Around and Around I Go

July 31, 2014

Late last year, I started to hear rumblings of a new race being organized for sometime this fall. Joe Fejes, who broke the American 6-day record by running 555 miles at Across the Years, was looking to organize a multi-day event at an indoor track. The Dome in Anchorage quickly drew his attention.

And thus, Six Days in the Dome was born.

Six Days in the Dome

Apparently The Dome is actually a pretty unique facility. There is a full-size 1/4 mile track (actually just a tad bit longer), whereas most indoor tracks are half that size. Normally I don't run much at The Dome – it's fairly expensive to be a member there, and it's pretty much all the way across town from me, so it's not exactly convenient anyways. But during the winter, the Anchorage Running Club rents it out one night a week for members, so I do usually go to that.

The Alaska Dome

This race really piqued my interest. I reached out to Joe early on, saying that I'd be happy to help, since I figured it would be useful to have someone local. The next thing I knew, I was listed as the volunteer director on the website :)

I also wanted to try out running a timed event. Six Days in the Dome actually has 3 events – 6 days, 48 hours, and 24 hours. I wasn't going to jump into a 6 day for my first timed event. I briefly considered the 48 hour, but in the end I decided on the 24 hour. I figured it would be a good introduction to both timed events, and running around a track for an extended period of time.

So next week, starting at 9am Monday morning, I'll find myself running seemingly endless loops around a track. It's going to be a very different experience than any of the ultras I've run before. On one hand, it's a nicely controlled environment: no hills, no rain, no muddy trails, a constant 60 degrees, and there's an aid station every 1/4 mile. On the other hand, I'm worried it could get to be mind-numbingly boring. I'll have my iPod loaded up with plenty of music and podcasts to hopefully keep my mind occupied.

I'm also excited about the field of talented runners that are coming from all over the world for this race, to name just a few: Joe Fejes (of course), Zach Bitter, Connie Gardner, Frank Bozanich, Ed "The Jester" Ettinghausen, and Traci Falbo.

I'm especially excited to see how our local super ultrarunner David Johnston does in the 6 day. Dave smashed course records in both the Susitna 100 and Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 Mile last winter (with the 2 races just 1 week apart!).

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It’s been almost 3 weeks since the Sluicebox 100 up in Fairbanks, so some of the details are kind of fuzzy at this point. One of the things that I definitely won’t forget is sharing many miles on the trail with this awesome lady:

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I had met Sarah a few times before, but we hadn’t talked much and I didn’t know her particularly well before this race. There was never any discussion of it or planning before the race, but once we started running, we almost immediately found ourselves running together and chatting. We ended up running the first 50 miles together, before she pushed ahead while I was going through a rough patch, and then another 15-ish miles near the end after I caught back up to her.

It’s amazing how much you learn about someone when you spend that many hours running together. It’s as if time gets compressed. You go in hardly knowing someone, and then after 16+ hours of running together, you feel like you’ve been friends for years. One cool thing I’ll tell you about Sarah is that she’s in the midst of running the Alaska Slam – all 4 100 milers in Alaska in the same year. That’s Susitna in February, White Mountains in March, Sluicebox in June, and finally Resurrection Pass in August.

The week leading up to the race, Fairbanks got hit hard by rain. There were flood warnings, and I was getting worried about what we in store for during the race. It was still raining when Tony and I arrived in Fairbanks Friday afternoon in time for packet pickup and the race briefing, and continued all night until we went to sleep. Luckily, when we woke up early the next morning, the clouds had parted and we were greeted by beautiful blue skies. But I worried about what sort of condition all that rain had left the course in.

As it turned out, the main parts of the trail were mostly in good shape. But many of the lower areas had filled with water and turned into boggy mud pits. It was hard to tell how deep or mucky most of these were, so we found ourselves detouring around these areas into the bushes, in an attempt to stay as dry as possible. This was slow and time consuming, and definitely not one of my favorite parts of the race.

