Monday, June 9, 2008

Old Dominion Death March

We all knew it was going to be ugly on Saturday, and sadly we were all correct. The stats for the day were brutal: 100% humidity to start at 4am, 97 degrees during the day (the old record was 92), little to no wind or cloud cover, and, to be polite, less-than-prepared Race Directors. Mix those ingredients together, and what do you get? The 2008 Old Dominion 100 - Fun for the whole family!

Elizabeth and I made the 2 hour ride from DC to Shenandoah County, VA on Friday afternoon. If you believed all the signs and the T-shirts they had made up for the occasion, this was the 30th Running of the race. I don't want to call anyone a liar, but considering they started in 1979 and didn't run the race in 2002, that makes this the 29th running of the race. I wouldn't bring it up (because who really cares, right?) if it wasn't for the theme of misinformation being prevalent in other areas of the weekend as well. Little things like their race slogan "It's more than just 4 marathons back-to-back..." were easy to ignore (the race would be 104.8 miles if that was true), but one flat out lie ended up making the day much worse than expected: The Race Director promising to have "As much ice as possible" at the aid stations...but we'll get back to that in a bit.

I checked in at the race headquarters on the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds around 4pm, hopped on the scale for the medical check, and looked at the roster on the wall to see who was running the race. The Old Dominion is decidedly low-tech in that their website is only updated once a year to put up the race date for the next year and the previous year's finishers. Since they've only been averaging about 30 runners for the past 5 years, maybe there isn't a whole lot of demand for this info from the participants. I would have liked to know ahead of time, but for such a small race, I didn't expect too much.

This race once drew 150+ runners at its peak of popularity, but after not holding the race at all in 2002, they were officially removed from the "Grand Slam" of 100 milers (Vermont replaced it). In addition, ANOTHER "Old Dominion" race was created to try and fill the void that year...and they continued to hold that one (the week before the original one) every year until this year. When you have two unpopular races on consecutive weeks on mostly the same roads, well, you get two really really really small events. With the "other" Old Dominion officially defunct this year, the numbers were up a bit for the original race - I counted about 60 or so on the list.

During the pre-race briefing, everyone stressed the importance of being safe and smart given the record-breaking heat in store for us during the race. When asked if there would be ice, the Race Director said "We'll have as much ice as possible at the aid stations." I repeated that phrase to myself about 2 million times during the race. Usually while gritting my teeth. ...but we're not there yet...

Following the meeting we hopped in the car and drove the route Elizabeth was to follow the next morning to get to the first Crew aid station (mile 19). This involved driving up and down steep mountain roads (much to her queasy displeasure) , and I immediately began to feel horrible for making her do this on her own all day. When I signed up for the race, my original plan was to run "until I was satisfied" knowing that I wasn't really in 100 mile shape. As the race approached and my excitement grew, I starting thinking 'Maybe I'll run the whole thing, even if I just take my time and slowly march it out'. As we drove these roads, however, the reality set in re: how much work it would be for my wife all by herself (in the same nasty heat). I figured each Crew stop would be not only a chance for me to see how I was feeling but also to see how she was doing. It would be a group decision to continue on or call it a day at each rendezvous point.

After the recon mission, we headed over to a great little Italian restaurant for dinner and then back to the hotel to crash. 3:00 a.m. came quickly, and I was dressed and out the door in no time. The 1/4 mile walk over to the start line from the hotel was a nice introduction for what the day's weather would be like. Even though it wasn't hot yet (only about 70), there was 100% humidity in the air. How humid was it? I looked down at my watch at one point and there were droplets of water forming on the face. Is that even possible??

Just before the 4:00 a.m. start, the organizers said a quick prayer and sent us off on our way. Since the first few miles of the course wound through the streets of the town (of which I was not familiar at all), I knew I should stay with a group to keep from getting lost (especially in the foggy spots). Of course, like an idiot, as soon as the first uphill came I pulled away from my safety group and was on my own. Thankfully I was able to spot the orange glow-sticks at the turns and found my way to the road heading up the mountain that I had driven the night before. Just as I started the climb (13 switchbacks on this road before the top!) I caught up to a super-nice guy, Kevin Dorsey from Tennessee. We chatted all the way up about various races we've run and future plans. Neither of us had any desire to try and keep up with the two guys already fighting it out for 1st place in front of us. Before I knew it we were at the top and headed down the back side of the mountain. Kevin stopped for a bottle re-fill at the top, but since I was carrying two in my belt and one on my hand, I was ok for a couple more miles.

