Thursday, June 16, 2011

5th Annual RAM

This year was the 5th running of the Roan Adventure Marathon (RAM), an annual run hosted by Sultan. With the insane 2nd half climb and views from atop the Round, Jane, Grassy Ridge and Hump Mountain Balds, this 28-29 mile speed hike/ mountain run is fast becoming one my most favorite ultra’s of all time.

Planned around the rhodo blooming season, the pink shrub was in full bloom this year. Beautiful! The view from Roan Bald to Jane’s Bald was especially pink, as the rhodos were in bloom all along the mountain.

The Course/ Beat Down
The run starts at the top of Carvers Gap (5,512 feet) and is run downhill to Hwy 19E all along the AT. Once you reach 19E then you are thoroughly punished by retracing your path back to the start, which means climbing 6,000 feet uphill for 13.7 miles back to Carvers Gap. Try and negative split that one, yo!

The Who’s Who of Who Ran Roan (# of previous finishes):
Brandon Thrower
Hannah Griffith (half)
Stan Austin (1)
Scott Williams (half)
Sultan (4)
John Lewis (2)
Damian Wells
Adam Hill (1)
Michael Rowe (half)
Jeremy Hargroves (1)
Psyche Wimberly (1)
Leopold (half)
Keith Mrocheck
Others? (Seems like several runners showed up at the last minute)

Awesome Volunteer:
Hayley Roper Wells

How It All Unfolded:
Leopold and I celebrated his last day of school by heading up to Carver's Gap late Friday afternoon. We expected a lot more people to turn out for camping, but the majority of people showed up for the run the next day.

We carried our gear up the mountain to pitch our tent, and I was surprised (and dismayed) to discover I was breathing so hard I had to keep taking rest breaks! Good lord, I thought, how am I going to handle that climb tomorrow if I can't even get up Roan Bald? (Later, I would feel a lot better when I watched Stan go through the same process).

Camping that night were Leopold and myself, Jeremy Hargroves, Haley and Damian Roper, Stan Austin, and Scott Williams. As it got dark, we all settled in for the treat that is camping on Roan Bald by enjoying some delicious hopstatic homebrew and good conversation.

As we broke down camp in the morning, Sultan checked in with us to make sure we all knew what to expect and then we had some fun trying to get a "Sultan pose" for us campers.

My plan for the run was to run with Leopold down to 19E, whereby he would be eventually shuttled back to Carver's Gap by Hayley, who was serving as our Aid Station (thank you, Hayley!). I was looking forward to taking it easy on the 1st half and trying to run a little harder on the way back. I hoped to beat my 2nd half time of 4:50 from last year.

Part I: Carver's Gap to 19E
A lost runner, a bear, and an illusive rock.

I have to say it was a blast running with Leopold. It was a freaking hot day (like 80 degrees+) so Leopold and I kept a leisurely pace and traded off leading for the first part of the run.

Our first shot at getting lost came at the Grassy Ridge trail junction. Sure, there's a sign. And sure, the sign has an arrow pointing to the right for Grassy Ridge and to the left for the AT.

But can I just say that this sign is unusually small. This picture does not do its smallness justice. This in itself struck me as strange considering how well marked the AT is. I had just been telling Leopold that I found it strange how many metal posts with reflective lights you come across on the AT. Personally, these ruin a little bit of the trail experience for me. Anyway, I looked right at this sign and thought both of the skinny little arrows pointed to the right.

However, after taking just a few steps down the Grassy Ridge Trailhead, I turned around to double check. I thought, "Why would both arrows be pointing in the same direction? What's to the left, the unknown, unnamed trail?" I'm glad I double checked, as I was about to take us on a detour to Grassy Ridge! We deftly made a course correction (please, no applause) and joined the run back on the AT.

