It was the best of times, it was the worst of times….
In the three weeks leading up to Bel Monte I had been plagued with occasional calf pain and a nagging left knee to top it off. This resulted in my confidence plummeting a few weeks out from race day. I’ve heard that self deprecation can be the most debilitating of all ailments after the start-gun fires. Fortunately, a strong run the weekend prior with a great group of runners (Seven Sisters Summit Run) gave me just the spark I needed to rekindle my enthusiasm for my first 50-miler.
For the four preceding days my mind had not wandered far from the impending challenge. Though I knew my body capable, I had race expectations and goals in mind that were weighing heavy on me. Having only raced in a couple of races, none exceeding 13.1 miles, in my year-long running career, the prospect of a race (especially of 10+ hours in duration) seemed daunting amidst my expectations. In an effort to alleviate this stress I made a trip to Jus’ Running in Asheville, a trip for advice instead of merchandise (its free!!). Here I stated my goals: a top ten finish and sub 10-hour time. In reply, I received conflicting words of wisdom. Emily suggested hanging out on someone’s heels and ensuring that no one got too far away that I couldn’t catch them later. Dan’s advice, on the contrary, was to gun it, run with the top of the pack and let the phantom footsteps behind me fuel me forward. Though neither pitch sold immediately in my mind, I left feeling more confident about the race.
We had a hoppin' good time in Charlottesville!
Friday, the day before the race, Melissa, Luna, and I made our way to Charlottesville. Upon arrival, we met up with Daniel, a dear friend whose close proximity to the race location had been the deciding factor in electing to run it. We had a Mellow Mushroom “snack” of pizza and sandwich around 2 and a pre-race pasta dinner around 7:30. We spent the night with my pseudo-aunt and uncle. Their beautiful home was located about 35 minutes from the race venue, I can’t thank them enough for their hospitality. I ended up getting into bed around 10:30, far later than I had hoped.
Fortunately, I was able to fall asleep pretty quickly and just as quickly I was awake again. 4:00 was the time, bagels and bananas were the crime. The next hour flew by and we were off to Sherando Lake Recreation Area. The time before the race passed in a flash, I missed the pre-race briefing because
doodies duties called in the Port-a-Jon line.
6:30 struck and Gill and Francesca, the race directors, did a roll-call as everyone stood on top of a dam, headlights shining, running in place to keep warm. I don’t know where my head was, but I (though standing in the front of the pack with my head practically in the megaphone) didn’t hear my number when it was called and didn’t realize it until the next number was called. That says something about my state of mind that morning, I was truly living in a dream.
There were many fantastic runners surrounding me at the start, I had no idea where I would fall into the mix after a few hours passed, but I knew that I was going to work my hardest and enjoy the heck out of it.
The start was a blast. I pushed ahead as much as I could on the way off of the dam to ensure that I wouldn’t be stuck behind many slower folks once we hopped on the singletrack. That proved not to be a problem at all, for the first couple or three miles I was running in second place behind a fellow named Brain (he would go on to run an incredible race and finish 2nd). It wasn’t too long before Mark and another fellow scooted past me.
Mile 5, preparing to shed some layers.
When I arrived at the mile 5 aid station following a pretty solid ~1000ft climb Melissa, Dan, and my dad were psyched to see me briefly as I shed my shirt, gloves, and hat and took off running, met by dumbfounded glances from spectators who informed me that it as only 34 degrees out. I was felt like I was on top of the world at this point and was told I was running in 4th place. Shortly after this aid station I passed a 50k runner and continued with a little bit of climbing before starting on a 6-mile descent to the 13.1 mile aid station. I was passed by a 50 miler through this section and then matched pace with another 50k runner for the remainder of the descent.
