The stars have aligned and I find myself with a rare day off on the day after returning home from my big 50k, which means I can actually blog about my race in a timely fashion! #smallmiracles
While my Cloudsplitter 50k experience is still sinking in, I can absolutely without a doubt say that everything about this weekend was amazing and I will be back again next year!
So, let me back up and catch up on the blog from where I last left off, which was after Ragnar Trail WV in August. September was a really tough month for me with lots of travel and events. I lost a weekend of training to attend a USA Triathlon coaching certification clinic and to coach at a race in Williamsburg, VA; and another weekend to attend a family event in New York. I also ran Ragnar, Washington D.C., which was a TON of fun, but not ideal training for a trail race (and, if I’m being totally honest with myself, left me not in the best place on the sleep/taking care of myself front). Don’t get me wrong, all of those were good things, but my training definitely took a back seat.
Having fun at Ragnar Washington, D.C.
In light of this, I wasn’t feeling super confident in the weeks leading up to the race, but as Megan said, we told too many people we were doing it to back out, so we were going to go for it and hope for the best!
Megan and I left for Norton on the Thursday before the Saturday race. Half of Megan’s car was filled with food. Truly, if we would have needed to, we could have driven cross-country and back and still had plenty of food to spare. #triathleteproblems
Traffic was nuts with the long holiday weekend and it took us something like 7 hours to get to Norton, which is the Westernmost city in Virginia, from Oakton (poor Megan tacked on an extra hour of driving before she even got to me).
Norton is a small town, with absolutely gorgeous mountainous scenery and the friendliest people you could ever meet. Megan and I joked that I need a “Norton’s #1 Fan” tee shirt for next year. More on that in a bit.
We didn’t do much on Thursday other than checking in to the Super 8 motel in Norton and going to bed.
On Friday, since we didn’t have anything to do before the pre-race meeting at 6:00 p.m., we went for a short shake out run (ohh-ing and ahh-ing over the scenery the entire time!) and then we made the short drive to Jenkins, KY to visit the Coal and Railroad Museum. The museum is tiny, but I think for both of us, it really started sinking in that this area of the country has been hit hard by the coal industry’s decline. These are hard working people who truly built America into what it is today, and it is a shame to see the area struggling.
We spoke to two older ladies at the museum and before we had an opportunity to tell them we were in town for the race, one of them shared how the warm winter led to an abundance of Copperhead snakes this summer, especially at night.
Megan and I just looked at one another without trying to show visible distress. Not exactly something you want to hear the day before a trail race that you are anticipating finishing in the dark, but bless her heart, she didn’t know that!
After a quick stop at the grocery store for even more food, we headed back to the hotel.
We both reviewed the race guide and website one more time and were happy to discover that what we thought was going to be a 35 mile race with almost 10,000 feet of climbing was actually going to be a 31 mile race with 7,700 feet of climbing. The race moved from Kentucky to Virginia over the summer and course profiles on the website hadn’t been updated until recently. While this was still going to be a BIG challenge, the easier course profile came as a pleasant surprise to two ladies who have been in better shape in their lives!
Megan and I originally met back in the spring or summer of 2015 when we were both training with Alyssa for our first Ironmans later that year. I can’t remember exactly when we met, but we really got to know each other at Team HPB Camp East that summer. That was back in the day of two-a-days every day and 100 mile bike rides. Neither of us has seen that kind of training in awhile.
Unfortunately, we found ourselves both taking a break from Ironman in 2017 (we’re calling 2017 “the year that work won”). As I’ve talked about a bit here, I started a new job about a year ago and getting into the swing of things there really took priority this past year.
In any case, Megan had messaged me back in April saying that she was thinking about doing a spring trail race and wanted me to join her. One of the races she was considering was the “Rhododendron Run” which was scheduled for June. I read about the race and it sounded amazing, but the date wasn’t going to work for me. She said another race on the same course was happening in October – Cloudsplitter. That’s when I really got excited. Reading the messages now is funny, but we had some discussion back and forth about doing the 25k versus the 50k distance. Megan said “We aren’t doing Ironman. We might as well run for 10 hours. Or 13 hours.”
So, fast forward to the pre-race meeting in Norton on Friday evening, I was starting to get really nervous and to question why we thought doing this race was a good idea. Everyone at the meeting looked extremely fit and I was intimidated. As I said, the Cloudsplitter 50k course consists of 7,700 feet of elevation gain over 31 miles, which is by far the toughest course profile I’ve ever encountered in a running race.
