Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Virgil Crest 100: A Culmination of Hills

Virgil Crest 100: A Culmination of Hills

            For those of you who know me, and have followed my blogs, you know that I have developed almost a “fetish” with hills this past year.  These huge obstacles have made me stronger throughout my running career, and this year been proof of how strong I have become.  It seemed only fitting to have my year peak with a race boasting well over 20,000 feet of elevation (the website says roughly 20,000 ft, but I swear it’s way more), including 4 times on the Alpine Loop, straight up the ski slopes.  Perfect.



Virgil Crest marked my 3rd 100.  This means I’ve had time to work out the kinks in my training and learn what’s best for my body.  In many ways, I was the best prepared for a 100 than I ever have been.  Before Oil Creek, I added in a 9+hr training run at Mohican that left me sick by the time I went down to pace my sister at Grindstone 100 a week later, and I don’t think I really needed that run.  For Burning River last year, I added in many more 40+ mile runs than I needed.  As a younger runner, my body still had (and has) difficulty recovering from longer runs, and this led to many ups and downs in my training. 


This year, after a bit of a blip after Fools 50k, I was relatively happy with my training.  I only had 1 or 2 weeks where I had to put a hold on my training plans after wiping my body out the week before.  My only run over a 50k was in February for Destin Beach 50, and after that it was just 50ks.  Besides 3 weeks before Virgil, where I ran 20 miles on Saturday (which included Leave No Trace ½ Marathon) and 30 miles (I think, I guesstimated on my route that mixed in a series of trails around the CVNP) on Sunday, I stuck to runs below 25 miles.  There are still a few things to work out, like balancing my Jillian Michaels videos with speed work, but I was definitely moving towards the right path this year.   And yes, I did feel like absolute crap in the 2 weeks after my 20/30 run.


Maybe not so wonderful in the area of preparation was my decision to run Virgil Crest at the beginning of August, with the race a month and a half away on Sept. 22.  Still, I had known I was going to run a 100 all summer, and kept a solid base.  Before signing up, I just made sure it was okay with Steve, warning that as I crank up the mileage in the next few weeks that I’d be pretty “tired” (NOT cranky).  Without hesitation, he agreed that this would be a great race for me and to sign up.  I also think he was happy that I didn’t pick a race too far away (Virgil, near Ithaca, N.Y., is a 6hr drive).

What he was not so happy with was my 10 day trip out to Colorado to visit Sandi…

It wasn’t the visiting my sister part he was unhappy with, he knew how much we missed each other and views Sandi as a sister as well. It was the 10 days part…about 5 days to long for him!  But I needed the full experience, and the first few days would also be spend with my dad, cheering on Sandi at the Pike Peak Marathon.


(For a shorter read, skip this section)


For me, my trip out to Colorado was one of the best things I could have done for myself physically and mentally. 

I had planned my time spent with Sandi as an “off week” in training.  However, besides my first few days in Colorado Springs where I ran loops around the flat lake near my uncle’s house, it was anything but.  Monday, we climbed Green Mountain in Boulder (I talked Sandi, who had just run Pikes the day before, into going all the way to the peak with me, not wanting to get lost alone).  There wasn’t much running involved, as on the way up we accidently took the technical way up, and I didn’t have the experience on the way down to maneuver over the rocks (having to let go getting passed by a runner going by).  Still, it was enough of an effort for me.  While I still blame it on the freezer made veggie burger I ate, I puked that night.

On Tuesday, Sandi spent 15 minutes trying to explain to mean an 8 mile route on trails near her apartment in Salida.  I was lost as soon I crossed the railroad tracks out of town, not even finding the correct trail to start at.  My short run turned into lasting 3 hours.

Wednesday, Sandi and I ran near Pagosa Springs (where she just won 1st OVERALL in a 50k!) and despite finding a relatively flat trail, it was my first run at significant elevation.

