I would first like to thank the race directors Adam Casseday and Dan Lehmann for their extremely hard efforts, encouragement, and incredible support for this race and making it an enjoyable experience as a spectator, participant and aid worker. Their family, friends, Katrina and the staff of The Mountain Institute, and the entire ultrarunner community made this weekend an unforgettable experience. I participated in the first day’s 50k, and helped work on an aid station for the 50 miler.
The location of the event in the Spruce Knob-Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area and Monongahela National Forest is inspiring and invigorating. The weather was warm and the foliage, though not quite peaking, was dappled with gorgeous sunshine. At night, because of the new moon, the stars were awe-inspiring. (NOVAK, the Northern Virginia Astronomy Club, were there, as this location is one of the darkest on the eastern seaboard.)
Some tent campers set up in a lower field behind the finish line, while others were up on a hill granting panoramic views of the surrounding forest. It was a bit daunting to gaze out onto the rolling hills and imagine running 31 miles through them but their beauty beckoned us.
Meals were served at The Mountain Institute’s facilities consisting of several yurts (low round wooden buildings). The food was delicious and nourishing. Vegetarian options were available, as well as coffee and water. The kitchen staff worked tirelessly and constantly, preparing dishes such as chicken pasta, stir fry, pasta marinara, and a wonderful pig roast on Sunday. There were a huge variety of side dishes and desserts, especially Sunday. Appropriately light breakfasts were also available each morning.
The bathroom facilities were well maintained and the showers were hot!
My Race Report
A caveat: this was my first ultra and longest trail run. While I had trained by running a few trails in Kanawha State Forest, and voraciously absorbed every tip and bit of advice provided by friends and more experienced runners, this was a learning experience for me. I had not followed a course marked by flags before, and while I did my best to listen and follow the pre-race briefing and instructions, I had some difficulties. Also due to my inexperience, I found the course extremely challenging. Most of the field called this a moderately difficult course, as far as trail runs go. More than one did say it was harder than the Mountain Masochist Trail Run. Some said it was harder than Highland Sky: not so much the general terrain, but the climbs. Several from the Ohio and Virginia areas were surprised by some of the climbs. “They don’t have hills like this where I’m from,” was a repeated phrase.
A light breakfast of oatmeal, breads, fruit, granola bars, coffee and juice was provided. A few minutes before the race, the field gathered near the start line. Dan said a few words and we counted down to the start (posted with a red-lit digital clock). The roller coast ride was leaving the station! A general feeling of excitement and nervous energy was evident. Personally, I was thinking, “My gosh! I can’t believe I’m doing this!”
The run started on the 5k loop near the Institute, consisting mostly of a rolling field of deep grass. We then turned down Cardiac hill, a steep decline covered by pine needles. At the bottom of the hill was my first misstep of the day. After crossing a bridge, I missed a double flag to turn into the forest and continued down a path to a road. I and a fellow runner (not the only ones of the day) went back to the last flag we had seen and found our mistake. The detour added nearly a mile to our runs. We proceeded onto aid station 1, where I was impressed to find Dan and Adam, the race directors themselves, manning the station. They were cheerful and very encouraging. After voicing my fear of the difficulty of the course, Adam assured me that it would open up soon.
The course descended further down a somewhat graveled path to North Prong and Elza. This section was the hardest part of the course for me. It was very narrow, boggy, and the weeds were eight feet high in sections. I often thought, “This is a trail?! How am I going to do this for 31 miles?” I rolled an ankle and also had my feet come out from under me on a large, flat slanted rock, slamming my hip hard. I seriously considered giving up at the next aid station. (Side note: I must commend Adam and the rest of the WVMTR crew who had to chop, chainsaw, weedwhack, and generally blaze the trails. I can’t imagine the difficult work they faced bushwhacking through the wilderness to provide us this course.) But then the trail along Gandy Creek opened up and I took off. I was able to really run.
There was a stretch of gravel road coming into aid station 2 at the start of Bee Run. The crew filled up my bottles and gave me my drop bag. Megan, the aid station captain, mentioned that I needed to pick up the pace. Knowing she was right, I stripped off some layers and hauled fast out of the station, forgetting to grab any gels either from my drop bag or the station, which would hurt me later.
