[Warning: Like all my focus-race race report, this is a long one]
“It has something to hurt everybody… For the technical guys, it’s got the road to pound you into submission. And for the fast guys, it’s got the brutal climbs and the rocks and the water and the mud. So I think there’s going to be something to put just about everybody down.”
-Eric Grossman, speaking about the course at the pre-race panel
After the Bear 100 last year, I didn’t have any firm running plans. I did a few low key races, but kept feeling the urge to test myself against more stout, nationally-recognized runners. When I read about UROC, I almost immediately requested and received entry as an elite runner. My summer training cycle was aimed to peak at UROC, with only a few untapered races mixed in. June and mid-July weren’t quite up to par, training wise, but the last 7 or 8 weeks was my highest two month mileage ever. My few injury niggles seemed to resolve themselves during the taper, and I was excited and felt ready. I wanted to run hard with the true elites of the sport (i.e. the one name guys- Geoff, Mackey, Wardian, etc), go fast, have fun, and see what happened. I believed I could compete, and set A and B goals of top 5 and top 10.
The week before the race was uneventful. Well, except for the minor occurrence of my wife giving birth to our third child, a boy. A brief NICU stay even had me questioning my participation in the race, but then everything cleared up and I received the green light. The normal pre-race nerves had me looking forward to just starting the darn race so I could stop thinking about it. All the UROC pre-race festivities were really enjoyable and a new experience for me- an interview with the indomitable AJW, some pre-race chatter with Eric Grossman, Jason Bryant, Anne Riddle-Lundblad, amongst others, and the elite panel Q&A. I slept terribly, as always, and just wanted to run. My family was at home, but was excited for the live coverage- UROC had videos posted on race day while the race was still going… find them all here.
The weather dawned perfect on Saturday. Temps were between 60-70 all day with no rain. The small group of elites lined up, and finally the relief of running arrived. The initial pace seemed reasonable, and I wanted to stay near the front group, if possible. However, I somehow found myself near the back of the conga line on the technical descent, somewhere around 14th place after the 600 ft drop. Troy Shellhamer took a nasty spill right in front of me, landing hip-first on sharp rocks- it looked like a fall that would knock some people out, but he popped up and kept moving (as a side note, several people noticed a strong resemblance between Troy and I, although his beard was more neatly trimmed. Beard Power!). The first climb was rather steep, and I felt like we were running a 10k more than a 100k (which would be a common theme all day). We reached a brief stretch of road, and I slowly passed Ian Sharman, Jeremy Pade, and Michael Owen on a gradual uphill as they were wise enough to walk some steeper portions. Ian later commented to iRF that the frontrunners seemed to be running a 50k rather than 100k, which I think may have resulted in some of the eventual DNF’s. I reached the first aid station at the summit somewhere around 10th place. I thought of making a charge for the front group, but held back knowing there were many miles to run [in hindsight, Good Move #1]. The subsequent singletrack descent resulted in more position changes, as technical specialists like Jason flew by while pre-race favorite Dave James came back. I wasn’t expecting as much singletrack at the start, so enjoyed it until we reached some road downhill before the steep climb to aid 2 around mile 9, which I reached in 8th place.
When I signed up for UROC, the course had about 50 miles of trail. Later changes resulted in almost a 50-50 split of road and trail, which disappointed me. While I can hold my own on the road, trail is more enjoyable and reduces pounding injuries. Leaving aid 2, the course runs on the paved Blue Ridge Parkway. Admittedly, if you have to run on road, this is a pretty nice one- rolling ups and downs, good views, and little traffic. Even with the later heavy fog, the traffic was respectful and seemed to give us wide berths (except for one particular jeep, which swerved towards 4 runners in succession). Much to my surprise, though, the trail-road-trail-road changes, with corresponding pace shifts, seemed to only add to the course difficulty, rather than making it easier. I was alone on the BRP, though I could see a group of three runners several minutes ahead. The pace was quick- in fact, the next 13 miles flew by in under 90 minutes, even though 8 of the miles were trail. After 4 or 5 miles of road, the trail turned onto the delightful singletrack descending to the Lake Sherando, the low point on the course. I tried to run smooth and easy, making sure to save my quads, while enjoying the trail. While the temps were nice, I was drinking water faster than expected, so I asked the aid station at the lake to grab my second bottle from my dropbag for the coming climb [Good move #2]. They had it ready after my quick lake loop, and got me on my way. Every aid station stop consisted of refilling 1 or 2 bottles and grabbing 2 or 3 Clif Shots, and I found all the volunteers very helpful in speedy turnarounds. Thanks, all- you were great, and we appreciate it. A special thanks to the RD’s and Clif for giving enough Clif Shots to last the whole race.