The next day we ran again at elevation, between Durango and Silverton, on the Colorado Trail.  This trail marks the most beautiful trail I have ever been on.  I have no pictures, and even my long description in my journal would not come close to doing the scene we saw any justice.  It also marks the most switchbacks I’ve ever run up.  The trail started high, and then went way way down to the river and Silverton-Durango railroad tracks.  I thought for sure I’d be hiking the majority of the way up, but Sandi let me lead, and with my legs in “1st gear” I made my way up the 20+ switchbacks with only a few sections of hiking.  This in itself was a confidence boost as it wasn’t something I knew I could do, especially in the thin air.

Friday was a 14er day.   I could make this into a long, long story of Sandi and I conquering gravity and death on the drive over, but I’ll just stick with the fact we climbed up Handies Peak, and I am completely in awe of all the runners who make this climb in the middle of Hardrock 100.  So for short, I struggled during each climb, it snowed, we ran down, and ended up with 14 miles or so. 

Then, funny enough, Sandi and I happened to enter the Silverton Alpine Marathon…Again, not out best idea, but one of the most memorable.  Sandi ended up winning the women’s and I came in 40 minutes later completely elated and exhausted.  We started at just less than 10,000ft, and peaked at over 13,500.  I felt pretty good coming from sea-level, and again given a boost of confidence to tackle the hills at Virgil.

Needless to say, I had a pretty good week of training (every run felt like a tempo!), and ended up taking most of the next week easy, which ended up helping for LNT anyway.

Mentally, this trip was the best thing I could have done for myself.  Of course, Tanzania was more important to my general personal growth, but this trip was more important in other ways.  One, I desperately needed to see my twin sister.  It would have been hard to imagine as a teenager, but I miss her like crazy during our months apart.  Second, I had to come to terms with my decision to stay in Ohio.  In my heart, I knew I had done the right thing staying where I was. Unfortunately, that didn’t mean I had stopped battling the voices in my head that had pushed for me to move since I was 18.  In my mind, Sandi was living the life I had dreamed for myself the previous year, having adventures out west, working for a non-profit, and training in the mountains.  The irrational side thought of me as “the girl who stayed for her boyfriend”, ignoring that love, including for my family (now including Steve’s 3 kids as well), was really every reason to stay, and that I had the ability to “make a difference” wherever I was.

Now I can’t honestly say that sometimes I don’t wish I were still out West, especially with Sandi, but it is much more on the wish side of things and not the part where I feel like I made the wrong decision.  The trip helped get some things out of my system, and for now my home is in Ohio.  I am happy here.


The not so great part of my preparation, with the addition of signing up for a 100 a month and a half before, was the mental side.

Leading up to the race, my mind never really comprehended that I was going to run 100 miles (not that it ever fully can, but I’ve done better).  I never gave myself to the time to meditate and visualize, nor study the course…even during the race I never knew where I was, even thinking I was at a different aid station after a loop section.  Driving up to the race Friday, I told Steve that mentally I couldn’t understand how much climbing I had to do. 

This lack of pre-race thought probably led to quite a few mistakes I made during the race…mainly on nutrition (I hadn't even brought bread to make PB&J!) and working a bit harder than I should have the first 25 miles.

Friday Night: Pre-Race


Steve and I arrived at Virgil Fire Station around 5:30 or so, where packet pick-up was being held. We stayed long enough to meet the Race Director Ian Golden (awesome RD!), get our blue wristbands that would allow us to enter the park, and see what color the course markings would be so I wouldn’t get lost.

Next we proceeded to check into our hotel, which smelled a bit funky, and Steve complained considerably.  To his credit, he was smart enough to ask the hotel receptionist for a restaurant recommendation, and she recommended Brix in Cortland.  It was soooo good!  It was a pizza place/ sports bar with brick walls and wood floor, mixing old and new together just right.  And, they even had a vegetarian and vegan options!  I had a delicious bowl of spaghetti squash and veggies that left me stuffed!

After we finished stuffing ourselves, we didn’t stay long as exhaustion was growing on me, probably having so much excited energy earlier in the day then crashing after 6hrs in the car.  Plus, I wanted to get everything laid out so I wouldn’t have to think too much in the morning. 

