Feb 15th, 2014
I promise not to be the guy who writes a race report after every race he runs…but since I’ve got the microphone… Also, I realize on its surface, a race report about an ultramarathon probably seems totally unrelatable and perhaps downright obnoxious to most of the more sensible runners out there. But one of the truest joys of running, to me, is blowing the roof off what you think is your normal capability. Our bodies are not what limits us, its our minds…hard work and a positive attitude will get you far beyond what you think you could ever do. Now, onto the SNUD!!
Holiday Lake 50K is the first race of the Lynchburg Ultra Series, an awesome set of trail races in the mountains and trails outside of Lynchburg, VA. Being the one race of the series that does not take place in the mountains, Holiday Lake is normally the “fast” race. Well, not this year! With 12-15″ of snow falling the Wednesday and Thursday before the Saturday morning race, it was sure to be an epic slog fest.
After downing a meat lover’s pizza at Dr. Ho’s, my Crozet Running teammate Dan Spearin and I, along with our friend Chris McCartney were off to the Super 8 in Appomattox, Virginia. We met up with another CR teammate, the speedy Nick DiPirro, and somehow managed to talk him out of sleeping in his car beside a dumpster and join us in our Super 8 luxury. Four dudes sleeping in a small Super 8 motel room…on Valentine’s Day no less!
We woke up to…cold…rain. Ugh! What the heck do you wear for a 32 mile race in 33 degree rain on a snow-covered course?! And how in the world do I pace myself for such a run? When we arrived at the Holiday Lake 4H Center where the race began, I began wondering just why I do this to myself. Seriously. It was dark, wet, and cold and everyone knew the trail was going to be pretty rough. After checking in and spending some time in the lodge, race director David Horton asked the runners to gather outside at the start…with his megaphone. Dr Horton is a legend in the trail and ultrarunning world. I feel cheesy saying its an honor to run his races, but its true, it is. He’s personable and hilarious, his personality is just as big as his running and hiking feats, and he is just a really good role model to a lot of people.
6:30am – After a prayer at the starting line, we were off! 314 runners started the race, the first 1/2 mile of which were actually on a road. Dan and I planned on running together for the first half or so as we got a feel for the course, and we jockey’d up to the upper quarter or so of runners so we didn’t get too tied up when the course headed into the woods. As soon as the course turned into the woods, you could just feel a sense of interest and amusement from all the runners as we began to figure out just how in the world we were going to navigate this stuff for 32 miles. There was a good 6″ or so of snow on the ground, the top of which had that classic crust, but the middle and bottom of which was pretty wet from the warm weather the day before. Like a cold, miserable Creme Brulee.
You could try to run in another runners tracks, but you quickly found out that the snow never really packed down because it was wet…it just kind of slid somewhere else. Fail. Or you could just make your own brand new tracks in the crust – predictable, but immediately tiring and wet below the crust. Fail. Or, you could simply run straight ahead, not thinking and just taking what came to you, which made for really unpredictable footing. Fail. So there you have it, that’s what the FIRST loop would be like – trying to get good footing and failing. Trying to get some semblance of a normal running stride and failing. Trying to get into any kind of zone and failing. You get the picture.
After the first aid station, we came across a few stream crossings. The first one was more like a trickle, but the second one was about 20 feet across and clearly the water was all snow melt – it was COLD! And up to your thighs! Everything became immediately numb and painful. That was a cold stream crossing. Good thing your feet could warm up in all the…snow… But the trials of the first 8 or so miles were lost in the excitement of the beginnings of an adventure and chatting it up with Dan and Marc Griffin. Speaking of Marc, I inadvertently tried to make him drop by dousing him with a snowy mud wave. Trying to figure out how in the world to run around a huge mud puddle, the snow on the side of it predictably collapsed, sending me into the puddle. I was fine, but I sent a huge wave of muddy water right onto Marc! That was awesome, wasn’t it Marc!
And then came the powerlines. When racing through the woods, usually the beauty of trail running takes away a little of the pain you may be bringing upon youself. But when you start running under powerlines, the magic dies and you start to feel it all a little more. Although Dr. Horton claims there’s only 1.1 miles of powerlines, it was really more like a third of the race. Ok, this section of uninspiring misery was not all under powerlines, there were some rutted out dirt roads that were equally uninspiring and they pretty much get filed in with the powerline experience. It sucked. But the worst thing about the powerline section was the condition of the snow. The snow here was a little deeper and at this point the front runners must have all been running single file because there was just a very narrow section of broken snow. But again, the snow was wet and didn’t pack down, so it was like you were just running in this narrow rut of slush – you simply could not run with a normal, wide stance. The slushy rut pretty much forced your footing awkwardly into a perfectly straight line, as if you were running on a balance beam. I’m not sure I can adequately explain how much this sucked, but it was terrible. There were a lot of grunts and groans and everybody looked like they were drunk, with their upper bodies flailing this way and that as their feet were forced into the narrow slushy rut. Imagine our relief when the powerline section ended on a road and you could run in either the left or right tire tracks that were filled with mud. But this mud running was so much easier than the slush rut, everyone turned a little more upbeat.
