Tuesday, August 24, 2010

2010 Laurel Valley Ultra 35 Mile Run

The Laurel Valley Ultra 35 Mile is a true adventure run. There are more than 5,000 widely spaced wooded steps built in to many of the uphills, never ending long, false-summit climbs, lush vegetation, big creeks, whitewater rivers, waterfalls, dramatic drop offs, boulder scrambles, swinging bridges, wildlife, and all around incredible scenery.

As you follow the white blazes you have no idea of pace or distance covered as there are very few signs marking this segment of the trail, and a Garmin is practically useless under the thick forest canopy and deep valleys. In fact, the "unknown" distance of the race is part of the allure*.

And the finish...? A ridiculous climb to a really cool, big-ass waterfall view. Hell, YEAH!

In addition, this is a point to point race with no aid provided. Runners must provide their own shuttles and carry any food/ fluid and water treatment needed. Because of the remoteness of the course, RD Claude Sinclair requires that a runner first serve as a sweep before being allowed to race the following year. This ensures that all runners are experienced with the course, and also provides a safety mechanism for runners that become sick or injured on the trail.

This year, I signed up to be a sweep so as to ensure my entry in to the 2011 race. The sweep team was headed up by Will Brown and consisted of Abi Meadows, Dave Pryor, Caroline Williams, Jim Kelleher, Leonard Martin, Stephen Morris, and myself.

We sweeps ended up having a long day - 15 hours on the trail. John Dove, this years winner, came into the finish just under 7 hours. That's a long time to wait for the last finisher, and a long time to spend on the trail.

Here's how race day unfolded:

Leopold and I had spent the night at our friend Dave Pryor's house on Friday night, since he lives just 45 minutes or so from the start of the race. We met up with Charles at the start of the race, and he and Leopold saw us off at 5:00 am. They hung around for the "real" start, then they hiked up to Table Rock. Eventually, they both hiked in from the Laurel Valley finish and met us on the trail at about mile 28. A long day for them, to be sure.

That morning as we left Dave's house and approached Rocky Bottom, SC, it began to rain and I couldn't help but think how strange it was to be back on this trail after my 29-hour adventure just 3 weeks before.

As we drove up the familiar gravel road to the Laurel Valley entrance, it brought back memories of Jason, Charles, and I finishing the Table Rock to Laurel Valley Entrance section of "FHT 77 2010". We had watched the sun rise on Pinnacle Mountain, and had been in high spirits as we walked up this very road to Scott's Aid Station of Awesomeness**.

As we pulled in to the familiar parking lot next to Charles and began to transfer all of our stuff to his car, we were greeted by Jason Sullivan and Scott Hodukavich. Big hugs all around, and pictures (thanks, Scott!).

Big Easy (Jason Sullivan)

Dave Pryor, myself, Charles, and Leopold. ("Psyche didn't get Claude's note about race day being blue shirt day!")

10 minutes prior to the 5:00 a.m. start, Dave and I headed over to hear the instructions given by Sweep Master Will Brown. We were joined by Caroline Williams and Abi Meadows. We would meet the 6:00 a.m. sweeps (Jim Kelleher, Leonard Martin and Stephen Morris) later on down the trail.

From Left: Caroline Williams, Will Brown, Dave Pryor, myself, Leopold. ("The 5 am sweeps get told they have to pass everyone - no wait- that's not right...")

RD Extraordinnaire, Claude Sinclaire ("And I better not catch you getting off trail...!")

Claude fires some sort of gun, and we head up the stairs to the trail. I love the stair start, by the way. It just perfectly sets up the Laurel Valley experience.

It gets exciting immediately. My Go-Motion chest light whose batteries I've just changed seems not to want to turn on. Panicking, I pray I have my back up head lamp in my pack. Meanwhile Dave discovers he's left part of his pack unzipped and can't determine whether he's lost anything out of his pack or not. After a few adjustments, we're on our way, lit and zipped up.

In the back of my mind, I had attention on revisiting key parts of the trail- Cane Brake, Toxaway Bridge, and especially Hilliard Falls. I found myself wondering how I was going to feel once I got to Hilliard Falls, the site where I became really disoriented.