I read of few more pages of 4 time IronMan champ Chrissie Wellington’s new book, A Life Without Limits, before drifting off to sleep.  Then again, maybe drifting is the wrong word.  Rolling around for a half hour with racing thoughts would be a better description, though admittedly, I know my 4-5 hours or so was much more than many of the other runners. 

Actually, I felt like I got to sleep in a bit.  The race didn’t start until 6, the hotel 15 minutes away from the start, so I didn’t have to wake up until 4:30.

And the best news?

When I walked outside to jump in Rocky, it wasn’t cold!

That had really been my biggest, and really only, fear.  Silly, I know.  Unlike many people toeing the line of a 100, the least of my worries is finishing.  Just this alone gives me an automatic edge, but for me, finishing is a given. 

My view is this:  as long as I am uninjured and in “relatively” good physical health, I’m going to finish.  So, even before the race begins, I’ve already mentally made the decision that despite pain, exhaustion, stomach queasiness, and even place, I’m going to cross the finish line.  Therefore, I am already over obstacle 1 before I even pass through the start line.

 (The other added bonus: without this worry, I can more fully enjoy the long journey).

Back to the start.


We arrived around 5:30, just enough time to check in, use a bathroom, and chat with Steve for a few minutes before lining up. Before I knew it, Ian was starting us off and I was running around the lake, getting passed by many others on one of the flattest sections of the course.  Even though this section of pavement was small, I was already praying for trail.


I don’t remember much else, but before I knew it I was at aid station 1 (it had only been a bit over 4 miles), handing my jacket and headlamp to Steve and taking off back into the woods.  

Here is when I began to realize that single track trail in New York is not the same as single track trail in Ohio.  It’s more of what I would really consider a hiking trail, with a slightly distinct trail, but always needing to keep an eye out for the white blazes.  (For my friends not in Ohio, runners here can easily follow well-defined dirt packed trails).  In addition, there were many, many more roots and rocks to navigate, making it much more technical than I used to.

In this section, I also started to go back and forth with a woman who looked a whole lot like Laurie Colon from the back, with her dark black hair and black running attire.  I knew this couldn’t be so as Laurie had just started running Grand to Grand out West, but I definitely took a few double takes.  I didn’t find out until much later, but I after I passed her the last time, I took the lead for the women’s 100 mile race.

I really had no idea, as women running the 50 mile race were everywhere.  Our bibs colors were different, but it’s a bit hard to tell when they are ahead of you or going past.

When were broke out of the wood onto a long downhill (and later uphill) country road, the two women ahead of me disappeared, as my hip revolted the idea of picking up the pace on pavement.  Still, being exceptionally cheery at this point in the race, I made sure to tell the local woman packing her car that I loved her property, as her house, with the barn across the road, had a beautiful view of miles and miles of woods, whose trees were just beginning to change colors

After that nasty mile stretch was the next aid station, and my absolutely favorite part of the course: the Alpine Loop.

I quickly swapped hand-helds with Steve, grabbed some food, and took off hiking.  Yes, it was that steep.  Running wasn’t really an option.  We were climbing a ski slope after all. And, with the turns, it ended up being about 3 times longer than perceived at the bottom.  At this point, I was downright giddy.

Here I was finally able to chat with the other women, all kindly letting me know they were 50 milers…and I began to question my pace.  Still, I couldn’t quench me desire to conquer the slopes, and I continued to power up without much added effort.  Of course the other women easily caught up to me on the downhill (too steep to even be enjoyed) which is not my forte.

Then we came to another hill, which made me almost giggle with glee.  Out loud, I shouted “this is awesome!” and the other runners near me probably started to question my sanity.  This hill went nearly straight up, and then went straight up some more.  The woman next to me said one year when it rained, people were crawling up. Perhaps this was a prediction of  what was to come later in the race…

After a long 4 miles, I was back at the aid station.  Coming from a different way, and not paying attention to my surroundings and focusing on food, it was hard to tell this was the same aid station.  Actually, despite knowing this section was called the Alpine Loop, I had no idea that I was at the same aid station until Steve told me the next day. ) If you didn’t already know, I have a very poor sense of direction.)

