Friday, September 5, 2014

Iron Mountain part II



Saturday August 30th, 2014
Iron Mountain 50 miler
Damascus, VA

We drove most of the day Friday from the Wilmington, NC area and got into Abingdon in the late afternoon, checked into our hotel and then went to Cracker Barrel for a pre race meal. I had the lemon trout, which I hoped to be some sort of good luck food since trout are very abundant in the streams and rivers of my home state Pennsylvania. I salted my vegetables heavy, following the advice of an ultra running friend Stephanie from the day before. After our country style feast Aren and I drove to Damascus to pick up all of our packets (I got us a bit lost on back roads... he joked at one point it was like being in some kind of amity horror flick as it got dark and started to rain... while we wound around country roads passing old barns and abandoned buildings).

Next morning we rolled out a little before six a.m.and descended into the darkness back down to Damascus. None of us slept that much. But once we parked the car at the town park and got out in the fresh, cool and dewy air, any tiredness was supplanted by anticipation and adrenaline for the mammoth task at hand. After bathroom stops and a few quick pictures it was time to check in and attend the 50 mile pre race briefing. (they, Aren and Natasha were running the 30). I doubled and tripled checked the laces on my shoes, found a quieter spot and said a short prayer, and we were off and running at precisely 7am.

The first few miles heading out of Damascus and onto the Virginia Creeper Trail afford the opportunity to sort of wake up the legs, shake off any rust, and also stretch the out field of about 75 runners. It is a wider, fairly flat trail.  I wore a cheap wristwatch that was set to clock time, and didn't worry too much about pace. Mostly I tried to settle in and get comfortable while enjoying the scenery, especially on the several wooden bridges that cross over a small river. Quite picturesque, and a welcome distraction.

At the Straight Branch  aid station about 5 miles in, there was I'm guessing a high school cross country team that wished us runners well as we passed through and crossed a road to get onto the Beech Grove Trail. Which is a single track trail that climbs up a mountain side to intersect with the Iron Mountain Trail. This trail like most on the course can be quite rocky and root strewn, so footing is always at a premium and concentration can never waver much. I fell in with some other runners and we alternated walking the steeper sections with running the parts of the trail that weren't so vertical. At one point the sun had  crested up and over an adjacent ridge line as visible thru the trees...and I remarked that it looked as if we were running straight into the dawn. A beautiful site to behold.

I had decided before the race the best approach mentally to running my first 50 miler was to break it down into several shorter runs from aid station to aid station. In my back pocket was a piece of paper with all the aid stations written down with their distances, and the cut off times runners had to be thru in order to not be pulled from the course. Based on the pace needed to finish in 12 hours or less. (I also wrote down some directions and an inspirational William Blake quote Scott Jurek uses, as well a trail running mantra used by Caballo Blanco in Born to Run "Easy, Light, Smooth, Fast")

I rolled into the FSR 90 aid station well ahead of schedule and feeling pretty good. Recalling the advice of my friend Michael to "eat eat eat," I ate a few small pbj sandwiches, drank some gatoraide, and had my 12oz water bottle filled by one of the many supportive and attentive volunteers on course. I pulled out my paper to confirm the next aid station was at Skulls Gap in 7 miles (mile 16) and headed back out onto the trails. Run to the next aid station, that's all, I told myself.

The next 7 miles were a lot of rolling single track thru dense woods. The sun was out and it started to warm up even under cover of the trees, and it would continue to get fairly warm throughout the day (into the 80s). I felt pretty good and on sections of flat trail and downhill my pace felt fairly frisky (perhaps a little too much as evidenced by my struggles later on in the day). Nonetheless I was enjoying myself and had really settled into the whole adventure aspect of it, and ended up coming into the Hurricane Gap aid station at mile 22 in a little over 4 hours, or a few minutes past 11am. Here I again ate some mini sandwiches, turkey and cheese, and also grabbed some nuts and made a baggie of trail mix that the young girls there suggested for me (including gummy bears as one of them told me I should have). ((( as an aside their enthusiasm was infectious and made me feel like some kind of running rock star both times I approached and heard their screams cascading thru the woods ))).

After leaving out I walked maybe a mile or so up a steeper fire service road until it crested, and I then ran again fairly fast down the back side until the course took a left turn and back onto single track. I estimated at some point I was half way done which pleased me; I was still feeling pretty good and foolishly (hindsight being 20-20) started thinking about what kind of time I could finish in (was low 9s now possible??).