Apparently, I was not alone in the observation of this sign. John Lewis took the Grassy Ridge Express Trail to Bushwacking and ended up, you guessed it, bush wacking his way back to the AT, then eventually hitch hiking back to Carver's Gap! Dude had a major adventure, and part of me is a tiny bit jealous! (But then I saw the welts all over his legs and got over it).

By now, Leopold and I had fallen enough behind everyone that all the wildlife the other runners had scared off had had time to return. I tell you, slowness pays off in so many ways. Today, we were rewarded with the adventure of scaring a bear off the trail. For real.

OK, it was not a Grizzly. And it certainly did not dive off the trail. But it was still a bear, and as we approached on the trail we heard it snort and run away. It was big. And it was very exciting! I'll never forget the look on Leopold's face.

Before the summit of Big Hump, we saw Keith Mrochek on his way back. He had turned around early, and as he passed by he stopped and chatted for a few minutes. He was leaving early, but he had had a great time and had also avoided most of the heat.

At the summit of Big Hump we took another break. We sat on the fence and listened to the awesomeness that is FOTC's "Too Many Mutha Ucka's". I bet we were a site to behold- sitting there connected by ear buds, singing at the top of our lungs:

Too many mutha uckas
Uckin' with my shi-
My transactional shi-!
There's too many mutha uckas
Uckin' with my shi-
My weekly statement shi-!
My weekly statement shi-!
Too many mutha uckas
Uckin' with my shi-
With my balance shi-!
How many mutha uckas?
Too many to count
Mutha uckas

I told Leopold about this very cool, very big, flat rock in a clearing of trees where Dave Pryor, Dave Petroski and I took a break last year. I made it sound so inviting that he, too, was soon dreaming of laying on the rock's cold smooth surface and staring up at the sky through the leafy canopy. He kept asking if we were almost there. Funny thing about these long runs is that I remember almost everything, but never in the right order!

We were getting pretty close to the turn around and I had not seen the rock yet. Turns out, it's right after Doll Flats, but it's off the trail. And being determined not to get lost, I let the adventure slip away. Sorry, Leopold. If it's any consolation, here's a lovely picture of this magical, yet ilusive, place:

As we made our way closer to 19E, we began to see the other runners who were now on their way back. Jeremy literally flew by us, which is so much more impressive if you knew the rocky, technical section we were on. Soon, we encountered Adam, then Brandon, Damian, Sultan, Doug and Stan. Everyone was looking amazing!

Part II: 19E To Carver's Gap
It's easy- there's only one hill.

With Leopold taken care of (thanks again, Hayley!) I was in a hurry to start back. I felt good and really thought I could make good time on the way back. Considering we took 4:25 to get to 19E, I actually started to believe I could maybe negative split this bitch.

However, I couldn't find the the water bottle I'd given Hayley, so I just drank some extra water and headed back with only one 20 oz. bottle and one 12 oz. bottle of water. That had been enough to get me half way, but it had not been nearly as hot, and there were all those thousands of feet more of climbing to consider...Others must have encountered issues with water, because when I saw Stan (who was about a mile ahead of me at the turn around) he made sure to tell me to get enough water.

The initial climb when you leave 19E and head back is....deceivingly difficult. It was becoming hotter and more humid, and I was out of water before I made it to Big Hump. That just totally sucked- there's no other way to put it.

< I eventually found a small water source at Jane's Bald and drank from it even though I had no way to filter water. Note to self- would it kill you to always carry iodine tablets in your pack? No, I don't think so.

2nd Note To Self: If not feeling well at Chattooga, it may not be just the heat and humidity!

It seemed to me that even though I was suffering from dehydration to the point I had to sit down and recover at the beginning of every switch back, that I was much, much (much!) stronger this year compared to last year (when I lost my shit and had a mental breakdown).

I ended up running 4:50 for the 2nd half, but still feeling very good about it.