Even though the sun wasn't up yet, my clothing was completely saturated already. I knew I needed to pound the liquid more than I ever have in a race all day long to try and keep pace with my rate of sweating. At the bottom of the mountain I stopped for a quick refill of my hand bottle and Kevin caught up. We talked as we ran for just a few more minutes before heading into the first trail section of the day. It was a nice single-track climb on the typical rocky Massanutten footing. Having such intimate knowledge of this terrain from all my Massanutten prep work, I pulled away from Kevin and was soon on my own in 3rd place. I definitely wasn't "racing" this course, but certain instincts kick in on sections of trail like this that make it really fun for me to go fast, so I just listened to my body and enjoyed it. Of course, occasionally I enjoy the speed too much and slip on a wet rock and end up with a take-home souvenir like this one on my forearm. Oops.

After that trail section I popped out on a long section of country dirt roads before finally hitting the first crew stop at mile 19. The sun was up and seeing Elizabeth was a relief - I was happy she had survived the mountain drive safely. I grabbed a few gels, a quick refill of my two Perpetuem bottles and my hand bottle (just water there), and I was off. It would be 14 miles until the next Crew stop, all of which was on dirt roads. As I wound through the country (the course was well-marked, I should add), occasionally moo-ing at cows on the side of the road and running along with friendly dogs (I appreciated the company), I did my best to ignore the fact that it was getting hot pretty fast in the valley. I was hitting the fluids and S-Caps at an extremely high-but-necessary rate, and so far so good.
I pulled into the mile 33 Crew station feeling great, and looking forward to some of that ice we had been promised at the pre-race meeting. When I asked the aid station workers for ice, they said "I'm not sure we have any...let me go check." Mind you, this was the co-Race Director telling me this. "...not sure" was not the answer I expected to hear from her. After a minute or two (I passed the time by changing into my trail shoes for the rocky section ahead), a volunteer brought over a handful (literally) of ice for my bottle. I'm guessing it was left over from someone's ice coffee that morning as it certainly wasn't from an actual bag of ice one might expect to be at an aid station to give to the rapidly overheating runners in a 100 mile race on a 97 degree day because you PROMISED IT TO THEM!!
Sorry for that outburst there, I was a little upset at this finding. ...but whatever, I'm not a baby. I had my warm water and a few cold streams to look forward to dunking my head in during the next section of trail, so off I went.

This next section followed the Duncan Hollow trail which I fondly recalled from the Massanutten race as being a muddy river the whole way. Here's a shot of me exiting this section during the MMT race when the mud at the bottom of stream pulled one of my shoes completely off - Good times.
To my delight, the trail had dried out almost completely in the three weeks since MMT, so I enjoyed it much much more this time. ...That is, until the trail split off from where the MMT course went and I had a loooong climb up the side of the mountain with the sun now beating down on me. The trees and vegetation were pretty thick in most sections so there was hardly any air movement at all. I was drinking as much as I could, but the sun was definitely winning the battle on this climb. Once I finally crested the top and began my run down the backside of the mountain (in the shade now), I felt much better. Technical downhills are my specialty, so my spirits picked up on this section of trail. In no time at all I pulled into the mile 43 aid station at the bottom of the trail for my first medical check. I should call it a "medical check" since I'm pretty sure there were no medically trained people here. First off, I had to remind them to weigh me, and since this was the ONLY thing on the list for the medical check to begin with, I'm pretty sure the volunteers (who were very nice, by the way, I don't want to be mean) had no business conducting a medical check. Normally I wouldn't have given it two seconds of thought, but on this day, in this insane heat, I found it unsettling that all the other runners out there wouldn't be properly examined before continuing on in the horrible conditions. Since I remembered my weight at the pre-race check-in, I was able to judge for myself how I was doing when I hopped on the scale. I was happy to see I had only dropped 1 pound, so I filled up my bottles and headed down the dirt road to the next crew stop about 5 miles away.

