I’m 30 miles and 7 hours into a 100-mile race and all I can think is how I no longer want to be wet.
Even thinking about a post-finish shower makes me cringe, since it will require me to remain wet.
I’ve found that during low points, I latch on to negative thoughts. Just like a kid who refuses to part with his blanket, I attach myself to arbitrary thoughts and won’t let go without kicking and screaming.
Even when it serves no purpose, and in this case, even though I know there is a good chance I’ll be wet for the next 20 hours — I still latch on.
My experience running this year’s Thunder Rock 100 had many moments like these … when I succumbed to negativity and desperately wanted to stop moving. But it also had a number of highs.
Moments when the trails aligned in just the way I would have wanted before the adventure began.
This report is my attempt to share not only stories, but highlight both the moments which went right and the moments that went wrong.
Because a look at just one only tells half the story.
Miles 1 to 41: Getting Into a Rhythm
The first 10-15 miles of any ultramarathon are all about balance. Balancing your fresh legs and instinct to move faster with the reality of all the hours, miles, and challenges to come.
On top of that you’re dancing the delicate line between aggressively moving into the right position so you’re not stuck behind a long train of slower runners, and going out too hard and becoming one of those runners playing speed control to the racers behind you.
This start was no exception.
The Thunder Rock course is a point-to-point route with over 18,500 feet of climbing and 18,000 feet of descent. Almost immediately after passing through the starting line, runners turn off the road onto beautiful singletrack and begin the first big climb — 1,000 feet in the first 3 miles — which makes the balancing act and dance that much more important.
Blow it now, and I may regret it for the rest of the day.
What Went Right #1: Easing Into the Race
As we make our way up the first climb, I resist the urge to pass a few runners hiking a section of trail I would’ve run on my own. They appear to know the course, and while they don’t know it at the time, I eavesdrop in on their course conditions conversation and begin looking at them as guides. I lock in behind one and we move at a very comfortable pace through the first 8 miles of singletrack.
Once we hit the first aid station, I refill a bottle and continue alone as we climb another 1,000 feet up an open fire road.
I had been warned that this section gets very hot when the sun is shining, but goosebumps cover my arms as a cool wind blows the first rain drops of the day down my back.
From the top of the service road is a quad-busting 2,100 foot descent down to the 150 foot wide Hiwassee River. Even with the mist and rain, the waist deep river is a refreshing escape after such a gnarly descent.
I’m having fun. The day is young and after months of training the run has officially begun.
Just after the river crossing I reach the first crew aid station, where my team is ready and waiting.
Since the rain is only flirting up until this point, I swap out to dry shoes, scarf down a hummus and avocado wrap, and continue up Starr Mountain. It’ll be another 24 miles before I see my crew again.
Within minutes of leaving that aid station, the skies declare war and it starts to pour. Almost immediately the horse trail becomes muddy, and my spirits begin to slip along with my traction. It will go on to rain for most of the next 18 hours.
Before starting the race, I was told that the views and trails along the course were incredible. I’m not calling that person a liar, but as the clouds and heavy rain socked in every overlook along this and most every ridge we covered, so I can’t confirm that information.
What Went Wrong #1: Succumbing to Negative Thoughts
I tell others not to get caught up in things they can’t control — weather being the one of the most important. But listening to your own advice is always harder than giving it.
“Damn it I just want to be dry,” I screech in frustration while reaching for my soft flask bottle.
Just as I squeeze tight to yank the bottle from my vest, the lid pops off and 16 oz of Tailwind shoot into the air with the force of a burst dam … soaking the left side of my body with sticky fluid.
“Damn it, now I’m sticky and wet!”
I lick my fingers … they actually taste rather good …
Much of the next 20 miles are spent dwelling on the rain, pruning skin, and strong smell of citrus sports drink.
Miles 41 to 64: Heads Down, Moving Forward
Just as the sun is setting, I reach the final one-mile stretch before the Firehouse crew access point at mile 41.
What’s important to note here is that this entire course is remote. Very remote. Even on the few paved sections or marked gravel roads, we’re in the country.
