Then the historic weekend of rain and flooding in the southeast happened. Obviously this has been utterly devastating to thousands and thousands of people, and another race in less than ideal conditions is waaaay down on the list of problems this weather system has caused. There was nothing to do but suck it up and go for it since I was able to. I was less worried about running in the rain than about camping in the rain, honestly. Any time I wanted to complain, I reminded myself that my house and car haven't been swept away by a flash flood, so shut up.
Eastern Kentucky caught the edge of the big weather system. It had rained during the week, including the day before, and another two inches of rain was expected on Saturday, the day of the race.
We arrived in Elkhorn City around 5:30 p.m., in time to pick up my packet and attend the prerace meeting, which mostly consisted of "It'll be wet, be careful, and watch out for bears." Dinner was served after that, but I didn't stay because Mark was waiting in the car with the dogs, and I wanted to get to the campground and set up camp while there was still daylight. We headed over to Breaks Interstate Park in Virginia.
We didn't even attempt a fire the first night because everything was soaked and I wanted an early night anyway. We set up our canopy and tent, then draped an extra tarp over the whole thing to help shunt away the rainwater. It actually worked beautifully and we stayed perfectly dry inside the tent all weekend. We ate dinner (pasta salad and hot soup) and turned in soon after, lulled to sleep by pattering raindrops. Now, camping in the rain is not my favorite, but there is something to be said for falling asleep to the sound of rain while in a big, dry, warm pile of dogs and husband.
I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to start getting ready. I fired up the camp stove, made coffee, prepped my hydration pack and refill jug of Tailwind, got dressed, and it was time to go. I wore fitted shorts, singlet, and arm sleeves with a light jacket over top that I planned on wearing if I needed it and carrying with me in case it got colder up on the mountain. Also a buff and a hat turned backwards over that to turn around if I needed to keep rain out of my eyes. It was in the 50s but felt a little warmer because of the humidity, I think. My shoes were Saucony Peregrines, which turned out to be fantastic for the varied, technical, slippery terrain. I cannot recommend them highly enough.
The first 1.5 miles are pretty flat, first on roads, then on packed gravel to the beginning of the trail. Midway through the second mile, the climbing began. The grade was tough but not insane, but the footing was rough: large, loose rocks for lengthy sections, along with gigantic, murky puddles of indeterminate depth and slippery, packed dirt. The rain had returned also; it wasn't a full-on deluge, but a steady, soaking shower. As we climbed, one guy nearby commented on how "fun" this would be on the way back down. I tried to imagine descending on this surface on dead legs in the dark and was really glad I hadn't opted for a longer distance.
I told myself from the start to be conservative but not complacent with my pace. I hiked a lot of the uphill but I hiked hard, passing a lot of folks and looking up ahead for other women to catch. Any time there was a downhill or a flat, I ran. At the aid stations, I paused just long enough to check in with my bib number and maybe grab half a Moon Pie (yes, they had these at the aid stations and they were AWESOME). I had Tailwind in my hydration pack and I also took along a few gels to give me some extra oomph every couple of hours.
The trail wound up and down through the dense rhododendron thickets that I had heard about. These were so thick that with the foggy weather, it was practically dark under them. Everything was green and lush with the infusion of moisture, and just beginning to be touched by fall colors. In places the trail was so rocky and wet that we were more or less running through creekbeds. The rain kept up steadily.
Around mile 6, I saw a spray-painted arrow that appeared to point right (it turned out I saw it from the wrong angle and it was in fact meant for the folks coming back in the second half to point the way we had come). The group of guys I was with and I took a wrong turn but luckily we realized our mistake pretty quickly and only lost maybe 8-10 minutes total, perhaps half a mile or a little more. We found the correct path and took off again, and I worked on catching several folks that I had already passed (gaaaah). But bonus, I did get to see Mary again for a bit!
Just before the mile 8 aid station, we waded through a section of shin-deep mud. At least the whole course wasn't like that! Unpleasant memories of OPSF and Jackson filled my head as I slogged.
