Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Balled Eagle Fatt Ass 100, well... 50

                    While walking up the hill on the way towards the Kennedy Peak Observation Tower, we are 
                    about to pass in front of two weathered strangers sitting on the side of the trail in front of a small fire. 
                    They are wearing a patchwork of hunting gear and flannel. 

                    Sniper asks in his friendly Virginian banter "Is lunch almost ready?" 
                    The chilling response: "Looks like it's walking up the hill right now."

How this race came to be and the ties between us (The short, short version)
All of us are friends and have paced, ran races together or crewed one another. Each of us had at least one medium to hard 100 under the belt. Sniper had run hundreds of ultras, thirty nine 100's and is our official ultrarunning mentor.

Zoe (crew), Jim (runner), Seth (crew), David/Sniper (Race Director and runner), Dave (runner), Mike (runner)

In October 2011, at the brunch following Grindstone, I was talking with Sniper and shared the recent news that my wife and I are expecting our first in April. We talked about how I wanted to run one more 100 before my life changed forever. Sniper offered to accompany me so he could help me solve an eating problem where I stop taking in solid foods in the latter half of 100's. This sounded like a great idea but in my mind I thought we would choose one of the established races with volunteers with walkie talkies, course markings, etc. but this was not to be. I did not know but the wheels had started churning and the newly crowned Race Director, Sniper, had begun to formulate a plan to craft The most demonic, badass race east of the Rockies. And this is our story.

Relevant Details Leading up to the Start
I live in NJ and Sniper in VA and so we talked and texted about this race many times during the planning stage. One ground rule David established early on was that we would move as a group and no one would be left behind. The course itself was kept completely secret from the runners so that there was no chance the Forest Service would hear about it through the ultra forums. And since we did not see a map until the night before the race and there was no elevation profile, much of our mental preparation had been clouded. Only Sniper truly knew what awaited us! The anxiety was only heightened with exchanges ahead of the race including the following:

                              David sent me a text and said the first question on the post-race survey will be "Are we still friends?" 
                              I laughed and then he said "No really."

Considering that I have all black running gear and it was hunting season,
it was a good thing we stopped at Cabella's in PA.
I was thinking about my baby girl on the way down to VA
and how I couldn't afford to take a head shot. 
Then we painted Jim's car so we would blend in with the locals.
The leaves had turned two months ago and the trees were barren.  The drive down on Friday was overcast and's prediction for Saturday was a high of 47 and low 28 with a 30% possibility of snow showers developing later during the night. Sniper called to say the number of runners had dropped from 9 to 5. As we drove towards Virginia I remember looking out through the front windshield and thinking the landscape looked nothing but cold.

Given to us at our last meal

The night before

We suspect that Sniper is a major stockholder at The Dollar Tree because most of his stories, experience and guidance about life will somehow reference this store. Anyway, he picked up all of our supplies from there which made this an affordable and very well stocked race. He continuously went above and beyond the call for a Fatt Ass race including giving us each a huge thing of SWAG in a beer mug. At 10:30PM we finally settled in at the hotel for a few hours of restless sleep with a 3:30AM wake up call.

Mile 0 to 7, Signal Knob to Aid Station #1 at the Veach Gap Parking Lot
We met the first group of volunteers in the parking lot of Signal Knob at 5AM. There were no less than 5 people volunteering for the first shift and again this shows you how much effort and coordination Sniper put into this race. We were immensely grateful to the volunteers for trading off their sleep with support for this race.

Sniper welcomed us all to the inaugural Balled Eagle and named the race. Unfortunately the explanation for the name can only be shared with runners and volunteers and I felt compelled to share this so that readers understand the name of the race is spelled correctly.

I stepped out of the car and put the rest of my gear on. Then while we stood around in the cold waiting for others I second guessed my layers and added an extra shirt. Of course the extra shirt came right back off in the first few miles so that is a reminder to trust your experience!

