Man, after all the months of preparation it’s good to be finally out here doing it, actually underway. It’s a lovely morning and I’ve got 24 miles under my belt since the 4:00 A.M. predawn start. All systems seem to be humming along smoothly; my mental state could be described as –perhaps unrealistically– buoyed optimism. This section of the course traverses country lanes through farmsteads nestled in narrow Fort Valley, Virginia. Fog shrouds the pastures and ponds. I hope it lingers long enough for me to get out of the open and into the shade of the trails again; I can do without an overdose of summer sun beating down on me. It’s warm and humid already.
I’m approaching the St. David’s Church aid station. Hmmm what do I need? I think I’ll take on some more fruit like strawberries and orange slices, watermelon if they have it.
I’m running the thirty-eighth edition of the Old Dominion 100-Miler. Held on what’s usually “the first truly hot and humid day of the season,” the OD100 is the oldest race of its kind in the United States. I’ve wanted to do it from the first time I heard about it. Besides featuring a beautiful and varied course, the race has a down-home feel to it. It’s still run by the family that organized it in 1978.
So I’ve been running for four hours now. Out of the gate at the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds in Woodstock I loped with the 57 other race starters. Headlamps bobbing through the town and into the night, the excitement hanging in the air with the humidity. I chatted with folks on the long climb up Woodstock Tower Road; I realized, as the field stretched inexorably apart, that soon I’d be solo and chatting would be something I’d mainly be doing with myself. I felt good, looking forward to the day’s challenges.
I’m alone now; it’s quiet and peaceful, my footfalls and birdsong the primary noises. I’ve seen some lovely stretches of trail such as the lavender trail where I was passed from one Whipporwill to the next. I’ve visited several aid stations by now, including the first crew-accessible one where my Marybeth gave me the most important aid of all: a smile and encouragement. And, oh yeah by the way, at mile 22 I had to “squat behind a tree,” something that I’d rather not fool with but when you’ve gotta go…As always I did feel better afterwards, but the chafing that would result from it would come back to haunt me.
I’m bib number 77. I grinned when the race headquarters check-in girl gave it to me, ’cause 77 is one of my all time favorite numbers. And I’m always looking for good omens, especially when it comes to running 100 (!) miles.
I’m trotting up to the deserted farmhouse that serves as backdrop to the St. David’s Church aid station. A woman greets me and I offer exclamations of the beauty of the setting. She smiles, tells me she’s worked this spot for 18 years, and introduces me to her helper, a teenage girl who turns out to be the race founder’s granddaughter. After checking me in –bib number and time arrived– and ensuring that my hands are full of fruit they send me off.
Time flows on. I’m almost at a landmark aid station, Four Points, at mile 32.5. As it comes into view I hear the hustle and bustle of the place, and some clapping and cheers when they see me. (Do ya think I love that?) My crew Marybeth jumps into action, pouring cold water from a gallon jug over my head as I stoop over, mouth full of apple. Ahhh, so helpful.
A few hours of demanding work, not to mention some anguish, brings me back to Four Points again; the course circles back through at mile 48. In the meantime I had transited, among other places, the steep and technical climb through Duncan Hollow and up over Scotchorne Gap. Among the rocks of Duncan Hollow a strikingly gorgeous Timber rattlesnake lay across the trail –in greeting, I optimistically mused. I had also paused briefly at Crisman Road aid station, where not only did I nab a grape FreeziePop, but luckily passed the medical check performed there.
At my second pass through Four Points Marybeth announces with a smile, “almost halfway!” I smile too but inside I whine, “Don’t remind me! I feel like I’ve put out monumental effort already! And you mean to tell me I’m not even halfway?” But I don’t say that, just think it.
On the long Moreland Gap climb I cross a line painted on the fire road that’s labeled, “50 Miles.” Yeah, that’s good news but, like I said… I’m running with Erik at this point, and we end up running about four hours together. On the lengthy crank to Edinburg Gap we come across another rattler, this one a big Eastern Diamondback. He’s coiled in a substantial pile, rattling loudly enough to almost shake the leaves off the trees. We give him a wide berth and excitedly move on, enjoying the bonus energy boost that reptile provided us.
