THUNDER ROCK 100 TRAIL RUN
Rocks, Roots, Rivers, and Redemption
The End in Sight
Before I saw the finish line, I heard Michael Scott's booming voice through the woods, "Two Minutes!!!" Michael was described to me as Race Director Randy Whorton's "right hand man." Michael had become a fixture in my push to finish this beast, but at that moment, a chorus of Angels would not have sounded any sweeter to me. As I rounded the corner in a full sprint, the Rock/Creek Wild Trails finish line arch appeared at long last and I ran through it. My fists were pumping in the air and I was wearing a pair of running gloves from a good Samaritan that would not make the cutoff. As I collected myself on the other side of the finish line, a guy approached me and said, "Man, I just have to say, you dug deep. When we passed you coming down Oswald Dome, you looked like you were finished. Way to go." I don't know who that was, but his comment wasn't lost on me. The fact that I finished with only a minute and 55 seconds to spare began to hit me. What a journey. Two more runners made it under the wire; the last with only 50 seconds to spare. At the moment of our elation, I saw a pack of guys coming in about 3 minutes after the race was over. One of them had let me borrow an extra jacket and gloves coming down from the Dome. I handed the gloves and jacket back to him and squeezed his shoulder. There was nothing to say at that point. I've been there, and there are no words of solace that work in a moment like that.
Begin the Begin
My pursuit of Thunder Rock really began in March of 2012 when I did not finish the Graveyard 100. I didn't make the cutoff at the mile 87 aid station. For those who know me, you know that really stung and it was a monkey on my back. At that time, there was no Thunder Rock 100, but I knew I wanted to conquer the distance at some point downstream. I've often heard that the 100 mile distance is the Holy Grail for the ultra runner. Whether or not that is true, it definitely held significance in my mind, and was a goal I desperately wanted to attain.
When the buzz started about Thunder Rock, I was already trying to get in shape to make another stab at a 100. I had lost about 35 pounds and was setting personal records at several local trail runs, including Dizzy 50, Mountain Mist, and McKay Hollow Madness. I had a good base of 45 to 50 miles a week on which to build the higher mileage I would need for a 100 mile push. Cary Long, Benj Lance and several others in our trail running community had started talking about this one, but as the time drew closer and we saw the date for Thunder Rock had been set for May, many of us started to shake our heads. May, in Tennessee!?! We just knew this was going to be a hot and humid endeavour. But, when registration opened we entered, along with fellow Huntsville runners Will Barnwell and the man, the myth and the legend, DeWayne Satterfield. The fact that I would be sharing the trail with these guys and this caliber of runner further strengthened my resolve to get this one right.
The Night Before
With plenty of 70, 75, and 85 mile weeks behind me, I made my way up to Tennessee to join Cary Long, Benj Lance, Jeff Deaton, and Cary's crew: Martin Schneekloth, Jerry Abbott and Scott Bell at the cabin the night before the run. It was great to hang out with these guys. You can never beat back all of the butterflies, but I felt good, relaxed and in the moment. We built a fire and Will Barnwell and his wife Laura made their way over. Will always seems to be in a good mood and joking around, and while he was definitely himself, there was a little different air about Will the night before the race. He really seemed focused and that sense came through in spades the following day, when Will blistered the course and finished in 21:55:46. Will was a man on a mission and represented our Huntsville running community well.
Thunder Rock had a noon start on Friday and so we had time to talk the morning of the race. Martin was dispensing plenty of good advice and thoughts. One thing he said really stuck with me. He said, "Look, at some point, you are going to make a wrong turn and get lost. Don't worry about it. Just keep your head." That, along with my brother's text that closed with, "Enjoy the ride" are the two pieces of advice/guidance I carried into my 100 mile attempt. Both served me well.
Whitewater Center to Reliance (mile 25.3)
The run started at the Ocoee Whitewater Center and we were sent off to the sounds of AC/DC's Thunderstruck. We ran across the suspension bridge that spanned the Ocoee and under the Olympic Rings from the 1996 site of the whitewater events. We quickly entered beautiful single track and were on our way. The most memorable part of the first section was the unbelievable hail storm that hit us. We had dealt with an early shower prior to the race, but as my pack of runners came out from under the canopy of the woods to cross a section of road, the hail started hitting. It was pea sized and the volunteers at the Thunder Rock aid station were scrambling to cover food and protect themselves. One of the pieces of hail pegged me right in my inner left ear. No harm done, but what are the odds?