Eventually, the trail headed back into the woods for some great single track around the lake back to the lodge. This was the one part of the race I actually enjoyed. The snowfall was lighter here and some of it even packed down. And the trail was the prettiest, with mountain laurel, the lake, and numerous stream crossings to ease the pain. Dan and I were still running together and had been keeping an honest pace – definitely not easy, but not too hard either. I had been keeping up with my nutrition drinking a 200 calorie/20oz bottle of Tailwind Nutrition every hour as well as one gel/hour. This gets me around 300 calories per hour and my stomach seems to handle that amount well. I started this right at the start, knowing I would need every bit of energy to finish strong. As we got nearer the turnaround, we started seeing the leaders running back towards us. The leader (and eventual winner) just looked smooth and easy, with no one near him. As we passed more runners, I starting counting to get a feel of where we were – at the moment, it was more for amusement. I consider myself an upper mid-packer with no aspirations for greatness. I figured there were probably around 40 people in front of us, but as we got closer and closer to the turnaround, I learned there were only about 30 people ahead. Ok, I thought, there’s probably some people behind us who have paced themselves better and will pass us, but this is a good start! I had just finished a gel when we reached the turnaround point/aid station, so I just needed a bottle refill and I blew out of the aid station. Dan told me he needed to eat for a minute and I gave him the parting “Alright man!”
Side note here on Dan. Dan is one of my best friends and an incredible training buddy. We literally live 5 houses apart from each other and have our other best friend Jeff Lysiak living right next door to Dan. Its quite a ridiculous concentration of ultrarunners if you ask me! Dan and I are pretty evenly matched runners and over the years have suffered a lot together, pushing each other on long mountain runs and grueling tempo runs. Sometimes he’s up and I’m down, and vice versa. Last fall at MMTR50, after running together for the first 20 miles, Dan simply puts on his headphones and pats me on the butt as he takes off. I simply could not respond, it was his day. But that butt pat has become infamous as my wife chided me before Holiday Lake, “don’t you let Dan smack you on the butt again!”. Although we’re naturally both competitive, we have a ton of respect for each other and always want to see the other do well and give his all. As much as I wanted to wait for Dan so we could be suffer buddies on the trek back, I felt called to get out of that aid station as fast as possible.
I ended up passing a few people right in the aid station and a few more just outside of the aid station. Hmmm, now I’m in ~25th… and that’s pretty much when the switch got flipped to take this thing home as strong as I could. On the first part of the return trip, you have to pass by everybody on a narrow, windy single track trail. Most people were polite, but many of us were also busy looking down at the ground, creating some close rubs as people passed each other. I passed another two runners and ended up falling in behind Jordan Chang. Jordan is a young guy but has raced a ton of ultras, so I knew if I could stick with him, I’d be doing well. We chatted about Blacksburg where we both went to school and of course running, and the first few miles of the trek back flew by. One thing I noticed about Jordan was that he was just hammering through the snow, which by now had become completely mixed with water and mud. I’ll claim here that Jordan and I coined the term “Snud” to describe the new state of the trail. Watching Jordan just pound through it was pretty inspiring – there was no dancing around for the best footing or taking it easy – he was running through this crap and got me fired up to do the same.
When we got to the “12 miles to go aid station”, I took off my jacket, hat, and gloves and was ready to tempo it home. Just a 12-mile tempo run kept going through my head. I couldn’t quite keep up with Jordan anymore, but was still passing people every mile or so and gaining confidence with each pass. Everyone was giving their all at this point, it really just came down to who had more left in the tank. Had someone come up and passed me, I’m not sure I could’ve held them off. As I ran back through the powerline section, I mustered all the mental strength I could find to keep pushing. All day I had the same song stuck in my head, “Oceans” by Hillsong United – its a spiritual song, and just really gave me strength as I pushed myself those last 12 miles:
Spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you would call me. Take me deeper than my feet could ever wander, and my faith would be made stronger, in the presence of my Savior
The thing that I have come to really love about ultrarunning are the moments where you start to become exhausted both physically and as well as mentally, but you find that you can push through and somehow it gets better. After the “8 miles to go Aid Station”, the trail went back into the woods for the worst 8 mile run I’ve ever had. The trail at this point was just a little river of freezing cold mud water trapped in a trench of snud. With each step, my feet were getting soaked repeatedly in this mush and my toes finally gave in to the numbness. My hip flexors were beat and my calves for the first time in my life were threatening a run-stopping cramp. Each mile took forever in this slop and you could only focus on the next road crossing, or the upcoming mile 4 aid station, but not dare to think you still had x-miles left. But the body and mind pushed on and somehow managed to catch a few more people in these last miles.
When the trail finally gave way to the 1/2 mile of downhill paved road, I was half exhilarated and half horrified. Exhilarated that the end was in sight, but horrified at how painful running on this new hard, stable surface was. And suddenly I heard one or two pairs of footsteps behind me. I was not going to let anyone pass me on this part, so I somehow ran a 5:30 pace on this secton and finally into the sweet comfort of the finish line. Horton grabbed his megaphone and shouted, “#250. Andersen! What are you doing up here?! You’re 13th!” “What!?” I figured I was 20th or 21st and was totally floored to hear that I had cracked the top 15 of such a race. “Third loser!”, chided Horton. “I guess I’ll have to seed you higher next time.”
That pretty much made my week and the day was topped off by getting to see all of my friends finish and take part in eating ridiculous amounts of food from the potluck inside the 4H center. The sun came out, people were smiling, and Horton kept cracking jokes on his megaphone. Holiday Lake 2014 was memorable.