This is a happy tale.
One week out from running the Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run and I’m finding myself in a really happy post-race place. Yeah, part of the happiness comes from the fact that I had a good race – I took 2nd place overall, set a new 100-mile PR in 19 hours 12 minutes, and was able to close strong and hold off a surging 3rd place runner. But more, in finishing the Old Dominion 100, I participated in a classic, foundational ultrarunning event that really brought me a new appreciation of what ultrarunning is and means to me.
Ultrarunning is so much more than just running. It’s about our community of close friends and family and being reminded of how important they are to us. It’s about taking on something difficult and uncertain, hitting both incredible highs and incredible lows, and somehow finding extra strength when you were quite sure that any remaining had vanished hours ago. It’s about aid stations on the back of pickups and four-wheelers, and aid stations that are like raucous college parties. It’s about Horton on his bike, good friends all over the place crewing and helping, your buddy pacing you in torrential rain, and your wife at mile 97 giving you a cup of coke and zero sympathy. And of course, it’s all about the buckle.
I first got the idea to run Old Dominion from Sophie Speidel back in August – she spilled the beans that she was thinking seriously about running her first 100 in 12 or 13 years at OD and it just sounded like a laid back, old school kinda race. After the hype of Western States last year, I was definitely ready for something less serious and after a few more weeks of tossing the idea around, it sounded like a good idea at the time.
- Always the finish. Sub 24 hours for the buckle? Sure. Sub 20 hours? That’d be great! But mainly, just finish.
- Don’t take it so seriously. I wanted a race where there wasn’t a lot of hype or expectations. Also, I didn’t want my training to become obsessed and out of balance with the rest of my life. I wanted a training block that was more fun than work and a race that was the same.
- No stomach issues. I’ve had stomach issues, mostly terrible side stitch pain, for nearly all of my longer races 50 miles and above. Last year at Western States my stomach made the last 50 miles pretty miserable. I wanted a race where I could just focus on the misery of exhaustion and muscle pain, and not have to also focus on nausea or stomach pain. Last on this, when your stomach starts giving you trouble, but you NEED to eat to keep going, you start developing a very negative relationship with eating during races. Eating becomes something arduous that leads to nausea or pain. I wanted a happy food, happy eating kinda day dammit!
- Have a solid race. After a great first 100 at Bighorn in 2016, I had a sufferfest at Grindstone in 2016 and another sufferfest at Western States in 2017. I wanted a solid race with a reasonable finish. This meant setting a conservative pace, surviving the heat, and figuring out the stomach.
After a full day’s work on Friday, I drove up to Woodstock and caught the last few minutes of the prerace meeting taking place in a hot barn/hangar structure on the Shenandoah County Fairgrounds. Soon afterwards I found myself eating dinner at a local Italian restaurant with Sophie, Keith Knipling, and Greg Loomis. This was a fantastic dinner and one of my favorite parts of the weekend. We all get along great and Keith and Loomis have so much 100 miler experience that you can’t help but suck in. After downing our chicken parm, pizza, and breadsticks, it was time to retire to the fairgrounds for a night of hot, humid car camping. Well, at least until the 2:00am alarm on account of the race starting at 4:00am.
I started the race with a really pleasant sense of calm. I had indeed not made a big deal of it. Michelle thought I was being a closed book all week, when really, I just was busy with work and trying to focus on our time as a family and didn’t have any extra energy I was going to give to stressing about a race. Also, my training block since January had been one of the most enjoyable I’ve had. Flexible, fun, and mostly just running with my friends, whatever we wanted to do. Some workouts, some easy runs, some running with our dogs, a few ski trips… I averaged just 48 miles per week from Jan through May. I was definitely not overtrained and I started the race feeling healthy and optimistic.
4:00am – Go!
As if to perfectly compliment the understated awesomeness that is OD100, the race starts with you running about 3 miles right through residential streets and downtown Woodstock on your way to the looming Massanutten mountain face. As we turned left on Water Street, out of nowhere this huge buck sprinted full speed just a foot in front of me, Keith, and Justin Faul. That thing would have seriously taken us out and I think all of our hearts skipped a few beats. It was invigorating to say the least.
