It was during a 9-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail last fall that the ultra bug hit me. After all, I was hiking 15-20 miles a day with 30-35 pounds on my back and enjoying it (mostly) -- why shouldn't I give a long trail race a shot? At least I wouldn't have to carry as much...
The Bel Monte 50K seemed a logical choice. The date looked right, and I'd done the 25K version of it two years ago -- so I had some familiarity with the course. It also looked friendly from a spectator standpoint, with easy access to several aid stations, so Carmel would be able to cheer and crew for me too.
Despite a rough late winter, I'd got in several 20-mile plus long road runs and some solid 10-15 mile runs on local trails. And I'd knocked out a 1:14 at the Charlottesville 10-Miler only a few weeks before. I did wish that I'd gotten in a few longer days on the trails, but my hydration and nutrition had held up well during my training, so I felt cautiously optimistic going in.
ACT 1 - No hurry...
The Bel Monte course is an out-and-back, distinguished a few interesting features. The first and last couple of miles are on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which makes for an easy start and a finish with long sight lines, so you can see if anybody is ahead or behind you. And the outer few miles are on a rolling gravel road -- pretty easy going. The middle is virtually all single track, some of it quite rocky. The course plunges 2000 feet from the crest of the Blue Ridge to the valley below between miles 7 and 14 with a tough series of switchbacks occupying the first 1-1/2 miles and 1100 feet of the descent. Needless to say, that descent turns into a climb on the return, starting at mile 21 and pitching up sharply near mile 27 of the 34.2 mile course.
It was a clear and warm morning, with temps predicted for the upper 70s or lower 80s. The lack of leaves at the higher elevations was a concern to me, so I slathered on sunscreen at the start and wore a hat. With the gun, I tucked in at the back of the field and warmed up slowly. It was a small field -- only 39 starters for the 50K, out of about 120 or so doing the 25K or 50-miler. As we started down the Parkway I moved up gradually. Turning east off the Parkway we entered the pretty White Oak Falls trail and descended to the stream crossing. From there a series of steep switchbacks led up to a crossing of the Parkway, and the first aid station, around mile 5 or so.
To this point I'd stuck to plan, walking one minute out of every 10 no matter what, drinking from my hydration pack on the 10s, and taking in a gel every 40 minutes, with two salt tablets on the hour. My pace was steady and I felt good. After getting a quick shot of sunscreen from Carmel at the aid station, I was back on my way. Leaving AS1 the trail pitched up over a blend of smooth trail and rock gardens before descending down a jeep trail to AS 2, the start of the steep switchback descent. I'd caught a few stragglers along the way, but the field was well spread out by this point.
As I started down, I passed 25K runners working their way back up the climb, most power walking the steeps. Crossing the stream at the bottom of the switchbacks it was into new territory for me. The running was pleasant. Gradually downhill along a swift-flowing stream with several calf/knee deep wades at the stream crossings. The cold water was a pleasant distraction from the growing heat of the day. A stubbed toe and a tumble onto the trail were the only problems I encountered.
Hitting AS 3 I took stock. 13 miles in and the day was going well, though I'd gotten a little behind on my nutrition. Hydration and salt intake seemed good, so I wolfed down some salted potatoes, sucked down some Coke, filled the hydration bladder, grabbed gels from Carmel, and put on more sun screen.
The sunscreen was a good choice on the out-and-back stretch of gravel road. There were a few rises and dips, but nothing like the Fox Mountain loop I'd done in training. As I headed out the road I started counting the returning runners. After 4 miles I hit the next aid station and realized I was in 13th place, and I knew there were a couple of runners only a little ahead of me. On the return trip I could see them ahead and slowly reeled them in, hitting AS3 in 11th at mile 21.
ACT 2 - Exit, pursued by a bear
The run downhill to AS3 had been a pleasant trip. But I knew that the benign trail I'd just come down was going to bite me going back up. I topped off my water, slugged down more Coke and potatoes and moved on.
Right away I adopted a disciplined approach. Run 100 steps, check your HR. Over 155? Walk, checking every 20 steps until its under 145, then run at 100 steps or until its over 155 again. I'd used that strategy on the second trip up Jarman's Gap during a training run and it seemed to work for me.
The day was getting hot by now, so the stream crossing were a godsend, letting me dip my hat and bandanna into the water for some cooling action. I held it together well, walking and running, for the next 6 miles or so, passing 26 miles and into the great unknown. Then the switchbacks began.
All the while coming up the valley I'd been doing my math. If I could hold my pace around 15 minutes per mile going up the ascent I'd been in great shape to go under 7 hours -- a pretty good time on this course, based on past results. but pride goeth before a fall -- or in this case a steep trail just about stopped me in my tracks. Try as I might I couldn't keep my momentum going and soon was reduced to walking 50 steps, putting my hands on my knees and sucking water out of my drinking tube -- at least I had that. I fired down caffeinated gels and salt tablets to pick up my energy and struggled on, reduced to 28-minute mile pace as I climbed.
But even in the worst of times cool stuff happens. As I walked I heard rustling int brush on the trail to my side. I stopped, and out popped a black bear, about 10-15 yards away, oblivious to me. I watched him for a moment, then thought it would be best if he knew I was there. So I gave a couple of loud barks and he rashed away into the underbrush.
I'd gone the last 7 miles by myself, but as I approached the next AS, I saw another runner struggling up the hill. I hoped I didn't look as bad as he did, though I'm sure I did. Entering the aid station I saw him and one other runner taking a break. Nothing like competition to give you energy -- I bolted down two cups of water, grabbed some peanut M and Ms and took off at my best power walking pace.
ACT 3 - Duel in the Sun
I walked best I could and gradually started trying to run again, stopping once with a wicked cramp that convinced me I was going to have to DNF. But after a minute or so it loosened up and I was on my way, still no sign of the runners from the aid station. The trail was rocky, but downhill, and I gradually loosened up and picked up speed.
As I reached the BRP crossing again I figured I was in 9th position. Carmel was on hand to feed me more Coke and give me the remains of our ice to stick under my hat. Only 5 miles to go, with the last 2 or so on the Parkway. In the bag!
As I left the overlook I looked back and recognized the green shirt of one of the runners I'd passed in the aid station coming out of the woods behind me. I picked up the pace as I started down into the woods but soon hit some rough patches that left me reduced to a walk. Soon green shirt came along and passed me. I tried to hang on but soon he'd disappeared into the woods. Oh well...
It's amazing how tough the last few miles of a race can be, but I was encouraged onwards by numerous day hikers who were enjoying the fine weather. Then as I turned a corner, there was green shirt, only 30 yards ahead. I guess he'd had his own bad patch too. Gradually I caught up, but lagged about 5-10 yards behind on the trail. I'll save it for the Parkway...
We hit the Parkway neck and neck and I took a quick moment to get a last sip of Coke from Carmel, then took off in pursuit. As we worked up a long hill, green shirt was reduced to walking, but I was able to run/walk and close the gap, then stretch out a lead. Over the top of the climb he found his next gear and passed me on the way down. And so we yo-yo'd back and forth over the last mile -- I could close the gap, but never close enough to make the pass. Finally I saw the finish, and crossed the line in 7:32, good for 10th overall. I lost my AG to green shirt, whose name is Wes -- nice guy, and he earned the win.
34.2 miles -- what a day!