One thing I’ll say about the Sluicebox course is that it’s almost never flat. It’s not super mountainous around Fairbanks, but there are lots of hills, so you’re pretty much always going either up or down. Overall there was a little over 15,000′ of both climbing and descent in this race:

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Unlike Resurrection Pass, which was almost entirely self-supported, Sluicebox has a fair amount of support. There were 4 fully stocked aid stations, as well as 10 unmanned water stations, a few of which you visited more than once due to loops in the course. I wore a hydration pack with a 1.5L bladder, and that worked out really well for me. I kept it full of Tailwind most of the race, and began relying on that more and more for calories as the day went on, when my stomach wasn’t always in the mood to eat.

Another unexpected benefit of running with Sarah is that she had brought along 2 friends as crew members, and even though I had never met Karen and Mike before Friday’s race briefing, they adopted me as one of their own. I was able to have drop bags at each of the 4 checkpoints, so I had gone to the race alone feeling like I didn’t need a crew, but it was awesome to have Karen and Mike there to lend a hand, or even just see a familiar face at 2 in the morning.

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The section between the first and second checkpoints is one that they warned us about at the race briefing. It was a pretty wet section, and at one point you take a steep descent all the way down Ester Dome into what had become a lake, only to loop around and climb all the way back up again. The need to swim across was mentioned, and Sarah joked about stopping at the store to pick up a pool noodle after the race briefing. When we reached the bottom of Ester Dome, it was apparent they really weren’t kidding, there was a small lake down here, right in the middle of the trail! Luckily, we were able skirt around the edge of it and stay (mostly) dry. Though again, this was time consuming and frustrating. Then began the steep climb back up to where we had just come from…

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Right about the halfway point, there was a long, steep climb up Moose Mountain. One of the most frustrating things about this climb is that it was through a heavily wooded area, and so it was impossible to see how much farther we had to go. It was a climb that seemed to just keep on going forever, and it was incredibly steep in a few sections. I was getting tired and starting to bonk, but even going at a ridiculously slow pace up this steep climb, my heart was beating out of my chest and I was breathing heavily. I would have had to stop for several minutes to let my body settle down before I could eat or drink anything. Instead I decided to just soldier on and get to the top of this climb before I worried about refueling. But I was moving slowly, and this is when Sarah pushed on ahead of me. Finally I reached the top of the climb and turned onto a dirt road to begin the descent back down. I could see Sarah a few hundred yards ahead, but I needed a chance to let my body settle down so I could refuel.

Not long after is when I started hearing of people dropping, and it was starting to become a race of attrition. Overall the course was marked pretty well, but there are quite a few tricky turns that you could easily miss or get confused by. We managed to stay on course the whole time, but heard many stories of missed turns and extra miles run to get back on course. The brutal course and trail conditions, combined with the mental hit of going off course, was taking its’ toll on many people. I came up from another climb onto a dirt road and was immediately greated by another runner’s wife, asking if I’d seen him. He called saying that he wanted to drop. In a race like this, even if you’ve decided that you want to drop, it could be several hours before you get to a place where you actually can drop.

On this next dirt road section, I passed Houston (who is also doing the Alaska Slam). He was walking and didn’t look very good. I tried talking with him a bit and offering encouragement, but he didn’t seem much in the mood, so I continued on. I found out later that he had missed a turn shortly after the 2nd checkpoint and ended up running several miles extra. This was also his first 100 during the summer, and it had been pretty hot during the day (mid to high 70′s qualifies as “hot” by Alaska standards).

After climbing to the top of Murphy Dome (as I said earlier, there aren’t any real “mountains” around Fairbanks, instead they call them “domes”), I was treated to a steep, yet picturesque descent alongside the Alaska Pipeline.

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One of the benefits of running a 100 miler in the summer in Alaska: the above photo was taken around 1am. That’s as dark as it ever got – no need for a headlamp!

Nearing the bottom of this descent, I could see a steep ascent up the next dome where the pipeline continued. It wasn’t clear yet where the course led, and I kept thinking to myself “please don’t send us up that, please don’t send us up that, please don’t send us up that.” But alas, that’s exactly where I was headed. It was indeed a steep climb (the photo below doesn’t nearly do it justice), but thankfully at least relatively short.

