Saturday, 3:30AM: My day started off earlier than expected and definitely not how I pictured it. The long and short of things is that I awoke before my alarm to a grumbling stomach and ran off to the bathroom. I remember feeling a little dizzy (I am prone to dizzy spells) and standing up to go back to the car. Some unknown amount of time later, I woke up lying on the bathroom floor to two ladies asking if I was ok. I remember thinking "who are these ladies?" and “what just happened?” and then mumbling something to the effect of “husband... orange... honda" regarding our car being parked around the corner. Soon Jordan walked in and helped me back to the car to lie down. We assessed my "injuries" which thankfully only consisted of a fat lip and bruised ego, but my stomach was in knots and I was weak, tired and definitely wanting to sleep for a few hours longer. Then came the conversation of “Should I race??” There are no guidebooks for these types of decisions and you have to roll with your gut instinct. At first I thought there's no way, but we decided to give it time and play things by ear. After breakfast and some coffee, I perked up and was feeling better and decided to at least give it a chance by starting but with a contingency plan in place if things didn't go well in the first few miles.
5:30AM: The race began and headlights took off up the mountain. I opted to run without and did just fine. The course starts off at a slight upward grade which very quickly becomes what I call "in your face" steep: 5% grade the first mile, 10% the second, and 14% the third. Not surprisingly, my calves (soleus) tightened up on me and I switched over to quickly hiking. Though I was aiming to take this climb conservatively, I was moving slower than expected and felt like I was being passed by essentially everyone (which was ok, I was content in letting them go). 4.25 miles and roughly 65 minutes later I reached the "top" and there I saw the race medical director, George Wortley, sitting on the side of the trail. We had been looking for him prior to the race start, so I stopped to fill him in on my eventful morning and to gauge his perspective on whether I should continue. He asked me how I felt during the first climb: "Not great, moving slow, but that climb sort of just sucks any way you put it," I said. He suggested that I may have had a “vasovagal syncope” episode and if I was feeling ok to continue, then do so and listen to my body. I pretty much said at this point, “God I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but I am trusting you.” I was feeling generally anxious and weak but determined to at least give it a chance.
From there the course is generally downhill for 3.5 miles followed by another 4 miles of climbing. Again, I was feeling far from strong but unwilling to turn the run into a personal pity party. Speaking of which, you know you’re having a rough day when you see people and they say “Hey Kristen! What are you doing way back here??” :) I took my time trudging along, running my own race, aiming to keep a positive mindset (“slow and steady wins the race") and trusting things would eventually get better.
8:00AM: I finally reach the top of the climb, slowly walked across a VERY foggy Blue Ridge Parkway and began the 1.5 mile descent to Sunset Fields and Aid Station #3. Here I was glad to be met by another familiar face, my friend Michelle, who was obviously concerned having heard from Jordan what happened. I reassured her I was feeling ok and that I would stop at the next aid station if need be (which Jordan was in charge of). Dropping had definitely crossed my mind many times, but ultimately I wanted to finish what I started and wanted things to get better. I downed some magical yellow potion, ate a few bites of an oatmeal cream pie and took off down the mountain.
The next 6 miles of the course are particularly beautiful, but also steep and rocky. I happen to LOVE downhills and the challenge of the technical terrain, so I switched my music to some upbeat tunes and smiled knowing I was on my way to see my hubby and friends (cue the emergence of the day’s first happy vibes!) Even if I was just taking things one aid station to the next, my general state of being seemed to be improving and so down the mountain I went.
9:00AM: After 18 miles and 3 hrs 30 min of running, I was greeted by my wonderful running gang at the Cornelius Creek Aid Station and breathed a sigh of relief. I was just incredibly thankful to be surrounded by so many familiar faces out on the course! Jordan took over in restocking my camelback while I munched on goodies from the aid station, then off I went again. The next 2 miles are gravel/road and a gentle downward grade, and I fell into a deeply relaxed state and just ran and enjoyed the simplicity of this part of the course before turning onto more rolling single track trail. According to Dr. Horton, this is where the “real races” begins.
The next 10k features 1100 ft of elevation gain and is mostly single track. Not overly challenging in itself, but if you are hurting or improperly-fueled from the earlier miles it can really kick your butt (as it did for me in 2013). Though I didn’t really care to eat much at this point, I pushed calories, fluid and salt anyway. For a while, I turned off my music and simply listened to the birds chirping around me and relished in the notion that I was "in my happy place" doing what I love. I also found a small group of runners to stick with for a while which provided welcomed company. Despite cramping some, I was able to maintain a decent pace through here and covered those 6 miles 11 minutes faster than 2013 (win!).
10:30AM: I rolled into the Cornelius Creek Aid Station for a 2nd time having covered 26 miles in roughly 5 hrs. I definitely wasn’t in a hurry knowing that the next 5k would be straight up the mountain. I drank some more magical yellow potion, poured water over my head and took a few pictures with the hubby. He forced me to take an espresso powergel before setting off up the mountain (mtn dew + pickle juice + espresso powergel - sounds like an appealing combination, eh?). A few moments later, I passed our friend Linda who was directing runners on the course. She said, “You’re doing so well, Kristen!” and I believe my response was along the lines of “Oh no! I forgot my pop-tart at the aid station! Oh well I’m NOT going back for it.” LOL
I turned right onto the Apple Orchard Falls Trail and up the mountain I went. Whereas in 2013 I feared the major climbs of this race, this time I was sort of looking forward to them. I did not aim to kill myself, but to move at a steady, consistent pace and run where I could. Physically I was feeling surprisingly good other than some right ankle pain and the occasional cramp. More water, more fuel, more salt… I aimed to make it to the top in less than 6 hrs of racing time. Just past Apple Orchard Falls is a bazillion stairs. For some reason I didn’t mind them, and actually they were a nice break from the rocks. At one point just past the falls to the right is a beautiful overlook of the blue ridge mountains, which is currently lush, green and simply gorgeous. I stopped to take it in and thought “God is good. Now let’s conquer the rest of this climb and get to the finish line!”
11:25AM: After roughly 54 minutes of climbing, I emerged at the wonderful sight that is Sunset Fields for a second time. I still had plenty of fuel in my pack, but refilled my flask with more magical yellow potion just in case and was on my way. After a quick, short (annoying!) uphill, it's down, down… more down, and more rocks. The last 4 miles of the course are all downhill, averaging 10% grade, and screaming fast if you have the legs for it. I was feeling great and flew down the first two mile section which is ALL rocks as quickly as I could while maintaining control. Energy was great and my only main concern was my legs potentially seizing up from a cramp. Once you hit the gravel road, it is roughly 2.5 miles of quad-busting downhill. So naturally, I turned up my tunes and took off, logged my fast two miles of the day and made a beeline for the finish :)
12:06PM: Though I was hoping to finish less than 6 hrs 30 min racing time, I knew that likely wouldn’t happen. Which was OK! Time was not half as important as knowing I had made it to the finish, period, after a eventful start to my day and with a huge grin on my face nonetheless! Sure I feel I could have potentially run "faster" and a top-10 female finish would have been "nice" but I rolled with the challenges of the day, kept up a positive mindset and ran well within myself. My final time of 6:36:33 is roughly a 22 min PR over the last time around, and I was able to run the last 15 miles MUCH stronger than before (about 45 min faster!) so in that regard, I am more than happy with the outcome of my day.
Any day that involves running 34 miles with friends and a big ol' finishers hug from Horty at the end is a good day indeed =)
Now, it's onward! Time for rest, recovery and to prepare for even grander adventures ahead!
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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