There is something amazing about lining up at the start line and facing the unknown. It’s an especially rewarding feeling that after more than 25 years of being in this sport, there are still things left to attempt. Things that scare you. Things that could defeat you. Things to reward you.
The Motivation : Mild curiosity, blind stupidity and foolish confidence.
I’ve never been in a rush to do it all. Despite running my first ultra several years ago I hadn’t felt the need to tackle the big distance until recently. I was actually going to wait another year as I could not find a race this year that both excited me and fit into my already busy racing schedule. Then out of the blue, one day sitting in the office, I got an email declaring that the race registration for the Thunder Rock 100 would open tomorrow. In fact, I had first stumbled onto this race the previous year by watching the well put together promo video (below) and had immediately put my name down on the email list and then promptly forgotten all about it. Watching the video again I was immediately hooked. I had already set most of my racing schedule for the year but there was a small gap in May and this race would fill the gap with just about enough padding either side from the Zane Grey 50 and the San Juan Solstice 50. I hesitated for a day, deliberating if I was ready or not until I saw the race had already filled past the 50% mark in the first day. There was nothing to be done but commit. The deal was done. Gulp.
The Preparation : Ass sitting…booo! Loitering….hooray!
As far as preparation goes, I’d had a pretty excellent start to the year in both racing and training. I had made a switch at work to a stand up desk arrangement which overnight allowed me to nearly double my mileage. I’m not and never have been a high mileage kinda person. Last year I probably averaged under 30-40 miles a week with quite a few 0 mile weeks due to various injuries. Since switching from sitting on my ass all day to standing on my feet, I’ve been hitting between 60 and 80 miles consistently with far fewer injuries. Things were going swimmingly until recently when I developed a bit of a groin strain which I hadn’t been able to shake. Added to that, I somehow managed to trash both knees at Zane Grey. My final run before Thunder Rock was with the weekly Achilles group in Boulder. To say it was less than ideal would be an understatement. Luckily I had two injuries because I would have been worried with just the one. It’s good to have a backup in case one lets you down.
As far as goals go, I like to set mine in reverse order as I think that’s a more pragmatic way of thinking about the task ahead given I had no experience at the distance. As such, mine went something like this
- Finish the thing
- Run as much of it as possible
- Not have to take a year off afterwards due to injury (as happened after my 1st 50M!)
The Start : Thunder with a side of pain
BOOOOM. 15 minutes before the start and the blue skies had given way to a sweeping thunderstorm. Huddled in the small covered area, we all chuckled at the timing of the storm. It seemed like we were in for an interesting day as far as the weather went. Luckily the storm moved on just in time for the start of the race. We lined up on a bridge over the beautiful Ocoee River at the Whitewater Center used in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.
The midday start, chosen to ensure all participants ran through the night, had allowed enough time for the nerves to build and the anticipation to boil over. I was ready. Probably.
The start was a relaxed affair. I settled in to a comfortable rhythm and soon found myself at the front alongside Eric Grossman who I had raced with previously at Mountain Masochist and knew to be an experienced and fast runner. We sauntered through the rolling single track beneath the wet and lush rain forest, occasionally chatting but mostly just enjoying the beautiful trails with thoughts of what lay ahead. The first 5 or so miles to the aid station #1 flew by and we grabbed what we needed before setting off for a long 20 mile section before the next crew accessible aid station.
I’ll cut to the chase. Things hurt. Really hurt. My groin was cranky and making my whole leg stiff and sluggish. My knees were shouting very loudly and overall very unhappy with my lifestyle choices. To cap things off this was mile 10. Crap. I struggled onward, trying to ignore the issues but I really wasn’t very confident at this point given the level of pain so close to the start. I was prepared for this at mile 80. Not at mile 10. It was going to be a long day.