Anyway, to my delight, Steve told me that the next 6 mile section included climbing up Virgil Mountain.  It just kept getting better!

It took about 2 miles or so to climb up, catching a few guys along the way and chatting with an I2Per (Impossible 2 Possible) who knew of both my sister (who took part in the first expedition to the Baffin Islands) and Laurie Colon (currently racing for Team I2P in Utah).  Following the climb was some real and very run-able single track.  For the most part, I just settled in for the next few miles, casually chatting with Laura, a 50 miler from NY, when she caught up to me on the going down.

We came in to the aid station together.  I think I begged Steve for S-Caps.  All I really know is after we left, Laura and I spent the next 2 miles or so leap-frogging a bit more on the rolling hills, before she finally took off on a downhill and disappeared.  It was also here that my energy started to wane a bit, not a great sign at mile 20 or so. 

By 25, the turn-around, I was getting a bit worried when I looked behind me entering the aid station and I saw quite a few people a few strides back.  I only stayed a minute, and did my best to stay relaxed as several women passed me in the next 5 miles.  I had only slowed down a tad within the last 10 and was comfortable as comfortable gets and let myself settle in, hoping most of the women were 50 milers, and either way figuring we had a lot of race left.

By the time I got back to my favorite loop, the sun was out, and my energy had picked up a bit. 

I started off the Alpine Loop, this time in the reverse direction, by screaming out to a gentleman that he missed the turn into the woods.  This ended up being a mutual benefit, as I let him unknowingly pace me in some sections where I could see him from a few hundred yards back.  It wasnt until the next aid station where he started to come out of his funk, being 4 miles from the end of his journey, where he thanked me for keepinghim on trail. I was glad to help!

As I left this aid station, I joked with Steve “Are you sure you don’t want to pace me sooner?” thinking possibly a bit before 75, but not definitely not at the 50 mile mark.   I should have known he would take me literally.

I was excited to be close to the half way mark of the race and was on the lookout for the top runners to come by.  I saw the two lead me gracefully zoom pass me, all of us encouraging each other. Coming closer to the turnaround at the start/finish and circling around the lake, I began really began to wonder where the next woman was, but all I saw were a few guys go by.  Were all the women I had seen 50 milers?

A few hundred yards out, half way around the lake, I thought “oh no” as I not only saw bright orange Rocky in the parking lot, but bright orange Steve in his Leave No Trace shirt, now in his running gear.

From 30 yards out, I could at least see Steve had my peanut butter and banana bagel ready to go (be forgot the jelly, but added lots and lots of pb!) which I quickly tried to grab and go (there was no way I was staying at start/finish line for long).  However, with his Camelback on, he was ready to come with me, but I told him, in his words, “I don’t need you (yet)”, and gave him the list of what I needed the next aid station.  At the time, what I really needed was to have my food and additional gear ready to go at the next few aid stations, including my first IB profen that I wanted before the quad- trashing downhills on the Alpine Loop.  Plus, I knew how tired I was after 50 miles, and really wanted someone who would be fully lucid during the late night hours.  As I took off, alone, to start the second half of my journey, he yelled he could do 50 miles.  Jokingly, I yelled back, in front of quite a few people, “you couldn’t even make it through our 24 mile run! (he gotten dehydrated and started hiking)” which produced a few laughs…

Of course I felt a little bad after this and resolved to explain my reasoning at the next aid station.

In the mean time, I began to wonder about the next woman.  I cheered on some of the 50 milers coming in, who in turn gave me energy inducing bursts of encouragement.  Still, no ponytails with a blue colored (100-miler) bib.  I thought perhaps I had passed a woman at the 50 mile aid station, which is uncommon, as I often pass people at aid stations without knowing it, as I think of them more at pit stops then places to rest.

At 54ish, I finally got to explain myself to Steve, telling him I knew he could do 50 miles, but I really needed my stuff ready to go, especially as dark would be approaching in a few hours along with a drop in temperature. 

