There’s a certain mystique placed upon the number 100. It’s the ultimate goal for age-the threshold of triumph over mortality. We measure historical eras by the century. And growing up everyone certainly feels proud the first time they earn a crisp hundred-dollar bill.
Late Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman once said, “The magic is in the man, not the 100 miles.” That may be true, but for many athletes in the Blue Ridge crossing the century mark is the ultimate goal. Maybe that’s why we have so many great 100s-mountain ultra-marathons that test the mightiest runners and backcountry century rides that ramble through rugged singletrack trails or wind along country roads. Here’s a summary of some of the hardest hundreds in the South.
Barkley 100 Marathon
The motto is, “The race that eats its young.” It’s an enigma among runners. Only six have finished, but every year there are some that just can’t resist trying to complete the early spring Barkley 100 Marathon in Tennessee’s Frozen Head State Park. Broken down into five, 20-mile laps, the course ruts through the thickly undeveloped, poorly marked trails of Frozen Head State Park, set in the cold tundra country of eastern Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. Each loop carries a little more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain and 10,000 feet of elevation loss, making total elevation change over 100,000 feet. This year out of 33 starters, only three made it into the third lap.
“Barkley is very tough because of the poor footing, bad weather, navigation, and more hills than a lot of the Western ultras,” says ultra runner Matt Mahoney, who’s finished a lot of rugged hundreds including southwestern Colorado’s Hardrock 100. He’s tried the Barkley 11 times. “Each year there is some course change to make it a little harder. I’ve always been beaten by the cutoff times, but secretly I’ve been glad I did not have to go out again.”
Massanutten Mountain 100-Mile Trail Run
It’s been called the hardest running race on the east coast. In early May runners are under the gun to finish in 36 hours as they endure a rocky loop course through the George Washington National Forest, much of it on the orange-blazed Massanutten Trail. This year a record 113 hardcore haulers crossed the finish line in time. Taking the crown this year was a cross-continental ringer, 36-year-old Sim Jae Duk, who traveled 22 hours from home in Korea to win the race and set a new course record with a time of 17:40:45.
Old Dominion Cross Country 100-Mile Run
Part of the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning with western cousins including the Western States 100, the race is one of the oldest ultras in the region, approaching 29 years in 2007 (June 2). The loop trail through the Massanutten Mountains and Shenandoah River Valley starts in Woodstock, Va., and has14 significant climbs, and 14,000 feet of gain. Runners that can cross the finish line in under 24 hours earned the world-recognized Old Dominion sterling silver buckle, while the course stays open for 28.
Old Dominion Memorial 100-Mile Run
This Memorial Day Weekend race that also starts in Woodstock, Va., splintered off from the OD Cross Country in 2002 when organizers wanted to take a break. Now five years later it’s still going as another option for the 100-club. Although it takes place in some of the similar country of the Shenandoah Valley the Memorial’s out-and-back course opts for wide dirt country roads rather than singletrack trail, but runners still get their share of gain and loss, especially when they cross one of six major climbs like Woodstock Mountain.
Great Eastern 100K
The course that winds through Virginia’s George Washington National Forest starts at the Afton Mountain overlook near the junction of the Blue Ridge Parkway and Shenandoah National Park. Falls colors will be starting to ignite as the race on September 23 takes runners through a mix of singletrack and forest roads over 13,041 feet of climb in the George.
This relatively new ultra that started four years ago is another concoction from the sadistic mind of ultra godfather David Horton. Starting from Natural Bridge Station, Va., the race ruts down the Virginia Blue Ridge to Fincastle, near Roanoke. Sure it’s rugged like the rest of them, but the catch with this December race is that it starts at 12:01am. The course fills at 100 runners, so buy a new headlamp and sign up soon (www.extremeultrarunning.com).
