I could tell you what time I was at mile 25 (3:48ish), how many gels I ate (41), my fastest mile (7:23 on a fireroad in the middle of the night trying to catch Ryan), etc etc etc… but let’s keep this thing interesting! To that end, this will be more of a highlights reel than a full blow-by-blow.
“Holy F*%& this is not really happening,” I thought. It was nighttime and the headlamp battery that was supposed to last until at least 2:30am started to cut out on me. Panic set in. Luckily, I knew I had a few miles of fireroad before hitting the Iron Gap aid station for the second time. To save battery just in case, I cut the lamp off.
My eyes started readjusting. The moon was barely high enough, but was throwing enough light that I could keep running. Eventually, I ran into two-way traffic, so I flipped it back on.
A few minutes later I ran past two sets of bright lights and heard, “Nick? It’s Matt (Sims) how’s it going?” “Good,” I said. Wait! This headlamp can also take two batteries, I thought. “Do either of you have two AAAs?” Matt was pacing teammate Chad Womack, who dug around and found a few. He saved my race. Folks: even when your fancy rechargeable headlamp is programmed to last 6 hours, don’t count on more than 2 hours(?)!!
This is a dialogue between myself and an older fly fisherman hiking into his ‘spot’ along Childers Creek during the race (about 28 miles):
Me: Brown Trout?
Fisherman: Yep. How far you goin’?
Me: 100 miles
Fisherman: Son, that’s the biggest sh*t I’ve stepped in all day.
Me: Throw straight!
The inaugural Rock/Creek Thunder Rock 100 delivered what you would expect of a late Spring/early Summer race in the Southeast: crazy weather. The forecast didn’t come close to pegging what was to come: it rained, hailed (twice), rained more, got sunny, rained again, and finally, stayed sunny/clear. The singletrack early on in the race was incredible, barricaded in by old-growth forest, covered by a lush canopy, and very runnable. It was very tempting to be hammer away, but my plan was to sit back and chill until the sun went down.
From the word “go” Ryan and Eric were gone…and I mean gone. Having had to death march in from going out too hard on more than one occasion, I focused on staying in hybrid mode: eating/drinking and expending as little energy as possible. I would be the one passing the carnage, not being the carnage. So, I settled in with a group of folks that would help keep me out of trouble and watched the miles tick away. Position: 10th to 8th to 5th place.
I know I already mentioned the hail, but it is worth reiterating the fact that it hailed…enough to cover the ground like it was snowfall up higher…in May…in the South. When the hail/rain combo started, I backed off the gas a touch more. The miles of runnable (dry) stuff that was soon to come was plentiful, no need to work 10% harder just to maintain the same pace! Position: 5th place.
Anyway, the sun finally came out and we ran a few more miles along the Benton MacKaye & John Muir Trails – two trails that I will absolutely be revisiting in the future. Once we hit Coker Falls, which you could hear for probably a mile before you got to the falls, we were on road for a few miles. Running on the road after trail/gravel for 40 miles is pretty much like taking a jackhammer to the quads for the first 1/2 mile or so, then it becomes just a sledgehammer. The return to rolling dirt road was a huge relief and I was looking forward to the gentle descent from Manning Cabin to Servilla (~50miles). Position: 5th up to 3rd place.
The sun was starting to drop, so it was time to grind. From Servilla to Iron Gap (all uphill) I wanted to start to press a bit but not go overboard. Once through Iron Gap (the first time), then it was go-time. Running a steeper climb around mile 53 I spotted a light at the top: Eric. Now the race was starting. I made a quick transition at Iron Gap (54 miles) ready for the task ahead: cut into Ryan’s lead on the 20ish miles of fireroad. A time-gap check at Bullet Creek and Starr Mtn started to cast a bit of doubt on my catching him, but I kept pushing forward. Then came the headlamp fiasco (see “A Lesson”). What little I had cut into his lead dissipated. Position: 2nd place.
Visually-situated, I looked forward to the drop to the Hiwassee, crossing it, and then the climb up Oswald Dome. Crossing the river was wild (and very cold). There was pretty heavy fog that prevented you from being able to see the other side, which the guy directing me on what to do even made note of. The ropes were affixed to a metal cable that seemed to disappear into oblivion, but he assured me “there’s a team on the other side, just yell if you fall in, but know that I really do not want to get in…it’s cold.”
Right about then the water hit above my waist and I reaffirmed for him that it was definitely cold. It went something like, “holy $%!* no kidding, that’s birth-control-cold man!”
The climb up Oswald Dome wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected, but my legs were not taking too kindly to the ice bath I just had so I was reduced to power-hiking it. Then I got bad news: Ryan had put some serious time on me, his lead was like an hour-and-a-half!? I had to remind myself of something I read a few months ago: “time only matters in prison, son, go for the win.” 12 miles to go, still plenty of time for things to change. The fireroad section to McCamy Lake just wasn’t as runnable as they had been, I guess I was getting tired. This section for me was hazy looking back, but I remember being at the McCamy Lake aid station.
Isn’t it funny how you can look at an elevation profile and say, “Oh, sweet, a downhill finish!” and then, just like I learned at Wasatch, it’s 90% uphill (or so it seems). The final descent to the finish seemed to take forever, but they typically do. I get to this point in every race where all I can think about is my sleeping bag. That really started to set-in. Then the emotions hit: happy, sad, tired, excited, irritated, euphoric, all at once.
The finish line was simple, which was nice. It wasn’t overly-glamorous, just a few folks standing around: my wife and daughter, Kris, Fred, Jarret, another guy whose name I forgot, and my sleeping bag, under a clock that read: 19:02:50. Position: 2nd place. A big congrats to Ryan. He ran very confidently and gutsy all-day-long.
A huge thank you to my wife, Meghan, and little girl, Nour, for having the stressful job of getting from A to B, for an entire weekend, only to have me rush in-and-out of the aid station. Also to the folks at Rock/Creek, for being an outdoor retailer that does so much for the trail running community and supports a team I am happy to be part of. Last but certainly not least, all of the folks that volunteered to make the race possible.
There is something to say for not having to change out any gear during a race as long and rigorous as a 100. Headlamp fiasco aside, here is what I used with pure confidence and no hiccups:
- Patagonia Strider Pro 5″ short – tons of storage, lightweight, dry fast, don’t rub!
- Patagonia AirFlow Sleeveless top – it’s lightweight and sleeveless: sun’s out, guns out!
- Patagonia Houdini Jacket – best jacket for the weight, fits in the pocket on Strider Pros
- Patagonia LW arm warmers – breathe but are warm enough for cool weather when a long sleeve shirt is just too much.
- North Face Ultra Trail shoes – Vibram outsoles = tacky on wet rocks/river crossings, midsole is soft enough to handle road, but protective on rocky trail, lightweight upper drains really fast and breathes well, and a generous toe-box for swelling feet.
- Swiftwick Pursuit 2s – same sock start to finish on a wet course: no blisters! All I need to say.
- Ultimate Direction Fastdraw bottles in North Face Handheld Hydrator carriers. The best bottle and the best carrier there is.
- Skratch – Lemons and Limes and Raspberries.
- Powergel …41 of them. Think about that.
- Petzl Nao headlamp – Calling them to figure out what went wrong – never had any problems with it before. Hopefully they’ll have some insight!