Redemption on Spruce Knob-West Virginia Trilogy 2011 by Kathy Wolf
For the past year my running friends have all heard the story of the missing 3.8 miles on the fifty mile day at the Trilogy in 2010. In fact, I would venture to say they are tired of the “3.8 mile story”. So going into this year’s Trilogy race I felt I had to redeem myself and complete all three days of the stage race or not come home.
For those not familiar with the West Virginia Trilogy, it is the creation of co-race directors Adam Casseday and Dan Lehmann and takes place within the Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks National Recreation Area over three days. Due to the remoteness of the race course, runners camp at The Mountain Institute where they learn the meaning of communal living by the TMI staff and volunteers. It truly is a unique way to spend three days!
Having had a taste of the camping/running experience in 2010 by volunteering for the 50k and running the 50 mile race last year, my traveling running buddy Darcy Lallathin was in it for the full three days this year; 50k Friday, 50M Saturday and half marathon Sunday. Having scoped out the entrants list, we both expressed only interest in finishing (surviving) all three days and nothing more.
The 50k Day
The 50k day seems to be a “get a feel for the course day” for folks new to the West Virginia hills. Since we knew what we were in for Darcy and I seemed a bit more relaxed than the previous year. With Kristen Krempasky returning from the Trilogy win in 2010 we saw no need to stress over the 50k portion and we just wanted to make it through without hurting ourselves. She would no doubt take the race this year as well. We met a new ultra runner during the pre-race dinner, Angie Smith, who was making WVT her debut ultra. Wow! What a way to jump into the ultra scene on one of the hilliest, rockiest courses Darcy and I have ever seen. She is brave in our book. I don’t think I would have had the guts to go into this one without some experience at the distance. Angie had run trails but nothing longer than 26.2 before.
At the start Darcy took off ahead while I hung back and leap frogged with Angie until we somehow caught up with Darcy. The three of us went through the well attended Big Run aid station (#1) with nothing exceptional to note. We continued on together with the three of us within talking distance and each taking a turn leading the way. When we arrived at the Bee Run aid station (#2) around mile 11, Angie was in front and the volunteer shouted to the others that 2nd and 3rd female was coming through. Darcy and I were puzzled for a moment and asked if they meant us. And that’s when we heard that Kristen was off course and had not arrived at aid station 2 yet. I believe that is when the race changed in our minds and we knew we could make this an interesting day. The three of us left the aid station refilled and fueled. We chatted briefly trying to figure out where Kristen had missed a turn but we didn’t want to waste any time in case she was back on course and coming for us with a vengeance.
Somewhere after leaving Bee Run aid station and getting to Judy Springs (#3) I took control of climbing the hills and navigating the rocks. I had spent all of June and July working on building leg strength with squats, deadlifts, (Thank you Justin Collins for the Strong Lifts routine!) and working up to an hour straight on the stair climber. The steep hills are where I was able to put distance between me and Darcy & Angie. I was not expecting to be out in front but when I arrived at Judy Springs, volunteers Paula and Dennis informed me I was indeed first woman through their aid station. It was at this point that I felt the pressure of being chased in a race for the first time ever! They got me refilled and hurried me along.
During the 5.7 loop that returns to Judy Springs, I fully expected Kristen to come zooming past in an effort to catch up and take her place in the front. I also knew Darcy was aware of the opportunity we had been given and would be pushing to challenge the lead. I ran when I would have normally walked. I hustled up the steep hills like I had to be somewhere yesterday. I ran on the rocks like they were an agility test. I scrambled through the downed trees as fast as I could. One really fast guy passed me who was trying to re-coup an extra mile and a half he had just ran when he got slightly off course. I watched him bound over the trees like a kangaroo. That was awesome to see! I kept the pressure on thinking Kristen was within sight right behind me. It was getting harder to keep up the pace but somehow I returned to Judy Springs (AS #4) still first female. I asked about Kristen and Dennis told me she dropped. So now it’s just Darcy still after me. Paula shoos me out of the aid station and just as I cross the bridge to find the trail she yells “Run Kathy run! Here she comes!” This prompted a taunt from Darcy and I hear Darcy call out, “Run Kathy run!”. Oh geez, now it IS a duel!
