by Crozet Running Club - John Andersen
This past Saturday Dan Spearin, Jeff Lysiak, and I all proudly represented Crozet as we traveled to the northern reaches of Massanutten Mountain to run Catherine's Fat Ass 50km trail race. For those of you unfamiliar with what a "Fat Ass" event is, it is essentially a low-key run usually put on by a running club or bunch of friends with no entry fee, no bibs, and generally just nothing official about it at all. There are Fat Ass events all over the country and this particular event was unofficially hosted by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, an awesome trail running club centered in Northern Virginia.The course "map". Seriously.
I knew a few other runners who were going to be there but I have to admit I was a little concerned over the lack of detailed prerace information available. I am a planner, but I was getting the feeling I was going to be "going with the flow" for this one. The only prerace info we got an email sent on Wednesday that mostly stressed the need for "...beer. Good beer. More beer is a good thing. Again GOOD beer. Cold and good beer is best!". Also in the prerace email were some words of encouragement; "I have not had a chance to do trail maintenance this year, so be prepared for the unexpected." Hmmm, what were we getting ourselves into? Well the one thing we did know was that it was going to be HOT! Like 95 degrees and humid hot. Despite all the common sense warning signs of catastrophe (running 31 miles on rocky trails with over 6000ft elevation in 95 degree heat with questionable trail markings...) we headed off truly excited for an adventure. We knew it was going to be a good day when we saw a bear in the middle of Jarmans Gap Rd not even a half mile from home!
We got to the race early and after meeting and greeting with some other runners, we gathered together for the prerace briefing. Turns out one of the forest service road access gates was closed so the race director was unable to access parts of the course and thus the course would have to be redirected...and would also have one less aid station... and would not be marked at all. Crap. He then went on to verbally give the new course instructions, "....take the red trail up to the purple trail, then turn down the orange trail, then go up the hill, then down the....". Seriously?! I can't remember that! I shrugged to the person next to me who shrugged back. Crap. Go with the flow.
As I was trying to process this information, the race director yelled out "ok, Go!" and people starting running towards the single track trail that left the parking lot.
This was rapid decision time regarding my goals for this race. First, let me preface that like many a Fat Ass event, there really was not a competitive vibe here at all. I would say pretty much everyone there was out there to have a good run and a great time. That's actually the beauty of the trail running world in general - it just seems overwhelmingly laid back and fun. So I must say despite the uneasiness of what exactly I was getting myself into, I was in great spirits and ready to have a great run - my first ultramarathon distance mind you!
Despite never having actually ran over marathon distance, I was never worried about the distance itself. I have been racking up plenty of weekly mileage and elevation where finishing 31 miles itself wasn't going to be the challenge. The real question was "how hard can I push myself and for how long?". For some reason I really wanted this question answered today. Oh yes, it would be answered!
I jumped out onto the trail and eventually caught up with the front runners. About a mile into the course we saw a little bear cub jump out of a tree and run away. Good sign #2! Two miles in, we came to a trail intersection. A few of the guys who had run the course before decided that they wanted to run the original 50k course, not the new 50k course for the day. Apparently in a fat ass, the course is negotiable... Thus, those of us who had no idea where we were in the first place decided to follow the original route guys and there began my detour entitled "Oh man, I chose the wrong guys to run with...".
Running with me were Keith Knipling, who has run over 130 ultramarathons, and Neal Gorman, an elite ultrarunner who currently holds the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning course record (the fastest cumulative time running the Western States 100 miler, Vermont 100 miler, Wasatch 100 miler, and the Leadville Trail 100 miler all in one summer!). WTF was I thinking!! Ok, to give me credit, Keith was feeling pretty tired from running a bunch of hundred milers this summer and Neal has been recovering from a nasty virus. It seemed like it was shaping up to be a nice run...
The first 4 miles took us 1900 ft up to Bird Knob overlooking the Shenandoah Valley below. There we met up with Martha and Dave, two runners who seemed like they were also up for an easy day. After climbing for 4 miles, the prospect of an easier run was more appealing...
After a few miles of running over rocks the size of cats and dogs, we came to a gravel road which we would run on for the next 7 miles. This is when I overheard Neal say something to Martha like "well, we can't win all of our races like you Martha...". "Wait a minute" I said, "is Martha also some kind of super elite runner?". Turns out Martha has been busy over the past few years winning first place and setting course records in everything from half marathons, to the Charlottesville Marathon, to the Highlands Sky 40 miler this summer. Meanwhile we're burning up 7 minute miles on this gravel road.... Oh man, I picked the wrong people to run with..We finally came to the first aid station which was a blessing. I filled up with water, threw down a Gu, and quickly ran into the nearby stream to douse myself with its cold refreshing water. It was starting to get pretty hot. Keith had told us to leave him a while back and Dave wasn't feeling well and decided to cut his run short. It was now me, Neal, and Martha. First time ultrarunner with two first placers. And by the way none of us knew where exactly we were going. The folks who knew the route had now bailed. Fortunately a few of the guys at the aid station gave us great directions for the next 10 miles of trail and we were off. As the gravel road began to climb, we kept running, passing by several groups of runners who I thought were wisely walking. Oh man, I picked the wrong people to run with...After several miles of uphill on the gravel road, we got back onto what was perhaps the prettiest and most treacherous trail of the day. This trail literally went straight up a stream called Morgans Run. At times, there was no trail, you just walked in the middle of the stream until you saw something that looked like a trail. Did I mention all the rocks were as slick as ice?! But by this point, about 15 miles into the run, anything that got Neal and Martha to slow down was a good thing, even if that meant walking up a river.