This is an incredible (and incredibly tough) adventure run. It's not to be missed, and I may even train for it next year.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

Black Mountain Monster 24-Hr Race

The Black Mountain Monster 12/24 Hour Race for Awesomeness (love the name) has come and gone, leaving in its wake the... race report of awesomeness: A clever, insightful, thought-provoking, tear-producing, monolithic testament to my running labors this weekend. You know, just how I want every post to be but I'm never able to invest enough time in writing so I just crank out my immediate thoughts and hope no one noticed the typo in paragraph three before I got a chance to fix it. (Don't bother checking, I already fized it.) At this point, if a few people snicker, sniffle, and shoe-up (yes, I did reach for the third "S") I'll be happy.

The Black Mountain Monster is a smaller event by design and feels more like a family get-together than a race. Montreat College is the perfect setting. It’s a beautiful campus with ample parking, bathroom and shower facilities, and a big field for everyone to set up their tents on. The premise of the race is simple: Run around in little 3-mile circles for either 12 or 24 hours. Participate individually, or as part of a team.

The course is a 5K loop that accesses the college’s x-country course, the greenway, and the sports complex. This course offers more variation of scenery and landscape than my moods and is a perfect combination of single track, flat wide grassy trail, a couple fields, and a little asphalt. The pictures from the race’s website illustrate the course perfectly:

I was looking forward to this event as it was a great opportunity to see some friends, share some trail time with Leopold, and show Charles around the area a bit. Yes, I suckered my son into pacing me with absolutely no training at all (unless you count Halo and Guitar Hero as training). He's skinny and fast (proving it skips a generation) and he ended up running a crazy amount of miles and enjoying the crap out of himself. However, hardly any of the miles were with me, and I soon realized I was creating an ultra monster that closely resembled some combination of Christian Griffith and Sean Blanton. My only consolation was that he would end up crazy sore after.

Not having run this type of event before, I was confident in my ability to run at least 100 miles I really had no plan other than to keep moving. Luckily, I ran the first loop with Jason Rogers who shared with me his thoughts about pacing. Thank god for that! It slowly dawned on me at that point I had no business being there that not having a plan may be a bad thing when it comes to running for 24 hours (unless you're Denise Davis). So, I made a plan right there on the spot - I would shoot for running each 5K loop in 40-50 minutes. Simple! If I averaged 15 minute miles, I would end up with about 90 miles. After all, how hard could it be to average 15 minute miles for 24 hours?

Well, let me explain just how hard averaging 15 minute miles for 24 hours actually is... It’s like Laz saying he’s shortening the Barkley course this year. Sure, you may run less distance, but it may be on a 70% grade. Through fire. Or a crack den. Or a crack den on fire. Before it’s over, you’ll be begging for the old course with that candy ass prison tunnel.

Race, On!
First, I have to say I always enjoy the start of ultra running events. You would have to not have a pulse for things to get any more laid back. The RD calls all the runners up for a quick pre-race briefing at 9:50. Then, "On your mark......get set.........GO! ". This is what hapopens:

People generally continue talking, while taking their sweet, sweet time walking over to the start. That's if they've even bothered to show up yet!

Part I: The Wheels On The Bus Go Round and Round
I ran 12 or 13 loops, or 40+ miles, during the first 12 hours. Except for some heat issues, the need to change shoes, and the need for a dinner break, these were fairly easy miles.

The first loop was all about viewing the course, and I was desperately hoping for two things: that the “big hill” from the x-country race was not part of the course, and that I liked the course. 24 hours is a long time and is exponentially longer when you hate the course.

Immediately, my uncanny ability to detect the slightest uphill grade kicked in (for some unknown reason I am unable to detect down hill grades. Weird). There are 3 decent hills, one of which is indeed the “big hill”. There’s also a nasty, sharp downhill that I’m still cursing. This is NOT a flat course. (Later, I learned there is 300 ft. of elevation gain per loop. So, if unlike me, you ran 100 miles here that would be right at 10,000 feet of elevation gain).