We started climbing Sherman Gap Trail towards Little Crease Mountain along with our first pacer, Adam, who was sticking with us for the first 30 miles. The sky was still pitch black as we wove up and down the mountainside using headlamps for illumination. All of us were feeling pretty great with the exception of Mike who had been nauseous for the entire ride down yesterday. He could not tell if it was motion sickness or if he was sick but since the feeling did not fade in the past 8 hours we were leaning towards a bug.

Mike, Dave, Yours Truly in my Tron Jacket, Jim, Adam (pacer and crew)

We went over a few stream crossings and one or two of them were pretty tricky. As we summited our first mountain Mike was looking very pale and this was worrisome. It was around 30 degrees F but we could see he was sweating heavily and rivulets of water were coming down his face. Honestly it did not look like he was going to make it farther than the first Aid Station.

As we started cruising down the mountain for a long, pleasant descent we could see the sun starting to rise on the horizon. The sky was changing colors from black into deep hues of blue which is one of my favorite moments during this sport. While we were crossing a stream on wet rocks, Dave slipped and dunked his foot in some icy mountain water.

Sniper on a stream crossing

The sun was now climbing and we had arrived at the first aid station to a smorgasbord of food. I gorged on anything and everything knowing that later in the race my stomach would reject all solid food. As I write my blog I still feel remember how the spice cake with white frosting was so very delicious. I tore into that as well as a couple of ham and cheese quarter sandwiches! The volunteers Sniper recruited were top notch: positive and wanting to help out as much as possible.

Mile 7 to 12, Veach Gap to Aid Station #2 at Milford Gap Road
Fortunately Mike's color was returning and so he decided he would go back out and then take one leg at a time. We headed back up the mountainside and onto the Massanutten Trail which is along a ridge. We were all pretty energetic so there was a lot of banter and catching up with old friends. The scenery was impressive and the trails were pretty fun although a good number of them were coated with several inches of leaves which can hide ankle twisting rocks.

This is the much improved Mike

Sniper started regaling us with history lessons about Front Royal including a few about one Captain Daniel Morgan (1736-1802). Captain Daniel apparently punched his superior officer for which he received 499 lashes. Usually this was fatal but he lived only to be shot a little later on in life which he also happened to have survived. Curious about this, on I read that he was "seriously wounded by a bullet that hit the back of his neck, knocked out all his teeth in his left jaw and exited his cheek." After the 499 lashings and the bullet he then went on to build a road near Front Royal that is still in use.

Waiting on another part of the ridge were two of the volunteers, Carter and Brian, and they paced us for a few miles as we headed towards AS #2. Mike was looking significantly better and Carter had a theory about what could be happening to his bug. As she pointed out after the race this comes from "a lot of disparate sources". I think the theory is pretty cool and I like the logic:

When athletes are working out at a high-intensity threshold, intense prolonged exercise causes a slight depression in immunity. However in moderate and lower-intensity exercise, there is serological data (blood serum and other bodily fluids) that demonstrate that the immune system is temporarily boosted. The pace Mike was exercising at probably boosted his metabolic activity which included his immune system. His core body temperature was also higher which created the same effect as having an induced fever. The body’s responses then increased the body’s ability to attack and neutralize the pathogens. This created a hostile environment for the bug which prevented it from flourishing. Mike’s immune system and the natural inflammatory response caused by the exercise attacked and flushed the bug from his system faster than normal which explains why he was ok when he stopped exercising.

Mile 12 to 27.5, Milford Gap Road to Aid Station #3 at Camp Roosevelt
It was time for more spice cake! Again I stuffed myself with as many calories as possible while my stomach was still taking in food and I picked up a packet of Shot Bloks for later. We climbed back up to the ridge and Dave sent an email Seth saying “Where the hell are you? Bring a suitcase full of unmarked bills to Aid Station #3. We’ll see you in two hours.”

