" We could be in a Marching Band" Jenn said as we made yet another the long climb about 16 miles into the race. The only sound we could hear was the scuffing of our footfalls on the gravel Forest Service road in perfect lock-step. Amazing really when you consider my legs are somewhat longer than hers, but she is a strong woman and can walk a quick pace. We were both feeling pretty good at this point and satisfied that we were slightly ahead of the cut-offs.
What a wonderful weekend for an ultra-race over the gorgeous Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The leaves were as pretty as anyone could remember and the weather was near perfect. One improvement this year was the buses would be picking us up at the host hotel instead of having to drive over to the high school. It was about 45F with a near perfect forecast for the day as we boarded the buses for the 45 minute drive to the James River on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There was much excitement in the air even at this early hour of the day as we made our way to the back of the pack at the start. My two goals for this day would be to stay under the cut-offs, and do whatever I could to see that Jenn made it to the finish line in her first attempt. I was very confident in the latter, but not so much the former.
We started in the darkness at an easy pace, running all of the first section and passing the first aid station in about an average time for me. It was beginning to get light as we turned onto Highway 501 headed toward a.s 2. We were quickly in and out and then hit the trail for the first real climb of the day, the first of many on this tough, mountainous course. I was surprised to see Sylvana and Dean, MTC friends ahead of us here. We shared the trail for awhile but soon we passed them and moved on. Once you make the top of the climb there is some nice running before arriving at a.s. 3. When we arrived the sun was peeking over the mountains tops , brilliantly illuminating the bright yellows and reds of the surrounding trees making a pleasant distraction from the long climbs to come.
The miles passed quickly and mostly uneventfully as we enjoyed the trail and companionship over the next several miles. We both felt good and I was very happy that so far I was not experiencing any pain in my hamstrings.
So back to the Marching Band. We finally made it to the top of the climb, refueled at the aid station and were glad to finally be able to run again as we started down . The next section is 90% downhill and we were soon running the fastest we would all day, passing quite a few other runners on the way down, still matching stride for stride. We came into a.s 8 and had built a little more cushion on the cut-off which was a relief. Now we could just maintain effort and relax for awhile. After all we still had 30 miles to go.
After we left a.s 9, I was finally beginning to feel a little fatigue. I wasn't too worried as this is normal for me when I approach the 25 mile mark to have a bad spell. I had forgotten that there was an awful lot of climbing in this next section and I was beginning to feel some pain and weariness in my climbing muscles that have not been used much over the past 6 months. I was glad to finally have the course flatten out a little as we came into view of Buck Mountain. Jenn was also slowing some too and as I checked my watch I was not liking what I saw. I couldn't remember exactly what the cut-off was at Long Mountain Wayside at 26.9 miles, but I knew it was getting close. We finally made it in but our cushion was now down to about 6 minutes. Annette Bednosky and Sue Norwood were there giving us encouragement and smiles but we had to hurry on our way.
I was not feeling too bad as we began the climb but it was becoming evident to me that I was not as strong as I had been earlier. We had gotten maybe halfway up when I noticed I kept dropping behind Jenn and she had to wait a couple of times for me. That's when I reluctantly told her to go ahead and not wait for me. I told her I'd try to catch up if I started feeling better and then watched as she slowly disappeared ahead. I tried to keep up the pace but I could only push for a few strides before I would slow down again. This was the toughest part of the day for me as I realized I would not be able to cross the finish line with Jenn today. I was almost shocked when I finally reached the top and still was under the cut-off. In years past I have been able to run all of the next section, which is mostly downhill with just a few short easy uphills, but today I was spent. I assumed I was the last one on the course by now but as I came into a.s 12, I was passed by the last one.
The next section is short, only 1.5 miles but is uphill all but the last few hundred yards. It is on a rough dirt road and there is a little traffic on this section from runner's crews as well as other users of the National Forest. I was most tempted to hitch a ride up to the loop since I knew I would be going no further once I reached the loop, but I resisted the temptation and finally dragged into the Mt Pleasant loop aid stations. I missed the cut-off by two minutes. The volunteers offered to let me go ahead but I declined the offer knowing there was no way I would make up anytime on the loop and I didn't want to make the volunteers wait for me to drag myself out of the woods. I found a shady spot to lie down and watch as friends and aquaintances ran out of the loop and continue on their journey to the finish.
Although I was disappointed I did enjoy watching friends come out of the loop. One I especially looked forward to seeing was Dorothy Hunter, who I had crewed for at Hellgate last year. She is always sweet and smiling her way through these things. When I saw her come down the hill , I got up and walked over to the aid station to talk to her. I noticed the blood running down her leg from her knee so the first thing I said was "Dorothy, I think you may win Best Blood this year". She seemed quite proud of her boo boo and sure enough at the awards dinner she was the winner this year. Finally Jenn came running down the hill looking strong and had built her cushion back up to about 15 minutes. She seemed in great spirits as I walked with her out of the aid station. I handed her my last two Gu's from my pocket thinking they may come in handy later on. After she ran off I was able to quickly catch a ride with another runners crew back to the finish line.
Once I arrived in Montebello, I quickly changed clothes and then went to hang around with friends that had already finished and others that were coming in. It is an exciting place to be but I really wished I was out there on the trail looking forward to my own finish. It is tough to have to explain over and over why I couldn't make it this year. As the final cut-off neared I stood by the road looking and hoping to soon see Jenn come around the curve for the final quarter mile. I was relieved when she finally came into view know that she would make it. I was so proud and happy to see her finish making the cut-off by about 7 minutes.
Overall and despite not finishing myself, it was a wonderful weekend. The atmosphere of the race is so special and makes it one of my favorite events of the year. New race director, Clark Zealand did a great job, but it was nice to have Horton still around. Hopefully I can convince Jenn to write an account of the run from her perspective and if so I 'll post it here.
These are the few photos I took. Unfortunately, I unknowingly had the camera set-up for video at the finish line. If I'd known I would have tried to do a better job of it.