What an epic weekend. Recapping the events is going to be hard, for reasons good and bad. The Tweet below captures the final moments, Sunday morning at 7am just as the sun started to rise.
13 starters for the 100. 2 finishers. Congratulations to Ryan Kidwiler and Josh Jones for two amazing performances. Congrats to Rob Tidwell and Mike Zinn for their long training runs of 90 and 105 miles, respectively. Injury, Fire & Rescue, Snow, Wind… what a race! #HotTWOT2018 pic.twitter.com/d9Wc5fSYVO
— TWOT Wild Oak 100 (@TWOT100) October 21, 2018
*Note: I ran 90 not 105.
- Race: http://www.searchingforgears.fitness/
- Where: West Augusta, VA
- When: Oct 19, 2018
What I loved
- I’ve repeatedly written about my love for The Wild Oak Trail so will not elaborate too much further. It’s such a challenging course, both physically and mentally: 28 miles with just under 8k feet of climbing per loop. I had done 8 single loops over the year as preparation for earlier 50 milers and Hot TWOT. I finished each of those loops with one thought, “how in the hell will I do four?” Somehow that question didn’t stop me from registering. I loved the challenge four loops presented, I loved the high degree of failure, and I loved knowing that I will discover more things about myself in one weekend than I could in an entire year.
- The RD and her small group of volunteers are possibly the most special humans I’ve ever met. I know that sounds extreme but it’s very true. The race offers no support aside from a few people keeping tabs of the 13 runners and a few people keeping the fire going back at base camp. I spent hours around the campfire talking to each of them, learning about their journeys, and generally finding myself inspired to be a better human. I left Sunday morning at 7a, 48 hours after I arrived Friday morning, thankful to have spent so much time listening to others. I told the group that I’ll volunteer next year if I’m not able to participate. That’s how special this weekend can be, just being there with individuals that will inspire you to be a better human.
- I signed up for my first 50 miler in January 2017 with 98% certainty that a 100 miler was not in my future. 50 felt stupid, 100 felt impossible. The 2% was that gremlin deep inside screaming, “just maybe.” Fast forward a year, I signed up for two more 50s and had 100 has my 2018 goal. I spent almost 10 months meticulously planning and preparing for Hot TWOT. I loved the focus and commitment this brought to my life. Almost every decision was met with, “does this increase my odds of completing 4 TWOT loops?” That kind of focus for that long was tough at times but also amazing. The weeks leading in left me paralyzed to think about anything else. There are so few moments we can put that much mental and emotional energy towards a goal and I loved every step of the process.
What I learned
Buckle up, this is long eff’ing list.
- There’s quitting and then there’s really quitting and there’s really really quitting. So I DNF’d. I tried really hard not to DNF as a friend warned me about the mindset of DNF’ing in an ultra. It’s a slippery slope once you submit. I’ll go into details but I’m at peace with this decision:
- I finished the second loop at 12:30a, just under 9 hours after I completed loop 1 in 7 hours, 20 minutes. I knew it was longer than loop 1 but never felt like I was at 9 hours. I spent the last 9 miles of loop 2 cursing every rock, stumbling down the mountain, and generally fighting back emotions. As I counted down the miles back to camp, I was prepared to drop. I wasn’t having fun, I was in pain, and I had no desire to do it again and then again. I was finally greeted by two volunteers and another DNF’d runner when I got back to camp. Technically I was in second place but I repeatedly stated place doesn’t matter when it’s a race of attrition. I sat for an hour by the fire, hydrated, ate, and otherwise prepared to officially drop. Just before 2am I crawled into my Jeep and shut my eyes. I quit.
- I had never car camped or slept in my Jeep and found it tolerable but not comfortable. I should have brought a pad or a cot. So I dozed in and out for almost three hours before finally emerging out of my trunk just before 5am. Those first few steps out of the car were painful. I greeted one of the volunteers who was half-sleeping in a chair by the fire. We talked for a few minutes, taking inventory of the carnage that took place overnight. Only 5 runners were left of the 13 that started. The Saturday single loopers were expected to arrive in a few hours. While I emotionally dropped at 2am when I crawled into my Jeep, I was technically still in the race. Strangely, I didn’t think twice and decide there was nothing else to do at 5:30am than to run another loop. So I quickly redressed, turned on my headlamp, and shuffled back out for loop 3. It was a wild few hours, from quitting to sleeping to running again. I never thought I’d get back out but here I was, climbing 7 miles straight up to the top of Little Bald.
- Loop 3 was an emotional roller coaster. I found myself yelling absurd things as I fought back the burning desire to turnaround in those early miles. Some of those absurdities included repeatedly yelling, “what did you say about my momma?!” and “for the glory of Merlin, daylight is mine to command!” Perfectly normal things for an adult to scream at 7am in the cold, dark woods. I finally reached the river crossing at mile 10.5 and was happily surprised it only took 3 hours, about 30 minutes longer than normal. I was moving! The next 18 miles were wild. Lots of ups and downs as I battled through the second morning. I even ran a good bit of the final 9 miles that I cursed the night before. While I was moving well, my left Achilles tendon was barking fire. The only solution was to run but any climb or walk would result in non trivial pain. There were even some sharp, shooting pains every few miles that became more concerning than annoying. I ran hard the last few miles into camp, at ease with the decision to really stop this time. Another 9 hour loop, yikes.