I hadn’t seen anyone on the out-and-back to the lake, so knew the leaders were less than 10 minutes ahead. The 1700 ft climb from the lake up to Slacks Overlook passed quickly for me and I felt reasonably strong, passing Eric Grossman at mile 24, just before the nasty yet short, Massanutten-ish rock garden. I drained the last of my water just as I pulled into the aid station, grateful I had both bottles to stay hydrated. The next 8 road miles to Whetstone flew by, including a couple on a dirt road. Clouds moved in, enveloping the mountain and generally limiting visibility to 50 yards. It seemed to create a mystical feeling, and I rather enjoyed it. I reached Whetstone aid at 34 miles just ahead of Ian, who had been slowly reeling me in for over an hour. As it would turn out, he and I would run within a minute of each other for the next 4+ hours. Neal and Gaby Gorman were working the aid station and quickly had me onto the Dragon’s Back trail to the race turnaround. The trail was very runnable, with minimal technical challenges and elevation gain, and I was looking forward to seeing how far ahead the leaders were.
Dave Mackey appeared soon, slowly walking to the aid station. He looked done for the day, which he said was due to some recent illness. Ian caught me just as Mike Wardian passed us the other way, 30 minutes ahead. Geoff followed a few minutes later, apparently having passed 4 runners in the last hour. Scott Gall, Matt Flaherty, and Jonathan Basham (JB) were 5 to 15 minutes ahead. We briefly speculated that it was likely we would see Matt later in the race, as the fatigue of his 6-hr, 50 mile run the weekend before would likely catch up to him. Ian jumped ahead after the turnaround at mile 38, with me slowing slightly to nurse a twisted ankle. Other than the ankle, I felt fine at the turnaround thanks to my three Clif Shots per hour routine. The return trip was uneventful, except for passing Scott who had drastically slowed and stepped aside as I went by. His battle with Mackey had apparently taken its toll, and he dropped at the next aid. I was now in 6th place and eager to move further up. Eric was 6 min behind me, and looking good.
I returned to Whetstone with Ian just ahead, 42 miles and over 6 hours into the race. I had some hot spots in my feet and my legs were feeling sore, so Neal had already dug out a change of shoes and socks from my dropbag [Good move #3]. 90 seconds later I was back on the road, grateful for fresh cushioning. I left my extra bottle with Neal, and he had insightfully reminded me how simple the rest of the race really was, telling me to, “keep eating and keep running.” Those words would echo in my head the rest of the way. Ian maintained his one minute lead on me for the 4 miles of paved and dirt road to the self-serve Spy Run Gap aid. After filling my bottle, I turned onto the BRP to see Ian walking up the road, disappearing into the cloud. Now, any good sports bookie would put his money on Ian beating me, but, having stayed within 200 yards of him for over an hour, I was determined to give him a run for the money. Literally, since he was in 5th place, the last podium and money spot. If he beat me, it wouldn’t be for a lack of me trying. For the next 3 hours, a single mantra kept repeating in my head: You Can Walk When You’re Dead. I started running up the hill. Within seconds, Ian glanced back and saw me chugging along. It almost seemed that he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders, and started running. And so, we ran every step up and down the rolling hills through the fog. It felt like a side-by-side race, just 200 yards apart. Even when the thick fog prevented me from seeing him, I knew Ian was still just ahead. The rest of the race was simply a battle with him and the other racers- pace didn’t matter, only place.
3.5 rolling, cloudy miles later found us in the exact same relative position as we pulled into Bald Mountain aid to start the last and most technical singletrack of the day. The aid workers told me that JB was also just ahead. I caught JB around the 50 mile mark (7:16, just 5 minutes slower than my admittedly soft PR), and he was struggling. I moved past him and was now in a podium place. The rock garden soon appeared and I picked my way down it. Seconds later, a seemingly rejuvenated JB came flying by with long, thumping steps. Boy, talk about a resurrection, again putting me out of the money after less than a mile in it. The guy is one of only ten Barkley 100 mile finishers (yes, that Barkley), so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. I picked up my pace and caught him as soon as the trail evened out. After a few minutes following him with the usual exchange of pleasantries, he suddenly stopped and pulled to the side. Not questioning my fortune, I ran on, passing the fateful junction that saw Wardian make a wrong turn, then emerging to cross the BRP and start another technical descent.