How much longer can I hold her off? She is so much faster than me. Why am I up here in front? I have NEVER been in front! I’m running this like this is the only race I have to think about. But what about tomorrow when I have to face my long awaited 50 mile test I’ve trained all year for? Am I setting myself up to fail again? These are all thoughts that went through my head till I made it to Seneca aid station (#5). Again the volunteers ushered me through like a Nascar pit stop and I felt like a star. Only 3.3 till the finish but I knew Darcy had to be closing in.
I started the last section running. I fast hiked all hills and ran in places I thought Darcy would surely run. No time to be caught walking. I never looked over my shoulder so many times in a race. I usually don’t worry about where others are on the course. But today I had been given a chance to be first. What? Kathy Wolf is NEVER first!! I’ve been second. I’ve been third. I’ve been 99th. I’ve even been last. Never first. I kept looking over my shoulder. I thought I heard something. No, nothing there. Oh what was that? Nothing. Checked again. Nothing. One more time. Oh shoot, there she is! Ugggg, this straight away is surely in Darcy’s advantage. I need a steep hill, up or down, doesn’t matter. She’ll pick me off like a hunter with a deer in her sights on this flat straight section.
“Hello back there Darcy!” I call to acknowledge her presence but still pushing my speed as best I can. Oh well I thought, I almost had it. But if I had to concede to someone I’m glad it was Darcy. So I start to relax but Darcy reminds me that Cardiac is just ahead and the way I’ve been tackling hills today…this race was not over. Cardiac is the super steep hill we zipped down at the start and now we would have to make our way up that bear before being granted the satisfaction of the rolling terrain leading to the finish line. Alright, just keep plugging away on this hill. Heart rate is peaked, breathing is heavy and my feet and legs are working frantically. Just put some distance between us before we get to the top or else she’ll snatch victory away…after all the struggle the last few miles it comes down to the last hill. Oh “watch out for the snake.” OK, I swear there was a little tiny snake making its way across the trail but Darcy thinks I said that to scare her and slow her down. Not really but hey, whatever works!
I take the last few giant strides to make it to the top and I know I can’t look back. Just go! She’ll be right on your tail! Move it! I make it to the entrance driveway and finally see the grassy downhill stretch to the finish chute. I run straight to hug Dan who just announced that I was first woman! Wow, I did it! Everyone cheers and I look back to see Darcy making her way down the grassy downhill just a few seconds behind. What an awesome unexpected feeling that was! What started out as just a typical training run pace, ended in flat out racing. What a thrill! My 50k finish was 7:01:55
The 50 mile day
Darcy and I both worried a bit that the fun we had on the 50k would come back to bite us in the 50 mile race. We took precautions to soak our feet in the cold pond near camp to reduce any swelling after the 50k. On Saturday morning we woke in plenty of time for breakfast and getting dressed & ready for a long day on the trails. We had one last bathroom break to make so we hiked up to the flushable bathrooms instead of using the port-a-potties at the start line. A few minutes later, as we made our way back to the start, we heard everyone cheering and we wondered what was going on. We got to the start in time to see the headlamps dance off down the road. Yeap, it was 6:01am. We camped 50 feet from the start line and we missed the start! And since my GPS had not acquired satellites yet I had to stand there and watch everyone get smaller and smaller. Finally the watch was ready at 6:03am and I ran to catch up. I did not run easy until I was not last any more. I might have run too hard in the first couple miles but I wanted to regain the feeling that I was not behind.
The first leg of the 50 mile day remains my favorite in terms of scenery. We started before sunrise, and we were on the long uphill road to Spruce Knob when we were able to turn off our head lamps and witness the sun creeping up on our right. When we got higher and higher it was hard to not just stop and stare at the picture that was being painted before us. I chose to not carry a camera in an effort to not lose time on the day I could not afford to lose any, but boy was I missing a great photo op!! I think next time I will bring it and drop it off with Adam and Dan at the top. Next time? More about that later!