It wasn’t for another 2 miles that I saw a few females and more of the 100 milers, even Jim, who I ran the beginning of Burning River with last year.  Then it started to grow dark in the woods, and a few runner’s began to turn their headlamps on.  I wasn’t sure of my pace, the time, or distance.  I just prayed I’d make it to the road before dark, as Steve and I figured I could make the next few miles without it. 

I popped out onto the long downhill road as night was approaching, this time enjoying the opportunity let gravity help my legs, too tired to notice the additional pounding on the pavement.  It began raining as I neared the aid station to climb up the ski lift for the 3rd time.  “This should make things interesting” I thought, as if loop wasn’t “interesting” enough when it was dry and in daylight.

At the aid station, Steve handed me my headlamp and we briefly reassessed our plan.  There was still a bit of light left, and I enjoyed this loop, where it most likely he would not.  It was decided I would again conquer the loop alone, and he would start pacing at 65, 10 miles earlier than originally planned.

With the warning from a volunteer that things were starting to get a bit messy in the rain, I started my way up the incline.

While my legs were nowhere near as fresh as they had been the first two times I had run this loop, I think I loved the third time the most.  Picture a hazy rain, with the sky fading from gray to black, and a muddy, grassy hill that rose for at least a half a mile.  At times I was forced to walk off the path to find footing that would keep me from sliding down.  It was one of those moments where the culmination of one’s training all comes together, where your mind shuts out any superfluous thoughts.  It’s just you, and nature encompasses everything.  And, despite everything you may have felt or previously thought, you are strong and nothing will keep you from accomplishing your goal.

Unfortunately, this did not mean I had a second wind.  That did not happen to me, and I did have a llllooonnnggg way to go, but I still finished the loop in what I felt to be good time.  Even given the one hill I mentioned previously that nearly went straight up…I had to walk in the weeds the whole time, scraping my thighs, but managing to stay upright without a major mud bath.

By the end of the loop, it was completely dark and I was ready for company, now seeing hardly anyone out on the trails.  Steve was ready for me at the aid station, and I was excited to show him the badass trail, especially with the climb up Virgil Mountain next.


We started running down the road towards the trail, and I was either putting on my gloves or stuffing a perogie down my through when I asked Steve “I’m chasing men, aren’t I?”  In my mind, I had already decided that if this was the case, my new goal was to finish top 5.  Steve confirmed that I had just passed man #5 at the aid station, as he was sitting down and changing his socks.  He let me know how close a few of us *runners were and I tried to settle in without panic.  “I’m just going to do my best” I told him, knowing that’s all I could do and that’s all that mattered.

*At that point, all any of us were was runners.  Gender did not matter.  This is what I had strived for since by basketball days, making sure the boys all knew I fully expected them to play against me as they would any of their male oppenents, even the same blows.  Most complied, as they feared my rage otherwise. I wanted to be known as an athlete, not a girl. Still, physically I never could match up.  Here, for the first time, I felt I had accomplished this goal. 

As we hiked up, I told Steve about my day and what this climb had been like hours before in the daylight.  When the trail flattened out at the top, we ran as best we could in the dark, trying to take advantage of the run-able section.  We did fairly well, but later on it turned out that once run-able sections were not so run-able to my unsteady footing in the dark.  I was passed by the man I had moved ahead of at the aid station, now moving swiftly with his hiking poles. At the next aid station we saw him again, and despite the fact that he departed before us, I was happy to know that I was making him leave much quicker than he wanted.  Still, I was unsure if we would catch him.

At this time, the distance between aid stations seemed to stretch on forever.  After clearing up for a bit, the sky once again gave way to rain, this time including a few gusts of wind, and Steve and I succumbed to hiking much of the last few miles to the turnaround at mile 75.  When we got there, it was numbers 4,5, and 6.  The man with the hiking poles quickly left, and the other younger man stayed a bit longer to finish his food and plan with his pacer, who would take a break the next few miles before meeting him again before the Alpine Loop.  He then too left, and I followed a few seconds behind.

I grew a little frustrated. We were able to run a few short sections, before hitting another climb or technical section.  I wanted to run more, but I stumbled with nearly every step.  I was going to have to be patient and power hike for the time being.