These thoughts soon fade as conversation takes over. Dave and I are bringing up the caboose, just hanging back and listening as Abi Meadows regals us with stories of her fascinating life. As she talks about her 16 year old son's running adventures and how she won't allow him to run an ultra marathon at his age due to the risk of it damaging his endocrine system, Dave and I shoot each other a look, silently agreeing not to mention Leopold's ultra adventures***.

As we continued on at a walk pace, the 6:00 a.m. starters were being sent on their way.

6:00 a.m.. start ("Up the stairs on to the long 35 mile day on the trail")

After some time of wandering through the forest, I see the first runner coming through and it's Byron Backer. He's flying down the trail, looking great! It was exciting to watch him fly by us like that - I can't imagine running that pace through Laurel Valley.

Not too long after that, we began to see others, many familiar faces including my new friend from Hot To Trot 24-Hr Race, Bill Keane. As expected, Bill looked mean and lean and ready to kill it. He was gone before I could remember to tell him I put "Stairway To Heaven" on my iPod, just in his honor for today's run.

Then, the first official "sweep" experience was upon us. As we crossed the bridge, I saw Wayne Downey sitting on the trail. He had obviously hurt himself and was assessing the damage. Apparently, he had rolled his ankle, and pretty badly.

Dave Pryor really saved the day by bringing all kinds of supplies we thought we'd never need. He had some tape and did a pretty good job of giving Wayne some support on the ankle. After much consideration, Wayne's amazing attitude won the argument and he decided to carry on.

What's left of the tape job on Wayne Downey's ankle. (Thanks, Dave!)

With no further emergencies, I had plenty of time to contemplate my last visit here. I made sure to take pictures of key landmarks like the bench in the middle of nowhere, and the Toxaway Bridge. I even sent Charles a text from the Cane Break stairs, in memory of his fateful day.

As we came up to Hilliard Falls, I looked to Will to see wherehe picked up the trail at the Hilliard Falls sign, and my heart fell to my stomach when instead of it "all coming back" to me, I swore I came up to the Hilliard Falls sign from a different direction!

Many hours and conversations**** later, Charles and Leopold appear as if out of nowhere. I was so happy to see them and really excited that Leopold was going to spend some time on this very special trail. Covering the last 7 miles with the two most precious people in my life was a real treat and honor.

What can I say? I am simply in love with this 30+ stretch of the Foothills Trail. It has a magic that you just have to experience to understand. I'm thankful for Claude Sinclair for putting on this event in a safe and fun way each year.

* Will Brown relayed a funny story about Claude's attempt to have sweeps measure the course during a previous year's race. After 35 miles of taking turns pushing a measuring wheel along the course, the sweeps finally arrive at the stairs near the finish. Claude is beaming with excitement, eagerly awaiting the count from the wheel... As the wheel makes its way up the stairs, the counter promptly falls off and is lost forever, along with any hopes of ever knowing how long this run actually is. Awesome story- awesome trail.

** Frozen towels, watermelon slices, ice, assorted sweet and salty foods. Seriously, thios is your man if you ever want to know how to really come out and support a race.

***I make a mental note to Google "youth running+endocrine system".

**** Jim Kelleher loves himself some Pink Floyd. He enjoyed hearing how I listened to Pink Floyd under the orange moon out on the Trail 3 weeks ago. In Leonard Martin I found a never ending source of ultra running information, tips, and advice- thanks so much for all the great advice for Pinhoti, Leonard! You the MAN!

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

RACE REPORT: Hot 2 Trot 8 Hour Run

This past weekend had all the makings of a perfect storm of fun and fitness. Not only did I participate in my first loop-course/ by-time-not-miles ultra event, but it also served as an opportunity to to meet a lot of the GUTS (Georgia Ultrarunning And Trailrunning Society) folks that I've heard so much about. As if that weren't enough, Georgia Snail and the lovely Holly also made a special guest appearance. See what I mean? Perfect. Storm.

The Hot To Trot 8 Hour Run is an annual event sponsored by GUTS. This year, RD Sarah Tyne held the course at Sweetwater Creek State Park (Lithia Srings, GA). It consisted of a 1.18 mile loop, complete with tree roots, sand, rocks, 73-foot elevation gain, and sign-posting trail nymphs*.

