles tells me that, and the fact that I'm recovering so well is a solid indicator that I'm on the right track.
The thing I'll never be able to shake is the "what if" moments. What if my stomach hadn't given out? A woman I was running with for a while finished an hour and a half faster than me. Could that have been me? Could I have been top 10? Top 5? What if I hadn't eaten that one thing? What if I hadn't drank that last bit of tailwind? What if....
When I start thinking that way, I need to teach myself to reframe, and instead ask: What if I just take it one step at a time, and roll with the punches, and get shit done regardless?
The day after the race, my body felt surprisingly good. Muscle soreness of course, and a few lingering blisters, and of course the foot pain (from the FUCKING ROCKS). But my summer of nagging injuries that had scared me so badly seemed to have passed. No blown out quads, miraculous for this course. No weird injuries to speak of, including ones from earlier this summer. And generally, I felt..... good? Unlike my last hundred, I didn't fall into a deep pit of despair and loathing and pain and sadness and hurt and betrayal from the sport that I loved so much. I feel a bit beat up, and a lot exhausted, but can I see myself doing another hundred?
You bet your ass I can.