Up to this point I wasn't sure when I would call it quits for the day, but the long climb in the sun and the 'no ice' factor were making me think sooner than later would be a good idea. ...but then came this shady 5 mile downhill section. It was actually quite enjoyable. I ran every step comfortably - I used a little trick I like to keep myself from running too fast when I know I should take it easy: By keeping my mouth closed to regulate my breathing I hit a comfortable speed that doesn't overheat me or get my heart rate too high. I know lots of people use fancy heart-rate monitors and such to do the same thing, but I like my technique for its simplicity. Anyway, by time I pulled up to Elizabeth at mile 48, I was feeling great, especially since I knew we had our cooler in the X-Terra with an icy towel for me to cool off with. Man that felt good! I felt bad for the runner who came in ahead of me and had to drop though. Elizabeth tells me he was in really bad shape and was pretty upset about the aid station not having any ice (this was a major aid station where runners crossed through two times each - they had NO excuse for their lack of preparedness). The only reason I wasn't as upset is because I knew we had our cooler in the truck. As nice as that was, however, the heat of the day was even melting that ice at a rapid rate. I took the last of it in my bottles as I headed out on the next climb.

I continued up the road and crossed the 50 mile mark at about 8:05. It was high noon at this point and the sun was roasting me for sure. I was taking it easy and doing my best to stay in the shade, but those spots were becoming fewer and fewer with the sun now hanging straight overhead. When I ambled up to the "aid station" at mile 51.5, I found a nice old man with water jugs set up on his truck tailgate. Knowing I had about 6 miles more of uphill marching on the exposed road in this section, I asked with high hopes "Hello kind sir, do you have any ice??"...but my will was broken when he said in his pleasant country tone "Nope...I don't reckon they've given me any of that...".
I pretty much decided enough was enough at that point and I'd call it a day once I finished this next 6 mile section - Elizabeth would be there at the end with the car, so we'd pack it up and head on home from there. If nothing else, the next 6 miles of the Highway to Hell convinced me that my eventual crash from the heat probably wasn't far away. Sure, I was keeping up with my fluids and S-Caps, but the signs on the road (two piles of vomit from other runners) convinced me that my good fortune could change any minute. When I finally pulled into the Crew station at mile 56.5, I saw one of the runners ahead of me collapsed in his chair. He had blood in his urine (a sign of kidney failure) and was struggling with the decision to stop (he knew he had to, but since he had never finished a 100 miler before, he didn't want to DNF). I felt really bad for him and offered to walk the next section with him buddy-style while he tried to rehydrate to see if things turned around, but I could tell from his eyes he was done.

I'm pretty sure I'd never yell at an aid station volunteer (after all, they're volunteering), but if one of the race directors was present at that point I definitely would have had a few harsh words about what it takes to keep your runners healthy and safe in this kind of weather (ICE!!!). I feel very protective of my friends running out there, and when the people who are supposed to use your $185 entry fee to help you can't bother to spend $3 of that on a 20lb bag of ice for an aid station, I consider that gross negligence. Granted, I was going to drop before finishing anyway, and I don't blame the lack of ice on my performance at just would have been much safer to have it on hand. If I didn't have my own cooler at mile 42, I probably would have dropped there. It was not a day to fool around with your health and safety.

Anyway, we hung out at the aid station for a while after I told them I was dropping. About 30 minutes later Kevin came through and it was great to see him looking so good. Apparently the old man on the truck tailgate finally had some ice delivered to him, so I was happy to hear that some of the runners would be in a little better shape after they hit his aid station. Hopefully the Race Directors finally delivered some ice to all the stations, but considering it was 3pm or so when I dropped and they hadn't delivered it to any yet, I'm guessing it was too little too late for most runners out there. I have no clue how many runners hung in there to finish (I'm guessing not many), but my hat goes off to those who were dedicated and smart enough to fight the weather all day. It was really really nasty out there.

For me, I'm happy I got in a nice long run to kick off the official final push for the Run 192 training. When we got back home on Sunday I went for a run (hey, it was only 94 degrees out in DC) and felt great. Here are my week totals:

Week Training Log -
Monday - 8.5 miles - Hanes Point Loop
Tuesday - 8.5 miles - Hanes Point Loop
Wednesday - 8.5 miles - Hanes Point Loop
Thursday - Off
Friday - Off
Saturday - 56.5 - Old Dominion Course to Edinburg Gap
Sunday - 6 miles - Hanes Point Loop

Week Total - 88 miles


Stanley said...

Ding dang! If I hear that even one of those volunteers had a frozen Popsicle that day, I'm hopping on a plane with my stabbing spoon.

They couldn't have screwed up more if they called it the "Ice 100".

Anonymous said...

Jeebus. Well I'm glad you survived, and yay for your 56.5! and I hope you're writing the organizers (if the piles of vomit didn't convince them already). Grrr.