After some hilly running on some country roads you come to the base of the mountain and get to run the “Jarmans” of the race – a 2.4-mile, 1200 ft, switchbacking road climb to the top of Woodstock Tower. I kept it nice and steady, running most of the climb and arriving to the top in second place behind Olivier Leblond. Olivier was obviously taking it nice and easy because we ran very near each other for the first 20 miles (he is much faster than me).
The first 50k of OD is for the most part a countryside tour 50k on gravel and paved roads. We were fortunate to have good cloud cover and mild temps all day, but the 110% humidity made the conditions anything but cool. There was some beautiful country running here and some great little aid stations – tucked into a pickup truck, the driveway of a farm, or just off the side of another beautiful country road. I ran 85 miles of this race alone, and this opening countryside 50k was a serene start to a tough but fantastic day.
I arrived at Four Points AS (mile 32) a bit hot but in good spirits in 4:55. Awaiting me was my borrowed crew – it was actually Sophie’s crew but they were kind enough to bring some stuff for me as well. Seeing Jeff, Annie, Becca, Joan, Jordan, and special guest Horton definitely lifted my spirits. There is nothing like running a local Virginia 100! Now off to Duncan Hollow!
I actually really liked Duncan Hollow. After 32 miles of roads, I needed some trail to break up the stress and I think I stopped at all the stream crossings and doused my head and body with the cold, awesome water. As I turned onto the Scothorn Gap trail, I now joined part of the MMT course where I had just paced Matt Thompson for his win 2 weeks prior.
After some sweet gravel road running on Crisman Hollow Road, I finally arrived at Four Points #2 where I had a planned sit down break to change socks and fuel up. My borrowed crew was awesome – Jordan and Becca helping me get my shoes and socks off, Jeff getting me an ice bandana, Joan getting my S-Caps, and Annie giving me food and beverage – man, talk about coddling the runner! I loaded my Patagonia Strider Pro shorts up with all sorts of food and I was off!
About my nutrition plan – For every single ultra I have run (just over 30) I have used primarily “sports nutrition” – gels, sports drinks, blocks, etc. I feel that overall these have served me well in my racing, but there is clearly a limit to how much sugar your stomach can handle, especially in the longer races. I’ve tried all the gels, all sorts of different sports drinks, etc., and I still get pretty bad side stitch pain towards the end of every race and it sucks.
So, in the spirit of “try tons of new stuff on race day” I planned on only water in my bottles, and then only eating solid foods all day. The most real food I’ve eaten in a race before was a few snickers bars at Hellgate and other small assorted snacks. When I toed the line in Woodstock, I had in my vest: 1 turkey/avocado/cheddar wrap, 1 Nutella tortilla wrap, 1 sweet potato/oatmeal breakfast cookie, 2 coco/almond power balls and a PBJ sandwich. I ate that all in the first 50k and essentially stuff like that was my plan all day.
And don’t you know it worked like a charm! I can honestly say that over the 100 miles, I had zero significant stomach issues. I actually studied this success and strategy throughout the race and came up with four important factors for conquering my side stitch demons:
- No sports drinks, only water. Don’t get me wrong here, I think sports drinks like Tailwind and Roctane can work for a lot of people, and I’ll surely continue to use them for 50ks and 50 milers. But I think they have been a big source of souring my stomach on the all-day events and water alone was perfect all day.
- Only solid food and some soda. I guess I used to focus so much on carbohydrates because yes, that is mostly what your body uses during an ultra. But I think only taking in carbs in a 12+ hour race will wreck many a person’s stomachs. Even if my body doesn’t effectively use the protein and fat that comes with eating a cheeseburger in a run, I can’t help but feel that these things are settling for my stomach and keep my body more in balance throughout the day. So, I went all in. Sandwiches. Potatoes. Cheeseburgers. Ramen. And I actually enjoyed them on a hot day. Also, I did mention soda. Man, drinking one of those mini 9 oz. cold cokes or ginger ales really hit the spot, so I pretty much did that at every aid station from about mile 40 onward.
- Focusing on breathing. Researching side stitch pain, there are a lot of unknowns, but many agree the diaphragm is involved. So, any time I would start to feel a side stitch coming on, I would take a few deep breaths (as if to “stretch” the diaphragm) and then I would focus on an odd number of steps per breath cycle, so I wouldn’t always be landing on the same foot during my exhale. For example, my go-to was 3 steps as I inhaled and 2 steps as I exhaled. I definitely think this made a big difference in helping to stop the stitch pain and it was also a good exercise to just help me focus on breathing and posture vs. running all crazy and out of breath.