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Shortly after that I found myself at the 3rd aid station, around mile 68. This is where the carnage really started to pile up. Sarah had just left the aid station before I arrived, so I knew she was still doing well. As I arrived in the aid station, I went straight for the bug tent they had setup (the bugs this time of year in Fairbanks are horrible). There were 4 other runners inside, the most I had seen at any one point since starting the race. Tony and Jason had already dropped. Michael (the one whose wife had been looking for him earlier) hadn’t officially dropped yet, but he wasn’t looking good. To my surprise, Houston was also there (who I had passed 10+ miles earlier). Apparently he had taken another wrong turn, which turned out to be a short cut to the aid station. He sat there with a 1000 yard stare, contemplating what to do next. If he continued from there, he’d be DQ’d for cutting the course. Jason’s wife offered to drive him back to where he went off course, which is the option he eventually took.

It was nice to see some familiar faces and share “war stories” from out on the trail, but I ended up spending way too much time at this aid station. Eventually I was on my way to the 4th and final aid station, this time only 10 miles away. I don’t remember a whole lot from this section, other than the sunrise I was greeted to on a descent shortly before arriving at the last aid station.

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This time, Sarah was still in the aid station when I got there. I did a quick sock change, ate some soup, and got out of there pretty quickly. Sarah had left a a few minutes before me, but I managed to catch up within about 2 miles. This last section of the course (about 22 miles) was not my favorite. It was mostly on dirt roads and rutted 4-wheeler trails. At this point the course felt a bit forced, like they were just piecing together whatever they could to get to 100 miles. I ran with Sarah until around mile 95, at which point I was just ready to be done. I was tired, and it was getting hot out again. We had been following a ridge line for a while, away from tree cover, and I was baking. I dug deep and found an energy reserve from who knows where, and pounded the final 5-6 miles as fast as my legs could carry me at that point.

Relieved, I crossed the finish line in 27:56, my slowest (but by far most difficult) 100 miler so far. Sarah finished about 30 minutes later. To give you an idea of the difficulty of this race, only 6 of 15 starters finished. My time was good for 3rd place. My hat is off to Houston for gutting it out and finishing in 32:33 (the cutoff is 36 hours).

I’m extremely happy to have finished my 3rd 100 miler, and especially one as difficult as this. Overall the race was well managed, but I wasn’t a big fan of the course. The difficulty from the amount of climbing didn’t bother me, that was one of the things that attracted me to this race. Rather, it was the surface of the majority of the course I didn’t like. As I mentioned before, there were lots of dirt roads and rutted 4-wheeler trails – not your typical running trail. I also wasn’t a fan of the many boggy, swampy sections that left me with wet feet most of the race.

Will I be on the lookout for more difficult races, with even more climbing? Yes, definitely. Will I run this particular race again? No, probably not.

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On a recent weekend, I was in the position of needing to do a long run, but because of some things my wife had going on, I needed to be relatively close by in case she called and needed me home. Not having the liberty to spend several hours in the mountains, instead I headed for a system of “urban” trails that are close to home. By “urban” trails, I mean honest-to-goodness dirt trails, with plenty of rocks and roots and mud, found right in the middle of Anchorage.

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My first stop was University Lake, near the UAA campus, and just a little over a mile from my house. The lake has a nice dirt trail going all the way around it, a little over a mile in total. The area is designated as an off-leash dog park, so there are usually plenty of dogs around, chasing balls and splashing around in the water. I’ve thought about someday doing a long run consisting only of loops around this lake, as good mental training for a 100 miler. But today was not that day, so after about 1 1/2 loops, I hopped onto the APU cross-country ski trails.

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The cross-country ski trails on the APU campus are a large network of trails, right in the middle of Anchorage. During the winter they are reserved for skiing, and running on them is frowned upon, but in the summer they’re wide open. There’s pretty much one main trail that winds through the area, with tons of smaller trails spurring off into the woods to explore. This is where I got in most of my miles that day, and I had a great time running all around these trails, picking random trails to take and see where they led me. Sometimes I’d end up on a trail that was too swampy and wet, so I’d turn around. Other times I’d come across something odd like this, that sort of reminded me of something out of the Blair Witch Project:

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There were plenty of ups and downs to have me working hard and keep things interesting. Some of the trails were wide and smooth enough you could have driven a car on them, while others were narrow and barely-defined, covered in roots and rocks that kept you on your toes.

