I loaded up the XTerra Inn on Friday morning and made the 7 hour drive out to the Mohican 100 race headquarters in Loudonville, OH. I should have probably sent AT&T a postcard from there when I arrived, because they clearly have no clue this town exists. Without any cell service, it was easier to accept that Utterli's demise would keep me from calling in blog updates during the race as I have in the past. With the live updates being out of the question, I happily settled in for technology-free adventure in the woods! This was the 21st running of the Mohican 100, and proving it's only getting better with age, the largest entry field ever had signed up for this year's race. Who needs cell phone calls when you've got that much company out there on the trail?!
At the pre-race gathering, I had a nice time chatting with a few local runners who came over and introduced themselves (including blogger friend Kim L. - nice to finally meet you!). Another of these friendly folks turned out to be none other than the super-talented Jay Smithberger. Jay has more ultra wins and course records on his resume than I can count. Even better, on top of being crazy kinds of fast, he's also a tremendously nice guy. He went on to win the 50 mile version of the race the next day, adding that title to a couple Mohican 100 wins he's racked up in previous years. Congrats, Jay, and good luck at Burning River next month!
After the pre-race meeting, I crawled into the back of the XTerra Inn to grab some sleep before the 4:00 a.m. wake-up call on Saturday morning. Normally I hate races that start this early, but with the forecast calling for 90 degrees and lots of humidity throughout the race, I figured starting the run before the sun came up maybe wasn't such a bad idea after all!
After a few hours of sleep, I was awake and ready to rock over the rolling hills of the course. I knew very little about the actual terrain, but figured it was something close to the enjoyable VT100 mixed-surface course with about 13,000 feet of elevation gain. This turned out to be pretty much true, more or less. The hills were definitely relentless the whole way, but there were no sustained 1,000+ ft. climbs. Some of the bridle paths that served as the only semi-flat stretches also had enough mud or railroad-size rocks that served to chop up your stride a bit. On paper it might not seem like too tough of a course, but the combination of all the above (and the hot and humid weather) definitely made for an honest challenge on the trails all day.
Just before the start I met up with friends Brad Smythe and Richard Lilly, both having driven up from NC together to run the 100. I figured I'd be spending more than a few miles chatting with these talented runners early on, but with the darkness and narrow trails on the first stretch of the course, I lost both of them immediately and didn't see them again until the morning after the race. Funny how that works sometimes.
Without Brad, Richard, or anyone else running at my particular pace, I was on my own for the first 5 mile stretch along the dark trails of the river bank leading to the Covered Bridge aid station. While I was focusing on my plan to combat the heat and humidity predicted for later in the day, Mother Nature pulled a surprise on us and the skies opened up with downpour for 10 minutes or so. I took this as a good sign as I knew the now extra-slick rocks would serve as additional reminder for me to keep things nice and slow early on while I stayed up on my hydration.
Covered Bridge Aid Station
After passing through the Covered Bridge aid station (mile 5), I headed off on the Purple Loop. I won't bore everyone with an endless recap of all the loops of this course, but I do need to say a couple things about the Purple Loop. I absolutely loved the Purple Loop. Even though it was only about 5 miles long, this loop was full of cool highlights. First off, the sun came up while I was out there, which is always nice when running on wet rocks. Second, there was this crazy fun wall of roots we had to climb (it looks much more imposing in person...and when wet too!):
...and last but not least, the trail also led us behind this really cool waterfall! Check out how small those runners are to get an idea of the scale of this thing!
(Waterfall photos from J. Shepherd and "Erie" Tom J.)
After finishing up the fun of the Purple Loop, I finally caught up to a couple 50 milers on the Red trail and chatted with them off and on for the 7.5 miles of that section. They were actually running faster than me, but at each of the three river crossings in this section, they'd stop and take off their shoes and socks before walking through. While they were busy playing Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, I'd catch up and plow straight through the water without hesitation to pass them. With eight river crossings over the 102 miles of the course, I knew my feet would be wet all day no matter what, so I just put my faith in my Drymax socks and embraced the fun!
...now is probably the right time to say my shoes and socks were wet for the last 90 miles of this race, but I can say with 100% honesty that I finished the race without a single blister on my feet. No kidding. This was definitely the biggest test I've ever put my Max Pros through, and they passed with flying colors. I never changed my shoes or socks the whole time, I just kept on trucking and trusted them to work their magic. ...and they did. Amazing.
The muddy banks made the water entry/exits even more fun! (J. Shepherd photo)
To prove how deep these water crossings were: When I finally took off my shoes after the race, mixed in amongst the dirt and debris I dumped out were three tadpoles! I had a good laugh at that...after an appropriate moment of silence and mourning period, of course. R.I.P., my tadpole friends.
After our three water crossings on the Red trail, we had a long stretch of mostly paved road (w/ some Jeep roads) between miles 20-40 or so. Not my favorite, but this section did allow me to chat with a few more runners as we overlapped along the way. For a few miles on one of the exposed sections of road, I experienced something rather strange: While I was quietly noting the sun heating up and adjusting my pace accordingly, another runner came along like a Tour de France cyclist with his personal aid vehicle driving along side him. I was pretty sure this arrangement broke a rule or two, but I wasn't going to say anything. Oddly enough, right after he caught up to me around mile 30, he almost immediately stopped running and I never saw him again. Maybe his goal was to just hunt me down or something, sort of like a really boring version of The Most Dangerous Game, I don't know...but if it was, I tip my hat to you, Sir. You bagged me.
As I rolled along through the remainder of the road section I was clueless as to what place I was running or where any of the other 150 runners in the 100 miler were in relation to me. My goal was to run comfortably while pushing the fluids all day, and I was happily doing just that. When I made my way back to the trails around mile 40, I was happy to be back in the shade where, quite honestly, I never really felt too hot all day. The humidity was pretty thick the entire time, but there was a nice breeze every now and then when you'd crest a big hill...and while being 100% wet the whole day wasn't exactly comfortable, it really could have been much worse without all the tree cover.
When I reached the stretch between miles 54 and 64, I knew this section would also serve as the final 10 miles of the race when I looped back around later in night, so I made note to pay attention to the turns and terrain the first time through during the daylight hours. On this first trip back to the race headquarters I caught up with a bunch of 50 milers who were marching out the final miles of their own race. Coincidentally enough, as I walked a few steps out of an aid station while chugging a couple cups of water, I caught up with Micah True. Those of you who have read the ubiquitous New York Times best-seller Born to Run might know him better as Caballo Blanco, the true positive spirit behind that story. It was great to have the opportunity to tell Micah how much I respected the work he's done to help feed so many Tarahumara Indians through the Copper Canyon runs he has organized (the winners receive food for their tribe!). It was fun reading about those runs long before the book came out, and it was a soul-edifying moment to hear him say helping the Tarahumara is still the most important thing to him today.
Isn't it funny how so many random things can happen to you during a 100 miler?
Moving on, as I pulled into the race HQ at mile 64 I was basically counting down the minutes until I flipped the switch and started to actually race. Jay Smithberger was there looking relaxed and showered after having won the 50 miler a couple hours earlier. He let me know the 100 mile leader was about 50 minutes or so ahead of me, which sounded reasonable, but Mr. Sun was also speaking up at that point and reminding me that it was still too early to do anything stupid. Immediately supporting that point was the one mile death-march from the race HQ along the exposed road back to the trail. This tiny section felt harder than the previous 64 miles combined. The sun felt like it was sitting on my shoulder the whole time. I guess if there was a low point to my race, this mile was it. I was spoiled by all the shade on the trail earlier, and I wanted to get back there as quickly as I could.
After getting back to the sweet relief of the river trail, I found my rhythm again and reached the Covered Bridge at about mile 70. When I pulled in to the aid station, I had two requests from them: 1) Ice for my Camelbak, which they happily supplied, and 2) Bug spray to help keep the deer flies from carrying me away. I had been pretty lucky to that point in the day having only been bitten twice (back of shoulder, back of neck), but since I lost my hat on the previous section of trail (which was doubly painful since I really liked that hat!), the bugs were having a Summer Solstice picnic on my bald head. My only saving grace was the red bandanna I always have tied on my running pack for random trail emergencies (to wrap a cut from a fall, or fill with ice and tie around neck, etc. etc.). In this case, I needed it as a head cover, so like the all-time least-imposing member of the Bloods, I tied it as a 'doo rag on my head. I'm sure the squirrels and other woodland creatures were having a good laugh at my appearance, but I didn't care, the bandanna did the trick in keeping the deer flies off me until I reached the sweet, sweet bug-killing nectar of DEET at the Covered Bridge.
At this point the sun was no longer an issue, and with my Camelbak loaded with ice cold liquid, I knew it was finally time to see what the ol' legs could give me over the last 30 miles. As it turned out, the answer was "quite a bit". I picked up my cadence over the next 7.5 mile section...not fast enough to skim over the top of the three water crossings, but still pretty quick. When a volunteer at the Rock Point aid station saw me at the base of the last big hill leading up to him, he yelled "Welcome Back to the Rock!!". This got me psyched up since I hadn't seen another person in 7.5 miles, and when the other volunteers started clapping and yelling (they too hadn't seen anyone since the leader passed through 50 minutes earlier), my adrenaline was rushing hard for the first time all day. I ran up the hill, got the update on how far ahead the leader was, and took off in hot pursuit. I knew the odds of making up 50 minutes over the last 22 miles were against me, but my legs were ready for some fun, so off I went.
Next up was the South Park aid station...no time to stop, or even make a Cartman joke there, so I just yelled out my number as I blew through. Same story 5 miles later at the Fire Tower aid station. I had enough fuel to get me through to the last Covered Bridge stop (11 miles to the finish from there), so I just put my head down and focused on keeping my leg turn-over quick and steady as the rocks and roots flew by under my feet. By the time I hit Covered Bridge, I had chipped off 15 minutes from the lead, but even with how well I was running, I knew I was probably going to run out of trail before I could catch up. The leader was obviously still running very well, and I knew he would pick it up in the final 11 miles as he started sniffing the finish line. Even still, I knew the only thing I could control was my own race, so off I went to put down the best 11 miles I had left in me.
This final stretch had one Aid Station in the middle (about 5.5 miles from the finish), and even though I got there mighty quickly, I only made up 5 minutes on the leader, so I knew the race for first was over. Still, I was quite happy with how the day went, with how my kidneys felt, and with how well I was moving this late in the game. It was a satisfying feeling to be able to start to relax and enjoy the last few miles. With about 3 miles to go I thought I saw a headlight on the trail ahead of me. The section had many switchbacks, so I couldn't be sure how far ahead it was, but it looked to be about a half mile up the mountain. Could it be the leader hitting the wall? A volunteer out checking the course markings? A Crip (Ohio Chapter) out to defend his turf? Only one way to find out, I thought, so I cracked the whip one last time on my legs...
As it turned out, my legs were definitely operating at a higher level than my brain, because the light I saw up ahead actually turned out to be the moon peeking through the trees. I figured this out when, after running crazy fast for over a mile without catching up to the light, I looked back over my shoulder and saw the light now surprisingly shining up behind me. A switchback or three will do that. Oh well. At least I was now beating the moon to the finish.
As I made my way out of the woods in the last mile and through the camp ground, the midnight scene there was quiet and peaceful. This was a sharp contrast to the aid stations earlier in the day with crowds of people cheering and the buzzing sounds of those World Cup vuvuzela horns. Those crews and families were now spread out through about 50 miles of woods, blowing those horns and giving all their energy to the runners who still needed it with a long night (and morning) of running ahead of them. Thanks to their cheers all day, the support of the aid station volunteers, and a smart hydration plan, I found my way through to another 100 mile finish. My work was now done, and I was more than happy with how the whole day turned out. As I crossed the finish line in 19:41, none other than Jay Smithberger was standing there waiting to shake my hand. He finished his race about 12 hours earlier in the day, but he stayed out there to cheer me in. Talk about a class act.
The winners' podium at the Award Ceremony. Zach (19:08) is proudly brandishing the special Mohican spear award over me (19:41) and 3rd place Shaun Pope (21:16)
As for the "winner" (I really didn't know his name the whole day, just that he was "the leader"), it was Zach Irelan from Ohio. A quick look at some online results shows he's both young and fast as heck. Not sure if this was his first 100 or not, but he definitely showed he's got some serious talent and potential at the distance if he sticks with it. Congrats to him, to the ladies' winner Sandy Nypaver (who finished 4th overall!), and to all the runners who stuck it out through the conditions to finish the race. I don't know the official count yet, but I heard a rumor that the drop rate was somewhere around 50% for the race, so that tells you something right there about how much the weather and the course beat everyone up all day.
The reward for those of us who toughed it out the whole way was this sweet buckle. It's very well-made with tons of cool course details like the waterfall and covered bridge incorporated into the design:
To sum it all up, I'm simply happy that I went into a race with a plan that I actually executed (first time in a while). The bad taste from France is certainly still there, but nothing will completely wash that away until I get the chance to race on that stage again. Until then, I can feel satisfied that all of these other races continue to make me a smarter and better runner all-around.
A quick note on my next big run: It has been almost 2 years since my last major fund-raising effort (Run 192), and I'm excited to announce my next big event to raise funds and awareness for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. From August 23-27, I'll be attempting the break the Vermont Long Trail speed record (272 miles in 4 days, 12+ hours). To make it fun for everyone, I'll have live GPS tracking on me the whole time as well as regular updates here on the blog. The Monday-to-Friday time-frame of this run is intentional to maximize everyone's slack-to-work ratio at the office. More details will follow, but I just wanted to start spreading the word since I'm really excited about this adventure already!