(Memory of the 2012 race - where I ran for fun and tied with another female for 5th)
Anyway, Saturday morning came early. We loaded the bus and were off to the starting line. We ran into a few friends pre-race, so while we're not part of the Virginia trail running scene it felt great to see familar faces and hug friends before we embarked on our 50 mile trek.
The race started hot and heavy for the men's field, but easy for the ladies. I was quickly behind two Colorado ladies, and before I knew what I was doing I found myself easily cruising by them before the 1 mile marker. In my head, I was screaming at myself 'What are you doing?!? You are such an idiot, there's no possible way you can win this thing! Slow down!'. I tried to ignore the inner voice and just run easy at my pace - if my easy pace was ahead of these ladies, then who cares, right?
(Stream of headlamps across the pond from the start)
Just over a mile into the race, the course turns off the road and onto the trail, and through the first stream crossing of the day. Shoes...wet...shorts...wet...oh boy! About a quarter mile later was another river crossing, so there was no chance that anyone would have dry feet! Thank goodness my Roclites drain well! After a few miles of running, my left hamstring (which had given me a few issues in the days leading up to the race) quickly started to howl with pain. I nearly puked it hurt so bad. I contemplated turning around, but being in the lead so early on I was afraid of being seen as that jack a$$ who took off like a shot gun only to drop 2 miles in...so it was only pride that kept me from turning around and walking back to the starting line. I figured I'd at least get to the first aid station - I had driven 10 hours to get here after all!
As I ran the first climb, the hamstring hurt but it wasn't so bad that I was limping or had to stop - so I did my best to ignore the pain. It felt like I was ripping the hamstring in half, but I knew from experiencing this before that it's just an adhesion in my leg...so while it's incredibly painful, no damage would actually occur. I enjoyed the early miles, eventhough I was running in solitude so early on - the trails were great and as the sun rose it was making the entire forest glow orange and yellow with the foliage.
(Glowing foliage as the sun came up)
Through the first aid station, and the 2nd place girl was about 30 seconds back. But, I still felt in control so I relaxed to run my race. On the first downhill, I found that my hamstring was crying in pain, and I had to shorten my stride to manage the pain...and I had to pray to not catch a toe which would have caused worse issues. I ran conservatively down the hill as guy after guy streamed past me, but surprisingly none of the ladies passed me. Due to the hamstring, I was actually excited when the trail turned up, which my training buddies know is rare for me.
A few more easy miles of trail and jeep road, and one more river crossing and we were in the next aid station. The RD Clark Zealand was there and gave me a cheer, seemingly genuinly pleased that I was in the lead. I was bummed to find that there weren't any gels at the first aid station, but just 100 feet down the trail I found an unopened gel on the ground - so I picked it up and ate it. Double bonus - cleaning the trail of litter...and I got a gel! (I know, it's gross, but i promise you it's not the grossest thing that happened out there on Saturday.)
(Amazing views along the course)
After rolling through several more miles of jeep trail, I was passing some guys who went out too fast, while other guys were passing me. At the mile 15 aid station, Dave Horton, former RD of this race, gave me a huge cheer and a pat on the back as I went by - I was so glad to have these Virginia folks know who I was!
From mile 15 to 18 is a long uphill grind on a dirt road - never too steep to want to hike, but long and sustained enough that I did hike portions last year. This year I was determined to run the whole thing, especially since my hamstring was limiting my downhills therefore I had to make good time on the uphills, so I dropped it into my 'first gear' and powered up the hill. Luckily, I found one similarly paced and similarly minded guy to match my stride up the hill. At the top of the climb we turned down a similar descent, and he was gone as I ran the downhill as best I could. I was really starting to feel my groove in the race, and while the hamstring hurt, everything else was going well...but there was still plenty of time to fall apart!
(Uphill grind - doesn't look bad, right? Try running up 3 miles of it!)
After a few miles of flat and rolling, at mile 23 the trail turns up for the big major climb of the course. Just at that point, a chick flew by me like I was standing still. She gave me a quick 'woohoo' as she stormed past me, and proceeded to open a gap on the uphills. 'Bummer', I thought, 'but did you really think you could win a race like this?'. I let her go, knowing that my goal was top 3 for this race - so I was still where I needed to be. I powered up the next few climbs at my own pace and found myself coming to the Long Mountain aid at around 4:17 (race time). I had been told that if I could get to that aid station before 4:15 that I had a great chance to break 9 hours, so I was a bit heart broken by that - but determined to hold onto a good placing in the race.
From Long Mountain to mile 29 is a most substantial climb of the course - and this is exactly what I had spent so much time training for. I hiked a few paces as I got in my fueling, but ran almost the entire climb. I was picking off guys left and right, and eventually I even saw the female leader coming back to me. I reeled her in, and hiked next to her for a few seconds to just touch base and see how she was doing and who she was. Then, I wished her luck and kept moving up the hill.
(Views from just before Long Mountain)
(I did get an update on the men's race just after Long Mountain, but the report went like this: 'there's some guy in the lead, we don't know who he is. There's a chase pack a ways back that includes Eric Grossman, Paul Terranova, that Roo-secki guy, and someone else that we don't know.' I thought it was pretty funny, but was bouyed by the fact that Brian was in the hunt - especially since he always seems to make his move between mile 25 and mile 35 on this course.)
Reaching the top of the climb, I was surprised at how strong my legs felt! I was back in the lead and feeling good, with 17 more miles to go! As I entered 'The Loop' (which is a 5 mile trail loop with an out-and-back section up a hill), I was excited to learn that Brian broke away from the chase pack and was in 2nd, hunting down the leader. Last year, the loop was knee deep in snow, so it was nice to actually see the trail as I ran along. I caught a toe and did a bit of a superman in this section - scraping my knee and elbow, but for me it wasn't a bad fall at all, barely any blood. I did my best to try to power through this section, hoping to have as big of a gap as possible during the out-and-back section. Unfortunately, during the 'out' section, I realized I was starting to tire. I powered up the hill as best I could, jamming my Gu Chomps down my throat to try to revive myself. 'Hold it together, you've come to far to fall apart now!'.
(The view from the top of the out-and-back)
After the loop is a downhill followed by a good climb - I was fortunate in this section to have several guys ahead of me, evenly spaced...so I would reel one in over 1/2 mile or so, pass them, and then see the next person to reel in. I was slowly moving up the field, and hoping to put as many folks between myself and Kathleen. I had to hike a few sections, and did what I could to hike strong - knowing that Kathleen is an exceptional hiker and she would gain time on me every time I had to hike. I was starting to tire, and was running on pure adrenaline and heart at this point.
(Typical trail - can't see it? Look to the right of the photo, trust me, it's there.)
After the mile 42 aid station, I knew that I had just one more 4-mile section of trail, then it was downhill to the finish line. I stretched out my stride, trying to reel in guy after guy and keep the pressure on. I was starting to stress out as the climbs, covered in slipperly leaves, were impossible to run so I was forced to hike. I kept looking over my shoulder, checking for signs of Kathleen closing in. I scrambled up the leaves, and used the downhills as best I could to keep the pace high.
At the mile 46 aid station, I knew it was just 4 downhill miles to the finish - which I seemed to recall had taken me about 30 minutes last year. I was pleased to look at my watch and see that it read 8:08 - perhaps I could break 9 hours after all! I didn't even break stride as I passed the aid station, but I did ask for an update on bib #1 (Brian), and heard he was winning. 'YAY!', I yelled as I passed the aid station 'That's my studly husband!'. The aid station volunteers seemed rather amused.
(What the trail looked like in 2012 - covered in snow)
I did my best to run strong on the last downhill - but was worried as the nearest guy ahead of me opened up a gap. 'Am I slowing down or is this guy really good at downhills?' I ran with heart, I thought of all those pre-dawn runs with friends, I thought of all the times I dragged folks up and over the local mountains to prepare for this race, I thought of how it would feel to win this race, and I thought of my WMDP ladies running the marathon the next day that I was missing for this. At every look back, I was searching the trail behind me for Kathleen. My hamstring was burning, but I was trying to run as fast as I could inspite of that.
I felt little comfort at the 1-mile to go sign. Two years ago, Brian had gotten passed for the win in the last mile - last year, the women's lead also changed in the last mile. Could I avoid the curse of the last mile on this course? I ran as hard as I could, trying to reach the finish line as fast as I could. Over and over, I repeated 'The faster you run, the faster you're done.' to myself. The road mile seemed to fly by, luckily, and I found myself at the finish arch slapping high five with the RD Clark. I had made it - finishing in 8:39:01, and somehow winning the race! I had to fight back tears because I was so shocked by my race.
(Views from the course in 2012, what a difference)
Brian was there immediately, and the first words out of my mouth were 'did we make it a husband-wife sweep?'. He nodded yes, and I gave him the biggest hug. I was so proud of what he did out there, and so proud of the race I had out there. It was something truly special for both of us, especially to share it together. I was especially excited to see that I ran a smart race - I was about 50th place through the entire first half of the race, and slowly worked my way up to catch half the folks ahead of me by the finish.
Kathleen finished strong, only 12 minutes back - and I think she was just as happy to have seen me win as she was with her own 2nd place. (Like I said, she's super sweet!) It was amazing to sit back at the finish, watch the top 10 ladies finish strong, share stories and hugs with everyone and truly enjoy this community that has become a family.
At the awards that night, as I was called up to get my trophy, Clark made special mention that I was able to complete the husband-wife sweep of the race. It was a nice acknowledgement and got a big cheer from the crowd. As the Patagonia rep snapped a shot of Brian and I with our trophies (and our newly earned Patagonia down vests), he commented that he wondered how often you get a husband-wife double victory - I answered 'that it happens from time to time in New England'! I know that I'll want to run this race again, but I doubt I'll ever top the experience of this year!
(Brian and I with our winnings - a happy couple ready to head north)
We got a mention at Runner's World: http://www.runnersworld.com/trail-racing/gray-and-kremer-win-trail-half-marathon-championships