Monday, May 19, 2014

Pacing Thunder Rock

A few months ago, I got an email from Edie Riedel, asking if I would be interested in pacing/crewing her at the Thunder Rock 100 near Chattanooga, TN.  A very interesting proposition for me b/c rarely does a "flat-lander" from LA get to run on such mountainous terrain.  I was able to juggle around my vacation time at work, and within a few days I was on board.  I would be running in the Blue Ridge Mountains in a few short months.

I didn't really follow a specific training plan for this.  All I did was maintain my long runs of 20+ miles, usually twice per weekend, and maintained a few junk miles during the week, on the road.  Despite my "fly by the seat of my pants" training plan, I was feeling exceptionally strong on my training runs, and I capped off my training with a quadruple crossing (30 miles) of the Backbone Trail, with no problems.  I was confident I could pace Edie for 50 miles with minimal issues.

We traveled to Chattanooga on a Thursday, and marveled at the mountains as we got closer to Tennessee.  When you live in a state with a max elevation of around 500 feet, mountains become awe inspiring.  We went to the race briefing and met up with the rest of the Forge Racing crew who would be manning the Quinn Springs aid station at mile 83 of the race.  Edie was also part of a 3-person team that Forge would be sponsoring, to also include Ed Melancon and Brian Novak.  At the briefing we got all the details of what to expect from the trails, and some motivational speak from a few ultra runners.  On Friday (May 16) at noon, the race would begin.  Randy Aymond was the crew/driver, and I was the crew/pacer.

The race began on a long, wooden suspension bridge, overlooking a rocky river in Ducktown, TN.  Befittingly, right before the start of Thunder Rock, we were greeted with a "thunder storm".  It only lasted a few minutes, but there could not have been more perfect timing.  The weather was unseasonably cool; about 50 degrees, and overcast.

Randy, Edie, and Me
Once the runners were off, we set out to the Thunder Rock aid station at mile 5.5 to watch our runners pass.  We saw Ed and Brian come through.  As soon as Edie came into this aid station, it began to hail.  What crazy weather we were having.  Before we would see her pass again at the Reliance aid station at mile 25, it would hail once more and rain twice.  In between storms we were battling cold winds and then hot, sunny spells.  The weather was quite unpredictable all day.  Once Edie entered Reliance,  Randy and I headed to the Servilla crew point, which was the half-way point.  We had lots of time to kill, so we had lunch in the "cultural mecca" of Ducktown, saw a few sights and then found a parking spot at Servilla and dug in for a long night.  Randy had brought along an inflatable mattress, which I tried to get some sleep on before my pacing duties began.  I could not get comfortable, and slept very little.  Before I knew it, it was 1am and Edie was entering Servilla.

After a good systems check, we were off.  The course broke me in right away.  The first 5 miles from Servilla to the Iron Gap aid station was a jeep road with over 1,000 ft of climb.  It just kept going up forever.  We maintained a steady walk/run combination, keeping Edie's desired pace.  As we were on our way up the mountain, we crossed paths with Ed, who was already on his way down.  We spoke for a minute and parted ways.  We got a little downhill running on the way to Bullet Creek, which was one of the best aid stations out there.  They had everything you could imagine, and were super-excited to help all of the runners.

Shortly after we left Bullet Creek, Edie began to complain of stomach issues.  By the time we had reached Starr Mountain, Edie was very nauseous and cold.  I had packed a thermal blanket with me, and I wrapped it around her legs, as an aid station worker wrapped her in a heavy blanket.  She was freezing and shaking uncontrollably.  Then she looked at me and told me she didn't feel she could continue.  I knew those words did not come easily from her, so I knew she had to be in agony.  It was nearly 6am, and the sun was beginning to rise.  I tried to convince her to continue to the next aid station and then re-evaluate, but the next aid station was a long 9 miles away.  She felt if she'd continued, her stomach issues would force her to walk the entire way, which in reality would have made her miss the mandatory cut-off time.  So as we sat in the cold, wet, 40 degree morning, I prepared to call it a day.  Edie told the aid station worker checking in runners that she was dropping.  Our race was over.

Then Edie surprised me, when she asked me to keep running.  I immediately refused, telling her we were a package deal, and if her race was over, my race was over.  She told me that we had come a long way to run this course, and she really wanted me to continue, so that between the two of us, we could complete the length.  I was hesitant to leave her at such a vulnerable time, but she was insistent.  So, with a heavy heart, I gave her a hug and continued running.  My intent was to, at least, make it to the Forge aid station on the other side of the Hiawassee River.  That was the 83 mile point of the race.  I wasn't sure I could go any further than that, due to my lack of sleep.

I was still pretty fresh when I started out on my own, so I was running at a much faster pace than most of the runners I encountered.  They were at mile 70.  I was at mile 20, but they didn't know that.  They must have thought I was super-human to have so much energy that late in the race.  One thing that did concern me was that I was a pacer without a runner.  There was no way for the aid station crews to account for my whereabouts, and if I got lost, the only people who would even know I was missing would be Edie and Randy.  I was certain that if I was identified as a "bandit" I would be asked to leave the course.  So I got an idea to be a pacer for any runner I caught up to who didn't have one.  When I found a solo runner, I would check their condition, give them some much needed company, and then leap frog to the next runner.  When I got close to Iron Gap again I latched onto a runner, explained my situation, and asked if I could run him into the aid station.  He had no problem with that, so I brought him in, filled his hydration pack, and took care of any other needs he had.  Once we pulled out of Iron Gap, I bid him farewell and continued on.

