This race was designed to be the second step in training & experience towards the UTMB100 in August. Rocky Raccoon was a good way to learn about running 100 miles but climbs totalled 5500 feet over the 100 miles, as opposed to UTMB which has 30,000. Old Dominion at 14,000 feet has a few monsters but enough rolling road to make them bearable. As the second oldest 100 miler in the States, set in beautiful Virginia countryside i'd expected a deeper field but there weren't that many of us. I flew into Washington and stayed a night with Frank, Chelsea and their horsedog Winston who tried to eat my bag. The next morning we got up, ate some hotdogs and scrambled eggs & Frank dropped me back to the car rental place at Washington.
The next day I drove out to Woodstock and checked in to the Holiday Inn then went to the Fairgrounds where the race started to register for the race. They weighed me in (if you lose or gain too much during the race they pull you out) and I loaded up 7 drop bags with packets of cheese and bread rolls. I put things like burgers and cheese in drop bags gels and energy bars taste like sh*t and I need the real food. I ended up talking at length with a guy called David Snipes who had run OD 4 times before and really knew his stuff. After the course briefing we drove out to the 3 mile to go checkpoint, at the bottom of Woodstock Mountain where you emerge back into civilisation after 97 miles of running and then back into the Fairgrounds so that we could double check the route, which although marked, regularly gets removed by vandals. I didn't want to go wrong at 97 miles so was grateful that we did it. After that I went to Pizza Hut and got involved and then went back to the hotel for some sleep.
Alarm went at 3:15 for the 4am start and put my stuff on and went down there. There weren't that many of us starting which I found suprising as the run is heralded as extremely good by all those who take part each year, plus it is the 2nd oldest 100 in the States, oldest on the East Coast & hence has some prestige. Talking to Ray the Race Director afterwards he blames a lack of finances for marketing and therefore word of mouth which inevitably leads to low numbers. I agree with him but I think what puts most people off is the course profile and cut off. 28 hours is tight for any 100 miler and with 14,000+ feet of climbing I think 28 hours alienates a lot of would be runners. Its not hard enough to go up against Hardrock/ Leadville or Massanutten on the East Coast but its also not flat enough to run fast times.
They had spray painted a pink line on the ground outside the main stable at the fairgrounds and we all lined up behind it in the dark, most without headlamps including me as i had stuck it in the drop bag to pick up at 75 miles. The gun went and some really odd music started coming out of someones car speakers, something you might hear at the end of an old Western and off we went. One circle of the fairground track and then out onto the roads. A police cruiser led us through the town to protect us from all the traffic and I quickly got into stride with David from the day before. The course went 3.1 miles before aid station 1, then more flat until we went over the huge Shenandoah River and to the bottom of Woodstock Mountain. I walked pretty much the whole climb up the 14 switchbacks and at the top the first signs of dawn were appearing 7.2 miles in. Down the otherside on a gravel path David pushed on ahead with a friend of his and I got into just running my 100 mile pace, steady roughly 10 minute miles. Aid Station 3 was Ray in his truck with some water and all until now had been on road/ gravel road so despite the climb & descent real easy pacing.
The pattern for the day was set in the next 4.5 miles however. The course markings disappeared off of the road left into a wood and straight up a long rocky ascent. Nice trail but totally unrunnable as a climb, then back down the other side on nice dropping wooded trail and back on the road to the next Checkpoint. The whole of Old Dominion is road, gravel road, road nothing too serious and then WHAM off you go out of nowhere on a massive off road trail climb and technical descent back to nice easy road again. It makes for interesting running but pretty hard to get any rhythm going. Nevertheless the course meandered down into Fort Valley and between 16 and 32 miles there were just rolling hills and road through farms and quiet Virginia Country. The only distraction were dogs in cages which went insane each time we ran by.
When I got to 32 I felt tired. It was hot probably 80ish and I knew it wasn't going to be an easy day. The next 15 miles were supposed to be hard back to the 47 mile aid station which was also the 32 mile station so a loop within a loop here. We climbed another long hill and trail then dropped down into what they called Duncan Hollow. Essentially it was just a shit up hill climb for about 5 miles on rocky trail that was totally flooded. I passed about 7 people on this stretch all trying to keep their feet dry as I went straight up the middle of the 'river' wading the whole way Im never bothered about getting wet feet it defies belief how long some people spend changing shoes and socks to keep dry feet your gonna get blisters anyway may as well just SUCK IT UP!!!!
Anyway back at 47 I started getting in trouble. Id been drinking loads until now in the oppresive heat but I didn't take on what I needed in the next 4 miles all uphill road into the 51 aid station called Mountain Top. When I got in there I was staggering about and when Ron and Andrew the two guys I ran a lot of this section with asked me a question the words just came out in totally the wrong order. As a result I knew I had to start consuming food and drink straight away or id be in big trouble shortly after. In the end after around 20 minutes of trying to recover the 6 miles down to Edinburgh Gap at 57 miles flew by I really started running strong.