Along the ridge line we had some excellent views. We had not seen Seth and Zoe yet so whenever we found a break in the tree line Jim would go out to the ledge, and to our amusement, would start calling out "Seth" across the Massanutten Valley 2000 feet below. At one point we climbed to the Kennedy Peak observation tower where we stood under the overcast sky in the cold and wind. There was a single ray of sunlight radiating down on part of the valley and Dave pointed out the ray of light had definitely been avoiding us all morning.

I heart technical terrain

This was a very long and enduring leg that dealt a solid blow to our energy. Also we began a trail maintenance program that continued for the next 20 miles. Why? Because a 100 miles is not hard enough and so it is good to also lift trees.

When we made the descent to Aid Station #3, it was very steep and also technical. Jim’s IT band took a beating and I stayed with him until we finally made it into the aid station.

Steep descent
Still no Seth and Zoe so this time we were getting a little concerned since it was now early in the afternoon and we thought worse case they overslept and had brunch. Adam departed so he could meet his girlfriend for dinner but they would return to crew us for the entire next day. On the menu now were some delicious perogies and ramen soup. The sky was so overcast and gray that it felt like it was the end of the afternoon. We headed out on the next leg onto some nice single track that looped around the mountain side and was really enjoyable.

Mile 27.5 - 33.5, Camp Roosevelt to Aid Station #4 at Gap Creek
We had a pretty good run here for awhile and continued our practice of trail maintenance. Dave attempted to skirt around a tree that was only partly on the trail and Sniper caught it! After that we picked up every twig, branch and redwood.

Later as we were running up a hill Sniper snapped his fist up in the military signal to hold. We bunched up and peered towards the top of the hill where there was a problem circling on the trail aimlessly. We hoped he would move into the woods so we could sneak by but then he spotted us. It was a little unreal to be charged by a skunk but nonetheless that is what happened. We were flanked on both sides by an embankment and some trees. Five grown humans scattered back down the trail. The skunk bound down the hill and then chased three of us up the embankment. As we ran by him up the hill he pursued! Getting tired of running uphill he then did an about face. Now he set his sights on Mike and Jim who had gone farther down the trail in the direction we had come from. Mike used his best running back moves to fake right and dodge left. It was remarkable but again the skunk turned around to follow Mike uphill! At this point I was sure Jim was doomed and was going to get sprayed. Cornered, alone, he was desperate but quick in thought. He picked up a rock, charged the skunk, tossed the rock ahead and to one side for distraction and then ran past. Somehow we made it out and smelled no worse than what 12 hours of running will do to you.

Mile 33.5 - 39, Gap Creek to Aid Station #5 at Crisman Hollow Road
Seth and Zoe were finally there when we arrived. Turns out there was a bit of a miscommunication and they said they would show up for Shift 2 rather than at AS 2. But then they had gotten lost and for the rest of the day could not time their arrival with the roving crew at the aid stations.
Sniper, Jim and I
I tell you this next bit because my choice led to more complications that ultimately had an impact to the outcome of the race. I was still wearing shorts at this time but my body felt pretty warm when I arrived. Choose-Your-Own-Adventure choices included:
(1) add pants, risk overheating and then sweating. Body heat could then be lost 25x faster from the wind wicking it away.
(2) eat while we were around food, then try to get moving again and warm back up.
I went for the #2, food but asked Seth if he could find my pants in my drop bag so I could put them on at the next Aid Station. It seemed like the right thing to do at the time.

Zoe looking cold
Stew and perogies
The distance to the next aid station was only six miles but I overhead Sniper’s exchange with Janice (one of the volunteers and chef extraordinaire) and it went something like this
                    “How long till we see you? Maybe one or one and a half hours?”
                    Sniper’s reply “Well you know what’s coming at the end so probably two.”

The sun started to go down and we grabbed our headlamps. Seth was giving out handwarmers as we were leaving which turned out to be a great call because the temperature dropped quickly! We started back up the hill along with two new pacers, Doug and Mike.