As we got higher and higher up, the trees would open out into what on a clear day would be spectacular views, but today was just whiteness. Sometimes you could faintly make out a neighboring ridge, but mostly it was just solid fog. It was beautiful in its own way, surreal and otherworldly. It was definitely not a good place to ponder the plot points of the Stephen King novella The Mist.
The lower sections of the path consisted of a lot of double track/logging road, rutted, muddy, rocky, and very slippery. We hit more single track higher up with some very steep sections that were already getting torn up enough to be hard to negotiate. At times we'd run across granite-covered balds, following spray painted marks across the smooth slabs of solid rock. I picked my way gingerly along these; they were smooth and slick, and usually slanted. A fall there could have been very bad indeed. At one point we crossed underneath an electrical tower that buzzed and keened eerily.
In the exposed sections, the wind gusted pretty fiercely, but none lasted long enough to make me want to put on my jacket. The arm sleeves were perfect. I resolved to drop the jacket with Mark at the halfway point.
I saw the lady in second for the 50K about a half mile down the trail and told her she was only a half mile from the turnaround. Then I started grinding. For a trail that had been largely uphill on the way out, this sure seemed to have a lot of uphill on the way back! I think I was in sixth overall before two more guys went by and disappeared. For a while there was another guy nearby behind me, but I pulled ahead of him after the mile 19 aid station and didn't see him again. From then on, I was completely alone, other than occasionally passing folks coming the other way, or, a little farther on, folks in the 25K.
Through this middle section, I realized that my legs still felt really good and so did my stomach. Thank you, cooler temperatures! The climbs burned, though, and although I was still hiking them pretty hard, there were a couple spots where I had to spot and catch my breath. In several spots I had to crabwalk down or climb hand over hand up. The descents were usually runable, but not particularly fast (I am a chicken on descents), so I concentrated on being steady and moving forward. Any time I did pause, I took in the surroundings. It was a little eerie being totally alone out there in that silent, mist-blanketed landscape. It was very District 12 (and it is Appalachia, coal country, which is what District 12 was).
At around 26 miles, I paused for a bit longer than usual to chat with the volunteer about the weather and chug a little bit of Mountain Dew. I knew it was nearly all downhill from here and just kept telling myself to keep it together. Running those descents on all those loose rocks and slick packed dirt took a lot of concentration! But I managed to stay upright and just kept speeding up the closer I got the to the bottom.
When I hit the gravel road leading out of the wilderness and into town, I felt like I was sprinting (the last two miles were 9:39 and 8:43--after a host of miles in the 13-15 range!). I kept checking over my shoulder for the second-place woman, because I was terrified that she would catch me. I didn't see anyone but I kept pushing as much as I could because I was ready to be done!
I think I had my best executed race to date as far as fueling went; with Tailwind, gels, and aid station extras, I consumed a tad under 2,000 calories in 7.25 hours, giving me around 265 calories per hour. I'm sure the fact that I felt good the whole time and finished strong was directly a result of that. Let's hope I can keep that up for more than three times the distance next spring!
Although the rain did finally, gradually tail off late in the day, we weren't able to get a fire going. We babied along some little flames for probably an hour, but all we could get to catch was little slivers. I'm no champion fire starter, but this was my first all-out failure and I was annoyed. It was demoralizing, but I made more hot soup on the camp stove and we went to bed early. Our tent was dry and warm, the dogs were super cuddly, and the next morning the sun actually came out.
During the evening and the next day, I was thinking about friends still up on the mountain. Talk about guts! I saw later than Clay and Brian were sixth and seventh in the 100K, and Mary was third woman in the 100 in just under 34 hours! Daniel unfortunately had to drop after after a really rough first half.
After coffee and breakfast, we packed up camp and swung over to do a short hike on the Geological Trail, where I finally got to see some views and snap a couple of pictures. My legs felt stiff but not too sore yet, and the dogs were really excited to finally get out and walk around a little bit after being cooped up close to camp all weekend! It's truly a beautiful area. I've visited these mountains now a few times in the past year and I love them more each time.
Next up, Bourbon Chase, Monumental Half Marathon, and Flying Monkey Marathon. Can't wait!