I blew up my own race on the next 8 miles though. I left the aid station at 57 with Ron & head up onto the ATV Trail which was an absolute bitch. Serious sand climbs and descents around a water and wet sand soaked path and it was really hot. Flies everywhere and only one aid station with water (a guy in his truck) in the middle so I pushed on here and actually burnt up a lot of the energy reserves I had left. When I got into Little Fort at 64 I sat in the chair and some guys brought me a burger and some soup which was great but I knew it was slowly but surely all going a bit wrong. Another long climb and then some rolling road brought us into Mudhole Gap which was again full of so many flies I just got water and carried on. Mentally I was shaky on this section but the guy at the aid told me I was the last one on the course still on for sub 24 time, with 13 in front of me. That was good to hear.
I went on the 6 mile trail to Elizabeth Furnace Mile 75 and it was really nice trail running, smooth compacted but despite that I was all over the place. My mind was playing the old tricks you naturally suffer ie. You've got 30 miles left with the 2 monster climbs still to come and you're already totally cooked. You've been running 16 hours and you've definitely got 8 left minimum.
Still when I got to Elizabeth Furnace at 75 miles it was still light. Id been told that the next 8 miles up Sherman Gap and down were awful. I'd read a pre race report from a guy called Jay Finkle 5 time sub 24 hour finisher outlining that Sherman Gap was by far and a way the worst part of the course and that you should try to do as much of it in daylight as possible because its long and technical. Id known this all day and I think having this in the back of my mind had maybe caused me to push too hard earlier on when I knew I was tired.
Anyway in that Aid Station the Volunteers told me I could have a pacer. I said thanks but I didn't have a crew with me, but a 16 year old kid called Cole from the local school was there headtorch on, food in hand ready to go over the mountain with a runner. He offered to go with me and I was absolutely stunned. I said yeah sure that would be great but bear in mind there won't be any running involved until we get over the mountain as I was feeling pretty wrecked. He said cool and in hindsight I think he saved my race.
It took almost 3 hours to cover the next 8 miles up and over Sherman. The top was so steep I passed another runner literally panting and panicking because at 80 miles the massive climb had sent his Heart Rate through the roof. He recovered but I thought for a minute he was going to collapse which would have been a really bad idea up there. Talking to Cole took my mind of the run. We talked films, facebook, running all that American High School stuff that he was into and I knew by the end he'd end up running this race himself one day he was loving the pain!
When we got to the Aid Station at 83 i shook his hand and told him if I broke 24 id send him the buckle you get for beating the 1 day clock. I then caught up with Ron again and we climbed up and over the 2nd bastard climb called Veach Gap. Down the other side into Veach West at 87 wasn't as long as Sherman but again we were wading through the river and it was absolutley pitch black. I hadn't replaced my headtorch batteries (idiot) so i was tripping everywhere in the half light. At Veach I felt close to the edge. With 13 left I knew id be ok but i was absolutely gone. No energy left at all. The next 4 were back on open road and it was so dark the black top road looked like a magic carpet. I went delirious here imagining peoples mail boxes were animals and people and stuff but I kept moving forward until close to the 91 mile aid station. I was looking for anywhere to lie down at that point. I almost lay on the road I was so tired. I knew i was going to finish but that to break 24 hours id have to run most of the remaining 10 miles and that was looking very hard to do. Instead I hobbled into the 91 mile aid station and sat in the chair again. The guys there kind of went 'don't stop you're nearly there' and i couldn't be bothered to tell them 'look lads there's still 9 miles left and im not sure i can go 9 metres' but they could tell thats what I was thinking. I shut my eyes for a few seconds and then got annoyed with myself for being a pussy and stood up to move off. I sort of stumbled forward back onto the road but realised i wasn't going anywhere. In fact a car had come up the road & I had almost stepped out in front of it. The aid station captain was holding me by my collar to stop me walking into its path. When it went by he released me with a kind of 'off you go now' in the way you would talk to a 3 year old which I guess was about my mental age at that point.
From 91 there was a 2 mile climb to the top of Woodstock Mountain. The racebook mentions this point when you enter as follows:
'There are fancier ways to spend Saturday night in America. None better than to stake your claim at a spot on the top of Woodstock mountain, about seven miles from the finish. Some look like the survivors of a battle. They are the victors who have actually been in the arena.'
Ron and I had some coke at the 93 aid station and took absolutely ages descending the 14 switchbacks down to the bottom of the road we had run up in the morning because our quads were screaming at us. We tried to run little bits and then just hobbled a bit acknowledging that it just wasn't going to happen.
We got into the 97.36 aid station with 24 hours 30 on the clock and ran the last 2.7 miles in 27 minutes. The last lap round the fairground again we were picking up some good pace still. No ties allowed in this event so I let Ron cross first and then followed him in 24 hours 58 minutes and 34 seconds.
The finish was just a small banner and a man under a gazebo with a watch who signed us in. We said thanks and went on our way. All that running to be witnessed by only one person at the end of such a journey. Ron and I exchanged a quick hug and I grabbed the car and went back to the hotel.
Footnote: 1 of the runners Dan Brenden who has finished the Grand Slam and Last Great Race multiple times went wrong at 47 and ran 9 miles to another aid station before they told him what he'd done. Instead of dropping he turned around and ran the 9 miles back and then finished the rest of the 100 miles totalling 118 miles in 26 hours. I will remember than any time I make a mistake in course reading or add unnecessary distance to a race as the mental strength it must have taken not to quit at the point he realised he was going to have to have run an extra 18 to finish must have been absolutely enormous.