The premise is simple, 60 runners run as many 1.18- mile loops as they can from 8:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. in 90+ degree heat with humidity off the charts. The race description from the GUTS web site says it all:

“At the Hot To Trot 8 Hour Race, our goal is to provide the race as advertised. As the name implies, you can count on it being HOT. Temps are easily in the 90's this time of year in Georgia, with humidity off the scale. Runners are expected to use proper electrolytes in order to stay alive!”
Here's how it all unfolded:

I planned to run the entire thing with Charles, and as it turned out, Charles was fighting a bacterial infection and was on antibiotics. Between the antibiotics, heat, humidity and the insane amount Charles sweats, I thought we might get in about 15 miles (maybe 10) before the paramedics would be called to insert an IV.

With thoughts of under achievement dancing through our heads, we arrived at the race at about 7:30 and made our way over to the picnic area that served as the start, finish, and aid station. It wasn't too long before I saw some familiar faces, and was introduced to some new friends.

Group Photo Op:
Charles, Psyche, Jason Rogers and Thomas Armbruster (Georgia Snail)

Spirits were high as we gathered at the start to listen to final instruction

And we're off...

We made our way over the berms and through the woods to a rocky stretch of fire road where I promptly... tripped and fell. On rocks. (Yes, it hurt). I liked the second half of the course much better. It proceeded along sandy single-track before crossing a wooden bridge and making a series of root-covered ascents, all of which I walked. A decent sized hill then brings you up to the restrooms and to the picnic area to start all over again.

As I started up the hill, this is what I saw:
It kind of set the tone for the day, as I really enjoy a good surprise, especially if it ends in a good laugh (which it did). Also, I feel quite confident that the pure evil of these particular sign-posting Trail Nymphs* is contained in their singular effort to destroy my BMF Trail Runner Rep.
Therefore, If I bring my "A" game to the next few races -and by "A" game I mean stay on trail and avoid Search & Rescue- it just may be enough to back these bad boys off.
As it turned out, the best thing about this race was all the really wonderful people I had the chance to meet. Along the way we ran 25 laps in 7:54 for a total of 29.5 miles. The mystery of how Charles ran stronger and stronger as the heat and humidity climbed will have to be solved another day.
Final lap of the day...

We enjoyed a little game of cat and mouse with Orlando that left me hoping we'd see him again on the trail real soon.

BMF Trail Nymph (a.k.a. Jason Rogers)

Ultra super dudes Bill Keane (a.k.a. "most likely to blast 'Stairway To Heaven' on his way out of Laurel Valley) and Rob Apple.

So that was my weekend. Another one filled with some pretty cool accomplishments by an average girl who just can't seem to say no to a new adventure. I will say that my entire weekend was richer as a result of the company I held and a BIG THANK YOU goes out to Sarah Tyne, Tom Wilson, Kirsten the "ice lady", Kim Pike, Jason Rogers, Bill Keane, and especially Thomas and Holly Armbruster for turning an amazing weekend into an EPIC one.

* and by sign-posting Trail Nymphs I mean Charles and Jason.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Beyond Running

There are many changes on my horizon, and while running is but a small part of life amongst these new adventures, I find myself grateful beyond measure for the people and the many, many gifts that running brings to my life.

For me, like so many others, running long and running on trails is a much needed freeing escape that allows me to recharge my emotional and spiritual batteries while I commune with nature through physical exertion.

The more I tap in to the off-road running experience, the more I find the quest for speed and distance fades and the need to pursue something for an intrinsic, yet immeasurable, experience takes on a greater importance.

I know that on the rational plane it makes no sense to subject my body and mind to hours, or days of extreme physical and emotional effort, all in the name of fun. It's crazy.

However, if you look closely, behind the craziness of every endurance athlete you will find a sense of reverence. Because in our trials of endurance we discover something transcendent and unexplainable. Often there is some form of spiritual experience. We transcend limits and go into the realm of the unknown. I know that for me, ultra running allows me to slip into a space and place of no-thingness. Timeless, beautiful...beyond effort. I learn, over and over again, that there are no limits. Ever.

For those hard core ultra runners out there, here's a video that leaves me inspired time after time, as Yiannis is a true ultra running hero.