- I sat down again, greeted by a few volunteers, some single loopers, and surprisingly my wife and kids. I was done. I decided to eat, take my shoes off, and enjoy the stories of other runners. I even started thinking about a shower and bed. I hadn’t realized but three hours passed and I was still sitting by the fire. My family had left and I was getting ready to bring Hot TWOT 2018 to an end. Then that stupid, abrupt, and unexplainable decision to go back out hit me. It was approaching 6p and I started to gather my gear again for a final 28 miles through the night. While I was able to power through loop 3, I quickly realized loop 4 was not in the cards. I made it two miles up Little Bald before stopping and sitting. Two miles later I decided to turn around. Nothing felt right and I didn’t feel safe to continue. I was wobbly, stumbling over rocks, and quite terrified to grind out another 24 miles in the cold, dark night. I got back to camp at 9p, crawled back into my Jeep, and settled into another night of car camping. Right when my trunk closed, the rain started, and I was really glad to be under cover. What was rain down below was snow up top, and I was not dressed for either. 90 miles of running, hiking, sleeping, and eating, my Hot TWOT was finally over. I really really quit this time.
- Night running is fun until it’s not. I knew going in that I had very little night running experience. Not sure I’d even count those 5a morning runs on the trails. I was 10 miles into the 28 mile second loop when I finally turned on my headlamp. I was energized by the surrounding darkness and the focus my little bubble of light provided. This lasted about 6 miles before the fatigue started to hit. Eventually it felt like I was kicking every rock on the course. Navigating large climbs and descents became a type of grind I’ve not experienced. I finally reached the top of Hankey Mountain (aka Chinscraper) and just sat for 5 minutes, alone in the dark woods like any other adult would do on a Friday night. For unknown reasons, I was unable to zip open my pack to get the Oreo’s I so badly wanted. I really wanted those eff’ing Oreo’s. I angrily got up and started moving again, back to kicking and cursing rocks as I shuffled the last 9 miles back to camp. I’m not sure more light would have helped but I do plan to use a waist light to help when it’s dark and the legs are heavy. So yeah, night running is fun until your legs are destroyed and you wonder how the hell you’re going to do two more loops.
- Running with trekking poles is fun until it’s not. I had received so much mixed advice on poles and really hadn’t trained with them. I decided to start loop 1 without and bring with me on loop 2 if desired which I ultimately did. I really enjoyed having the poles at first. Crossing creeks was easier, shuffling over rocky terrain was easier, and taking some of the abuse off my legs gave me confidence for the miles ahead. Unfortunately what I didn’t expect is that my wrists would become sore. Never to the point that I was at risk of injury but my wrists genuinely hurt by the end of the third loop. It’s not surprising as the poles saved me from falling too many times to count. In hindsight, I would have either trained more with poles or waited until the third loop to start carrying them. In hindsight, I should have trusted my training and my legs opposed to reacting to what others were doing.
- Managing emotional reserves. My past ultra experiences have all been 50 milers, 40s, or 50k’s. I’ve done races where I’ve had to dig into the emotional bank early and other races where I have to dig in late. Managing these emotions for 100 or 112 is different. I went to music on loop 2 to eliminate the silence. I burned through every emotional outlet on the third loop. And I was completely empty by the fourth loop. I don’t want to admit this, but there were tears. I tried to picture seeing my wife and kids at the end but I wanted to see them immediately. And knowing they were hours away, if not more, was a hard emotion when grinding for days and nights on a long ultra. I would do two things differently, or at least try:
- Just turn off my emotions. I’m normally really good at this. Sometimes it’s with music, sometimes it’s counting animals, sometimes it’s identifying rocks that look like states. Lots of silly things that can pass the miles without having to “dig deeper.”
- Don’t plan to quit! I still don’t know why I ran the last miles of loop 2 and loop 3 ready to quit. I mean, I know why, but I wish I would have just turned my brain and emotions off and faced that decision later, if at all. I’ll have to work on my mental trigger for moments like this because when it hit on loop 4, I didn’t have the power to keep going. I just turned around and sprinted back down the mountain.
- Bring more clothes. I’ve run through just about everything this year. Pounding rain, cold rain, snow, ice, a polar vortex, extreme heat, and just about anything I would encounter on The Wild Oak Trail. I had a plan of what to wear but I didn’t bring extra clothes in case things changed. Nor did I plan to be out on Saturday night and into Sunday morning. I should have had multiple layers for multiple situations and generally been more prepared. I had two layers on as I started the fourth loop: a long sleeve under shirt and a smartwool top layer. I was sweating and then immediately cold when the breeze on the ridges hit. I would not have survived the rain and snow and freezing temps that I later learned came just after 10p on Saturday night. This is an easy but valuable lesson in being prepared.
It’s been a few days since this wild adventure concluded. My body feels almost normal again. My left Achilles tendon is still on fire but I’ve been able to walk a few miles each morning to help with recovery. I’m resisting the urge to run this week as that will only delay my full recovery. I don’t regret dropping even if I’m more disappointed today than I was on Sunday. This will not be my last TWOT adventure, this I’m sure, so time to recover and get back to training. Devil Dog 100 in December?!
For more pictures, read the brief timeline here: https://twitter.com/TWOT100