The course is also chock full ‘o sharp turns and cutbacks, making it difficult to get into a good groove through certain parts of the course. Also, parts of the course leave you exposed to open sun for several minutes at a time. It’ important to not that temperatures were near 90 degrees with high humidity.

As I settled into a goal pace, I lost contact with Charles. One thing I learned about a timed race is that if you don’t stay together it can be a long time before you meet up again.. I know people are used to seeing Charles and I running together, so I bet they were wondering why they never saw us together in this race.

Early highlight – Adam Hill sighting! Adam was pacing Andrew Moore and they lapped me more than once (please no one tell me what event Andrew was in- I prefer to think he was on a 12-hr. relay team!). The first time they blew by me, I was running with Big Easy and I was glad for the opportunity to point Adam out to him, so he’d know who I was talking about when I talked about the Pitchell or the some of Adam’s other runs. The second time around, I high-fived Adam and told him I’d heard the Pitchell hills were not nearly as hard what we had to deal with today.
I saw Adam a couple of more times before he left to meet up with Matt Kirk. Adam said the Grand Kirk was doing well on his fastpack of the Mountains To Sea Trail, averaging about 38 miles a day. I spent some time ruminating on the concept of averaging 40 miles a day for 30 days*.

In summary, I ran the first two loops in about 1:35, which was too fast. The heat of the day caught up to me by loops 3 and 4, and I slowed considerably. However, I think all of my loops in the first 12 hours were run in under an hour. I hit a low point around dusk, and stopping for pizza and beer made all the difference.

Part II: The Wheels On The Bus Fall Off. Then They Suffer A Slow & Painful Death. I should know by now that nothing truly interesting happens until the second half of any ultra, and this event was no different in that respect.

For me, Part II of these shenanigans started at dinner. Charles and I (who had managed to finally meet up) took a dinner break around 8PM Saturday night. A small meal of left over pizza and home brew really hit the spot. We both hit the trail again feeling great, and I figured I’d found the new miracle cure for ultra pain- beer! Accordingly, I’d swing by our tent and have a little beer before heading out for the next loop. This worked marvelously and for a lot of hours. I was relaxed, I felt good, and I felt like I could keep going forever.

Forever being the relative term that it is, I hit a real low point around 1:30 a.m. I wasn’t nauseas, I wasn’t really in pain, it was nothing I could put my finger on. I just did not feel good. Unfortunately, Charles also hit a low at the same time. We ended up back at the tent, and after a few minutes, Charles finally went inside the tent to lie down. At the time, I suspected he never fully recovered from the earlier heat, whereas I didn’t know what the Hell my problem was.

This is where I made a big mistake. I was getting cold, so I went in and lay down under the covers with him. As I lay there, I kept telling myself, “This is so very, very bad. This is a death sentence. I’m going to end up going to sleep, and waking up hating myself.” After what felt like an eternity of struggling with this, I decided that at the very next moment I thought I could make myself get up, I would do just that. No thinking about it, just move.

A few moments later, I rolled out of bed, heated up some chicken broth, and drank it from a thermos as I sat by the bon fire. Not 5 minutes later, who do I see walking towards me but the motley crew of Big Easy, Weezy, Mark Elson and Margaret. What luck!! I practically jumped up (I’m sure it looked nothing whatsoever like a jump) and joined them as they headed out for another loop.

At this point, I was pretty sure I was starting loop 17, and I found out these guys were starting loop 19 and Margaret was on 20 or 21 (animal!). We all walked this loop, and it felt good to walk. By the next loop, we were running the downhill sections (running- Haha, that’s funny –wtf?). I think Margaret was hitting a low point, but she was quiet, and I couldn’t be sure. Mark and I talked for a bit and we were kinda feeling the same thing at this point- time to put the head phones on and literally tune out.