But in the back half of the race the hills and climbs became much, much more arduous, and I started to get a taste of why this race is considered such a tough 50 miler ultra to finish. Over the next several miles my thought process shifted to lets just try and finish this thing... and not worry so much about time. I chided myself for my earlier bouts of naivety and perhaps foolishness pace wise in lieu of the total scope of the ultra. And really now internalizing that I was just running to the next aid station, nothing more, nothing less. The next aid stop was Rowland Creek Falls at mile 29.

Whereupon in addition to the usual fare of drinks and snacks (I was also drinking Mountain Dew, Coke, and Gatorade in addition to having my water bottle filled with water at stops) I was given a freeze pop. Perhaps by triggering some subconscious childhood memories, this freeze pop really buoyed my spirits as I plummeted back into the woods, and onto more uphill trail. The next section of single track trail I alternated running and walking. We crossed several shallow streams  the next few miles and hit some thick muddy type bogs that nearly sucked my shoes right off my feet. In one of the streams I paused to clean off my shoes to remove the weight of the mud.

It was only 3 miles to the next aid station, Hurricane Gap again, which thankfully went by fairly quick. However once leaving, the course started on a fire service road that wound seemingly forever up, up, and up to the highest points in elevation of the race. I walked almost all of this, in retrospect perhaps I should have run some... I don't know. I do know again this is where my thoughts shifted to more along the lines of lets just finish this and not worry about time per se, and also into a darker realm of can I actually finish this thing?... especially again later as I got to around the 40 mile mark.

But I was able to get back to running and once I would be running again my spirits would pick back up.  I'd get a little mojo back and perhaps even a small smile flashed across by fatigued face. I felt ok as I crossed a road and pulled up into the Skulls Gap aid station at mile 37. By now too the warmth of the day was taking a bit more of  a toll. I dumped water on my head and upper back which brought some temporary relief.  It always felt good to chat with the "sober minded" volunteers as well who can provide a good sense of feedback as to how I was holding up. Someone asked me if I wanted to sit down but I told them I may not get back up if I did so.

The next stretch to the FSR 90 aid station at mile 43 by far was the hardest for me, especially mentally. I had to really fight at times thoughts of wanting to give in, or just sit down trailside for a bit. Instinctively though I seemed to know that stopping, or sitting down would ultimately prove to be a poor decision... hence I would try as best as I could to arrest any negative thoughts while telling myself over and over to just keep moving forward, no matter how slow it may be. A couple of runners caught up to me and we ran/ walked together for awhile, and at one point sort of half panicked that we had gotten off course since we hadn't seen any pink streamers in a bit (I'm sure our perceptions were skewed as well...overall the course was very well marked.) And it also seemed like it was taking forever to get to the next aid station.

What a relief then it was to finally make it to that last aid station. I felt like once I made it there (and still had over 3 hours left per the cutoff) that I was going to actually finish the freakin' thing. I recalled from running the 30 mile race last year that there was still some work to be done, but also that there was a longer downhill section (albeit very technical due to rocks and the steep down grade).  And the last mile or so was flat in town back to the finish line. There were sponges in ice water that I and some of my fellow competitors used on the back of our heads and necks at FSR 90 that were a godsend. I wasn't eating that much by now; mainly just consuming fluids which would taste like heaven going down my throat.

Again I alternated walking all the uphill sections of single track and running the downhill ones, concentrating even more intently on every step. Miraculously I did not fall once in 50 miles, just tripped a few times. I stopped and chugged blue and red Gatorade at the last unmanned/ unofficial aid station, and kind of rejoiced almost religious like that these bottles were stashed here again (I kept looking for them for about a mile or two before I actually got to where they were. Several times I thought there was a small clearing up ahead, which from memory I knew where this "stop" would be located. Only to be disappointed once again that I was wrong, and it was just another small opening in the woods).

The final downhill section went by almost dream-like as I hopped and danced as best as I could on beat up legs from rock to trail to rock to root to trail. The wide trail crossed a few more streams nearer to the bottom. And at last I could see a road up ahead thru an opening in the forest. Down a hill and across two roads and back onto the Creeper trail, across two bridges, and I was once again running across the grassy field in the park and back to the start/ finish line ten and a half hours later. The applause of those who had already finished and / or were cheering for and supporting all of us out there was truly music to my ears, and made me almost weep with joy. I had done it. And it was one of the best feelings of accomplishment I've ever had in thirty years of running.

Hope to be back next year. Blessings to all,
Greg Zinner

Photo from Mary Shannon Johnstone