While on the trail, Sniper called a pitt stop and we snacked. He told us very little about the end of this leg except we knew we were approaching Waterfall Mountain and there was no water... We kept on cruising through the woods and as the sun set the headlamps flicked on a few at a time. When we finally reached the base of the waterfall, it turned out to be one hell of a vertical climb: one thousand feet in a half a mile. I stopped at the base to text my family but by the time I was done the group had moved out of sight. I hurried up the hill to catch up with them but I was breathing pretty hard and never really recovered until well after we reached the top. By now I had a new situation to deal with in that the batteries for my headlamp were fading fast and I was losing sight. Thankfully, from the top we were only a mile from the next aid station and Jim dropped back so that I could safely maneuver through the rocks on the trail.

Mile 39 - 44.5, Crisman Hollow Road to Aid Station #6 at Moreland Gap
Before the race I sent out a suggestion to the runners to bring your warmest winter coat to wear while refueling at the aid stations. Each time we arrived, the volunteers had kindly set all of our coats out on chairs. We zipped up like the NFL players waiting on the sidelines but not everyone had brought a coat. They were loosing body heat fast while waiting for everyone to slowly refuel, change gear and regroup.

In my mind this aid station is really where the mayhem began. I was exhausted from hurrying up the waterfall route and then trying to keep close to Jim with a faded headlamp. When I arrived I was having a hard time keeping my head on straight so I could talk to Seth and another volunteer that were helping me to:

  • Fill my hydration pack with water and Nuun
  • Find my spare headlamp so they could put it on and see my faded headlamp and then change out the batteries
  • Help me find layers, eat food and drink  
  • Also my Garmin 310 had been on for 15 hours in the cold and the battery was about dead. I had a portable USB charger in my bag so we could re-charge the watch midway and have the entire run recorded on one set of data. 
This is where the choice not to put on pants comes in because by the time we sorted through all of the bullets above, pulling off my mud caked shoes to put pants on seemed to be too much of a hassle and I was short on time.  I tried to eat a grilled cheese but the stomach was now revolting against solid foods. I pounded a smoothie instead that I had pre-made at home using fresh fruit and ground up caffeine pills. The smoothie was turning to slush even though it was kept in Seth's car and what this was effectively doing was flushing out heat from my body's core. Don't be stupid! David Horton's message from the Grindstone race briefing echoes in my head as I type this.

We entered the woods and it took a good ten minutes of running to return my body temperature to comfortable. To compound it all the temperatures dropped into the low 30’s and we were heading onto Kern’s Mountain which is one of the more technical parts of the course. Yes, going back to my earlier statement this is where the mayhem had definitely begun.

During this section David must have been doing some calculations in his head because he asked me what time we absolutely had to leave for home by. Mike and I had to be back on Monday so I backed up the time to get home and said 5pm would be ideal. (We were on track for a 36 hour finish best case so that was 5:30pm) Also we could not see our mileage on the watch because while the Garmin 310 is charging the face information is not visible. The chord to the watch also made it more difficult to eat and my laziness to not reach into my pack and have a snack was another mistake of mine.

We averaged 2 mph on Kern's Mountain because of the leaves, rocks, darkness and overall tough conditions.  Dave remarked about a section and Sniper replied "Do I hear a Patty?". Dave replied "No. I am not complaining that we are going 40 feet down to climb right back up 40 feet." Mike's ankle started bothering him on this section probably because it was overstressed on the steep, technical descents. We never knew if under the leaves were those ankle twising rocks so on the descents we slowed ourselves by going from rock to rock. This was much harder on all of our bodies. At one point on one of the ridges we could see two lights on the mountain across from us and it looked like they were coming towards us. After an hour we realized that they had not moved and that it was probably someone's house. The Garmin watch battery finally reached 100% and I took off the charger to learn, sadly, that we had only gone 45 miles.

Slower progress at night

Mile 45.5 - 51.5,  Moreland Gap tAid Station #7 at Edinburg Gap One
When I write my reports I do a memory release over the next few days after the event. It makes it much easier to recall detail and let's me publish reports much later than the event. As I look back my notes for this section though were brief. I wrote down simply "shortcut and disaster".

