The short version:
We ran 20 loops of a 3.1 mile course to finish our first 100K distance. I often tell people that a 50K is totally doable if you’ve run a marathon, it’s really not that much further to go. 50 miles, however, is a lot further to run. A 100K (62 miles) seems like it shouldn’t be THAT much more difficult than 50 miles, but it is, by a long shot. 100 miles? I still can’t wrap my mind around it. Tailwind may be the greatest thing that’s ever happened to my running thus far. I didn’t trip, never mind fall, once. I also didn’t get any blisters. Matthew Hammersmith, Upstate Ultra, and all of the volunteers put on an incredible race. The end.
The long version:
I’m not exactly sure how we came to the decision to sign up for the Knock on Wood 100 M. It was most likely fueled by the fact that we finally realized we wouldn’t make it back up to Vermont for INFINITUS, and we needed to do something ridiculous to ease the FOMO we would surely experience. So we found the “Without Limits Race Series”, which advertised a 5K, 50K, 24 hour relay, and 100 mile race, all on a 5K loop.
Realistically, Geoff and I both know we’re not ready for 100 miles yet. It’s taken a few sort-of-attempts to truly face the reality that 100 miles is a really, ridiculously long way to run. But a 50K wasn’t far enough. Yeah, you read that right, and trust me, I still can’t believe I’d say such a thing myself. 31 miles is “not far enough” is the kind of statement that should merit a psychiatric evaluation. I’ve entered a strange, dangerous new territory in my running career. But as I was saying…100 miles was too far, 50K not far enough, so since this was a looped course, Geoff and I decided our #1 goal was to hit the 100K mark, a distance we had not yet achieved. We had been training hard the last few months, and I felt confident that this goal was easily within our reach. Knock on Wood 100 would be the perfect opportunity to give it a whirl.
Pre Race: We drove up to Greenville late Friday morning, arriving at Lake Conestee Nature Park in Mauldin somewhere around 2:00 pm. Thankfully we were able to grab our bibs and t-shirts, and set up our tent in “tent village” just before the sky opened up and started POURING down rain. But we had a few hours to kill before the 9:00 pm start, so the rain gave us the perfect opportunity to hunker down in our sleeping bags and try to rest up before the race. Within moments Geoff was sawing logs (you know, snoring), but I was tossing and turning, anxiously thinking about how I was going to deal with being soaking wet and cold throughout the middle of the night. So I bided my time reading the trail running magazines we were given when we picked up our bibs, and waited patiently until I felt it was the right time to start prepping my feet.
The Start: The rain had let up just in time for the start. A quick pre race meeting, where the RD reminded us to be smart on the first loop, don’t get lost, and don’t be a jerk hole when checking in at the end of each loop. Soon after we lined up in the dark for the 9:00 pm start. Because the 24 hour race was a relay, there were a ton of teammates and support crew there to send us off. It was truly a wonderful and motivating atmosphere.
Mile 1: I overdressed in a bad way. You’d think after 10 years in this sport, I’d know better. Not even 2 minutes into the race and I was pawing at my jacket, pulling down the zipper and pushing up the sleeves, wishing I had something else on. The trail was crowded and I found myself running much faster than I knew I should be. I didn’t wear a GPS watch so I have no idea how fast it was, but it was fast enough to cause heavy breathing. The red flags of “you’re doing something stupid” were waving frantically in my head. But it was virtually impossible to escape the very tight crowd, as we were all meticulously picking around the number of huge puddles that littered the trail, so I had to keep up with the group pace…or end up potentially tripping someone. In the midst of all of that chaos I was trying to adjust my headlamp, and the light itself ended up falling right off of the headband. So there I was, running too fast down the trail at mile 1 of a very long night and day, sweating, trying not to fall in the water, and holding pieces of my headlamp in my hands.
A literal hot mess.
As soon as I could, I hopped off the trail and yelled for Geoff. I said something along the lines of “woah, I’ve got to regroup” (or more likely, a string of four letter words that implied I needed to regroup) and he told me it was no big deal, he wanted to get out of that crowd too. I stripped my jacket and long sleeve, fixed my headlamp. Restart.
I was happy Heather once again. Until I missed a step and landed ankle deep in a puddle. So much for dry feet.
Mile 2-19: I often tell new runners that “there is no such thing as TMI (too much information) when it comes to running, but this may come close to crossing that line. I’ll put it as delicately as possible: I ate a lot of food Friday, and come Friday night really needed to, uh, “evacuate” some of that food. (Poop. I needed to poop.) But for some reason, my body betrayed me, and wouldn’t let it happen. For the first two or three loops, I tried to take care of business at the restroom room at the check in/aid station, and I tried again at the mile 1.5 port-a-potty in the woods.
Over and over, I tried, and failed, until finally I decided to just suck it up and run while feeling like a bloated whale. It wasn’t comfortable and it certainly wasn’t fun. But as far as running was concerned, I felt fine. Suck it up, Heather.