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After I’d had my fill of the APU ski trails, I moved onto Russian Jack Park. This is a popular park in Anchorage, complete with baseball and soccer fields, a greenhouse, even a small 9-hole golf course. There are miles of paved paths running through the park. There are also plenty of dirt trails that will take you to many areas of the park that the paved paths will not. Again, I tackled these trails by taking whatever random trail I found and seeing where it took me. I discovered things I had no idea were there, sometimes within 50 feet of a main road. I found where there had been an old campground, now long-forgotten, with marked campsites, a boarded up outhouse, and the remnants of a covered picnic area.

Once my romp through Russian Jack Park was complete, I headed back the way I had come – through the APU ski trails (taking a more direct route this time), another 1/2 lap around University Lake, and then home. By the end of my run, I had covered about 18 miles in 3 hours, all within 3-4 miles from my house, and without just looping around the same couple miles of trail. Except for the first and last mile – getting to and from my house – I was almost entirely on dirt trails. While I would certainly choose to go play in the mountains first, that’s not always possible, but I discovered that you don’t always have to go far to find adventure on the trails.

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About 2 weeks ago now, I was lucky enough to get my hands on a new Pebble Smartwatch (disclaimer: I was provided this watch for free as part of my gig as an ambassador for the San Francisco Marathon - however, this review is entirely my own).

If you’re not familiar with the Pebble, here’s the short version of what it is and what it can do: it’s a Bluetooth-powered “smart” watch that connects to your iPhone or Android phone, and can display notifications and interact with apps on your phone. The Pebble is being marketed especially towards runners, offering compatibility with popular apps like RunKeeper and MapMyRun. Plus, the battery life is 5-7 days.

The Pebble comes nicely packaged, not so different from the packaging of Apple products:

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Here’s what comes in the box: the watch itself, power plug, and a simple “getting started” guide.

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The watch itself looks very nice. The body of the watch is made of plastic, but it doesn’t feel cheap at all. It’s a relatively slim design, especially compared to most GPS watches, that are typically pretty large and clunky. I was also impressed with the power plug, that simply connects via magnet (similar to Mac laptops), so you don’t have to fumble with getting it connected just right.

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Once you download the Pebble app onto your phone and get it paired with your Pebble, you can customize your watch with a large selection of apps and custom watch faces:

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Since getting my Pebble, I’ve taken it out on every run with me, and so far I’ve been very happy with it. I’ve had to remember to charge my iPhone before heading out, but that hasn’t been a big deal. I’ve been using it with the RunKeeper app, and it’s really nice how I get a distance/time/pace summary on the watch, and can even pause and restart the app from the watch. Here’s what you see with the RunKeeper app:

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Pebble has teamed up with the San Francisco Marathon, and they will be creating an app specifically for race day information and real-time data for both racers and spectators. Pebble is also offering some nice discounts for runners. If you’re registered for the San Francisco Marathon, you get $20 off a new Pebble.

Even if you’re not registered, you can still get $10 off a new Pebble!

If you’re in the market for a running watch, but are looking for something that can do more than be “just” a watch, then you should definitely give the Pebble a try.

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Rocky Raccoon 100 Race Report

February 25, 2014

Considering how long it takes to run 100 miles, it’s okay that it took me more than 3 weeks to write a race report, right?

Right???

Rocky Raccoon 100

Anyways, back at the start of February, I traveled down to Huntsville, TX to run the Rocky Raccoon 100. After running my first 100 miler here in Alaska last summer at a race that was mostly self-supported with only 2 aid stations, I was looking forward to running a fully-supported ultra where I wouldn’t need to carry much with me. Rocky Raccoon is also a relatively flat course, with a total of about 5,000 feet of elevation gain over 100 miles.

