The Ring, 2010
I’m still a noob at this ultra-running gig and so from time to time I wonder, “will there ever be a day when, after finishing a big event I think, ‘wow, I didn’t learn anything new out there today. Maybe I’ve arrived?’” And then I have an experience like I had last week at The Ring and the trail answers back to me, “silly kid, maybe someday but today is not that day.”
For the non-ultra geeks who read this, The Ring is a 71 mile race which follows the orange-blazed circuit of the Massanutten Trail in George Washington National Forest in the beautiful state of Virginia. Back in June, after finishing the Laurel Highlands Ultra, I fell into an email dialog with Jim H (aka Slim) and Bob C (aka Gombobu) of the NEO Trail Runners about the most appropriate late-summer ultra for me given my other goals for the year. The Oil Creek 100 is my A-race for the fall and I wanted a challenging, low-key event that would build my fitness, my skill-set and not completely waste me. The Ring fit the bill and would get me some trail time on what are arguable some of the toughest, gnarlest trails in the east and on the MMT100 course, which I hope to run in the spring. And so, after consulting the gurus, I settled on The Ring.
The weekend started wonderfully. I met Slim and Kim O (aka Kimba) on the turnpike and followed them down to Bird Knob, which is south of The Ring course. This section of trail is on the MMT100 course and we did a 8ish mile recon-run to shake our road weary legs out. After our run we hustled back to Front Royal to meet the cast of characters from the VHTRC (Virginia Happy Trails Running Club) for dinner. I was really looking forward to hanging out with these people. I’ve read a ton about them and wanted to hear them swap yarns which are trail running lore. Friday night I didn’t get to bed until around 2:00AM, we were having so much fun. After a few hours sleep, I woke to the smell of waffles and sausage. We ate, got ready and scurried out the door to get to the trail head for the start at 7:00.
My goals for this run were very simple: 1) don’t get hurt or run too hard and waste my legs, 2) see as much of the course as possible and 3) experiment with gear and diet. I actually didn’t have it in my mind that I had to finish. Low key, fun-run events are the laboratory of the ultra runner and offer a controlled environment to see what works and what doesn’t. If I did complete the whole course, I knew I would spend more time on my feet than I ever had before at a sustainable pace. This would be good training for the OC100 in October.
Early in the run I fell into a rhythm, power walking often, keeping my heart rate in the mid-130s and listening to pleasant conversations between other runners. Somewhere between the start and the 10 mile mark, Slim and I hooked up and moved ahead of the group we were running with. Slim knew the course very well and I had every intention of sticking with him as long as I could. We cruised along the most technical, rocky, craggy trail I’ve ever been on. There really aren’t words to describe the course. Pictures don’t do it justice. But we were not going too fast and so I was content to cruise along with Slim and talk about everything we could think of.
As we approached the first aid-station at mile 25, we came up on Kennedy Peak. The summit trail is a short spur off the main race course. Slim asked if I wanted to detour and top the peak for some bonus mileage. The peak has an observation tower on top and we went to the top and snagged a picture which I sent to my wife with the message, “what a view!” We got off the peak, hit the first aid station and proceeded back onto the course.
Slim and I kept working together along the course which follows ridgelines, drops into saddlebacks and gaps and returns back to the ridge. At some points you are literally standing on a rock on the ridge and can see the western horizon and West Virginia on your right and the eastern horizon and the Shenandoah’s on your left. It is so cool…beyond words!
As we worked through what is considered one of the more difficult assent and traverse, Kerns Mountain, Slim and I took turns leading. We were now approaching the half-way point in the race. As we dropped into the aid station at Moreland Gap, we found out all the runners ahead of us, had dropped out of the race and were in first place. Wow, that’s unexpected! I had thought that if I completed the loop in 22 hours I’d be very happy. And now here we are on pace for a sub 20 hour finish and we’re leading! We left the aid station and started up the long rocky climb on Short Mountain. All day I had felt very good but as we got onto the ridge my stomach started to revolt. A recalcitrant GI is one of the most feared ultra-ailments. I don’t often suffer issues in this department, yet here I was. I wasn’t nauseous or sick. My stomach simply refused to empty and was distended and hurting. This is a problem in an ultra. If you stomach is full and won’t empty, you can’t cram any more water or calories in. Eventually something gives way, and usually its a wrong way trip for the contents of your stomach. I kicked myself for not watching my electrolytes better thought out the day and figured that was the issue. Lesson 1: take the electrolyte tabs regardless of how you feel early in the race.