Finally the trail left the stream and we were running again. Suddenly Neal (in front) starts screaming and takes off in a sprint, slapping all around him. Right behind him Martha starts doing the same. In an instant, I see the reason and was too late to stop. A huge hornets nest had fallen earlier and broken open right in the middle of the trail! For some reason I couldn't stop and just sprinted right through it, like running through fire. Hornets hurt!! The three of us sprinted for a few hundred yards and took inventory. Several stings each, but everyone ok. All agreed that hornets suck.
We finally got to another "aid station", which was Gary Knipling standing next to Pitt Spring - literally a 3 foot wide spring in the ground. He had a big pitcher in his hand and told us all to bow down as he "baptized" us with the cold water from the spring. This was one of the best things I have felt in a long while. "Can I drink from the pitcher Gary?" I asked...I didn't care that it came from some untreated mountain spring, it looked so clear and cold that I couldn't resist and drank about half the pitcher. Best glass of water I've ever had.
A few more miles of gravel road running until we reached the last "real" aid station. I learned that elite runners do not mess around at aid stations. I had heard so much about aid stations at ultras, with a buffet laid out of soda, Gatorade, cookies, watermelon, chips....but alas, I chose the wrong people to run with...I would just quickly fill my bottles then run to the nearby stream and douse myself in water while they quickly ate. Then I would hastily shove a Gu in my mouth as I followed them out of the aid station. It was really getting hot by now, up in the 90's for sure and SO humid. I could feel that the heat more than anything was starting to get to me. We were now at about mile 20 and I knew I was entering that special "mental" zone in a run and had to hang in there. But then we turned onto the purple trail.
The purple trail, as advertised in the limited prerace information, was evil. It climbed 1600ft over four miles, the last two of which were just plain hell. We had picked up another top notch runner Matt Bugin (who just won the Bel Monte Endurance Run 50k this year...oh man..) and Matt, Neal, and Martha seemed unfazed by the heat and elevation. I was starting to physically bonk.
Mentally, I was actually ok. I was pushing myself really hard which was my goal of the day. However despite my pushing they were pulling away ever so gradually. For most of that climb I was about 2-300 yards behind. I was getting so hot that I was getting chills and goosebumps. Bad. At that point, I knew I was starting to bonk. Oh how I just wanted to stop and sit in a stream for a while. What the hell is wrong with these people? Arent they hot? Why are they just running right by that stream without getting in and laying down? The last mile of the purple trail was so steep that it was just switchbacks and you had to have your hands pushing your knees down while you hiked. I was redlining.
I remembered something I had heard Ian Torrence say on a podcast once though. He said you can always unbonk. He also said to remember to focus on what you're good at. So, even though I had no appetite, I ate two Gu's and drained my second to last bottle of water. I decided just to run my own race at that point and gave up on my goal of hanging with these elite runners. WTF was I thinking?!
And then, the purple trail ended! I felt like I had just gotten rid of a demon. The trail turned straight down a rocky hill for a few miles and the elites were nowhere to be seen. But I fancy myself as a good downhill bomber and decided to bomb away. Although I'm sure by that point my version of bombing down a rocky trail looked more like a 90 year old man going down stairs... As I kept on the downhill, something great happened...I unbonked! I was suddenly back to having fun, feeling some energy and wouldn't you know it somehow caught up to my group again. The next 7 miles were all mental. As we slowly descended back down the mountain it became hotter and hotter. It felt like we were running down into a sauna. I was overheated, out of water, and my legs were done. But I had somehow hung with some incredibly talented runners for 30 miles. I make no illusions that I am at their level - they could have dropped me in a second if they were racing. But I certainly met my goal of pushing myself for this distance to see what was there. And there I found the great reward of running. I wasn't competing against anyone or even for a certain time. It was just mind vs. body for 5 hours and 45 minutes. Not many times in our busy lives do we get to feel the true thrill of accomplishment and when we do it is something to be cherished and remembered.
There was no finish line or big clock. Just a couple of tents filled with people who gave you a big "Ayyyyeee!" when you arrived and wanted you to sit down and hang out for a while. We sat in the heat, talked about running and whatever and cheered our friends as they finished their mind/body battle in the heat. Nobody got lost, nobody got heat stroke. It was a great day!