I was also excited to run a relatively high-profile 100 miler where I would be running “with” some of the elites of our sport. Rocky Raccoon is part of the Montrail Ultra Cup, meaning that the top 3 men and women win entry into Western States. The race was also the 2014 USATF 100 Mile Trail Championship, so the combination of the two really brought out some of the big guns. The elite field included recent Grand Slam record-setting Ian Sharman (who also holds the Rocky Raccoon course record of 12:44:33), and #1 & 2 female ultrarunners of the year Michele Yates and Pam Smith.

Since I was traveling all the way from Alaska, I arrived in Texas on Thursday to give myself a little extra time to get over the jet lag and adjust to the 3 hour time difference. We spent Thursday playing tourist around Houston before heading to Huntsville Friday afternoon in time for the race briefing and packet pickup.

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Race director Joe Prusaitis giving the race briefing Friday night.

Justin Bieber Drop Bag

Best. Drop bag. Ever.

The Rocky Raccoon course is 5 20 mile loops through Huntsville State Park. Aside from the start/finish area, there are 3 aid stations along each loop, one of which (Damnation) you visit twice, and can also have a drop bag there, which I did. With aid stations at such regular intervals (the furthest between them being 6 miles), I ran with one 20 oz bottle in a waist pack that also had a pocket for a bit of food, and one 20 oz handheld. I left 2 spare bottles with my crew so that they could prefill them for me with Tailwind and quickly switch them out at the end of each loop.

I’ll divide up the rest of my race report by loop, and then give my overall impressions of the race at the end.

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Ready to get this party started!

Loop 1

The race started bright and early at 6am Saturday morning. With nearly 500 runners plus crew, pacers, etc., there were concerns about the parking situation, so we arrived at Huntsville State Park shortly after 4am. After dropping off my drop bag near the start/finish area, I went back to the car to eat a bit of breakfast and get some coffee in me while I waited for the race to start.

About 5:45, I headed over to the start area. I was in no hurry, so I slipped in near the back of the pack. I was far enough back that I never heard a gun go off or anything like that, people just started cheering and moving forward. With nearly 500 runners, it was probably 2 miles before the crowd really spread out and I could comfortably run. It was still dark out for about the first hour so I was running with my headlamp, but I was able to ditch that at the Damnation aid station about 6 miles in, where I had a drop bag waiting. After leaving Damnation, you head out on a 6 mile loop before coming back through Damnation a 2nd time.

I felt really good all through the first loop. The day started in the low 60′s, which wasn’t bad, but the humidity was around 93%, which is something I’m just not used to coming from Alaska, where it’s typically very dry, especially in the winter. I was sweating a lot and trying to keep up with my fluids as best I could. My plan was to try and go through the first loop in around 4 hours, then add about 15 minutes for each subsequent loop. My first loop ended up being a little fast, about 3:53, but I still felt great and didn’t think I was pushing too hard too early, so it didn’t worry me much.

Loop 2

Going into this race, I was a bit worried about the potential monotony of a looped course. I actually found a certain comfort in getting to know the course and being able to expect what I had coming up in each section. I mentally broke the course down into the sections between each aid station. It was interesting how quickly I came to love and loathe different sections of the course.

It’s funny that in the midst of a 100 mile race, how long the 6 mile Damnation loop started to feel. It was during the Damnation loop on the 2nd lap that I felt my first low. The humidity was getting to me, I obviously hadn’t been drinking enough, and was starting to feel a little loopy. I ended up falling twice in this section, tripping on the roots that Rocky Raccoon is famous for. I gave myself a quick pep talk, knowing that if I did that too many more times, I could end up hurting myself badly enough to end my race prematurely. The good news is that I never fell again the entire race. The bad news is that my stomach was starting to turn, and I was having trouble taking in any food or fluids, which is exactly what I needed at that point.

By the time I reached Park Road, the last aid station of each loop, I was feeling pretty crappy and my left calf was cramping badly. As soon as I came into the aid station, the awesome volunteers were all over me. One got behind me and started rolling out my calf with The Stick, while another brought me salted potatoes and Endurolytes. Before leaving, another volunteer poured a bunch of cold water over my head and the back of my neck. I headed back out to finish the loop feeling like a new man!

I may have finished this loop feeling much better, but my slump had slowed me down much more than planned – I finished the 2nd loop in 4:46.