As we continued to press deeper into the woods, the trail took a steep dive down towards the Deep Gap aid station and I literally "mud surfed" down the last few yards and nearly fell ass over tea kettle onto the road where the aid station was situated. As I pulled out of this aid station, I heard a guy say, "What are we going to have to do to get Spurgeon (my brother) back out here?" It was Christian Griffith and Wayne "Weezy" Downey coming up on me. Those guys are the real deal. I've followed Christian's exploits for years on his blog Run100Miles. So, I fell in with them and we stuck together for several miles. They finally pulled ahead of me for good about 2 or 3 miles from the Reliance aid station. As I got close to Reliance, I passed the cabin we were renting and Scott Bell shouted, "Hey Shar, how are you feeling?" I remember telling him I felt like I had just jumped off the pages of a Marvel comic book. At that point, I did. But to borrow a line from Christian Griffith's race report, that's the time in a 100 when everything feels like "peaches and cream."
Reliance to Coker Falls (mile 39.27)
The section from Reliance to Coker Falls put us onto some of the most technical single track in the run. Much of it ran right on the edge of the Hiwassee River. This section ended with a climb up to the Coker Falls aid station. During this final push, we lost sunlight and had to pull out our headlamps. At this point, in the run, I fell in with a guy I dubbed the Silver Fox. He was completely gray, but man that old dude could move. I would have to surge now and then just to keep up with him. That was a slight blow to the ego.
Coker Falls to Manning Cabin (mile 45.87)
At the Coker Falls aid station, I had my Brooks Mountain Mist 50K pullover in my drop bag. It was getting down into the 40's with the sun going down (so much for our belief this was going to be a hot run). That pullover was a life saver at that point. Not only did I need the warmth, but for some reason, just seeing the Mountain Mist Running Skeleton logo gave me a mental boost.
Manning Cabin -- the Setback -- to Starr Mountain (mile 64.79)
This next section of the run prompted my friends to suggest that I capture my experience with this race in writing. So, here it goes: The Manning aid station was great! Pizza, boiled red potatoes and salt, peanut butter filled pretzels. Good people and good food. As I pulled out of the aid station, I was feeling great. I got back on the main road and was on my way. The road veered to the right and I kept on running. After awhile I noticed that I had not seen a flag marking the course in some time. I knew that Randy Whorton, our Race Director, said that he was only going to put flags out every half a mile, so I was not overly concerned, I figured I could have missed it. However, after running about a mile down the road and not seeing a flag, I started thinking that I had made a mistake. So, I turned around and ran back. When I got to the top of the road, I saw a flag and, seeing no other flags in any other direction, I convinced myself that I had made the right decision and probably had not run far enough down the road to see the next flag, or maybe some local kids had messed with the flags. So, I headed back again in what I would later realize was the wrong way. In essence, I made a mistake and then doubled down on it. After running a little farther down the wrong road, it came to a fork with no flags present. That was all it took for me to know that I had made a terrible mistake. As I headed back, despair fueled my thoughts. I started telling myself that I was going to blow this thing, and then at that moment, I remembered Martin's advice. "You are going to get lost. Keep your head." I saw the headlight of another runner heading towards me. I stopped him and told him he was heading in the wrong direction. At first, he didn't believe me, but he agreed to backtrack a few tenths of a mile to double check. We came to an intersection, with a road that took a sharp left. Although, we couldn't see any flags, we decided to head down that road and see what happened. Within about 20 yards, our headlamps hit two course flags -- they were not on the ground, but had been positioned on a guardrail on the side of the road. There had been no flags at the intersection, but at that point, we were just glad to be heading in the right direction. Later, I would figure out, based on my GPS watch, that my excursions had added over 4.5 miles to my run.
At that point in the race, my previous goal went out the window. Now, my goal and objectives became crystal clear. I had to make each cutoff at the designated aid station and finish the race in under 30 hours. That isn't what I wanted, but it was my new reality. I had several things going for me at that point. I had set my Suunto watch to the 50 hour setting and it served me well for the rest of the run. Also, Cary Long had made small sheets with each aid station listed on them along with the time you would need to hit them for various finishing times. I had stuck two of them in a pocket of my Nathan hydration pack. One was for a 27 hour finish -- that was out the window. The other one was for a 29 hour finish. Before I left Huntsville, I had also written the cutoff times in the margins of the sheet. So, I knew that I had to make Starr Mountain by 6:30 am, Iron Gap by 9:30 am, Quinn Springs by 12:20 pm, and McCamy Lake by 3:45 pm. Making each cutoff was the ticket that would allow me to make the final push to the finish line before 6:00 pm on Saturday. Finally, my head was back in the game and my legs were still in good shape.
