My training was decent, and I arrived at the race fit other than some lingering, nagging issues with my right hamstring and left Achilles. PJ and I drove down together from Arlington, and it was a scenic ride down that got us pumped for the time we’d be spending in the mountains. Logistics were all smooth, and before we knew it we were at the start line ready to head off at 5am.
Start to 23.6
The first 5 miles were on roads and gradually uphill. I chatted with Keith and PJ in this section, and we clicked off an 8:23 average pace without much trouble. It was a brisk but beautiful night with some epic stars overhead.
We blew through the mile 5 aid station, crossed some railroad tracks (just like mile 5 of Grindstone), got our feet soaking wet in freezing water at a stream crossing, and started up the 4,500 foot monster climb. It immediately got steep, and Keith and I settled in at a very manageable pace up the mountain. We could see lights above us on the trail, and Keith noted it felt a lot like UTMB.
We had settled in somewhere in the teens in the field. Soon early dawn approached, and we were treated to amazing views with the sunrise. The climb got steeper as we went up, and the last part was epically steep with a scramble up 30-40% grade to Pinnacle. But it was well worth it! The rocky summit had huge views of the mountains in the early light, and the crowd was pleased. We hung out for a bit taking pictures and loving life.
I was excited for the downhill and took off fast down the technical trail. We crossed the Blue Ridge Parkway and an unmanned aid station where I grabbed a donut. We had a loooong 4,500 descent from 5,800 feet and switchbacked our way down to an aid station 3 miles into the descent. I passed my bottles over to get refilled and started wolfing down food. They had fresh avocados that looked mighty tempting, and I was surprised that they were also sprinkled with salt. Delicious!
After a short gravel road uphill, we were back on switchback trails heading down the mountain. As we descended, it became more and more springlike. I felt great on this section and really enjoyed the spring foliage, though it was hard not to run too fast on the gentle grade towards the bottom.
We came to the road and then had a short stretch to the Curtis Creek aid station that we’d come through three times. I was WAY up on projected splits and surprised / worried to see I was under 11:30 pace through 23 miles. I again stuffed my face with food, including fresh avocados (a theme for the race), and headed out to the 8 mile loop that would take me back to Curtis Creek.
This section was added to the course when the Department of Transportation didn’t allow the race to do the last 5 miles of road to the finish. It had 2,500 gain / 2,500 descent over 8 miles so didn’t exactly look easy but seemed fine on paper. I liked the first part of the trail as we climbed up the mountain alongside a creek and waterfalls. At these lower elevations it was full on spring with wildflowers all over. I had eaten a TON of food at the aid station, and my stomach was a bit off on the climb. I used the climb to get caught up on hydrating, and luckily everything settled back in.
I started passing people on this section and went by two guys as I powered my way up the climb. I chatted with one guy for a bit, and he gave me two warnings about the course: 1) at the top of this climb we’d have a sawtooth section with super steep climbs and descents, and 2) the Crest trail you hit around mile 45 is the toughest and most technical trail on the east coast. Whatever, man. I run in the Massanuttens. How hard could it be?
Well the sawtooth section was a beast. The trail was crazy steep and overgrown. It lasted two miles tops but was slooow going. Mercifully we popped out onto a gravel road back down to Curtis Creek. I took in more calories and made quick work of the road descent.
My “A” target had been to get to Curtis Creek # 2 in 6:45 to 7 hours; I ended up arriving in just over 6 hours. Ummmm. I was either having a great race or building myself up for an epic blowup! I grabbed my poles from the drop bag, fueled up, and started on the next section that I knew would be the crux of the race.
Sunrise on the first climb
Big views from the top of Pinnacle!
Keith on the summit
Full on spring at lower altitudes
Lots of wildflowers on the trail after Curtis Creek
31.3 to 52.3
I studied the course ahead of time and knew this section would be epic and tough. You have two monster climbs and descents for almost 9K climbing and over 7.5K descending in just 20 miles on super steep and technical trails. Ouch.
I continued eating as I hit the trail and soon started the trekking pole rhythm up the steep grade. It was getting warmer at the low elevations, and I finally took off my long sleeve layer. I was in full-on Euro-trail power hiking mode and passed a few more people as we climbed. Then I started to cramp in my quads, which was raining on my power hiking parade. That has never happened to me before, so I didn’t quite know what to make of it and was a bit worried at this early point in the race. I figured it must be some combination of needing more fluids or electrolytes so double downed on both.
I was rapidly running out of water / Coke, and we fortunately hit the unmapped water stop at the Parkway. I had just caught another guy that I’d see-saw with for a while as I’d pass him on the climbs, and he’d pass me on the descents. We were back up and altitude and cooler weather with great views from Green Knob. We climbed up a few hundred more feet and then started the long descent down to Neal’s Creek. The first part was super steep and technical, and I was going slower than I would have liked. The trail mellowed out, and I started making better time down the mountain.
We popped out onto a gravel road by a campsite and followed the creek on the out-and-back to the aid station. I ran into the aid station at mile 39 feeling good and ready to crush some food. After chowing down and drinking some soup I grabbed my food from my drop bag and hustled out of there.
After going back on the road section we hit the Mount Mitchell trail that goes up to the highest peak east of Mississippi. I knew it would be a long climb but was looking forward to it. I popped in some tunes, busted out the poles, and started powering my way up. My biggest worry here was that they said it was a 14 mile stretch (and a brutally tough 14 miles) until next aid with only a water stop 5 miles in. I was constantly starving and burning through all my food, so I didn’t know if I’d have enough to get more through. For anyone who knows me, you know my worst fear on this earth is not having enough food and starving!
The climb was fun, and I got to the mile 44 aid station. They said I looked really good. I told them I felt really good! Mercifully they had some food (chips and PB&J), soda, and an electrolyte drink called Scratch that I put in my bottles. They also told me I was in fourth and that third place just left. Wow … I knew I had been moving up in the field but was pretty surprised that I was in fourth.
They told me to enjoy the next section, which would be on a relatively flat trail on the ridge. This was indeed an enjoyable stretch other than the bog-like parts due to melting snow. It was also cool how there were these big icicles still hanging next to the trail. Apparently there had still been a bunch of snow here until just a day or two before. I also figured this more mellow stretch would be a good time to FaceTime with the family, so I told them daddy was still alive and hadn’t perished in the mountains.
But all good things must end, and we turned left up what can only loosely be called a trail and was more of a face-melting ascent up boulders. We got to the elevation high point, and I figured I’d gotten through it and could enjoy the descent. Incorrect. We were on this knarly, technical boulder-strewn trail and went up and down 3 more peaks. I cursed myself for stowing my poles and slowly trudged through this section that my fellow runner had earlier called the toughest trail on the east coast. And you know what? I think that man had a point.
We started actually going downhill but the first stretch wasn’t really a whole lot better. We had a whopping 4,100 feet to descend and somewhere along the way it started to resemble an actual trail. This stretch was really, really hard to say the least. But I was mentally prepared for it. I knew that at mile 52 I shouldn’t judge the race based on how I’d usually feel at mile 52. This course managed to pack in more climbing and on more technical trails than the same distance at UTMB!
But my energy was good, my spirits were high, and I came into mile 52 with a smile on my face. The aid station crew again said that I looked fantastic. “I feel fantastic!” They had quesadillas here that hit the spot along with lots of other goodies. My feet were hurting, largely due to the Salomon Speedcross 4s not fitting as well as the 3s. I changed my socks, changed into a trusty pair or Speedcross 3s, and tucked quesadillas into any spare spot in my pack I could find. Apparently 3rd place was 10+ minutes head, but they also said it was his first 100, and he was having trouble eating. No matter though, it was way too early to go hunting.
Miles 31 to 52 were even slower than the slow split I had expected, but I was overall about on the pace I’d expected and left the aid station 12h42min into the race.
Views from up on Green Knob
On the ridge trail around mile 46
52.3 to 81.6
While the last section was a killer, I wasn’t out of the woods yet and had a 3,000+ foot climb back up to the ridge. The first 2.5 miles was mellow, and I was moving fast. The trail got steeper, and I was surprised before long to come up on 3rd place. He had a pacer with him, and I wished him well. He told me he’d get to the finish no matter what, and I told him to go get it and that finishing was all that mattered.
I was really hoping to get back to the ridge before sunset and managed to get back up there by 8pm to enjoy the last light reflecting off the mountains. Miles 31 to 58 are crushing, but the crazy thing is you then have 24 miles almost entirely downhill to mile 82. I knew this race would be about who still had legs to run this section well. I felt a bit worked over, and time would tell how much my legs would come back.
It was getting chilly on up at altitude so I put on my long sleeve layer and got the gloves / hat on. This section was a big loop with a short out and back from mile 45 / 61, so I had a few miles where I was passing people on their way out. I have to say I didn’t envy them the section they had coming up, especially in the dark. Ultrarunners are hard souls to say the least.
I refueled at the water aid station at mile 62 and had 3.5 of mellow trail until the next aid station. Nighttime set in, and the stars were coming out overhead with silhouettes of mountains around us. I was managing to run a little under 15 minute miles, but I’d need to pick up the pace soon when we hit the real downhill. I got to mile 65 aid and ate a huge amount of food again. Very soon after aid, I heard the cheers as another runner came in behind me. Whoa … I thought I had been putting some distance on people, but this was a good wake-up call.
I picked up the pace going down and started moving faster on the technical single track. I looked back and thought I saw two lights behind me now so was motivated to get moving, though I didn’t want to flame out with 30+ miles left.
We spilled out onto a fire road for the next part of the downhill. I was running well on the road, but my stomach and energy were not doing well. I spent some time trying to diagnose and realized that I’d kept eating well but had been drinking very little with night hitting and being higher up with cooler temps. I started pounding the fluids and felt better very quickly. Soon everything was back in balance, and I was hitting 9 minute miles on the downhill.
I figured we’d stay on the road until the aid station so was surprised when we turned off onto a trail. We kept on the trail and then started climbing. I got paranoid that I was going back up to Green Knob where had been at mile 35 before coming into Neals for the first time! I was especially worried since the mileage on my watch showed I should already be at the aid station. One thing I’ve learned is it is crucial to make sure small mistakes don’t become big ones, so I pulled out my waterlogged turn sheet. It looked like I was on the right track, and I turned left down the trail and soon was on the road to Neals.
I crammed in calories again here and decided against grabbing my jacket. I was still plenty warm, the next section didn’t go back up to elevation, and I had a pullover in my bag at mile 82 if I needed it. After a quick turnaround, I was heading up the gravel road 1,000 foot climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I felt super strong and was running some of this, clicking off a quick pace.
We crested and would have something like a 6-7 miles descent down to mile 82. I felt AMAZING on this downhill. I was just cruising away and was shocked to see I was running sub 9s. Then I started running faster and hit miles 80 and 81 in sub 8s. WHAT WAS HAPPENING?! In every other 100 I’ve run, my legs are toast by mile 80, and here I was running 7:50s. Crazy.
At the mile 82 aid station (more like mile 84), I stocked up on food again. The avocado wraps with salt were like magic and something I really need to find a way to get at future ultras. I grabbed my warm pullover in case it got cold up high and took off into the night for the last big stretch.
Lots of pretty creek crossings
Sunset up on the ridge trail on the second time around
81.6 to Finish
I have to admit this next 12 mile stretch was a lot of fun coming down in the morning but was much less fun going up at night. The first part is dirt road and was very runnable, but apparently not by me at 85 miles in. I tried to keep a good pace as we got to the double track, steeper section. The night was getting cold, so at some point here I stopped to put on the pullover.
It was approaching 2am, and the sleep monsters kicked in. I was fighting hard to stay awake on the climb. The switchbacks seemed interminable, and it was taking longer than I had hoped to get to the Parkway crossing that was ~1 mile from the aid station. I big internal debate started up. Should I sleep on the side of the trail? No William, that’s ridiculous. Just finish the damn race. But I’m sleepy. What harm could there be? Just keep moving, Will.
The internal debate raged on. But I was solidly in third place and not close to 2nd or 4th, so I guess why not? I found a comfy looking tree, sat down and leaned against it, turned off my headlamp, and set my alarm for 5 minutes. I woke up just before the alarm went off and trudged up the rest of the climb to the Parkway. I was happy to finally get there and see another human being. They had a person at every Parkway crossing at all times on the course, and I really felt for these volunteers who were out there in the cold with huge gaps between runners coming through!
I tried to get my legs moving on the 1mi+ downhill to the last full aid station, but the downhill legs were finally shot at mile 92. I was excited to get to the aid station and stock up for the last big 10+ mile push, which I knew could take a while. I tanked up on food, coffee, and soup. They also had the glorious avocado, hummus, and salt wraps. I ate a bunch, and they were kind enough to give me a baggie with some more that would fuel me for the rest of the race.
We had another few thousand feet and 3 miles to go on this interminable climb. With my post aid station high I pushed the pace and ran some of the uphill before the miles caught back up to me. We came to the last Parkway crossing and last unmanned aid station. I stopped to enjoy the stars overhead and turned off my light while on the road. Now we had 7 miles and 4,000 feet of descending left to go, which I knew would be no joke on beat up legs.
I’d been texting Jen periodic updates throughout the race, but I’d been unable to get out a message since mile 65 or so. But for some strange reason I was getting her messages. Poor Jen was up at 4am and worried about me. I could see her texts but couldn’t respond back, which was starting to stress me out. I kept up an alternating jog / fast walk and worked my way down the mountain. My headlamp was dying, so I used my flashlight as backup rather than waste time changing out the batteries. For some reason I had a lot of battery problems during the race with my headlamp and watch both dying before they should. Something to figure out for next time!
As we got to the last few miles, I felt very different from how I’d felt in previous 100s. I enjoyed the race a ton but wasn’t getting the elated feeling to finish or huge sense of accomplishment. I’d put in a hard effort, but it felt more like a day out in the woods than anything else, which was strange given the difficulty of the race and 3rd place finish.
About 200 yards from the finish, I got stopped by a cargo train, which added to the anticlimactic
finish. I had to wait there for 5 minutes, which stretched on forever! I was way ahead of 4th place, but it was hard not to be paranoid that someone would rush out of the forest while I stood there by the train tracks and make it a race for third. When the train finally passed through I ran hard to the finish and was greeted by the RD. I was thinking “so do I keep running? Is there another aid station? Oh, this is the finish? Cool, I guess I’ll stop running.” I took away a few things from this:
- Running 100 miles used to take an all-encompassing mental and physical effort, and I could only do it every couple of years. I very much respect the distance but may now be able to run 100 without that all-consuming focus.
- At some point I’m ready for the next challenge and something bigger (in the works … stay tuned).
- I probably could have pushed harder in the last 15 miles. Being all on my own in 3rd with no major milestone to shoot for made it hard to fight to shave 5 or 10 minutes.
But make no mistake, I loved every minute of the race and had an amazing time. Especially since this was the first year for Hellbender, a few comments about the race for those contemplating it:
- Course markings were flawless
- Aid stations were top notch. Only downside is I think I’m hooked on avocados during 100s now.
- The course is very tough and very beautiful. The Black Mountains in spring make this race well worth the trip.
- For a comparison point, I think this course is much harder than Grindstone. I’d say it’ll run 2-4 hours slower.
- While I didn’t stay in the bunks at the start / finish, they were really nice, and I’d stay there next time
- I highly recommend running Hellbender
Handcrafted beer stein for 3rd place
The finisher belt buckle is an impressive piece of work!
Link to the first 83 miles on Strava before my watch died.