At the top we were greeted by Adam and Dan with water and gels before we headed down the Huckleberry Trail (or the” path of rocks” as I like to call it). This was where I made a bad move and twisted my knee last year. I feared a repeat. I diverted all my attention and focus on maneuvering the obstacles. I moved more quickly and took care in selecting my foot placement, much better than last year. I felt I was moving very well in this section even though I was leap frogging another runner (Bruce Tweedie). This was a long section and we were making our way to the familiar aid station at Judy Springs. I was using a camel back and a hand held because the aid stations were spaced further apart than on the 50k and I feared a repeat of running out of water like last year.
As we got closer to Judy Springs we enter what I call the “wall of color”. After climbing and navigating the rocks, we exit the forest and enter an open grassy hill side. We follow a trail that hugs the mountain side. I risk glances up from the trail to look at the colorful mountains with trees turning every color for as far as I can see. Wow, it is such a stunning sight. I could spend a whole day taking it all in. I take my first fall in this section when I sneak too long a look and just about slip down the mountain side. Ok re-focus and keep on track here. I cannot afford to mess up and hurt something this early.
I make it to the Judy Springs aid station (mile 16) and immediately Paula fetches my Monster Energy Drink I sent with her. (She is awesome!) I drink half of it and she tells me she will place it in the stream to keep it cold for my return to Judy Springs. (Wow, she is awesome!) I have some of her tasty quesadillas and grab a couple gels and head out for another long stretch of trail.
In this section we cover part of the trail we saw in on the 50k day only in reverse. I was still negotiating the hills pretty well and as I passed Bruce for the last time on a steep grade he asked if I was from West Virginia. “No, I’m from Columbus, Ohio” I said. I climbed hills like a West Virginian; that had to be the best compliment I have ever gotten! But my smile faded soon after when Adele Fenwick from Colorado passed me like I was standing still on the steepest part of the hill. She was moving so fast up the hill it was no use trying to stay with her. After a mile or so we divert to the dreaded out and back section which leads to the half way point aid station at Whites Run. It seemed to me this section is rolling hills but with all the downed trees I can never seem to get any momentum at all. This is the only part of the course I questioned if I was on the trail because in some places fallen trees were covering the beaten path. I cursed a lot in these miles. I got frustrated with scrambling through tree branches and not having a good sense I was still going the right way. It was also on this trail that Darcy, Mark and Mike all caught up with me. I made an attempt to keep up as they passed but I also was feeling some uneasiness in my stomach. Darcy gave me any electrolyte capsule to help my stomach. I finally let them fade out of sight when I turned my ankle on a hidden rock while trying to navigate a downhill.
I was keeping an eye on the time and this is where I started comparing my arrival time to aid stations to last year’s race. I arrived at the 25 mile aid station (#3) at 12:33pm last year and this year it was 12:18pm. I was ahead by a little but I knew the return trip was where I lost the most time last year due to running out of water. I wasted no time questioning whether to fill the camel back this time. No matter what, everything was getting topped off! This was also the aid station that some people chose to use a drop bag but I saw no need in changing shoes since we still had wet spots to navigate.
As I made my way back up the steep downhill we just came down to get to the aid station I did a body assessment. Nothing was really nagging me. My turned ankle had worked itself out. But I was still experiencing an uneasy stomach. I believe it was easing up and the feeling I had was an urge to pee. This was a good thing in a way because it meant I was drinking plenty. I did not want to waste time stopping if I was going to have to wait for the “flow” to start after finding a suitable place and getting into position. So I held it. Besides after about a mile Mark Thorne appeared behind me. I thought it was weird since he entered the aid station before me. Perhaps he stopped for a shoe change. (?) I decided to stick with him since this section can suck the life out of you if you are alone and left to think of inward thoughts. I needed to focus on something else besides having to pee. Mark and I managed to get through the “out and back” by 2:39pm. This lifted my sprits since my goal had been to be back to the intersection by 2:45pm. I figured it was just a couple miles to the Horton aid station (#4) which had a cut off of 3:30pm. It turned out my estimate was off and it is slightly longer. In any case, Mark was following closely until one point I lost track and apparently left him. He was running really well when we were together I had fully expected we would run into the finish line together.