<h4>Rides Off Road</h4>
Wild 100 Backcountry Race
This Mountain State marathon not only tests limits of endurance mountain bikers, but also throws in orienteering to make things more interesting. Not only do riders have to tackle Slaytyfork’s singletrack-some of the most rugged in the East-but they also have to have their navigational wits about them. Bikers have to check in at six different check points (kept secret until the morning of the race) in sequence, always deciding for themselves which trail, dirt fire road, or paved path is the fastest route for the challenge. The entire course totals approximately 100 kilometers and has a cumulative elevation gain of nearly 8,000 feet. Trails such as Tea Creek Mountain and Bear Pen lead to Sharps Knob, Gay Knob, and deep into the Tea Creek Canyon. These are the trails and terrain that have put Slatyfork on the map as the eastern mecca of mountain biking madness. Depending on weather conditions the race often lasts deep into the night. Luckily riders have the option of pairing up and riding as a team to have some company in the inevitable misery.
Shenandoah Mountain 100
Those hardcore fat tire freaks on the Virginia MTB scene sure do know how to host an epic race. Case in point the Shenandoah Mountain 100, which takes place on September 3. Riders circling the 100-mile loop climb near 14,000 feet through the George Washington National Forest, starting from Stokesville, Va., just south of Harrisonburg. Despite its distance Shenandoah Valley rider Chris Scott designed the course with accessibility in mind, putting in some big enjoyable downhills on Dowes Draft and Chestnut Ridge. The toughest climbs on the course are on the Lynn Trail and the long 20-mile climb up Shenandoah Mountain.
“I wanted it to be a fun ride that was achievable with a big mountain experience,” says Scott, who’s expecting around 300 riders this year. “I designed it trying to maximize people’s ability to finish.”
With primary sponsorship coming from Old Dominion Brewing Company, the post-race campground scene always helps get over soar muscles. For mountain bike adventurers that aren’t quite ready for the race, Shenandoah Mountain Touring offers three-and-four-day expedition rides of the course (www.mtntouring.com).
Hilly Hellacious Hundred
The North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Bicycle Club’s Hilly Hellacious Hundred has grown from a grassroots community effort to one of the most popular century rides in the South, drawing over 600 riders from 14 different states to the starting line in Asheville in late August. The event has watched its participation more than double in the last decade with a growing number of sadistic cyclists spinning their wheels through over 8,000 feet of grueling climbs and rolling country roads of Western Carolina’s most scenic areas. The course moves from the Cane Creek area through an apple orchard and down to the Broad River before looping around Lake Lure and moving out to the Henderson County countryside. Riders especially have to push it through the rigorous ascent of Bearwallow Mountain.
Mountains of Misery
Talk about a quad buster. Mountains of Misery is billed as “One Hill of a Ride,” with over 10,000 feet of gain as it wanders through the Southwest Virginia Highlands range. The route ends with the climb up to Mountain Lake, a five-kilometer category 1 climb, reaching road pitches up to 11.9 percent.
Six Gap Century Century Ride
This ultra challenging route takes riders up and down six of the steepest climbs in the North Georgia Mountains-testing mettle with more than 10,700 feet of vertical climbing over the 100-mile course. Elevations for the six gaps in this ride range from 2,949 feet to 3,490 feet. The rides hardest climb at Hogpen Gap can break the will of even the toughest riders, averaging a seven percent grade for seven miles, with sections as steep as 15 percent.
Blood Sweat and Gears Century Ride
Organizers don’t sugar coat this one at all when they say: “Tormenting climbs, treacherous descents, tantalizing flats, and just enough pain” are all part of this race in the North Carolina High Country. Cyclists pump over 13,000 feet of total climbing. Highlights of the route include a 21-mile section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, a strenuous climb over the 4,500-foot gap at Snake Mountain, and a 10-mile “flat” on old US 421.
This is area that Lance Armstrong made famous, training here during his initial rehabilitation and once telling Cycling Sport magazine, “It’s a great area for riding, very hilly, but I’d say it’s the best area for training in the whole of the United States.”