You see, people move to the country for a reason, and it certainly ain’t to have a race full of yuppies, hippies, or ultra-weirdos running with headlamps by their house on a Friday night.
I move quickly on this section.
As I run up on the Firehouse, my crew, consisting of my mom, Katie, Lisle, and pacers Griffin and Paul (yeah, my crew is stacked!) are ready and waiting.
What Went Right #2: Efficient Crew Stops
I learned during the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 a few years ago that crew access points were like sirens luring me in. I long for running into an aid station and finding loved ones, and the last thing I want to do when they’re so happy to see me is leave them again.
So it’s tempting to waste a lot of time resting and fiddling around with gear.
Going in to Thunder Rock, though, I was determined to be as efficient as possible moving through crew points. I’d swap smiles and excitement, get what I needed, and get out. And these studs gave me just that push.
With NASCAR pit-crew like precision, my oils were changed and I was back on the trail. This time with Griffin.
As I leave with Griffin it’s just dark enough to need a headlamp. We hit a few miles of pavement before winding our way up and down dirt service roads. This 10 mile section feels long, but we’re running well on the downs and flats and power-hiking up the hills.
Griffin is giddy with excitement, and the energy is contagious. We play chicken with bullfrogs (they always won), stare with amazement at the full moon, and sheepishly approach sticks we think are almost certainly, with 99% confidence, snakes.
No snakes that night.
Things are good.
As we leave the Cooker Falls aid station just after mile 50, a volunteer warns us of the trail ahead.
“The next section is super technical. Stay to the right and be careful!”
She isn’t lying.
Within feet we go from smooth service road to super technical riverside trail. To our left is a steep drop down to Cooker Creek. We stay right as instructed.
It’s foggy, dark, and quiet. We cross streams, stumble on rocks, and transport ourselves into the dark abyss mostly hidden from view.
The watch strikes midnight and Griffin and I celebrate that it’s Saturday. I’ll finish on Saturday.
The next several miles of singletrack through the Powerhouse aid station and up to Reliance at miles 64, where I’ll see my crew again and switch to a new pacer, are what I like to call head-down miles.
I feel good enough to push with intention, but an absence of excitement and layer of fatigue keep us both quiet and focused. Heads down, moving forward.
It’s not a bad place to be this far in.
Miles 64 to 84: Mind Tricks
Griffin and I arrive at the Reliance aid station at 3:02 AM, and crew is standing by.
It’s dark, I’m fatiguing fast.
Katie hands me coffee, Griffin swaps a hug, and mom has soup, burrito, and extra HUMA gels in hand.
I think to myself that they must have been rehearsing this back at the campsite. So efficient.
By 3:14 AM Paul slaps on a headlamp and we head up the overgrown trail.
I mentioned earlier that this course is remote, apparently even for hikers, as many of the trails look on the less side of traveled.
What Went Wrong #2: Far Too Tired
From leaving Reliance until Sun-up at Deep Gap (Mile 74), I’m in the pain zone.
Paul attempts to cheer me up with joyful stories, but I’m stuck in a downward spiral.
“It’s time for more nutrition,” he reminds every few minutes.
“How about another sip of water?”
I feel like I can’t keep up. My stomach aches and the simple task of swallowing the sweet energy-mush is so repulsive I end up chewing on it until it melts into my saliva.
Thoughts of sleep are overwhelming, and the wet trail looks more comfortable with each step.
“Haven’t we passed that tree already?” I ask.
“No, just keep climbing.”
Paul is reassuring, but I’m not convinced. I’m nearly certain we’re going around in circles.
Apparently I’m also certain the headlamp a quarter mile behind us is the moon. It was a beautiful moon.
It isn’t the moon … we aren’t running in circles.
The Deep Gap aid station is a godsend. At nearly the exact moment that I’m able to turn off my headlamp a volunteer is handing over coffee. She tries to pass over a breakfast burrito, but I politely decline.
Coffee, potatoes, salt, and chips. That’s all I need.
Paul keeps me away from the attractive heater and we continue forward, up the second highest climb of the race before a long downhill stretch on wide but overgrown fire road.