So we ran. Mile after mile, loop after loop. We truly lucked out with the weather, other than a few quick showers that were barely felt among the trees, we stayed very dry. At some point early on I changed my socks (because of the aforementioned puddle incident) and put on shorts (because it was a lot warmer than anticipated).
Around mile 19 I started yawning…and couldn’t stop. It had to be about 2:00 am, and this old lady hadn’t pulled an all-nighter in YEARS. I went from just dandy (minus the angry colon) to stumbling all around the trail like a drunk in the matter of minutes. I was so sleepy, I felt like I could sit down right there and take a nap.
Earlier, Geoff had suggested we start the race, then sleep a little, then continue on. I thought this was a stupid idea, as I was certain I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing other people were out on the course logging miles. You know, that obnoxious, competitive voice in the back of my head that shows up even when I’m trying my damndest to NOT be competitive.
But at that moment, stumbling around on the trail, I wanted nothing more than sleep. We weren’t out there to win ANYTHING, hell, technically we weren’t even trying to actually finish the entire course. So as soon as we finished lap #7, we checked in, got our wrist band punch (a back up method to keep track of your loops) and went to bed.
Mile 22 – 24. Two and a half glorious hours of sleep that came surprisingly easily, despite all of the noise going on around tent city. Even after just those 2.5 hours, I awoke feeling refreshed…and my stomach was no longer pissed off. The sun was starting to come up as we got dressed and headed back out for lap #8.
My legs felt brand new, and thus we cruised around the 3 mile loop a lot faster than we probably should have. Other racers, not knowing we had taken a nap, were looking at us like we were freaking super-heros (or giant assholes, take your pick), bounding down the trail effortlessly with peppy smiles on our faces. I actually felt a little guilty, as some of them looked to be exhausted and in a ton of pain, all thanking the running-gods that the sun had finally come up…and there we were fresh as daisies. Alas, the nap had set us back 3+ hours and 10+ miles, so nothing good comes without consequences. All of that said, I still think the nap was an A+ decision, and I don’t regret it for a second.
As the sun came up, we were finally able to see the course we ran 21 miles around the night before. And it was GORGEOUS. Everything was so painfully, beautifully green, the leaves almost appeared to glow. I felt like I was frolicking, I was so happy to be out there in that very moment, among the breath taking forest, doing something I love. The trails truly are my sanctuary.
The course was essentially 1/3 pavement, 1/3 trails, and 1/3 bridges, wooden walkways, and wooden 2×4’s across swampy areas.
I don’t know if I didn’t pay attention to the race website (this is likely the case) but I was surprised at how much pavement there was. This didn’t make for a bad course or anything…just a surprise to this trail loving girl. And a wee bit tougher on my joints.
Mile 25-55. This recap could go all day long, so let’s just sum up a good 50K portion of this race with the following highlights:
-NUTRTION: Tailwind is the most amazing product ever made. I hadn’t raced with it up until this race, and I’ve never before in my 10 years of running felt so GOOD during a race. Any time I’d feel my energy levels starting to dip, or the “cranky” feeling starting to creep in, I’d chug a half of a bottle of the Tailwind, and within minutes I’d start to feel good again. We laughed and chatted our way through probably 90% of the race.
I went through about 1 bottle (9-12 oz) of tailwind per 3 miles, along with whatever other nutrition my little heart (and finicky stomach) desired at the aid station. The volunteers, who were utterly amazing by the way, kept commenting on how HAPPY I looked every time they saw me. I told them it was only because they kept seeing me at the food buffet, ha! Other foods consumed included:
Cool ranch doritos
Occasional sips of Coke
2 frosted sprinkle coated sugar cookies
– FOOT CARE: Geoff’s feet hated him, causing us to stop for multiple shoe changes, sock changes, and even an attempt at using trekking poles to help ease the pain. I told him from the get-go to wear his Hokas, but he didn’t listen. And that’s OK, because most days I don’t listen to the solid advice he gives me, heh heh. We did end up having to walk a lot of the second 50K due to his feet, but he let me sucker him into running as much as possible. For example, when he would say something like “oh, this is my favorite part of the trail!” I’d reply with “Great, that means we should run it!” and take off.
My feet, however, were perfectly content in my Hoka Challenger ATR 2’s. Around 30 ish miles, I could feel them starting to swell a tiny bit, so I decided to change into my Lone Peak 2.5’s for the extra toe space. While my toes were happy, the firmness of the Altra soles made my heels and plantar fascia very angry, so after another 3 mile loop, I put the Hoka’s back on.
As far as blister prevention went, I seemed to have dialed it in, for these race conditions at least. A good coating of TriSlide, followed by an even better coating of Anti-Monkey Butt powder seemed to keep my feet lubed AND dry. Topped them off with one pair of socks (Darn Tough) and I made it out of the entire race completely blister free.