Cheat Mountain Challenge Century Ride
It’s just approaching its second year, but this race on September 24 made a great first impression on the cycling scene. With 10,000 vertical feet of climbing spread out across 105 miles of high country West Virginia back roads, including a 22 mile section of the Highland Scenic Highway-the highest elevated road in the East. Through its course the Cheat Mountain Challenge offers challenging climbs and thrilling downhills all among some of the most spectacular vistas found in the country.
Sierra Club One Day Hike
Every April less than 100 ultra-hikers line up at the Thompson Boat center in Georgetown for the Sierra Club’s annual One Day Hike from Washington, D.C., to Harper’s Ferry, W.Va., on the C&O Canal Towpath. The supported venture has six checkpoints with cut-off times for reaching and leaving each station, so while hikers are no competing against each other, they do have to beat the clock or be yanked off the trail. Although the event has been around for 33 years, the phenomenon of ultra hiking is starting to catch on. This month the Bald Eagle Mountain Megatransect is a hike endurance hike will take place in Lock haven, Pennsylvania (www.ultrahike.com.), and next May the Mountain Club of Maryland will host a one-day, 40-mile challenge to hike the entire portion of the Appalachian Trail in its home state (www.mcomd.org).
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What It Takes
Even for the most seasoned joggers and successful marathoners, running 100 miles can seem like universes away. So what does it take to cross the threshold into the world of ultimate ultras?
Bob Baska has completed eight 100-mile races including the Old Dominion Cross Country, Western States, and Wasatch Front in Utah. Professionally he has been a successful surgeon and now he just completed law school, so his busy life is obviously not one big training session.
“Running 100 miles is the ultimate mental challenge,” he says. “No matter how well I’ve trained, I stand at the starting line not know whether I am going to finish.”
His desire was fueled 20 years ago when he miserable ran a marathon with poor results. By the last few miles an ambulance was following him for support, because of his physical appearance. Soon after he started to train hard. Approaching a 100-mile race, his advice is to keep the mileage up around 70 to 100 miles a week, including one run of at least 30 miles. He also says to run twice a day a few times a week.
Another key tip is learning how to eat and run at the same time. The body will burn about 10,000 calories during a hundred miler, so runners have to constantly be replacing the calories to be able to finish. It also takes steady pace. Newcomers looking to finish at a successful time of around 24 hours will average 15-minute miles. Regular runners might want to start at their faster normal pace, which could lead to problems in the latter miles.
A lot of hundred-mile races, though, come down to social interaction. Actually getting through can be attributed to the people you meet and chat with along the way. A lot of runners especially like to partner-up at night.
“You link up with one or two people and become pretty good friends,” says Baska. “It’s easier that way. I like to look at these things as a big party.”
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Ride for Artie
Had enough of hard? The well-respected Blue Ridge Bicycle Club of Roanoke just might have a ride that won’t you leave you in total lactic acid agony. The 100-mile Artie Levin Century, which honors the late founder of the popular 300-plus member club (not to be confused with the North Carolina group of the same name based in Asheville), rolls through the gentle country roads around Buchanan and Lexington, Va.
“It’s the easiest, prettiest, most traffic-free mountain century you’ll ever ride,” says current club president Dan Casey.
Levin died 10 years ago at the age of 82 while he was lifting weights at Roanoke’s YMCA. For more than 30 years, the Atlantic City native was Roanoke’s “Mr. Fitness.”
A local legend in the valley, he starred in his own daily exercise show on local television, wrote a fitness column for The Roanoke Times, and well into his 70s was riding 150 miles per week and competing in East Coast triathlons. His oft-stated mission was “to help men, women and children to enjoy life to its most exciting potential instead of settling for mere existence.”
Since his death, the club has honored his legacy with the ride that acts as a fundraiser for health-related charities.
The 2006 Artie Levin Century rides take place on September 24 and include 45-, 70- and 100 options. For more info, visit www.brbcva.org/artie06.asp.
<em>by Paul Giordano</em>