The closest thing I have to compare that to is riding about 10,000 feet of elevation gain over 105 miles on my bike on Skyline. When something feels hard on a bike, it’s going to feel *really* hard on foot!
We both checked-in, got our bibs and race shirts, and checked out the race bling. I was excited to see the medals in person, as they are absolutely stunning and very different from other race medals I’ve seen.
We took our seats and then heard from Fred Ramey, the Norton City Manager. As I said on Facebook:
In all of my years of racing I have never received such a warm welcome from local officials as I did tonight from the City of Norton, Virginia! They were clearly so excited and appreciative about this race coming to their town. This area has lost a lot of coal industry jobs and their economy has taken a hit over the past several years. They are trying to reposition themselves as a destination for outdoor enthusiasts, and being here for just a short time, I can see why. If you like the outdoors, hiking, mountain biking, etc., this is a beautiful place to visit! I hope to come back again! Thank you for the warm welcome!
For the rest of the weekend, I referred to Fred as “my favorite city manager.” I have seriously never, ever, met someone so excited to have a race in his town!
We also heard from a wildlife expert (I believe his name was Seth), who spoke to us about some safety topics (e.g. “announce” yourself so that the bears know you’re coming), but also provided interesting information about some of the unique wildlife species in this area. For example, High Knob has something like 50 species of mussels, many of which are endangered. As an aside, you have GOT to take a few minutes and watch this video about Hellbenders, which are North Americas largest salamanders and can grow to two feet in length!
Seth was also really excited about the race being in town and you could tell was so proud to share High Knob with us.
The race director then explained the course markings. In addition to yellow dollar-sized blazes on the trees, we should also watch out for pink surveyor’s tape along the course. The surveyor’s tape also had reflective tape attached to make the marks visible in the dark.
We got back to the hotel and sorted through our clothes and food for the following day. We also packed up our shared “drop bag,” which we would be able to access around mile 9. It’s kind of like an Ironman special needs bag and I overpacked, of course!
On race morning, I made a game time decision to use my trekking poles after seeing several other racers with them at the start. It was also dark at the start, which we hadn’t expected, so I decided at the very last minute to wear my headlamp. Based on our paces from Ragnar Trail WV, especially when running at night on the more technical trail there, Megan and I estimated we needed about 12 hours to finish Cloudsplitter, so we planned to finish in the dark, but not to start in the dark. Thankfully, we were prepared.
We took a quick photo, I took one last swig of Gatorade, the local boy scout troop fired a black powder rifle, and off we went!
The first mile of the out and back 50k course is on pavement and mostly uphill. Less than two minutes into the race we overheard one of the runners say that she hadn’t practiced running hills because she does Crossfit. Considering the elevation gains on the Cloudsplitter course, I’m not sure that was the most advisable of training plans, but I digress.
Megan and I trotted along up the hills. Many people walked this, but we both wanted to warm-up a bit, and we most definitely weren’t setting any speed records. We got to the trailhead and proceeded to form a long train with other runners along the single-track course. We followed their lead and ran when they ran and walked when they walked.
This first section of the course (the most difficult for the 50k distance) included several steep sections that left me out of breath even hiking. We went up one particularly challenging climb only to see my favorite city manager standing at the top cheering us on, taking photographs, and directing us along the trail!
Fred Ramey took the photo below. I’m third in line here, wearing a dark colored hat.
I was definitely glad I chose to bring the trekking poles along this portion of the course, as getting my footing was tricky in several stretches.
At the first aid station, around 4-5 miles in, we checked in (in lieu of having timing mats along the course, runners needed to check in at every station by bib number for safety reasons and to ensure no one cut the course), and I grabbed some pretzels. The volunteers were fantastic, as they would be throughout the day!
We didn’t linger at the aid station because we wanted to be able to stay with our group. We were with a great group of runners – one 100k-er, a couple of 100 milers, another 50k runner, and I’m sure others who I couldn’t quite hear.
One of the 100 mile runners, Aimee, has FOUR kids and this was her third attempt to finish a 100 miler. One man from West Virginia trained for an ultra running one-mile loops around his neighborhood when his wife was pregnant. So many stories. Everyone was chatting and very friendly. The experienced runners were answering questions and offering advice to us. We figured out that several of us had connections to Ohio – either living there or going to school there. It was like a party and it made the miles go so fast! Again, we followed their lead and ran when they ran and walked when they walked.
Megan and I kept reminding each other to eat and drink. She would yell to me “I’m taking a gel!” I would check-in with her “Are you drinking?” It was perfect!
The scenery was amazing. Unfortunately, most of my GoPro photos didn’t come out, but it was beautiful. Sometimes I would have to look up (even though it’s always advisable to look at your feet so you don’t trip) so that I could take in the views. Although this course usually has numerous water crossings, it’s been a dry summer and we had only a few tricky streams to navigate. The foliage was just starting to change and I was able to snap a few pics of the treetops.
Soon enough we hit High Knob Tower, which we decided to visit on our way back, and then the second aid station shortly thereafter. I decided to leave my poles in my drop bag. I drank some Coke, refilled my pack with fluids, and on we went.
At the High Knob Observation Tower sign the first time around.
We hit the third aid station, which was about .5 miles from the turn around for the 50k. We ran along a gravel road (it actually reminded my a bit of Ridge Road in Charlottesville) to a metal pail that housed a book. We had to rip a page out of the book and run it back to the aid station as evidence that we completed the full distance.
At this point, I was feeling fantastic and we were WAY ahead of our estimated turnaround time (about 90 minutes ahead of schedule). I had another cup of Coke, took some ibuprofen, and we started to head back the way we came.
Even though I felt great and would have loved to run more of the course on the return, we were either dealing with steep ascents/descents or lots of loose rocks on the flats.
This was one of the sections that had a lot of loose rocks. I can’t imagine what this was like for the 100k and 100 mile runners, who had to pass through this section after the rain on Saturday night.
Unfortunately, most of our group was continuing on past the aid station, so when we turned around, it was primarily just the two of us heading back. We ran a few miles with Bobbi from Fail, Laugh, Learn, who I had the pleasure of meeting in person at Cloudsplitter (on the course, no less!) after connecting online through our blogs.
Being by ourselves, we had to pay much more attention to the course markings, as opposed to just following along with the group. There were a couple of times where I felt like I had gone a bit without seeing a marking, but we were actually always on course and just needed to go a bit farther to see a mark.
On our own on the return.
We got back to the aid station with the drop bags, and although we didn’t think we would have access to them this time, our bag was, in fact, there. That was a pleasant surprise. I had some more Coke at this stop and I believe this is when I started eating my peanut butter-filled pretzels.
Shortly thereafter, we made it back to High Knob Tower and this time took a moment to check out the views. The photos don’t do it justice AT ALL, but you can see four additional states from the tower – NC, KY, WV, and TN. It was nice to take a bit of a break and we had been told at one of the aid stations that after the tower it was downhill, so it was a nice place to mentally regroup.
We arrived back at the first aid station, which meant we had less than 5 miles to go. I was in a great rhythm at this point and didn’t want to stop, but one of the volunteers told me that the runner two in front of me had a bear “encounter” with three black bears. From that moment on, I kept thinking I was hearing things in the woods.
Megan and I started “announcing” ourselves, as per the wildlife expert’s recommendation. “Bears, we are announcing ourselves!” “Bears don’t like eating vegans anyway!” Megan had the best announcement of the day: “We have a dog!” I could not stop laughing about that one. All I could imagine was our Labradoodle, who is afraid of his own shadow, encountering a black bear and being scared out of his mind, but for some reason Megan thought a dog would be a *really* big deterrent to a black bear eating us for lunch!
With maybe 2-3 miles to go, Megan said I could run ahead, which I did. I felt a little stiff, and my feet were hurting, but I otherwise felt really great, and I was able to pick up the pace, especially once I hit the pavement for that last mile.
I ended up finishing in about 8:45, which was much faster than our predicted 12:00 (but of course slower as compared with my last 50k which was around 6:30).
As I was waiting at the finish for Megan, none other than my favorite city manager arrived. Apparently, he saw Megan running toward the finish and gave her a high five. God, I love him! He was at the finish to take more photos and cheer the runners on. We chatted for a bit and I introduced myself. I had some water and then I saw Megan coming down the street.
Megan is a tough chick and even though she was clearly in pain, she finished strong, with a big smile!
Back at the hotel, we assessed our blisters (NOT a good situation!), considered whether we were better off just throwing away our smelly clothes (we did not), ate all the food, drank wine, and watched the Golden Girls. It was the perfect way to end the weekend.
I can’t wait to go back to Norton for Cloudsplitter again next year!
Next up for me is the Richmond half marathon on November 11, followed by the Rehoboth full in early December. I’ll be returning to the PHUNT 50k in January and then focusing on the bike for Whistler.