- Taking in a large amount of calories right before a climb. But yeah, focusing on taking in larger quantities of food before a nice little hiking break really helped things settle before the running would again begin.
Back to the race. Leaving Four Points 2, mile 47.5, it was starting to get hot. Sooo humid and it STILL hadn’t rained yet. I hit the 50-mile mark just over 8 hours, so 12:00pm, and I could tell that I really needed to spend the next 5-6 hours taking it easy and just keeping myself from getting overheated. So, plenty of walking breaks were taken during the paved and gravel mountain roads before arriving at Edinburg Gap aid station at mile 56 where I would see my Dude Crew of Matt Thompson and Michael Dubova. These fellas had agreed to come out and crew all afternoon to the finish and I was again excited and thankful to see some good friends.
The next 8 miles were all on the Peters Mill ATV trail. I’m not sure how something like this exists, but it was like a 20-foot-wide dirt/mud trail cut straight through the mountains that somehow had avoided any leaves falling on it over the years of its existence. Just exposed dirt and rocks. As much as I heard this section was terrible and to be feared, it was actually one of my favorite sections of the race. All day, the mountain laurel was in full bloom in the woods and along this bombed out ATV trail, the laurel blooms looked like popcorn had exploded throughout the forest. After a steep climb, I was treated to the perfect downhill running grade for 5-6 miles and, all alone, it was another serene moment of the race where the miles just flew by.
Arriving in Little Fort (mile 64) I was surprised by Thompsons three boys and his wife Jo. Jo was with us at Western States and I was with them at Grindstone and MMT so it was pro crew all over again – yes! They got me in and out as I started the tough 10-mile section to Elizabeth Furnace.
All 100 milers will claim their low points and for me it was this 10 miles. Leaving Little Fort, it’s a steep road climb and so I planned to hike most of it. Unfortunately…mosquitoes! F’ing mosquitoes!!! No more than a minute out of the aid station and the mosquitoes were swarming me. I’d swipe three on my left arm only to have three on my right. I’d swipe them off and three more would be on my left. I do not kid that I must have sustained about 50 mosquito bites on that mile-long hike out of the Little Fort Aid station. FU*%ERS!!! I then had about 4 miles of good running on gravel roads but I was really starting to feel the heat and fatigue of the day. As I finally hit the Mudhole Gap aid station, I was suddenly hit with an acute sense of exhaustion, pain, and despair. I knew I was just hot and tired and there were some wonderful stream crossings to cool down in, but as I started wallowing across them, wouldn’t you know it, those damned mosquitos were back. It was as if the Old Dominion race committee made a deal with them – “anyone being a wimp and walking – show no mercy!” This combination of fatigue and mosquito terrorism induced an epic low point for me. I went from exhausted, to “GET THE F*&K OFF ME YOU F$%KING MOSQUITOES!”, to “this is my last race, this is just way to painful, WHY IN THE WORLD AM I DOING THIS AGAIN? HOW CAN I FORGET HOW MUCH THIS HURTS! NEVER AGAIN!!!”.
As I gave up all my dreams and tried my best to maintain 15 minutes miles, I also knew that this was a phase and made a deal with myself that I was allowed to wallow in self-pity until the Elizabeth Furnace AS just a few miles ahead. What finally broke this cycle of self-destruction was seeing two of the nicest volunteers ever. They were hanging glow sticks for the later runners and just their simple “Hello! You’re doing great!” and me thanking them for being out here instantly turned everything around. I got my crap together and pulled into Elizabeth Furnace a happy camper once again.
Here was my second planned sit down break. I sat down on a picnic table and ate some of Jo’s spot-on Ramen. This was superior Ramen! Add a soda to go with that and then some potatoes loaded with salt that the great aid station workers just made for me and I was a new man!! And, I was picking up my “safety runner”, Matt Thompson.
I had originally wanted to do OD100 with no crew and no pacer, but here at Elizabeth Furnace, as my friends fed me and Dubova expertly sprayed me with bug spray, I couldn’t imagine not having my friends with me. They were the best!