My foray down the wrong road had cost me in another way as well. Rebecca Reynolds, a fellow Huntsville trail runner, had agreed to serve as my pacer (Thunder Rock called them safety runners) through the night. However, when I didn't show, Rebecca moved further up the trail and we never connected. I owe Rebecca a big apology and next time Rebecca, I will be where I'm supposed to be.
On my way to Starr Mountain, I fell in with two runners who really helped me push my pace through the night. They were Ali Turfe from Ann Arbor, Michigan and Jeremy Miller from Chattanooga. As Ali said at one point, "We make a good team." Desperation can make good teammates out of total strangers. No doubt about it. I had a brief bout with dry heaves during this section, but I kept running through them. In fact, my loaded coughs made for an interesting light show as the spray flew out in front of the beam on my headlamp.
We made the Starr Mountain cutoff by 20 minutes. Michael Scott showed up just after we arrived and shouted, "It's time to start shutting this station down!" That was our cue to hit the road!
Starr Mountain to Iron Gap (mile 74.33)
With the sun coming up, I ditched my pullover in my drop bag and headed down the mountain towards our next aid station and cutoff time. We made it under the cutoff at Iron Gap by 30 minutes. We were feeling good because we were starting to put time back into the bank. But again, Michael Scott showed up and said it was time to shut this aid station down. No rest for the weary -- we were on our way.
Iron Gap to Quinn Springs (mile 83.37)
In order to make it to Quinn Springs, we had to cross the Hiwassee River in two places. By this time, I had teamed up with a couple of other runners - a husband and wife team from Mentor, Ohio -- Sean and Amy Hensley. The first crossing had a rope assist system that extended over the waist deep river to help you get across. While the river was not deep, the bottom is full of softball sized rocks that are uneven and slippery. We came out on a little piece of dry land in the middle of the river and then had to cross another section of the river to get out. All of this slowed us down. However, we still managed to make Quinn Springs with over 50 minutes before the cutoff. I took the opportunity to dry off, get on a fresh set of running clothes and change my shoes. My Hoka Stinson Trail shoes had served me well for 83 miles, but it was time to get into my dry pair of Newton BOCO ATs.
Quinn Springs to McCamy Lake (mile 93.29)
In between Quinn Springs and McCamy Lake is a little climb up to Oswald Dome. The runner's guide provided to us ahead of the race described it like this, "After you dry off and reload after your river walk, you will embark on the biggest challenge of the day, perhaps of your life." The climb up to Oswald Dome is 2,200 feet over 3.9 miles. It consists of some very narrow, slippery trails (due to the rain) and has several heartbreaking false summits that turn into just another switchback. After finally making my way to the top, a cold rain started falling on my way down. I was moving slow and it was at this time that the guy caught up with me that offered me his extra running jacket and gloves. He was smaller than me, so while the gloves were a perfect fit, I basically had to throw the jacket over my shoulders. I'm sure I looked like a little old lady at church, clutching her shawl, and I probably looked like I was on my last leg.
However, as we got to the bottom of the Dome, I could actually start moving with purpose again and I took off the jacket and slipped it through the bungee cords on the back of my hydration pack. I kept the gloves on and started moving. We made it to McCamy Lake under the gun.
McCamy Lake to the Finish Line (100.02)
I heard some guys at the aid station say they were going to "walk it on out" and just get to the finish line. However, that didn't sound right to me and I headed off on my own at that point. I'm glad I did. Those guys didn't make it. The final stretch had some sections of tough single track and a few more stream crossings. I finally came across a group of EMTs who said we had a little over a mile to go and it seemed more like 2.5 or more after all was said and done. I broke into a sprint within the last mile or so, because I could see that I was losing a bunch of time and the finish line did not seem to be getting any closer. Finally, I came across a lady who yelled, "Get a move on! I just walked from the finish line and it took me 7 minutes to get here. You only have 4 minutes to go before they call the race!" I pushed even harder at that point. I made it, but what a journey.
Even after having a week to reflect on it. I am still amazed, but mostly dumbfounded. When I stop and think of the number of things that could have robbed me of that one minute and 55 seconds along the way, it is nothing short of a miracle that I made it across that finish line.