No sooner had I started the new trail then I once again heard thumping footsteps. Gaining on me. Thinking it was JB yet again, I glanced back to see the source of the thumping was actually Ashley Arnold from Trail Runner magazine. In non-running apparel. Running down technical singletrack. Gaining on me. Flummoxed, I immediately caught a toe and took a digger [Bad move #1]. Ashley evidently decided she was at risk of injury anywhere in the same area code as this limb-flailing mess of a trail runner and turned around, mumbling something about needing to give something to Wardian. This made even less sense to me than no explanation, since, to the best of my knowledge, Mike was at least 30 min ahead.
My bruised bum and dignity somehow propelled me to run faster, and I soon caught and passed Ian. Although, for the life of me, I have no memory of passing him, which seems a strange memory to lose as it’s not every day one passes the fastest 100-miler in the country. For all I know, the USS Enterprise beamed me directly in front of him. Or maybe I ran through a wormhole. Time travel? Whatever the method, I found myself just ahead of Ian. We raced hard down technical singletrack. We were so engrossed in our duel that we flew right by a (very well-marked) turn [Bad move #2]. Fortunately, the trail dead-ended 100 yards later at a waterfall. Spoiling the tranquility of some hikers, we asked them where the trail was, with no response. Ian looked high, while I scrambled down wet rocks seeking the familiar orange flags [Bad move #3]. Ian soon ran back on the trail and I heard him yell something. I somehow avoided falling as I pulled myself back up the rocks onto the trail, backtracking and soon finding the missed turn and its dozen flags. Doh. Just like that, I had lost 3 full minutes and went from 4th place to 6th. I consoled myself that at least I still had 10 miles to rectify my mistake.
I again caught JB and opined that he had missed seeing a very lovely waterfall. Then I resumed the familiar task of chasing Ian. I caught a glimpse as he crested a hill (“I can walk when I’m dead” “I. Can. Walk. When. I’m. Dead”). We reached the second to last aid station, and faced 9 final miles on the road. I left the aid station just 10 seconds behind Ian as we ran up yet another hill. The hill ended and I kicked the pace to 6:45-7:00 minutes per mile on the flat and gradual downhill. Unfortunately, Ian had one more gear than me. Slowly, oh so slowly, he inexorably pulled away. 10, 15, 20 seconds per mile- the gap slowly yet steadily grew. Jason and Alison Bryant and Dave James had been helping at aid stations ever since their DNF’s, and they now kept driving along in their car, cheering and giving updates in the fog. Jason told me that 2nd place was 3 minutes up. I didn’t believe him (would you, when you knew Geoff Roes and Michael Wardian were both up there?). Then, at mile 58 on a half mile straightaway, the clouds briefly lifted. I could clearly see Ian about one minute ahead of me. Sure enough, another minute in front of him was Matt Flaherty, and, yet further up, Michael Wardian, back on track after his detour. Here we were, 8.5 hours into the race, and only 3 minutes separated 2nd from 5th. It was a beautiful sight. I picked up the pace even more, straining to get every ounce of speed from my legs. And still, the gap widened.
In ultras, if you see someone ahead of you in the last quarter of the race that you previously hadn’t seen, it almost always means that person is slowing and you will catch them. The exception? Matt Flaherty. The dude must have cajones and guts of Teflon and Kevlar-coated steel with an unobtanium core and diamond coating, powered by the Energizer bunny. AJW said Matt had whiplash from looking back so often, but never faltered. And remember, Matt ran a sub-6 hr 50 miler last weekend! I hit the last aid station at mile 60 at 8:50. Jason told me that Ian looked strong, but Matt was still really hurting. Visions of 4th or even, maybe, possible, 3rd place flittered through my mind as I started on the homestretch.
Now, since UROC is a new race, I need to describe the finish. Imagine, if you will, a steep, steep paved road winding its way straight up a mountain. 15% grade. So steep I had to downshift to 1st gear while driving up it the night before. Now, run down that road for a full mile. After already running 60 miles. And do it as fast as you can. Next, just when you can’t take it anymore and would do anything to stop running downhill, the road mercifully turns uphill. The quivering mass that used to be your quads are grateful… for about 10 yards. Then you realize that you now have 2.5 miles and 1200 feet of unrelenting uphill. Yes, that is UROC’s gift to you, my friends. You can thank Gill.