Thompson and I set off along the rolling trail that leads to Sherman Gap and it was great to chat with another human, tell him all about how terrible the f’ing mosquitoes were, and get some renewed energy. Neither of us had been up the Sherman Gap climb. It was infamous and as we started ascending it, we chided to each other, “this isn’t bad!”. Yeah, but then it was. Sherman’s Gap climb is no joke! Not only did it go on forever, but as we neared the top, the sky at 6pm suddenly went very dark. Uh oh, the 100% chance of thunderstorms at 6pm seems to have arrived! And I’m only wearing a tank top with no jacket… Just as we arrived at the top, the rain started coming down and within just minutes, we were in the thick of a torrential rain storm with sheets of rain and wind. Of course, it felt amazing at first and totally motivated me to start bombing down the backside of Sherman’s. But on the other hand, your thermoregulation is pretty messed up after 80 miles of running in June and I started to worry about getting hypothermic if I stopped even for a minute. The storm continued, so we continued running. It was a good deal.
As we were taking a hiking break up a steep section of the road before the Veach East aid station, a car comes up behind us and out of the window the drive yells “Hey! Olivier wouldn’t have walked this hill!” It was Quatro! After battling the crazy storm up on the top of Sherman’s, it was good to see a car and to know we were nearing the VHTRC aid station. I yelled to him that I wanted a cheeseburger and he yelled back “great! I’ll give you Sophie’s burger!”
Coming into the Veach East aid station, all I can say is that it was a party. My foggy mind quickly recognized Bob Gaylord, Toni Aurilio, Alex Papadopoulos, Dan Aghdam and a few more and they were on fire. Jokes, hard times, promptings to take shirts off…it was more some sort of fraternity homecoming than an aid station and was a fantastic mental pick me up as we got ready to go up and over Veach Gap. I asked Quatro for a trash bag – I was still a bit cold and it was still pouring, and instead of walking out of there with trash bags, Quatro gave me his XL Marmot rain jacket and Toni gave Thompson a sweet, clear rain poncho. Last, I got my cheeseburger. Scratch that, I got Sophie’s cheeseburger! Leaving that aid station, wearing other people’s rain gear and eating a cheeseburger in the pouring rain was definitely one of the best ultrarunning memories I have thus far in my career.
The Veach climb was long, and the downhill to Veach West was a river. At times, quite literally. So much water coming down off the mountain!
Arriving into Veach West AS (mile 87) I saw the whole gang again! Becca, Jo, Annie, and Jordan were all there and we had another in-race reunion party. After celebrating with some pancakes, it was back on the road for a tough 4-mile section to the last aid station this side of the mountain.
This 4 miles was another low point. The rain had let up, but the harder running and getting a bit cold really took a lot out of me and suddenly I found myself unable to run even the slightest uphill grades. And wow, the whole 4 miles seemed uphill and the hills were steep! On one hand I only had 13 miles to go! Yeah! On the other hand, the mile 91 aid station was taking FOREVER to get to. AND EVER. Ugh! Oh well, at least I was still in second place and with an assumed comfortable lead over 3rd.
As I approached the 770/758 aid station (mile 91), two headlights ran down to greet me. As I hiked up the steep hill towards the aid station and recognized Thompson and Dubova coming down to me, I knew this couldn’t be good. “Dude. So, you’re doing great, but 3rd place is only like 15 minutes back now. So, you gotta come up into this aid station looking good, get some fuel, and get the hell outta here. His wife is waiting for him in the aid station. Time to push buddy. You can do this”. Something like that anyway. Crap! I was pretty far into another self-pity phase that it took me a minute to really get what he was saying. “This is a race, you know”. Yeah, I know….
As I got to the aid station, sure enough, 3rd place’s wife was standing there taking it all in. I put on my best game face… “Hi, I’m feeling soooo strong and am ready to go!”, when really I was just trying not to give up. I chugged a coke and ate some pretty inferior ramen from the aid station. Just a 2-mile climb to the top of Woodstock Tower from here, and then 7 hard road miles back to the finish. And knowing how crappy I just ran the prior 4 miles, that 15-minute gap had to be less now… I had no idea who was in 3rd place, but if I was in third and knew I had just substantially closed a gap in the last 10 miles, I would be on fire! Ugh!
So, there was a lot of soul searching on this climb. I did not want to race. I was done. I was exhausted and my legs and feet were aching. But yet, here I was, with an opportunity to accomplish goal #4 – finish strong. It was, basically, a decision. Also, I really didn’t want to let my friends down. Thompson and Dubova really didn’t want to see me get passed and they had been crewing and helping me all day. And Michelle, who I haven’t seen all day, is now waiting somewhere on the dark streets of Woodstock. Suddenly this wasn’t just about me, it was now a team deal.
So, I ran as much as I could up that hill. I would run sometimes for just 10 steps. “Scrapping for every bit” was my mantra as I tried my best to climb. I kept looking back to see if I could see 3rd place’s headlamp – I was convinced he had it off – I would’ve. I kept mine on and gave it all I had. When I made the final uphill turn towards Woodstock Tower, with about ¼ mile of climbing left, a pickup drove past me and the guy leaned out and said “hey man, there’s a guy just 4 minutes back!”. Crap!! Feelings of defeat and inadequacy came flooding in. 4 minutes! I finally hit the aid station, chugged a cup of Mountain Dew without stopping and started down the 1200-foot descent to the valley floor.
“Let’s just see if this guy has a Jarmans in his backyard” was the only optimism I could muster. As I started running as fast as I could down the steep switchbacks, my quads were simply on fire. I was wishing I would twist an ankle or fall off the mountain so I could just die and have an excuse to stop running. But somehow, I kept on running. Suddenly, my headlamp flashed. Oh crap. My headlamp is about to die! At this moment, up on the mountain, it was pretty foggy. I tried turning the lamp off and literally couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. Yes! Please die headlamp! No one could blame me if I told them I stopped running because I couldn’t see! For about 5 minutes, my headlamp would continue to flash and threaten a shut off, all the while I kept somehow descending, and descending, and descending, until finally I hit some pavement with some homes and actual road markings. The fog had cleared, I had made it down most of the mountain, and I was still in second.
I had joked at the beginning of the race how much it would suck to be in a footrace through town after 97 miles, but here I was. I turned my lamp off and gave it all I had for the last 4 miles. After crossing over the dam, I was running through the most amazing fields of fireflies I have ever seen. Miles of fireflies. Actually, they were totally messing with me because I kept imaging them to be headlamps of 3rd place, but otherwise they were mesmerizing and they helped me get my head back in the game.
After what seemed like forever, I came to the Water street aid station. I surprised everyone because I didn’t have my light on and I heard “John?” and quickly realized Michelle had driven out to crew me at this last aid station. I told her “Hey, I’m kind of in a footrace so I gotta go” and she handed me another cup of coke which I pounded and took off at what was an incredibly slow shuffle down the road towards town.
Passing through Woodstock at 11pm was surreal. As Keith told me, “here you are huffing it through town in the dark, and nobody could know what you have been through all day”. Running by homes, streetlamps, and parked cars, the lights and sounds of a darkened valley town was the finishing touch on the perfection that is OD100. I gave that last mile quite literally everything I had and as I finally made the right hand turn into the fairgrounds and gave one more glance over my shoulder, I was almost pretty sure that nobody was right behind me.
The Old Dominion 100 finishes with a lap around the ½ mile fairgrounds horse track. That is a long, dark track and I thought I would never get all the way back around to the finish line. But as it always does, the finish line finally came, and there with Henry the timekeeper was Michelle, Thompson and Dubova. Now. I. Can. Stop.The. Running.!!! Chair.
19 hours, 12 minutes, 2nd place at the Old Dominion 100 Miler. What a day!
Breakfast the next morning with all the runners, crews, and families was awesome. The long-awaited buckles were delivered, and stories were exchanged. At one point during the breakfast I was walking by the display they had about the 40 years of the race and an older woman was standing there admiring it all. “Are you associated with the race?” I asked politely. “Hi, I’m Pat Botts, and yeah, I am, I started it 40 years ago.” I felt a bit embarrassed, but we quickly started talking about the past and she told me all about how at the age of 48 some men had told her that women could never run 100 miles, and so she set out to prove them wrong. She told me how she lived on a farm near the dam and how she “ran up and down the Woodstock Tower road for over 15 years”. That sealed the deal. This race is a classic.
Thank you so much to the OD race committee for putting on such a fine race. The aid stations were perfect and the course marking were impeccable. The course was amazing – so challenging and so much strategy involved. It truly tests you as a runner and as a mountain runner. Thank you to my friends out there on the course, especially Thompson and Dubova and Jo. And thank you to Michelle, for your never-ending support, your high standards, and for being my perfect partner in this crazy life.