I arrived at the Horton aid station (33.6 mile) at 3:15 pm; Only 8 minutes ahead of last year but 15 ahead of the cut off. I got a refill and grabbed a few snacks. I did not want to stay long but was feeling depleted. I made sure to intake some calories before leaving and thanked the wonderful volunteers. I recalled from last year that I could not run the road portion leaving the aid station even though it looked easy enough to do. I remembered the wasted feeling I felt back then. But here I was. Running. Slowly, but still running. I knew exactly what awaited me just around the corner. The “three mile hill” that has haunted me for the past 12 months. I broke down and laid on this hill for four minutes last year. I had pictured this hill while climbing stairs at the gym. THIS is the hill I came to climb!! As I fast hiked up the hill I recalled the moment I stopped and screamed in frustration “Where is the freaking top of this thing?!” This time I smiled at my weakness from before. This hill was nothing. I have just come across so much more intimidating hills, this hardly qualified as a hard hill. I made my way up the “three mile hill”. I got to the top with nothing exceptional to note about the trek. It was done. The worse hill I had pictured on this course was over and it left me wondering what I was even worried about.
I coasted the remaining couple miles into the Judy Springs aid station (#5- mile 40.5) and was greeted by Paula, Dennis and I think the other fella’s name was Nate but I’m not sure. Paula was glad to see me and said “You are doing great but you cannot stay here long.” I tell her I know and the guy who I think is Nate said, “Ha, she knows!” I down the rest of my Monster Energy Drink. (Thank you my lovely volunteers for trekking my secret energy juice two miles to this aid station!) I ask for any gels with caffeine (it is caffeine that is going to get me through this race) and Paula pulled out a secret stash of caffeinated Gu. Mint Chocolate! God, I love her!! I dash off and if for no other reason I HAVE to finish this race so my friends at the Judy Springs aid station are proud of me!
I blaze, and I mean blaze an amazing 12-13 minute mile the first 2 miles till I get to the upward incline out of Judy Springs. I loved the boost my Monster gave me even if for just a few miles. I still had the urge to pee but I had an even bigger urge to make the 7:10pm cut off to Allegany Mt Trail aid station cut off.
While pushing through the uphill and fallen trees I kept monitoring my watch since I knew the battery would soon die. After 12 hours and 33 minutes the watch turned itself off. Now all I knew was I had to make it to the 46.2 mile as fast as I could.
I remember thinking that the good thing was I still did not need my headlamp. I was in the dark by this time last year. After run/walking for a while I saw someone running toward me. It was Adam! He was so glad to see me, as I was him. I asked how much farther to the aid station. He estimated it was an eight minute run for him so that was about another 15 minutes of walk running for me. I wished it was closer but wasted no time debating it. He was motivated to seek others who were behind me and continued in the outbound direction telling me to keep going.
Finally, I hear the volunteers at the Allegany Mt Trail aid station. Yes! They named off items they had to offer and when I heard peanut butter I said “Yes, that!” I wanted to make it a fast stop but I could not afford to ease up on the basics; fuel and hydration. Shawna reminds me there is 3.8 miles to go. Wow, where have I heard that before!?!! I decided to leave my water bottle since I had a full camelback and I would need my hands free to get over the fences in the pasture crossing. As I ran down the gravel road I yelled back for a time check. 6:47pm was the reply. Seventy-three minutes to do 3.8 miles, now I KNOW I can do that!