Soon after I hit my first real climb of the day to Leading Ridge. It was a steep long climb, but the trail was wide and easy to follow. Running along Leading Ridge and onto the Allegheny Mountain Trail, was some of the easiest, prettiest running of the day. In fact it was so nice, I missed a turn. I came to what I thought was a fork with a national forest sign indicating Swallow Rock trail went left or right. What I didn’t realize is that the trail went right down the other side of the ridge and that the right fork was the continuing Allegheny Mountain Trail. I looked back and saw a double flag indicating to go right, but I took the right fork instead of a hard right turn down the ridge.
I ran on and did not see any flags for some time. I continued however, because, due to my inexperience and staring down at the trail, I did not see many flags on the course. I could go a half mile without seeing a flag. Finally, I rejoined the course. I happened upon another runner who explained that I had missed an aid station. I was unsure as to what to do next. Do I go backwards down the trail to the missed aid station? Was I already disqualified? Do I backtrack to where I made my mistake (wherever that was) and risk getting more lost and adding mileage and time to my race in the process, possibly not finishing? I had already added two miles and lost valuable time. I was devastated at the idea of not finishing and missing the aid station was demoralizing. I decided to press on and stay on the course. My fellow runner gave me a gel (as I had last had one over 7 miles earlier). I had ¼ bottle of Heed left and a few ounces of water. Luckily the next section was along the ridge so I had time to absorb the gel and regain my composure. The blow to my confidence slowed me for the rest of the day as I tried to keep flags in sight and worried often of being off course again.
The turn down Horton was remarkable. The trail was narrow and dangerously sloped. At one point a rope was provided to cross a rock. I dared not look down the hillside. The top section was slow going, but again, opened up along Seneca Creek.
We crossed Seneca Creek three times, if memory serves. There was no rock hopping for these crossings. The water was calf high (nearly knee high for us shorter runners) and refreshingly icy cold. A camper provided me with some water. Seneca Falls was pristine, but I could not take it in. I needed to get to the Judy Springs aid station. When I finally arrived, it was the prettiest thing I had seen all day. It had been nearly three hours since I had left AS2.
Dennis, Paula and Steve cheered me in and swarmed me with help. Paula brought me ibuprofen and electrolyte tabs, Steve made me a sandwich, and Dennis filled my bottles. Steve figured out where I went wrong. They told me where I was, how long I had to go mile and time-wise. They offered to help me in if I wanted to stop. A friend came into the station and we decided to press on together.
The trail along Judy Springs and Huckleberry headed up a grassy ridge. The view was incredible, once my friend told me to stop and look. Lumberjack was again very rocky and boggy. We walked about 2 miles and I was ready to run again. By this point I wasn’t even slowing down for the bogs, nearly losing a shoe as I ran through one. There was another stretch of road coming into AS5. Megan was there and was noticed I had picked up the pace. I had the best cookie of my life there. She hurried me out, letting me know I only had 3k to go, including Cardiac. What a boost!
I continued on Beaver Pond which had some incline but was a fairly easy run. Then I saw the red plate sign and arrow indicating the finish was ahead. I was elated until I noticed Cardiac again. Going down nearly 9 hours earlier was a different experience to say the least. But knowing the finish line was so close made the climb an invigorating challenge. At the top, aware of where I was, and so close to the end, was a thrill. I came down the grassy hill, with friends cheering me in and high fiving me as I sprinted the last 20 yards to the finish. And promptly collapsed. Dan came over and congratulated me, as did several new friends. I explained to him how I had gone off course and missed an aid station, but did cover the distance (getting lost in a few places had added two miles to my race). As a result I finished with an official time, but it is noted that I was off course. Everyone was very gracious about my misstep and encouraged me to keep running ultras.
The rest of the weekend – cheering on others, working aid, meeting other people and hearing their race stories, and watching the athletes push themselves in a spirited supportive community – was an extraordinary experience. I look forward to attacking the course next year!