I narrowly squeezed in the George Washington Birthday Marathon the day before Connor was born. A newborn is not exactly conducive to running ultras, but I stumbled across the OSS CIA 50. It was local and only 40 minutes away in Prince William Forest. With a 7pm start it wouldn’t exactly cut into much family time. I wasn’t particularly well trained and figured it might kill me, but why not give it a shot?
There were about 100 people signed up with some opting for the 6pm early start and some starting at 7pm. Despite the cool spring a massive heat wave rolled through just in time, and it was over 90 degrees at the start. It never cooled down very much and was hot and humid with temps above 80 most of the night. With a night start and the crazy weather, it was a monster of a race. This was definitely another one to chalk up in the character building category.
We set off into the heat and made our way down to the South Valley Trail. I settled into fourth or fifth place and fought the urge to join the lead pack. I kept the effort well in check and just cruised along. The first 10-11 were beautiful single track rolling trail along the stream. The sun was still shining, and I was having a good time on a beautiful run through the forest.
I blew through the mile 7.4 water drop stopping only to say hi to the one and only Gary Knipling. He was out volunteering on course, and it was awesome to see him. I was in third at this point and briefly caught up with Erin, who was running in second place. He took off before the next aid station and was out of sight from there and held on for a strong second place finish.
I moved fast (probably too fast) through Oak Ridge aid station for the Farm to Forest loop. This was allegedly 1.8 miles, but was at least half a mile longer than that. Unfortunately, I was already starting to show some wear and tear here. Uh-oh. My headlamp also stopped working almost as soon as I had turned it on despite having fresh batteries. Fortunately I also had my trusty, badass flashlight. Then I spent some time changing out the headlamp batteries back at the aid station, which was time well spent.
I hopped on a few more miles of single track trail, and from there we had about 5 miles of fire road. I was really starting to feel it on this section. My stomach wasn’t so hot, and I realized I was really overheating. The temps just weren’t going down and I couldn’t get my body temp under control. After a few more miles of hilly single track, I was falling apart. I was coming up to mile 23 and felt wrecked. I’d been running in 3rd for a while with a good lead but saw 4th and 5th coming up fast beyond me as my pace slowed.
I knew this was the make or break point of the race. In 3+ miles I would come back through the Start / Finish at 26 miles (it was a two loop course). I could limp in from here, pull the plug, and get some sleep. Or I could suck it up, fix my problems, and get this thing done. I’m apparently not very smart, so I opted for the latter.
I doused myself in cold water at the mile 23 water drop. I needed to spend way more time for the rest of race cooling myself down. You think about this a lot when it is daytime and sunny, but throwing cold water over your head in the middle of the night seems more like hazing than a good idea for self-preservation! I upped the S-cap intake as I was definitely behind on electrolytes. I got down some solid food. I threw all of my time goals out of the window. I had figured mid 8 hours should be doable with a really good race and mid 9 hours if things didn’t go well. Clearly neither were happening. Mostly important I vowed that when I got to mile 26 I would take whatever time I needed there but would get the hell out of that aid station no matter what. Coming into the race I knew the crux would be getting out of mile 26 and the finish area. If I could do that, I’d have a good shot at finishing.
I was still holding on to 3rd when I got to the Start / Finish. I doused myself in more cold water, ate food, restocked my pack, got my iPhone for podcasts / tunes to entertain me, and stuffed my hat full of ice. I spent almost 10 minutes in the aid station (unheard of for me in a 50), but it was time very well spent. 3-4 more people came into the aid station while I was there. It was game on though, and soon I was off into the hot night.
I started off conservative but made good time. I kept on fueling and continued to gradually feel better and better. The podcasts were a good distraction (thanks This American Life!), and I was having fun again. The crescent moon was beautiful in the night sky. This whole 11 mile stretch was a chorus of frogs from the stream. In fact they were all over the trail so avoiding stepping on them was a good way to stay awake! Fortunately I succeeded.
I came to mile 36 and the Oak Ridge aid station. They said I looked good, and I felt good. On the farm to forest loop I switched from podcast to music. From here on out it was trashy pop and 80s music. I took off and was hauling ass on this loop. After dropping a few fast miles it was back to reality, but I came back to Oak Ridge moving really well.
But as I passed 40 miles the going got tough. I was still running smart but was just getting to the edge of my fitness. I cooled down at each water stop and kept focusing on food and hydration. My legs were shot and I was paying a price for running in the Salomon S-Labs, which weren’t enough shoe for me. But the miles ticked off, and I knew I was going to finish.
I really wanted to hold on to third place, and we came up to a .75 mile out and back that was 7 miles from the finish. When I didn’t see anyone on the out and back, I knew 3rd place was in the bag. I was wrecked and hurting, but I kept on pushing. I was getting blisters on my feet (unusual for me), my legs were shot, and I was ready to be done.
Dawn was just coming as I finished the last few miles. It was cool to finish right as the sun was coming up. In previous overnight runs I’ve always felt super tired at least once and like I was going to fall asleep on my feet, but that never happened this time. In the last mile I turned it up a few notches and ran hard to the finish. It was quiet at the finish area but I had some good cheers as I came up to the finish line.
I finished in 3rd place in 10h33min. 29 people finished out of the roughly 100 starters. It was an incredibly tough run but I was thrilled and very glad I did it. Athletic Equation really put on a fantastic race, and I look forward to doing more of their races in the future. The breakfast spread was awesome, the aid stations / volunteers were stellar, and I took home a sweet beer stein for my efforts.
After cleaning up I napped for maybe 30 minutes in the car and then cheered in some of the other finishers. I drove home, quickly showered, and then went with the boys to a birthday party at the fire station. Totally exhausting but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
I will strongly consider doing this race again in the future and would encourage others to do the same. But I will caution that it was much harder than I expected and should be given some serious respect. A few takeaways:
- Fixing problems early is key. If you wait too long, it is really hard to come back.
- Time goals in ultras are pretty meaningless. Getting your heart set on a certain time is a recipe for a DNF.
- Go into the race knowing what the hardest part will be and mentally prepare yourself for it. I knew that getting out of the 26 mile start / finish area was make or break. For Trail Verbier I studied the course in detail and knew getting past the first 20 miles was crucial given that stretch was much harder than the rest of the course. This is essential for the mental game.
- Running at night is difficult and slows you down (wow, big shocker there, Will)
- Navigation was a huge part of this course. Many struggle with it and get lost. I brought a map with me and spent a lot of time studying the course. It also helps that I have run quite a bit in Prince William Forest. I’d recommend anyone doing this race to do their homework beforehand. Course markings are sparse but are sufficient if you know what you are doing.
Now I am trying to get fully recovered, but I look forward to the next adventure!