The OD 100 course is intricate. One could get lost. I had spent weeks studying maps, plotting the course and memorizing aid station locations. On the day before the race Marybeth and I drove the sections of the route that we could get to. Having those images in my mind would turn out to be a big help; upping my confidence level and peace of mind –things you just can’t get enough of in a long race.
The OD 100 has a testy little time limit I’m thinking about. In order to cop one of the coveted sterling silver race belt buckles one has to finish in under 24 hours. On one long, drawn-out climb I determine that it took me 11.5 hours to reach the halfway point, therefore making it almost impossible to finish the race in under 24 hours, given the assumption that it would take me considerably longer to complete the second half. Rats. A while later I realize that actually I had reached the halfway point in 9.5 hours. I still have a good chance at sub 24…just gotta keep it all together and not fade too much as the race progresses. I’m still in the game.
“What can I get you!?” the kind volunteer at Edinburg Gap asks. “Chocolate Milk!” I blurt out, certainly not expecting them to really have it. “Sorry,” he says, as I gratefully palm a half turkey cheese sub instead. Just as I’m departing a guy shoves a small bottle of chocolate milk into my other hand. “From my private stock!” He grins.
My right shoulder is bothering me considerably now, and my hydration pack really aggravates it, so while I can I trade Marybeth my pack for a handheld 20-ounce bottle instead. The change is good; I just can’t carry as much water as with my pack. I’ll drink more at the aid stations.
The section of race course from mile 54 to 60 follows a rugged off-road-vehicle trail. I’m thinking that it isn’t so great that such vehicles are tearing through the national forest like that until three big knobby-tired Jeeps crawl past and I change my tune. Now it’s hey that looks like fun!
Ok, so I’m getting weary, I hesitate to admit. There is an abundance of discomfort on many fronts. My mind is busy managing the load, keeping things light and positive. “I feel great, and I feel grateful!” “Light, easy, glide…strong.” A good thing, among many actually, is that my new shorts seem to be working very well, in reference to the below-the-belt chafing I’m used to. My old CWX compression shorts/Nike shorts combo worked well for a couple of years but recently started to chafe me bad during races and even long training runs. I won a pair of Patagonia shorts at the Promise Land 50k two months ago and they seemed, well, promising. After getting chafed to pieces in the Massanutten Mountain 100-miler three weeks ago, I decided to make the switch. So far so good.
I mentioned running the MMT100 three weeks ago. That’s right, bucking conventional thinking that says it’s impossible to run two 100-milers only three weeks apart I decided to go for it. Actually, I have been planning this for months, and I knew intuitively and practically that I could do it, barring any disaster incurred in the MMT. I just really wanted to do both races. And I’ve learned that you don’t just try to run a big ultra, you plan and train and work hard to do it. On this the burly Old Dominion 100 I know it’s crucial to ignore that annoying small voice inside me that wants to say, “You can’t run another 100 now, and certainly not without at least taking a major hit in your performance.” Hmmm…Don’t worry, I’m not listening to that.
Along the OD 100 course, in the more remote sections, are several self-serve, unattended aid stations, such as at Peach Orchard and Peter’s Mill Pond. These consist of welcoming little caches of water jugs and a cooler or two full of food, along with some written info on the location and which and how far to the next aid station. A pleasant sight for weary eyes and hungry stomachs.
I’m rolling into Little Fort aid station, one I’ve been particularly looking forward to since friends are staffing it. And wow, a big bonus is that son Ian is here grinning in greeting alongside Marybeth. I load up on food including an over-the-top hot dog on bun drenched in mustard, ketchup, and relish. Yum, what a morale booster. I can make it to Elizabeth Furnace now, I’m thinking as I head out after the requisite send off of cold-water-over-my-head treatment.