The new day brings new life, and we reach the Thunder Rock aid station at mile 84 in good spirits.
Miles 84 to 101: Back to Life
By 8:57 AM I’ve downed a cup of oatmeal, kissed my wife, and hugged my mom. Lisle has helped with a shoe change, Paul is resting after successfully getting me through the night, and Griffin is on standby for the next 6 mile stretch.
I’m certain I’m the luckiest guy on the course, and the energy and joy they bring resets my legs completely.
“Let’s roll,” I say to Griffin.
And we do.
The final 15 miles are comprised of the smoothest and clearest singletrack of the entire course. It’s mostly mountain bike trails, and Griffin happens to be familiar with them. If you can run here, now’s a good time to run.
I’m ready to run, and we log what feels like the fastest miles of the past 12 hours.
What Went Right #3: Flipping the Switch
When things get hard you’re faced with two options. You can (1) dwell on the hardship — tired legs, upset stomach, achy feet — or (2) flip the switch and focus on the other side.
Earlier in the day I struggled to flip that switch. Dwelling seemed more reasonable, considering the other side was so far away.
But now the end is in sight, and instead of focusing on the fact that I’ll be running for another four hours, I’m able to block out the bad and focus on the finish.
This final stretch has multiple crew access points, and I’m lucky enough to switch between Griffin and Paul for one final stretch with each. Even Lisle joined for a 3 mile section.
Heads are down, but this time there’s joy. This was a celebration of the past 20-some hours, and damn it I’m going to have fun and run hard … no matter how much it hurts.
For the final miles Paul is back to keeping me company, and I’m running with all my might.
After a quick 24-hour mark celebration, we run into two hikers somehow affiliated with the race.
“3.5 miles to go,” one yells.
I look at Paul.
“Think we can break 24:45?”
“You can do whatever you want,” he exclaims.
And I believe him.
Secretly, though, I want 24:30. By now my GPS has died, so I’m not sure how fast I’m going. It feels like sub-6 minute pace, but it’s probably closer to 12.
We book it.
Before long we’re directed off trail, bushwhacking our way through rugged terrain. Both goals slip out the window, but it doesn’t matter. I’m finishing strong and couldn’t be happier.
Per my request Paul announces every 5 minute mark, and when we hit the final climb around 24:45, a sub-25-hour finish becomes a reality. I can’t believe it.
Just hearing the finish line music makes me emotional. A few tears fall. We keep moving towards the noise.
Finally, there’s the crew — Katie, mom, Griffin, and Lisle — screaming with excitement along with the race director. I blow a kiss to Katie and cross with an official time of 24:50:53.
Why I Run 100 Miles
When asked why I want to run 100 miles, I don’t have a good answer.
I usually say that it has something to do with testing my limits, or seeing what I’m capable of. That seems to be something people can wrap their heads around.
But the truth is that’s only part of it.
Instead, I think it’s more about where the journey takes you. It’s about discovering the low points and mistakes, and truly living them. But it’s just as much about the highs. It’s about this overwhelming feeling of love that I feel each and every time I see the crew, and the excitement I get when I can feel the life coming back into my legs.
It’s about the emotions — as raw as my blisters — that make me so grateful for the health I have to run and the support I have from family, friends, and this community.
The finish line is amazing, there’s no denying it, but the journey is what you really remember.
One final thank you to my crew:
- Katie, you’re so inspiring and selfless. I love you.
- Mom, you’re my biggest fan and I’ll never be able to thank you enough for all the support.
- Paul, you saved me through the night more than you know. I’d still be walking in circles if it weren’t for you.
- Lisle, what a pleasure to have you join in on the fun. Your electric energy brings all of us joy, and I can’t wait to pace you some day 😉
- Griffin, you’re a stud and knew just what I needed. It was an honor running with you for so many miles.
And a big thanks to the volunteers and staff at Wild Trails. This is a world class race.
- Rock Creek Runner Hat
- Black Diamond Icon Polar Headlamp
- Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.o
- Suunto Ambit 3 GPS watch
- Injinji and Drymax Socks