I broke away from these guys at some point, and I felt very good for the next loop. I ran almost all of it, and at one point I was hoping I was going to pass Big Easy and Co. and make up a lap on their asses. Because in my mind, I was flying around the course. When in reality this is what I looked like to the casual observer:

Loop 19 was bad. It was 3:30 or 4:00 (?) in the morning and my feet hurt, I had blisters, my body wanted to stop, my mind wanted to stop, and I’m pretty sure my soul wanted to stop. I was reduced to the slow, weary, depressing yet determined walk of one who has nothing left except the impulse to simply soldier on.

I came upon Brad Goodridge near the end of this loop, and we walked together. I think I asked him how it was going. I don’t remember his exact words, but he was done (those may have been his exact words, actually). I completely know that feeling- where you are just done. You’ve had it, you’re over it, and every cell of your body screams, “Done!” He was there. We walked in together, and I was praying the lap counters would tell me I had just completed lap number 20, whereby I would promptly stop, vow never to run a 24 hour race again, and go to sleep. I myself was “done” and definitely quitting after the 100K mark. At this point, I felt there just wasn’t any point in getting any more miles.

I was not a happy camper when the (now evil) lap counters told me I had just completed lap #19. Damn!! I have to run at least one more 5K. I’m not even sure I stopped at the tent to see if Charles was there or not. I hardly remember anything at all about this loop. I’m just guessing here, but it was probably a death march of pain and my mind decided to check out for a while.

Coming in to finish loop 20 (100K) should have been a great experience. I say should’ve, because I was completely robbed of said experience. The (now evil and cunning) lap counters were messing with me again. As was Charles. As I checked in, and before I could say, “So long suckas, I am adiosed”, the (now evil demon) lap counters innocently proclaim, “Your boyfriend just checked in with us. He told us to tell you he went back out and that you better catch up”. I better catch up??? I better catch UP??? Muth#r Fuck#r!!! There is no way to explain the emotions that I felt in that moment, so I'll have Wiliam Tudyke do it for me:

As I headed out for loop 21, I walked a bit with Jason Rogers. He was in a bad way. He had reached the point where road kill feels sorry for you. The point when the vultures and crows will "pass" on your carcass and wait for something a little less dead. He had lapsed into some really negative self talk, so I knew he was in the Pit. The Pit is when your head is so full of reasons to stop, so many excuses piling up that you can barely acknowledge them (let alone answer them), that it feels like quicksand pulling you into a pit. It's all the reasons you aren't good good enough, all of your self-doubts that you have unwillingly stored in your memory banks. It's self-imposed mental torture. And it seriously sucks ass.

But then, a funny thing happens. You suddenly get tired of hearing all that bullshit and just push on through, to a serene and peaceful state, and your world is awash with possibilities. Then you realize the source of all of those excuses - it was you! Ha, ha!WTF! It was you all along!

Jason is my hero, and it was wonderful to see him pushing himself to this limit. The gift on the other side of the Pit is worth every bit of the pain- because on the other side you understand that the ability to create a strong, positive outlook lies within. It's the experience of the Pit that builds confidence. I believe it's what's behind the smiles of all ultrarunners, and it's is one of the reasons why I keep coming back - as Scott Dunlap says, "Gotta give those flowers more sunshine!"

Well, honestly, I am growing weary of writing this report! Let me just say this event was nothing short of inspirational and I was honored to be a part of this race. I spent time with my incredible son this weekend, spent time with some old friends and spent time making a few new ones.

So there you have it. A day spent running in circles in Back Mountain and a day that did nothing but inspire me. Charles and I left with 65 miles (21 5K's) and 60 miles (19 5K's), respectively. I met some great people and watched some amazing athletes (including my hero Jason Rogers) cross that finish line victorious.

I will leave you with a quote from Jason's write up of this event:

Darkness is all around when we are exhausted and we still have miles ahead, but morning eventually comes and sunlight will shine through the trees. Just keep moving and putting one foot in front of the other, because that is what awesomeness is all about.

* Matt is fastpacking the 900-mile Mountains-to-Sea Trail during the month of June. Follow the trek here: