The crowd begins to gather at the start...and yes, the Sun was officially on the Entry List this year! (Bobby Gill photo)
Two lovely ladies pose for a photo that I do my best to ruin without even knowing it...That's it Dan, stick that finger in your ear... (Bobby Gill photo)
Before the race, RD Jeff Reed told us of some necessary course changes due to Aid Station road access issues, and he also relayed the good news of "there's definitely more climbing on this new course". This wasn't really bad news for me since I was there to test my climbing legs and see what work needed to be done in advance of my Vermont Long Trail run next month. With that, we were off on to the technical and challenging trails of the course.
RD Jeff Reed (blue shirt, white hat, back to camera) gives us some pre-race info...can you spot me hiding like Waldo? (Bobby Gill photo)
Early on I settled in with Keith Knipling and Brad Hinson, both excellent mountain runners with tons of experience on these trails. Their conversation included lines like "Boy, this trail looks a lot different in July than in March or November" and "Oh, I've never run this particular section of trail in the daylight before". Meanwhile I tagged along behind them having no clue where I was, just silently compiling a list of animals that could eat me for dinner should I get lost. If nothing else, I convinced myself that I should just stick with these guys as long as I could to stay on track and off any fauna menus.
Keith leads Brad (with me hiding behind him) right from the start (Bobby Gill photo)
About half-way up the first BIG climb, we caught the sight of the two leaders at that point: Brian Schmidt and Harland Peele, two more mountain studs . By time we reached the first aid station at mile 8.1, the five of us were now in a pack as we started the second long climb of the day. With the heat really kicking in at this point, we operated under a 'leave no man behind' rule for the next few miles as we paused at an icy-cold stream crossing for a quick dousing and then again at the top of the Pitt Spring Overlook (which had a more-than-appreciated breeze). It was great running in a pack of guys who definitely have more experience and skill in the mountains than me, and the conversations were a great distraction as the sun started shouting a little louder above our heads.
Without really noticing, Brian and I pulled away from the rest of the pack a little bit on the rest of the 2nd climb and the subsequent rocky and twisting downhill into the Aid Station at half-way point of the race. While waiting for the others to catch up, we enjoyed an extra minute or three of icing our Camelbaks and chugging more fluids than imaginable from the awesome selection the volunteers had delivered for us. Soon enough, Keith and Harland joined us and we all headed back up the rocky climb to start our return trip home.
Brad was the first casualty of our group as the heat turned his stomach and he was forced to drop. Shortly after we started the climb out of the aid station, Harland was running into some issues as well and stepped aside to let me pass. This kind of heat was nothing to play around with, and he knew he needed to slow it down a bit to be safe and healthy. After passing Harland I moved back up behind Brian and we worked together to finish the rest of the climb and then the long downhill to the mile 22 Aid Station (the last of the day). We had some good conversation to keep distracting each other from the heat, and soon enough we pulled into the aid station where we were greeted by a couple great volunteers who put ice-cold wash cloths over our heads and necks (without even asking, by the way...They just knew we needed them!).
Just as we were ready to start the final loooong climb of about 4 miles, we saw Keith pull into the aid station and head directly below the adjacent bridge to sit in the stream. "Man, he's smarter than we are...", I thought as our group was now officially whittled down to two.
Sophie Speidel enjoying the icy cold stream...how nice of the volunteers to build this feature into their Aid Station! (Bobby Gill photo)
Shortly after starting the climb, Brian showed his toughness by pulling away and quickly out-of-sight on the steadily steep terrain. I tried to keep pace for a couple hundred yards or so, but knew almost right away that he'd be opening up a big gap over the next few miles of climb. I moved the best I could while drinking lots (84 oz. in the final 7 miles!) and hitting the electrolytes hard (3300mg of sodium by the end of the race!). By time I crested the top and started the final 4 mile descent, I started feeling better and ran more than a little bit crazy on the rocky trails to try and catch back up with Brian. In the end it wasn't enough, however, as Brian earned a hard-fought and much-deserved victory. I pulled into the finish about 5 minutes behind him in something like 5:38 (if that doesn't tell you how hard this race was, consider I ran what I thought was a slow and snowy 50K back in Februrary in 4:25!).
Even though the camera couldn't keep up with me, Brian took me to school on the last climb! (Bobby Gill Photo)
After some recovery and the drive home, Elizabeth and I were off to dinner back in DC...and on the walk to the restaurant, the 7 p.m. temperature of 99 degrees felt cool and refreshing!
All in all, this race was a perfect tune-up to prove that both my heat-training and my mountain legs are coming along quite nicely. Another month of hard work before Vermont should have me ready to make a serious run at that record! Many more posts will follow to ramp up the excitement before that adventure. Stay tuned!