We made it to the Aid Station and I was still only able to drink fluids. I chugged another smoothie but it was again slush. I started shivering despite my down jacket and so Sniper suggested I take off with Dave and they would catch up. This next section was originally planned to be Short Mountain and after Sniper's earlier conversation about what time we could run until on Sunday night, he made an Executive decision and diverted us onto a road to the next Aid Station. Instead of 8 miles in 3.5 hours this cut us back to 6 miles in 2 hours.We were desperate for making up time and we hightailed it on the road. We were all so happy to finally be moving and we had the space to run next to one another and talk. It was refreshing and gave us all a mental boost.

Short Mountain in Daylight. Photo by Aaron Schwartzbard

Mile 51.5,  Aid Station #7 at Edinburg Gap One
When we cruised into the next AS we were hot and sweating and then we suddenly stopped moving and started to refuel. We were offered chili, chicken noodle soup and coffee but the liquids were very hot and while it was cooling we were also cooling rapidly. While I was sitting in a chair finally putting on my pants I started shaking. Then the shakes came in waves and grew a little uncontrollable. The volunteers working there were all experienced 100 milers and thought it best to put Mike and I into their van to warm up. They cranked up the heat and Mike warmed up but I kept on shaking. Without the solid calories my body lacked the energy to keep warm. It was now 27 degrees and in a postmortem discussion about the race with an MD, I learned that my body had progressed too far into mild hypothermia and that by placing me into a warm atmosphere it determined that it was ok to now shut down. The volunteers were bringing hot food and drink to the van but at this point I was in bad shape.

The volunteers suggested that I skip a leg, take in some calories, get myself right and then rejoin the group. My mind starting running through all of the choices and scenarios. Eventually I concluded that I would have to let down all of the volunteers and Sniper. This though was smarter than being out on the side of the mountain in below freezing temperatures and possibly encounter a problem. I would take my DNF, take a 2-3 hour break, get some food in, change into warm clothes and then rejoin my friends after one leg if I was ok. Stricken, I agreed I would stop.

I guess the volunteer told Sniper because in a few minutes the van doors opened and it was loaded with Dave, Jim and Mike for a group discussion. Sniper said he was happy to call it. This was incredibly tough for me to hear because my intention of pulling myself out was not to deep-six the race. The rest of the group could continue and get the whole race in! I did not want to ruin this for everyone. David reassured me that my friends were in equally bad shape. (With the exception of Dave and Sniper who could have easily finished the race) Another serious considerations was that it was currently 27 degrees, 10:30PM and the temperatures were only going to drop until 8AM the next morning. The reality was that it had taken us 17.5 hours to go 52 miles, we had only recently started night running which is much slower than the progress we made during the day,. The last half of a race is always slower than the first and the second half of this 100 was harder than the first with an absolutely brutal ending planned. We were approaching a 40-hour finish time. As Race Director it was Sniper's decision and he tried to reassure us that would not be a DNF since it was a Fatt Ass race and you do as much as you want to. (I still count this as my first DNF since the race was set out as a 100). Sniper did make one final crucial point in that this race was about having fun and not about getting anyone hurt. We had had a good long day together and there was no need to risk anything further. Looking around at the carnage, David made the call.

We went back to the hotel for a hot shower, change of clothes and a little sleep. The next morning it was bittersweet receiving the buckle from Sniper. I am half proud for the immense level of energy and difficulty it took to get through those first 52 miles. But it is also a sad reminder that we could not complete the whole race.

My friends reassured me that eventually we would have been doomed (Jim told Mike on the road he was not sure he could finish. And Mike said in the van he knew was not going to finish but he just did not know which AS he was going to drop at). But we cannot go back to that moment and redo the alternate paths so we will never know what would have happened.

A sad ending yes, but up until the moment we had to stop, we had a really great time. And that was still one hell of an adventure.

Movie with my Flip camera of the skunk attack: