The Ring

[0] Results

What I loved

  • A very real challenge with a very high possibility to DNF. I’ve been actively pushing myself to tackle longer or harder races since last October. Much of this after a humbling reality that I’m a strong runner but not experienced beyond a 12-14h hour adventure. I’ve been intentional with my training and racing in recent months to what I’ll call, toughen the ____ up [1]. I was eager to see how I’d handle a 71 mile day that will be more walking than running and more pain than comfort. The Ring, 71 miles of largely non-runnable, mountainous, rocky terrain absolutely lived up to the expectations. See below for my break down of each section.
  • An absolutely wonderful representation of the VHTRC. There were nearly as many volunteers as there were runners (~60 started Saturday morning at 7am). This was the best group of volunteers I’ve experienced at a race. Each aid station was extremely well managed with an added bounty of emotional support to keep me moving.
  • My last long adventure before Zinnfant #3 arrives. Nicole is due in mid Sept and I’ll have to put long days in the mountains on hold for a bit. She’s been overly supportive of my crazy running goals and it’s time for me to give some of that back. While I’m already thinking about races I otherwise would do, I’m more excited to spend that time with family. And maybe give my body a break for a bit.

[1] a borrowed paraphrased comment from a friend as he explained living in the VA mountains for a winter as part of his 200+ mile training. All so he can toughen the ____ up. Incredible.

What I learned

  • Learning to run with pain takes practice and commitment to practice. It’s easy to think you’ll be tough enough or strong enough to grind out late stages of a race but there’s a progression and practice that I strongly feel needs applied. I attempted a 100+ race nearly a year ago and quit early, having never learned how to run with pain. I thought I would be strong enough but had never actually put my body to the test. Since then has been a steady progression of training my body to run on tired legs, embrace suffering, and fight through pain. Please note, I’m not advocating to put yourself at risk of serious injury but there’s a reality that some races will almost guarantee some level of pain. When the pain hits, there is no faking it. You’ll quickly discover if you’ve put in the work, mentally, emotionally, and physically, or may very well find yourself on the wrong side of a DNF. As for The Ring, my ankles took some early beatings with all the rocks and my feet were noticeably sore by the time the sun set. I had blisters, legs covered in cuts and blood, a sore back from one bad fall and many other near falls, and all sorts of other painful spots that came and went. Everything hurt. I accepted the pain and kept pushing, walking until it hurt a little bit less, then shuffling again when I could. The pain was real, how I dealt with it was much improved from a year ago. I enjoyed seeing this progress and gaining some confidence. My revenge at four loops on The Wild Oak Trail feels a little more in reach.
  • At some point your mind will take a break. Navigating 71 miles of rocks takes a lot of brain power, constantly calculating every foot strike and constantly evaluating how your body is feeling. There was the added element of no course markings beyond the trail blazes and a turn sheet. Staring at the ground and paying attention to the trail markers became a mental burden at night that I should have anticipated. But shortly after the last aid station, my mind went to sleep, turning the last 8 miles of The Ring into an unexpected and somewhat stupid adventure. I made my first mistake about 6 miles out, missing an obvious turn off the fire road out of Camp Powell. I now recall looking at the trail sign and thinking that must be it, but kept running straight. I managed to find my wits a mile later, turning back to eventually rediscover the trail marker I had blatantly ignored. A few miles later, after my watch had died and some very poor calculations, I convinced myself I made another mistake. I ended up wandering in circles when I was, in fact, a half mile from the finish. That’s right, a 10 minute hike to the finish where I could finally rest and there I was going in circles for 90 minutes in the wee hours of Sunday morning. It’s hard to explain how this happened but 19 hours into a 71 mile race and it happened. I was quite terrified. The fear absorbed the pain in my body as I shuffled through the mountains in search of a clear directional clue. I was calculating how much water and food I had in case I was going to spend another 12 hours in the woods. I frantically paced up and down the trail until I decided to work my way back up the mountain toward my last confident marker. I was finally met with another headlamp, thankfully coming towards me, where a kind man ensured I was not lost and guided me to the finish. He guided me back down to where my madness started and finally, at 4:30a on Sunday morning, I entered the Fellowship of the Ring.
  • The power of humans is real. A few days later and I’m overwhelmingly inspired with how much support the VHTRC volunteers provided. They gave their weekend away to ensure idiots like me could play in the mountains. They constantly provided the emotional support I needed, even if they were lying to my face. I could ramble on but I’ll be brief, none of these adventures are worth doing or even possible without the element of human support. So give thanks to your volunteers, be kind when you are otherwise super crabby, and pay it all back down the road.

[Bonus] How to survive The Ring

A brief and loosely organized recap of each section.

To Camp Roosevelt

This section doesn’t suck but probably because it’s the first 25 miles of the race. Pace yourself and hydrate. I generally blacked out during this section, sharing most of the miles with a fellow first timer. We chatted about all sorts of life things to pass the miles which clearly worked as I remember very little. There are some climbs and rocks and some brief runnable sections. The temps started heating up and the second half into Camp Roosevelt became an early exercise in rationing water. My biggest mistake was taking in water only where the heat of the day caused some early cramping (both calves + hip flexors). So be smart, carry more fluids, drink electrolytes, and treat that first aid station as a real aid station instead of pee break.

To Crisman Hollow (9 Miles)

This section sucks, running out of Camp Roosevelt, into Duncan Hollow, and eventually to Waterfall Mountain. It was early afternoon and the sun was beating straight down on Duncan Hollow. The bugs come out in full force with late summer humidity to make this exposed section quite miserable. There’s a subtle grade that you’ll want to run but the sun, humidity, and bugs zap all your motivation. So it’s a grind. Your reward for getting through Duncan Hollow is a modest set of climbs that eventually descend to the base of Waterfall Mountain, near mile 32. The only saving grace is the handful of creek crossings before ascending Waterfall. I soaked my feet and calves in each of the creek crossings to provide some interim reprieve [2]. Getting up Waterfall is no picnic but also the most difficult climb of the day if you can use that as motivation. Everything’s easier after Waterfall, said by no one….

[2] I heard another runner tell a story of drinking from the creek because s/he’d rather deal with Giardia later than continue suffering in the moment. That’s a pretty good synopsis for The Ring: suffer slightly less for 15 fleeting minutes for a week of diarrhea.

To Moreland Gap (6 miles)

This section really sucks. After stretches of 13, 13, and 9 miles, you get excited for a short distance between aid stations. Then you realize you have to navigate Kern and all its glory. This was the second hardest section of the day [0]. You are rewarded for your climb up Waterfall Mountain with a relatively gentle early section that provides some momentary false confidence. Then you start bushwhacking through heavy thorns and poison ivy/oak/whatever. And then you start boulder hopping up and down large, jagged rocks. This year we were blessed with large tree blowdowns that blocked the jagged rock descent. There was some modest reprieve at the end but those middle miles were some of the hardest all day. So just when you think you’ll get through a nice little 6 mile stretch, Kern reminds you what the Orange Blazed Massanutten trail is all about, delivering pain and suffering.

[0] Hardest sections ranked: (1) Signal Knob (2) Kern (3) Duncan Hollow.

To Edinburg Gap (8 miles)

I was happy to see Nicole and the boys at Moreland Gap. Seeing their faces 40 miles into the race made the miles that remained feel somewhat surmountable. It was getting late in the day and I promised Nicole I’d “hammer the next section” to meet her at Edinburg. It was roughly 5:30p so I was additionally motivated to reach Edinburg Gap before sunset. I pushed a hard effort and it still took me longer than expected. That’s the reality of every section of The Ring. Whatever time you think it will take, add 30 minutes to 2 hours. There are climbs and rocks, and more rocks. And when you’re tired, you start kicking those rocks and then tripping over those rocks. I had one bad fall, going down hard just before reaching the fire road. Thankfully nothing more than a hurt ego and some flesh wounds.

The lesson learned, there’s no hammering sections on the Orange Blazed Massanutten trail. You just grind and realize you’ll reach your destination whenever you get there. I reached Edinburg as the sun started to slip behind the mountains. I took time to say goodnight to the boys and for a brief moment, forgot that I still had 20+ miles of night running with a shit ton of rocks and more bushwhacking.

To Woodstock Tower (8 miles)

Another 8 mile grind. These 8 mile sections just wear you down. It’s really not that long but guess what, it’s all rocks! By this stage of the race, it was dark, I was in 6th place [3], and I was starting to fade. I kept trying to catch the person in front of me but in reality was getting caught by the people behind me. I don’t remember much of this section other than it was dark, I was still sweating a lot, and my poles were acting like machetes as I shuffled to Woodstock Tower. The crew at Woodstock was amazing, saying all the right things to get me back on my feet and on my way.

[3] the winner was done and sleeping where I had 20+ miles to go. He set a new CR!

To Camp Powell and Signal Knob (6 and 8 miles)

I kept telling myself, “two more segments.” It all felt doable even if tiring and painful. Getting to Powell was relatively easy. Lots of PUDS (pointless ups and downs) as others have noted. I made up some ground in this section and caught up with the two runners that passed me heading into Woodstock. My brief motivation to stay or pass them was just that, short lived. I rested and ate at Powell before starting the final section sometime after midnight. A few things to note about this last section (aside from getting lost).

  • There’s a good bit of fire road, mostly climbing, but a nice reprieve after kicking large rocks all day. I usually dislike running fire roads but it’s nice to open up your stride and generally give your weakened ankles a break, especially this late in a race. Knowing this ahead of time would be nice to look forward to when suffering through Kern.
  • Descending Signal Knob is a death wish. I can’t emphasize this enough. It’s 3 miles of death rocks. Not trails with rocks but all rocks, all sharp rocks. Right when you think it might be over, more rocks show up. Then the trail suddenly disappears, as many runners experienced, and you have to find your way back to the trail to hopefully discover the hairpin turn that is far from obvious.
  • Bring your turn sheet and stay on Orange!

[Double Bonus] Thank you

Special thanks to Quatro Hubbard for all his amazing RD work. I’ve now done a few of his races, each of them exceptionally well run.

Special thanks to Guy Towler and the many other aid station volunteers.

Special thanks to AJ for making the first 25 miles easier.

Biggest thanks to Nicole for constantly supporting me in these adventures, and bringing the kids out to support me while two weeks pregnant. She hauls the boys around the mountains all day to see me for a combined 10 minutes.

 

 

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