– At one point in the race, we were about to start a long descent when we heard a scream from behind us. I turned around to see the first place 50K runner (50K race had started at 9:00 that morning) lock up in a nasty leg cramp. Geoff and I ran over to him and eventually made him sit down on the ground. His calf and quad were indeed locked in a contraction, and the poor guy was in a ton of pain. I got a gel with a decent amount of sodium from another racer passing by, and made him take it, hoping the potassium and sodium would help the muscle relax. I also started massaging his calf, desperately trying to remember anything I was taught in my sports med/athletic training class back in school. Eventually his muscles loosened, and he went down the trail on his way. I think he won, or placed or something, so I’d like to think I put a little good trail karma in my bank for the day.
Mile 56-62: The delirium and crankiness started to set in. I had felt so fantastic up until this point, still completely able to run with very minimal soreness, but all of a sudden my feet gave me a big fat “F*CK YOU”. The arches of the Hokas started burning the inside of my feet. I could feel what seemed like every single bone in my feet suddenly aching with every step. And the yawning started again.
While I had initially and yes, foolishly, started this race knowing our goal was 100K, but thinking to myself “surely I can do more than that”, I suddenly found myself completely content with stopping at 100K.
But… we still had those last two loops to go. Sufferfest. This is why you do this Heather. Embrace it.
We pretty much spent the last 6.2 miles discussing feet in general, and our theory that people who finish 100 miles must have feet of steel. Because for me, personally, my mind was sharp, my legs felt great (I could still run), my nutrition was spot on, I didn’t have any blisters…but damnit my feet still HURT, and they hurt A LOT. This never happens during training, so I can only imagine it is a factor that you learn to suck up better over time, with more experience.
As we made the final loop around tent city, a row of awesome ladies were sitting there cheering us in. They asked how many laps we had left and I said “this is it!” to which they started cheering loudly and wildly. I felt the need to cut them off and say “…but only for 100K” as they thought we had finished the full 100 miles already. Ha, I wish! They congratulated us none the less and we headed on into the finish line.
After our 20th hole punch, I asked the girl behind the computer to confirm that we had 20 laps. She said we did, and I told her we were done. 100K in the books. She told us that our time would be listed as a 50K finish (longest 50K ever, haha) and then congratulated us.
Being that this was *technically* a “DNF”, I wasn’t expecting a finishers medal, but we were given these anyways. An awesome finishing touch to an amazing day (and previous night)!
This race was a HUGE confidence booster as far as training and my ability to cover long distances goes. The back to back long training runs paid off big time, and that was especially apparent with the 3 hour nap between a 21/41 mile split. My nutrition kicked ass, I never had “Gu belly” or a gut bomb, and more importantly, I didn’t cry (or even come close to it) once. However, there are a few things I definitely need to work on:
1 – Aid station stops. We REALLY need to start bringing a crew to these things. Between the two of us, we end up stopping at our tent for “stuff’ way more than we should. It probably added hours to our finish time. In this particular race, we weren’t shooting for any specific time, so it didn’t matter. But in the future it might.
2 – Sleep deprivation. I’m not exactly sure how to work on that, but I do know that I prefer morning starts. At least that way I can get an entire day of running under my belt before bed time. This nighttime start was a fun experience, none the less.
3 – Feet. I really don’t know how to train for this aspect, as my feet didn’t start hurting until about 55 miles in, and no one really does 50+ mile training runs. I suppose it will just take more experience…and truly learning how to mentally push through that pain.
A huge shout out to: (deep breath, it’s a long list!) race director Matthew Hammersmith for a fun, incredibly well executed race, all of the volunteers who helped make this race happen (especially the aid station people who filled my bottle every time, and found whatever food we wanted for us), all of the great people we met out there on the course who kept us smiling and entertained (Brian, Travis, the lady who found Geoff’s nipple tape hilarious, the lady who scored us some energy shots, the guy who carried the flag for the entire 100 miles…I apologize I don’t remember or know all of your names!), photographer Scott Thomason for the fantastic photos and making us smile every time we saw you out there, the spectators (especially the crew next to us in the Coastal Carolina University tent…thank you for helping me pick out shoes, and asking us every single lap if we needed anything! It meant the world to us).
One of the reasons I adore the trail/ultra running community is because it truly is a FAMILY. You can show up to an event like this all alone, but you will never actually be alone; everyone is always looking out for each other. Ultra runners are some of the most amazing, selfless, giving, and motivating people I have EVER met. I’m humbled to be a part of this fantastic community.
And of course, I can’t forget to say thank you to my Geoffrey. I could do these ridiculous races without you, but it would be nearly as fun. You are the best pacer, race partner, “danger noodle” remover, snack sharer, and hydration pack zipper-upper in the entire world. I love you.
Next adventure??? Stay tuned…