This was the third aid station of the day, and became he third one that I passed without receiving any fuel. It was delightful to see Mel, Dad, Dan, and Luna here, I hoped that their cheers would carry me through the next potentially lonely 24 miles before I saw them again at mile 37. Mel gave me a mini-Cliff Bar and three gels for this stint. On my way out of the aid station, the fellow with whom I had been running grabbed my shoulder and said, “Promise me you will slow down, I am the 50k lead right now. This is your first 50 miler, so you need to pace yourself”. Thus, I had no hesitation to stop and take a gel and use the restroom about a mile out from the aid station and was no discouraged when I was passed by two 50 milers.
This section, which was miles 13-17 and miles 33-37 was rolling gravel road. I found it pretty easy to loose steam during this section but kept trucking. At the 17 mile aid station the 50-milers take a 5 mile round-trip out-and-back over a little mountain, it makes for a solid 1200 ft of gain. In this section I was passed for the final time by a guy who thought I was a nut-job for running half naked (he was probably right).
I decided that the initial ascent would be a fantastic time to take another gel. Here is a brief side-note about me and ‘Gu’: I only take the tri-berry flavor. Why? Because I’ve never taken another one, so why bother trying? Anyways, the weekend prior at SSSR Adam had been ranting and raving about the new Cherry-Lime flavor being the most delicious thing he’d ever tasted. Thus, I decided to try one. I ripped off the lid and injected the packet into my mount only to vomit it back out as soon as it hit the back of my throat. Thanks, Adam. I’ll stick with Tri-berry.
This is what we were up against, 11000 ft net gain.
The out-and-back was comfortable(besides throwing up) and when I reached the aid-station again they praised me for making great time through that stretch. The next aid station was about five miles away. Four and a half of which were a steady incline and half a mile of which was a monstrous climb. I reached the top and wolfed down some snacks, filled the water bottle and plummeted down the mountain. I was heading back from whence I came(save the 5 mile out-and-back) to meet the crew at mile 37. This was among my best running of the day, for the next 7 miles I felt completely rejuvenated, running like I had just started. Then came the gravel road…
The rolling hills of the gravel road were just unreasonably wearing. My feet grew tired of the rocks underneath, my body was growing fatigued through and through, but I knew there was food waiting for me… And then a six mile climb…
I was greeted with cheers and horrahs by many people at the aid station. I think I appreciated it, but my mind was so focused on the fact that I was standing at the foot of six miles of relentless uphill and that I still had another half marathon to run that I did not express my appreciation very well. I knew I would be moving slowly up this section, and figured it would probably be best if I put a shirt on. Mine was unavailable, but fortunately my lovely wife was willing to literally give me the shirt off of her back.
I climbed and climbed and climbed, when it finally began to level off I was delighted to find that my muscle memory was so keen that even when my muscles were so fatigued I was able to convince myself that I was running strong. I grabbed some more food at an aid station with 7 miles to go, and then ran three miles very well. Then things went downhill, literally.
I had planned to be able to fly through the last four miles(two down the mountain, two on pavement in the park), but a fall and a couple too many hard steps on my knees rendered me incapable of doing so. In retrospect, it hurts to think of the minutes that walking two downhill miles must have cost me, but it was a learning experience.
Not feeling too hot at mile 48.
The final aid station was two miles out from the finish line, I emerged from the woods with a bloody knee and bloodied here I got my final words of encouragement from my fantastic crew and set off running. Then groaning. The feeling in my knees was unprecedented, and I hope it never happens again. Fortunately, I was able to fall into a groove of sorts and finish the last two miles strong(relative to what could have been).
Finished the run in great company!
I was given a finishers medal and told that I finished in 9th place. The clock read 9 hours and 53 minutes when I crossed the line. Though the day was incredibly demanding, physically and mentally, I feel like I came away with more than I left out there. I can’t properly express my gratitude towards the crew: Melissa, Daniel, my dad, Peter and his friends, Max and Joe; and towards Laura and Ross, who so kindly put up with all of us for the weekend, and of course, to everyone cheering my one from afar. I very much look forward to running another 50 miler in the near future.
Dan, Mel, me, Dad, Peter (and Luna), Max, and Joe