I suffered pretty good though this section and really couldn’t enjoy Dan P’s corn chowder at Edinbugh Gap aid station. Dan and his family are renowned for making the BEST corn chowder on the planet. On top of my stomach issues I was having vision issues: either because of my electrolyte imbalance or because of the dust in the air from the dry trail, my vision was very cloudy. I changed my contacts, which were visibly gritty and that helped for a while. Lesson 2: no contacts in races over 12 hours. I downed a Red Bull and hit the next section of trail. My stomach began to protest less, though I didn’t put much else in other than water at this point.
Slim and I began making good time through these sections and somewhere along the line realized that we had a crack at sub-19 hour finish. We flew through these sections of trail feeling great and running a lot, which was a major goal of mine. I wanted to be running late in this race. That would indicate I had held back my effort sufficiently in the early part of the run and that my training for OC was progressing. I wanted to have a lot left in the tank at the end of this run.
As we came into the final aid station I began to prepare myself for a very long final climb. The last section of the course starts on gravel access road to the top of Signal Knob. It’s a steady 5 miles up hill. Once you crest the summit is flat for a bit and then 5 miles downhill on very technical trail with lots of rocks. The descent’s location in the course (the end) coupled with the time of day (about mid-night) and the rockiness have earned it much distain by runners over the years. As we crested the hill, Slim and I did the math: we had to cover the five miles at about the fastest pace we’d run all day to finish under 19 hours. So, what do you do? Ease up, walk it in and play it safe? Of course, we do none of this. We CAREEN down the slope yo-yoing off one another, sighting trail blazes with one eye, spotting a place for your next step with the other and stealing a glance at the watch whenever you can. We are flying down this section and Slim is hooting and hollering as we go. I attempt a feeble yea-ha and blast out of the rocks onto smooth trail.
We rounded a sharp left on the trail and Slim shouts, “we’re almost there!!” and boom: we pop out in the parking lot. 18hrs 44mins!! But wait, where’s Q? He’s the race director and has to be there when we finish to record our time. He’s not in the parking lot, I think we beat him here! We scramble from car to car looking for him in the lot. We wake up some other runner’s spousal-unit in the process and beg him to write down the time from his car clock and sign the paper as witness to our finishing time. As we’re changing clothes, Q pulls in and records the time.
What a feeling! What a trail! What a run! I was on top of the world in my mind (though I’m sure I looked like a wreck)
And I wish so much that was the end of my story…but sadly, its not. The trail had one more lesson to teach me…
After the run, Slim and I made our way to the Portabello, which is the VHTRC crash-pad to shower and rest. I slept for a few hours and then got up to drive the 4+ hours home. Amy and I had a wedding to attend Sunday evening and after another nap when I got home and a lot of caffeine at the wedding, my numb feet actually helped me to dance.
Monday morning I slept in and then got up for a 7 mile run/walk to shake the kinks out. I felt great. I got home from my workout to a voicemail from Slim which sounded very grave. I called him back and sat down, bracing myself to hear some really bad news about a fellow runner who was hurt on the trail. Slim was beside himself but no one was hurt and I breathed a sigh of relief. It turned out that on our climb up to Signal Knob we had strayed off course and followed the road and not a short section of trail which runs parallel to the road for a short bit. The little trail is inconsequential in distance, is parallel to the road and doesn’t add anything to the course. If point of fact we ran more than the race distance if we included the summit spur to Kennedy Peak. But, the race course follows the trail for a portion of the accent up Signal Knob and not the road and we didn’t follow the trail. We were disqualified from the race and Slim blamed himself for the missed turn. Slim and I had effectively grounded our club in the sand bunker and in the process DQ’ed ourselves from the race.
As Slim finished this story I knew immediately the lesson to be learnt. I assured him that he could not take blame for leading us off course. One of first principals of ultra-running is self-responsibility. Certainly, as runners we are not and can not claim self-reliance: we’re aided by the greatest, most selfless volunteers, who give us all the food, water and encouragement we need to finish our epic runs. But in the end, you have to take care of yourself and follow the course and any rules the race mandates. I did not know the course. During the day but especially late in the race, I had let myself rely too much on Jim to guide me along the trail. That responsibility was not his to bear and I was wrong to let him feel burdened by it. And so Lesson #3: know the course and stay the course…or it can cost you.
So I’m left here pondering what all this means. The path of your emotions before, during and after an ultra often looks like the elevation profile of the trails we follow: you’re up, you’re down, you laugh, you want to cry, you’re rowdy and crazy and you’re frustrated and stymied. In the end, you get to peer deeper into yourself and your inner being and you’re often surprised at what you find.
Why do we do this? Run 71 miles through all that it requires. Complete the distance to be disqualified for a breach of the rules And now, after all that, in the back of my mind I know this: I have to go back to The Ring. I have to do it all again. Maybe not next year but some Labor Day in the near future, I have to go back, and toe that line. I have to see again if I have what it takes and dance on those rocks again. I’ll be back and I will remove the albatross from my neck and finish the run on the course…someday.