It’s raining lightly now. Warm, humid, and raining. It feels ok; it’s a nice change. Between Mudhole Gap and Elizabeth Furnace there are a half dozen significant creek crossings to slog through, and if you think this is the first point in the race that my feet have gotten wet and muddy you’re wrong. They’ve remained that way since early on; it’s unavoidable but no big deal thankfully. I knew and accepted long before the race began the fact that my feet would be devastated.
I’ve been at it for almost 16 hours as I come into the vicinity of the EF aid station. A quick medical check –I pass, rats I guess I have to keep going– and my crew is taking care of me. They give me food, (grilled cheese and strawberries), and my headlamp, but best of all they give me… Ian! The OD 100 staff encourages racers to use a “safety runner” on the grueling 12-mile Sherman’s Climb and Veach Gap portion, commencing from Elizabeth Furnace, mile 74.9. That is, have a fresh, companion runner along. Ian is willing and able, and laces up his shoes and takes off with me into the gathering darkness. As we get established on the climb Ian, as hoped for, distracts me with crazy stories and helps keep me moving. In those hours of pitch black, on rough trail, we move steadily, time suspended, just the two of us. Anybody else in this race? I wonder. Anyway, at last check I was in fifth or sixth place overall, but anything can happen now. The trail at the base of the mountain spits us out at Veach West, mile 86.6. Ian bids me adieu and I continue on as best as I can, solo once again.
I’ve observed that although long hours of running difficult terrain results in physical fatigue and other obvious physical effects, mental acuity actually does not seem degraded. It’s as if the body ensures that optimal –indeed elevated– brain function is maintained for just as long as possible, since survival of the organism –me in this case!– may well depend upon it. Tactical decisions are being made, precise musculoskeletal movement must be preserved. So…even though I’m tired as I continue to endure after twenty plus hours, I’m not sleepy. For my mind it’s still “game on.”
At mile 90.9, after getting uncomfortably up close and personal with myself for another hour or so, I arrive at the race’s last crew-accessible aid station, and my steadfast Marybeth and the outpost’s lone volunteer dispense, besides warm chicken noodle soup, good cheer and smiles. But other than that it’s a grim place. Into the pouring rain I push on.
Waves of doubt have washed over me before on this run, and I’m feeling it again now. And again I struggle to keep my head above it, to keep from sputtering and drowning in the despair. The rain is falling steadily; it’s coursing down my face, down my body, mixing with sweat, blood, mud. The darkness enshrouds me. It’s profound, and my headlamp casts but a feeble glow. But it comforts me to see the occasional chemlight hanging in a tree to help mark the race course, and seeing the dim light of one of those “glow sticks” up ahead on the relentless climb up Woodstock Tower Road fans an ember within me. It’s going to take a lot more than a few scattered, pitiful feelings to shut me down, I declare for the umpteenth time.
I’m headed down down the mountain towards the town of Woodstock and the finish. I pass the sign indicating that I’m leaving the George Washington National Forest. As late race bonus fun I have to squat and do my business again. That’s right, and it ain’t pretty. Ugg. Oh yes, there is considerable rawness throughout my nether regions, but I can ignore that for now.
I’m jogging across the Shenandoah River at Burnshire Dam. I’m passing wheat fields host to silent, pulsating lightning bugs. I’m entering lanes lined with houses. I’m descending a hill that brings me to the edge of town. I’m trotting through sleeping Woodstock. Time to stop this foolishness.
As I enter the fairgrounds and head to the finish I can’t really believe it’s happening. I run under the FINISH banner, and the lonely timekeeper and Marybeth welcome me. There’s no one else around. It’s quiet; no bells, no cheering crowd. Just the drizzle and the end of a very long day. I’ve finished the Old Dominion 100-Miler in 22:35:17, in fifth place overall. Out of the 58 starters 31 would finish, 13 of us under 24 hours.
Marybeth and I crawl to our tent. I’m wracked with stiffness, cramps, blisters and more, but I’m happy. I finished the Old Dominion 100 and I see life as very wide and very deep and very good.