My trip from Iron Gap to the Hiawassee River was another 8.5 miles, but it went much quicker.  I was now running down the mountain, and for the first time since I started running at mile 50, I was actually running on trails, not jeep roads.  The trails were soft and wide, with just enough downward angle to let me fly.  I made up quite a bit of time, and at some points I had to moderate myself, so I wouldn't run out of gas later.

I reached the Hiawassee River aid station around 9:30am.  I had no runner to latch onto this time, so I would just have to see what they would say.  They, of course, asked for my number, which I explained I did not have.  They were cool with it, and treated me like any other runner, allowing me to graze off of their aid station.  I got to the river crossing which consisted of a rope and pulley system to assist the runners crossing.  A long cable extended over the river, with several ropes hanging from it.  All I had to do was grab on to a rope and walk across.  The water was waist deep and very cold.  It definitely woke me up from my fatigued state.  The water was also very clear, and I could easily see my feet as I stepped over the rock-littered riverbed.  After I made the crossing, there was another smaller river crossing, which I was not expecting.  It had a rope system too, but since it was only knee-deep, the ropes weren't necessary. 

River Crossing #1
River Crossing #2

After crossing both rivers, I reached Quinn aid station, which was manned by Jeff Beck and the Forge crew.  They had an awesome aid station, with lots of food, music, and most importantly, familiar faces.  It was a real boost to see people I knew.  Randy and Edie had also made it there, and I was happy to see she was doing better.  Edie said it was 10 miles to the McCamy aid station, which was mile 93 of the race, and the final aid station before the finish.  She said if I wanted to continue, they could pick me up there.  It didn't take much convincing at that point.  I had already told Edie before she had dropped, that there was two things I was looking forward to on this course, 1) crossing the Hiawassee River, and 2) making the climb up Oswald Dome.  I made few adjustments, grabbed my trekking poles and was off.

Oswald Dome was a 2,200 ft climb over 4 miles.  It was full of constant, climbing trails that wound around the mountain, 45 degree switch-backs, and narrow single track that in some places could send a tired runner tumbling several hundred feet, if they stepped just a few inches too far off the trail.  I quickly learned the value of my trekking poles, and I was thankful I had brought them along.  They made it much easier to navigate the constant steep climbs, and gave me extra stability on the narrow trails.  There were very few places that were flat enough to run on this portion.  It was slow going, and it took me 1 hour, 30 minutes to make the 4.3 mile climb (Elevation 3,100 ft).  It was exhausting!!!!  When I reached the Oswald Dome aid station, I was greeted by some very enthusiastic volunteers who had full body costumes, one was a rabbit, one a monkey, and one a mouse.  I, again, had to go through my explanation as to where my runner was.  Once they verified my story, they were fine with it.  One of the workers said it was a little over 5 miles to the McCamy aid station, and it was all downhill from there.  Welcomed words to my ears, so I didn't waste any time.

As I started down Oswald Dome, the trails were behind me, and I was back on jeep roads.  I didn't intend to keep using my trekking poles, but I found they were quite helpful going down the mountain, and I quickly developed a rythym that allowed me to run and use the poles at the same time.  The trek to McCamy wasn't all downhill.  There were still several climbs to be made, and I thought about how I was duped by the aid station volunteer that told me it was all downhill.  Maybe in a car, but not on foot.  It took me 1 hour, 15 minutes to cover 5.6 miles down a mountain that it took me an 1 hour, 30 minutes to climb.  I saw Randy's truck at McCamy, and jumped in.  The day was over.

Although, this race certainly didn't turn out as we had intended, I still felt a great satisfaction of being able to run the remainder of the course.  Although I was very hesitant to continue on without Edie, I was glad she convinced me otherwise.  I was able to really challenge myself, and it made me realize how far my skills as an ultra-runner had progressed.  I ended up logging 44.4 miles that day.  My energy level, body and stomach all felt good, and I felt as if I could have easily gone further.  Ed and Brian both finished the race.  Ed, in a very impressive 22:21:19, and Brian, in 27:31:20.  Both should be proud for conquering such a tough course.  According to Edie and most other runners, the most tecnical, and scenic, portions of this race were in the first 30 miles.  I would have liked to have experienced those portions too, so I guess there will be a Thunder Rock 100 in my future as well.  I will allow a few years to go by to allow them to work out a few kinks that popped up during the inaugural race, before I plan a return. 

Thanks to Edie for inviting me on this journey.  It was an honor.  Thanks to Randy for crewing, driving, navigating, and everything else.  Thanks to Jeff, and Forge, for putting together a great team and aid station.  It was a great weekend, and one I will not soon forget.

Run on friends!!!!!!!!!!


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