Loop 3

There’s not a whole lot about the 3rd loop that really sticks out in my mind at this point. After passing through the Damnation aid station for the 2nd time (52 miles into the race), I knew it would be getting dark soon, so I pulled my headlamp back out of my drop bag, and prepared for running through the night.

Overall I was feeling much better than the last lap, eating regularly at the aid stations and drinking plenty. But the fatigue was really starting to settle into my legs, and I was slowing down quite a bit. Many of the smaller hills that I had been running on the first 2 laps, I found myself walking now. The 3rd loop took me 5:15.

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Getting ready to head out on my 4th lap. I really didn’t feel as bad as I look, but this photo makes me laugh. Plus, you can see that I spilled my soup all over my hand. I’m classy like that after 60 miles.

Loop 4

Many of the race reports I read from previous years said the same thing – the 4th loop is the hardest, at least mentally. You’re getting deep into the race, running through the night, and you know that you’ve still got one more loop to go. The Damnation loop felt especially long this time around.

There is actually quite a bit of sand along parts of the course, and by this point enough of it had gotten into my shoes that it was starting to bother my feet. I had packed extra socks in my drop bag, so when I came back through Damnation I stopped for a quick change. It felt great to get some fresh socks on my feet, and I was good to go for the rest of the race.

Even with a headlamp, the darkness of night really slowed me down. It just sort of sucked the energy out of me, and made it that much harder to spot roots, causing me to slow down to find my footing. I finished the 4th loop in 5:41 – way behind my projected pace at this point, but still in good spirits heading into my final loop.

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Excited to be heading out for my last lap! And looking much better than that last photo :)

Loop 5

In many ways, the 5th loop felt like a victory lap. With each section of the course that I passed through, I knew it was for the last time. The last Damnation loop was particularly satisfying. This loop was nearly all in the dark, so I was still moving fairly slowly. Every time I stopped at an aid station, no matter how briefly, my legs stiffened and it was difficult to get moving again. That being said, I was still moving better than most others I saw during my last loop. It looked like most of them had resolved themselves to walking the rest of the race, that being the most energy they could muster up at this point. I didn’t keep count, but I passed quite a few runners on this loop.

Finally, when I was about 2 miles from the finish, it was light enough out that I could turn my headlamp off. At almost the same time, the sky opened up and rain began to pour. It was in this moment that I found a reserve of energy I didn’t know I had, and began running the fastest that I had the entire race – I was ready to be done. I pushed hard those last 2 miles, crossing the finish line in what felt like an all-out sprint, but in reality was probably closer to 9 minute miles. I was completely soaked and it was quite cold (in the high 30′s or low 40′s), so I didn’t hang around the finish line for long. I shook hands with the race director, thanked him for an outstanding race, and received my hard-earned belt buckle.

I was done. I had run 100 miles for the second time. This time around I had done it in 25:32, a whopping 10 minutes faster than my first 100 miler. I finished 122nd out of 280 finishers. The heat and humidity claimed many victims this year, resulting in a 58% finisher rate, the lowest ever in the race’s 22 years.

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Finishing in the pouring rain.

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And…DONE!

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My hard-earned award.

Overall Impressions of the Race, Volunteers, etc.

I can’t say enough good things about how well organized of a race this is. The husband-wife race directing team of Joe and Joyce Prusaitis have this thing down to a science. The aid stations are well stocked, and the army of volunteers was awesome.

The moment you stepped into an aid station, there were several volunteers immediately greeting you and asking what they could get for you, offering to refill your bottles, etc. They were dedicated to helping us reach that finish line, and did it with a smile on their face. They made great food all night long, including what quickly became my new favorite – salted potatoes – as well as hot soup, quesadillas, pancakes and even bacon. They were never out of anything I wanted, and always went the extra mile to make sure you had enough of everything before hitting the trail again. I did my best to limit my time in the aid stations, and for the most part I think I did a pretty good job of this, but I could see how you could easily get sucked into spending too much time there.

I would definitely recommend this race to others – it would be a great first 100 miler. I’ll admit that it’s an “easier” course, as far as 100 milers go, but you still have to respect the distance. There is no such thing as an “easy” 100 miler.

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