By the time I got off the road and back into the woods I had to fish out my lights. I had a headlamp and a handheld. I had attached a lanyard to the handheld so I would not be impeded getting over the four fences. With only a couple of exceptions this last section is incredibly easy. The only thing that made it slow was being in the dark. I did not run much through this part. I concentrated on not falling and moving as quickly as possible. With the sun gone, it was cooling off and there was a misty feeling of condensation in the air. Crossing the pasture I wondered if I would run into any cows. Just as I thought this I heard something on my right. I turned my head in time to catch a deer dashing off. My headlamp made the white tail seem reflective. I continued and finally crossed the last fence. Though I dreaded reaching Cardiac (the last hill to the finish) I was anxiously awaiting its arrival. That would mean I knew exactly where I was in relation to the finish. I reached the mega hill and started my climb. It was steeper than I recalled from the 50k day but I manage to reach the top. I was unsure of the time so for all I knew I only had seconds to finish before 8pm. I reached the gravel driveway and the Allegany Mt Trail aid station volunteers were driving back to camp. They pull off the road and jumped out to cheer me on. They told me I’m going to make it but I was not going to let up. I ran down the road and turned left down the grassy downhill and finally saw the clock. I still had 12 minutes! Dan announces my finish to everyone as I make it through. I believe that is the best I have ever felt at a finish line. The Trilogy was not over but at that point it did not matter what the half marathon day would bring. I’d walk the whole 13.1 miles if I had to just to finish. I had finally did it! 50 mile finished in 13:48:34.
The Half Marathon Day
If folks would have judged how I was walking around the morning of the half marathon they would have probably guessed I would have been barely able to navigate 13.1 more miles. The soreness was setting in. The Trilogy is such a unique race. After the 50k and 50 mile races are completed the half marathon poses no threat and with a 9am start time everyone is in high spirits at the start line. We are joined by folks who chose to only run the half marathon or 5k. I’m positive they think the rest of us are crazy lunatics by the conversations we were having about our previous two day adventure.
There was chatter about who was in what place amongst the female Trilogy runners but I was secure with the fact that I had done what I came to do this year and then some. There was no need for me to worry about my finish time on this day. Again I started with a relaxed trot and tried to work out my stiff legs before getting to the climbs. For the first 5 or 6 miles I stayed with a small group of ladies; Angie Smith, Rhonda Stricklett, and Nancy Johnston, and chatted about the weekend’s events and how sore we felt. Well, except for Nancy. Nancy was there to run the half marathon and marveled on us for doing the three races. She had decided to run the half sort of last minute and I don’t believe she quite understood what kind of half marathon this would be. But she was doing great on the hilly course considering having only experience on road races.
When we reached the road out and back section (about mile 7) we were seeing the return leaders making their way down. Our little group was starting to break up and I was finally getting into a groove making my way up to the turn around. I saw Darcy and not far behind was Adele. When I reached the top I turned around and braced myself for the foot slapping steep descend that my hard uphill climb would be repaid with. My only thought was to keep my feet moving and not fall. Just go with the momentum of gravity. I began to pass people on the downhill. I was moving fast and did not want to apply the brakes. It was like a roller coaster ride as I floated down the hill. I passed Mark Thorne and he said I was flying like a rocket! The hill finally leveled out and I refilled my water bottle at the aid station then kept moving down the road. We began the trek which is shared with the last 3 miles of the 50 mile course. We just ran this section last night so it is very familiar. I make my way through the woods, over the fences, across the pasture, and back to Cardiac. This time I measured the hill and it takes me 10 minutes to climb the 0.3 mile hill called Cardiac. Such a short distance but a mean climb! I coasted into the finish as Dan announces me as a Trilogy runner. And just like that it is done. Half marathon finished in 2:43:06.
What a difference a year makes. Not only did I finish all three races but I placed third female in the Trilogy. My travel buddy Darcy took first female for the Trilogy and now has a better sense of what she is capable of! I only hope I can serve her well as her pacer this spring at her first one hundred mile race in North Carolina.
As for returning for the third annual WV Trilogy…I had plans to tackle Grindstone 100 next year but it is likely Darcy and I will once again pitch the huge “circus tent” at the start line at The Mountain Institute. The West Virginia Trail Runners have become our family and we look forward to the reunion!