I reached the bottom and caught a quick glimpse of Ian and Matt. Just enough to tease me. Repeat after me- “I CAN WALK WHEN I’M DEAD.” And so, I plodded upwards. Head down, one foot in front of the other. Running. Don’t think about how far you have left. Ignore the demons in your mind saying that you’ve already run for 9 hours, surely you can’t run 25 more minutes up this beast of a hill. The garmin somehow said I was doing 9:30-10:30 pace, though it felt more like 15 to 20 min pace. I could tell I wasn’t gaining, though, cause Jason, Alison, and Dave stopped giving me updates on the race ahead and just tried encouraging me. And so, I asked how far back the next person was. I thought they said “5 minutes” (Jason actually said, “At least 5 minutes”, which is how long they left the last aid station behind me- I actually had a 30+ min lead, which would have been very nice to know. Or not). I’d like to say I ran every step. I didn’t. I walked for a minute, and my watch said 18:00 pace. That meant someone 5 minutes back would catch me in a mile if they ran. I glanced back, just to make sure JB or Eric wasn’t in sight, then ran again. Everyone repeat after me- I can walk when I’m dead. Actually, I was repeating a new mantra for the climb- “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” I can honestly say I have never hurt so much nor pushed so hard. Not even at the end of the Bear 100, going up and down Ranger Dip. I ran about 90% of the hill, using the word “ran” in the loosest sense possible. I have never hurt so bad, and it felt great to be reminded that my mind could make my body do things it didn’t want to do, and that my body would actually do them. Usually, the mind is weaker than the body. This time, they were equally strong, and so equally suffered. After an eternity, the summit mercifully appeared. A half mile of downhill later, so did the finish. I was exuberant, letting out a yell and (for some reason that even I don’t understand) chucking my bottle into the fence (see some pretty scary photos of it here...). 5th place, 9:26:33 for 63.75 miles with about 10k climbing. 3 minutes behind Ian, 4 behind Matt, 6 behind Michael, and 30 minutes behind Geoff.
Photos courtesy of iRunFar
Everything after was a blur. I remember talking with Geoff, Mike, Matt, and Ian, then cheering in JB, Troy, and Eric, plus others. Then the top women, followed by more amazing finishers. Eating lasagna and mac & cheese. More talking with great runners and people. Dense clouds at the finish such that you couldn’t see 20 yards. Showering at Matt and Mackey’s condo. The awards ceremony was fun, with Gill saying that there was probably no one more excited to be there, to finish, and to finish where he did than me. I just felt humbled to stand among such great, great runners and to associate with them. A relaxed dinner at a restaurant with runners, sponsors, and magazine editors. Crashing at JB and Scott McCoubrey’s condo (thanks a million, guys!). Somehow staying awake on the drive home.
Photo courtesy of Jonathan Loewus-Deitch
I am obviously very happy with how the race turned out. Top 5 was my stretch goal and didn’t really seem plausible given the competition, but I gave it my best and it worked well. Although we hardly talked during the race, I can say that Ian pushed me to run better than I would have if I had been alone- it seems competition does that to people. Like Eric said at the start of my post, this was a tough race- the fast road miles and slow/fast transitions were challenging, and there was more technical singletrack than I expected. I think the course played to my strengths, though, since I’m kind of a “jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none ultra/trail runner.” I definitely learned that I can push harder for a longer time than I previously had, especially up hills at the end. In terms of pure race performance, I would say this is among the best half-dozen races of my life (interestingly, most of those weren’t wins). When you include the high-profile and deep field at UROC, it would have to rank as one of the best ever. Hopefully the start of many more like it.
Of course, you can’t please everyone. I had won 4 or 5 trail races earlier this year, and my wife was telling my 5 year old daughter afterwards that, “Daddy did really good in his race today”, to which my daughter asked, “Did he win?” My wife repeated that I did well, but my daughter again inquired, “But Did He WIN?” Marci replied, “He got fifth.” My daughter dejectedly concluded, “So that means he didn’t win.” Her face showed disappointment, and she lost interest and wandered off. Nothing like kids to keep you humble! I do have to sincerely thank my wife, kids, parents, and friends for their support- you guys are great.
I would highly recommend this race. Gill and Francesca are experienced RD’s, and it shows. I can’t think of a single flaw in the race. They really catered to both elites and the open field. Good course with a variety of terrain to really keep it an Ultra race, not just trail ultra race. Good aid stations with great volunteers. Lots of swag and prize money. Awesome trophy to the winners (it even has a name- the Flame of Endurance). I hope and fully expect this race will grow both among the elites and the open runners. I would return in a heartbeat. The only thing I would change is just having one start, rather than a separate elite and open start. Oh, and Gill, can you get rid of that hill at the finish?!?
[If you actually read this whole thing, you can’t say I didn’t warn you ahead of time. It’s a novel. Sorry. But I want to remember it.]