We climbed up to a high point in what was the first real climb of the day and just as we topped out there was an almighty boom in the skies once again. This time we were treated to a spectacular hail storm that instantly soaked and chilled me to the bone. I had flash backs to Zane Grey for a moment. I pushed onward through thick, rugged and wet rain forest. Things were starting to get fun and I was starting to forget about the aches and pains. I arrived into the 15 mile aid station glancing at my watch which for some reason was nearly 3 miles short. I wasn’t complaining. I had also, without knowing it, put a few minutes on Eric. I must have been having fun in the British weather!
The Middle : Running sucks. No, Running is awesome. No running definitely Sucks.
I set off, crossing the beautiful Hiwassee river and ran along a picturesque country road that tracked the river for several miles. There was a good chuck of road running on this section which kinda made me suffer for some reason. Following that, the most technical part of the course led into the mile 40 aid station were I would see my crew again. For me this 15 mile stretch of roads and technical trails was a real low point. I can’t recall if my knees were still giving me trouble at this point but I do remember feeling pretty crappy arriving at the aid station.
This point marked the end of any real technicality for a while and the start of a large section of paved and fire roads. Almost immediately I started to feel good again. It was a real turn around in fact. I was really starting to enjoy this!
I arrived into the half way point at mile 50 like a new man. I was feeling refreshed and ready for the unknown. I decided to switch out of my Roclite 295’s which had served me well during the wet, rocky and technical first 40 miles and into some nice cushy and light La Sportiva Vertical K’s. At the same time I switched from my two Simple Hydration bottle setup to an Inov8 pack. The bottles had worked great so far but I would need to carry some extra gear with me for the night section and my arm was also starting to get tired from carrying the second bottle. I think both these decisions were smart in hindsight in order to give me a mental break and some new stimulation for the next section.
I felt great. I flew up the long 4 mile climb to Iron Gap aid station which felt effortless. A quick stop there for some banter and some soup and I was off again towards mile 60 were I would see my crew again. Coming into that aid station was probably one of the highs of the day for me. It also marked the start of the darkness. I switched my headlamp on shortly before arriving at the aid station; I would not be switching it off until the end. I met up with my crew who refueled me and sent me off into the darkness. At the next stop, Silke would be joining me for some pacing duties for which I was glad. I had not run with or seen any runners since about mile 15 and it was definitely starting to get lonely out there.
Apparently all day, my family were struggling to get from one aid station to the next in time to see me. Turns out I was running at a decent clip and combined with the long and difficult to navigate sections between aid points, they were really kept pretty busy. I rolled into the 65 mile aid station 3 minutes after they arrived apparently. Am glad I didn’t run that section any faster because the next two sections were long and hard and I would be extremely glad to have Silke to run with for them.
As is typical with these longer events, just as fast as I came out of a low point I would be returning to some lowly depths. The tendon across the top of my left foot had been bothering me for a few miles and had now started to really go to town on me. Furthermore, I had started to feel some lower shin pain to add to the fun. As soon as we left the fireroads and hit the overgrown, rocky, muddy, rooty single/double track I started to whimper. I just couldn’t help it. For the next several miles I stumbled along like an amateur, tripping over anything remotely in the way. Running head first into a tree. Falling some more. Whimpering, moaning and generally not enjoying myself. My shins and feet were killing me. Running sucked. Luckily I knew that walking sucked more so I just did what I knew best. Swore a lot and kept running.
The previous several miles had been mostly downhill and I was not enjoying it. I had been craving a proper climb all day, in fact. Something to change the cadence and engage some different muscle groups. Fortunately, the biggest climb of the whole day lay ahead at mile 83. A 2,200ft climb up in 4 miles. Now that’s something I could get my teeth into. There was only one problem: We had to cross the Hiwassee River to get to it.
We had been briefed extensively ahead of time in order to know what to expect when we got to this river. However, it was way cooler, way crazier and way more intimidating that I had envisioned. I arrived at the banks of the river in a pretty bad state to begin with. Looking across there was nothing but darkness. A layer of think fog covered the river so that the guide rope disappeared into the abyss. There was no sign of the other side. We climbed down the guide rope and plunged into the freezing water. Waste deep. Freezing. Powerful. I was glad for the rope. We waded across, gasping in the cold and powerful current. At the other side we bushwacked for a short section across the island and waded across the second branch of the river. This time only thigh deep thankfully.
We emerged on the other side and ran the short distance to the aid station. This was make or break time. I was cold and in a real low point after the stumbling and painful last several miles of downhill. Silke’s parents immediately put my down jacket on, dried me off and got some warm food in me.
I sat for the first real time whilst changing socks and warming up. There was definitely a moment were I doubted the road ahead.
Just as these thoughts were crossing my mind, Silke declared it was time to go and without time to object I was stripped back to my running attire, posed for a photo were I promptly faked a smile, and set off into the darkness once more.
The Finale : Euphoria and despair, everything a true adventure needs
It immediately started to climb upwards and I was immediately happy. My stiff, sluggish shuffle turned almost immediately into a run. I ran. I really Ran. In fact I destroyed that hill. I was hungry. Fierce in fact. I charged upwards, getting faster and faster, feeling better and better. I could have run upwards all night. I didn’t want it to end. It did indeed end though, at the 87.5 mile aid station where we chatted to the volunteers, refueled and set off to put this beast to rest. The next section was almost all cruisy downhill fireroads and I was indeed cruising. I glanced down at my watch and with some exitement exclaimed to Silke that we were in the single digits. Under 10 miles to go! For the first time, I was almost positive I had it in the bag.
From the highest high, to the lowest low. I was physically in amazing shape but in an instant I was mentally crushed when we arrived at a totally unmarked major intersection in the road. I couldn’t believe it. The markings has been impeccable thus far. It was effortless in fact to stay on the course. I never once had to look for or concentrate on it. How could this be! I picked a direction at random and ran down for a short while desperately searching. Silke took the other direction. Nothing. We ran back up to the intersection and just shrugged. There was nothing for it but to conclude we had taken a wrong turn somewhere. Damn, stupid I thought. I was beyond mad. The effort and persistence I had put in to building a lead was evaporating. I had no idea what my lead was but I was almost certain it was now in jeopardy.
With no good options left we started to backtrack up the mountain. We ran, and ran and ran. Searching desperately, left and right for some sign that we were on the right road. We ran all the way back up to within half a mile of the previous aid station until we hit a junction which crushingly confirmed that we were indeed on the correct road. Which meant one thing. The junction further down the road was indeed unmarked and we would have to take a guess. We started back down the road, defeated.
Just as we were about to get back to the junction, a car approached behind us. We are saved, I thought. Surely they must be involved in the race and know where to go, or at least have a map. Sure enough, it was, in fact, the race director’s wife who was on route to the next aid station. I am one lucky individual! She continued ahead in her car, remarking the course for us. It turns out this section of the course was indeed marked previously that night but some low life, idiot, scumbag had removed all the markings between these two aid stations. That’s not just a dumb thing on their part but in this kind of remote race it’s borderline dangerous. Looking at a map afterwards, if we had had to take a guess on the direction and had picked wrongly, we would indeed have been in some trouble. The junction was a mile away from the next aid station but the wrong decision here would have put us miles and miles away from anything.
I glanced at my watch again. This idiot’s actions had cost me. I had run 5 extra miles since first arriving at the unmarked junction and wasted over 45 minutes of time. I was fired up. Adrenaline kicked in. Nothing hurt anymore. I stepped on the gas and charged forward.
I arrived into the last aid station and knew I had to take care of myself. In all the excitement I had stopped eating or drinking and it had been over 10 miles since the last aid station. I ate like my life depended on it. I downed three cups of soup, took handfuls cheese, sandwiches and basically anything in arms reach.
Silke decided to stop at this aid station as I had been running away from her ever since the unmarked junction. I told her I’d be fine on the last 7 mile stretch to the finish. I hoped that was true. Only one way to find out. I set off on the final stretch. As I departed, I vaguely overheard something about a technical bit.
They were not wrong. I, however, didn’t care. You could have lined the trail with club wielding psychopaths for all I cared. Nothing was going to stop me. I charged over the technicalities: rocks, mud, rivers, roots. Sometimes I fell. I picked myself right back up and kept running. This was a long stretch on paper, 7 miles. It felt like 2. I was back onto the kind of terrain that makes me love this sport and my body and mind were hungry. Hungry for the kind of accomplishment that you feel when you achieve something that you had to fight for. Had to suffer for. Had to be patient for. Had to rely on others for. There really isn’t a better sport than this for learning, for growing. It continues to challenge me and surprise me.
Other than finishing this race, my primary goal was to run as much of it as possible and in that regard it was a major success. I ran every footstep of the way. Sometimes it wasn’t graceful but it was certainly effective. I couldn’t have been happier. Of course it would have been nice to avoid the extra miles as I think I could have gone under the 17 hour mark otherwise. I guess you have to leave some things for another day. The final numbers were nothing to sniff at: 17 hours 47 minutes 55 seconds. 1st place. That might just go down as my finest debut at any distance! I won’t be signing myself up for another 100 right away but I definitely see it in my future.
The Epilogue : It’s not about you
Naturally, there are a lot of other people behind successes like this. My crew of course, was the best kind of crew: my family. Silke did a great job crewing for me then pacing me on the final stretch. Ignoring my cursing, stumbling and whimpering and getting me in and out of aid stations swiftly. It was a long and lonely first 65 miles but it was worth it to be able to run with my wife for the final section. Likewise, having my in-laws there to crew for me the whole day was great. They were there on my first 50K, my first 50M and now my first 100M. I am pretty sure they hope that there isn’t anything left to do after this distance! I was taken care of all day and my aid stops were smooth and effective. Just short enough to recover slightly, eat, drink and converse but never enough to get comfortable. A perfect team!
As always I train with the most professional amateurs out there: The Rocky Mountain Runners. We are a rag tag bunch of chancers. Always looking for one more reckless challenge. I learnt a tonne of good things from Mike Oliva who taught me that it’s not unreasonable to run 6 minute miles at mile 80. Greg Salvesen taught me not to fear the distance and to take care of the little things before they become the big things. He should know, he does this kind of stuff a lot! And, of course, to all the other awesome people I run with every week. This is seriously the coolest, most humble, most badass bunch of people out there.
As in life, you don’t have to look hard to realize that there is very little we achieve by ourselves.
Logistics : Boring stuff unless you are a gear nerd
Gear wise, I mostly stuck to what I know. Inov-8 Rocklite 295’s which are the best all around trail shoes on the market (I typically wear the slightly more cushy 315’s but couldn’t find a pair locally). I switched to La Sportiva Vertical K’s for the road sections which I have nothing but positive things to say about them. I had only run a couple of dozen miles in them previously so to throw them at the second 50 of a 100 is credit to their design. A solid shoe. I wore my usual RMR t-shirt for the first 83 then switched to the long sleeve version when things got cold. Both tops were Patagonia. I added a light Patagonia jacket too for a while until I got warmed back up. Short were also Patagonia. They make some good stuff!
I used two Simple Hydration bottles for the first 50 miles which worked great. Tonnes of carrying options and I really prefer it over a pack for forcing you to drink more regularly. Saying that, I switched to the Inov-8 Ultra Race Vest for the final 50 so I could carry some more things and for a change from carrying stuff in my hands/shorts. I had worn this pack only once before for a couple of miles. I am sold though and will be using this again for more adventurous stuff. I have bought, used and discarded many packs over the years and this is the best one.
As far as nutrition goes I have been blessed with a rock solid stomach. I could probably survive on beer and sausages in fact. Luckily there was none of that at the aids so I mostly took various soups, noodles, oranges, gerkins, sandwiches, chips etc. I also carried a flask of EFS goopy stuff which I think is the best gel out there. No fancy flavours, just raw useful energy. Worked a charm.
The best thing about running a point to point 100 mile course is that you get to draw a really cool giant map and have tonnes of nerdy stats to look at afterwards in Strava! If you are not on Strava, get on it. I’ve used every on-line tracking program out there, none come close to Strava. It’s simply the most fun!