It ended up being good enough.  I believe it was a bit after the next aid station, where Steve and I caught up to the man with trekking poles an opening on the road.  Steve pushed me to run a strong pace, as the man was trying to latch on, before falling back. 

We didn’t see him again (well Steve saw him, I had already forgotten) until the Alpine Loop aid station, which Steve and I had just completed. He had not moved after descending Virgil Mtn.

That was all great, except for the fact that I thought I was going to pass out.  I told Steve something like “If I pass out, I’m fine, just let me sleep for a bit”, in which he replied “Well don’t pass out then!” as if I could help it. Normally I don’t get that feeling until the very end of 100, so I was a bit worried.  Still, he gave me the tough love I needed at that point. This wasnt the time for a pity party.  He made me take in two gels within 20 minutes and I did my best to just focus on the task at hand. Eventually the spell passed, for the time being at least.

I was right about the  Alpine Loop. In the wee morning hours in the dark and mud…Steve did hate it.  J  We both slid/skied down the mud-hill and grimaced as we did our best to run after long climbs.  Our quads ached as we made our way down the slopes.  We may have not been in the best moods the entire time, but we pushed through it.

From the aid station, there were 10 miles left, and I grabbed some pancakes to go.  I had to “strongly encourage” Steve to leave with me and stop eating. 

I made myself run until we reached the long mile climb of road into the woods.  I would not be daunted, but I was nothing short of exhausted.  I grabbed Steve’s hand, and we hiked up hand in hand.

In the woods, Steve complained about the continuation of hills, thinking this section would be relatively flat.  (Compared to the rest the course it was)  I on the other hand was having increasing difficulty navigating the trail, stumbling continuously.  Steve nervously watched from behind as I wavered near the steep creek bank.  A few times I did fall (away from the creek) and my quads just barely let me get back up. 

Then, I had to confront the realization of a lost goal.

The sky began to lighten.  We were on the verge of sunset, and past the 24 hr mark of the race.  Subconsciously, I knew by mile 75 that my goal of finishing under 24 quickly slipping away.  I just didn’t let myself focus on the thought, knowing I was already doing my best at the time. 

Like usual, except in a very different circumstance, I just had to run off any negative thoughts that were now being associated with seeing sunrise for the second time (okay, I didn’t really see it the day before because it was cloudy, but you get the point).  And anyway, the fall morning was really too beautiful to not enjoy and it seemed as if many of the leaves had changed color overnight. Plus, the light meant I would finally be able to clearly see the trail, making running much easier.

The thought of finishing consumed my thought for the last 4 miles.  I was envisioning the last half mile around the lake, RD Ian Goldman handing me my belt buckle, and collapsing into the hotel bed.  Of course, my thoughts were interrupted by Steve constantly asking me what was next, expecting me to be able to clearly recall each part.  All I knew was there was trail for the first part, with a muddy section and some downhill, a gravel road with some uphill, and then the lake.  I knew Steve was getting tired, and I really couldn’t blame him.  To crew AND pace is a tougher job than simply running.  We were at the point of the race where I, as many runners, could simply run of fumes of determination and exhilaration of completing my goal.  For the pacer, they are simply exhausted and depleted of their energy stores.  Running for hours is really a psychological battle, and while the people racing have been running longer, they are ahead in the mental game.  I understand how pacers get dropped, and there is no shame, I’ve been there!

I kept a steady pace on the gravel road in almost my normal running form.  I surprised myself a bit.  I didn’t doubt I could run after 24 hours without sitting once, but I didn’t really know I could either.  I surprised Steve too, as I made him run up a hill.  We were too close to the finish to not to.

As we stepped foot on the path around the lake, I almost instantly heard the yells of Ian on the other side.  I tried to urge my legs to go faster, but there was nothing left.  Steve and I just relaxed and took it all in as we rounded the lake, and I finally stopped looking behind my back with the fear I would get passed. 


I crossed the finish after running for 25:46 minutes. 5th place overall. 
(Albiet, the field was small for this race.  65 runners started, 32 finished.)

I had done my best.


And really, I timed it perfectly as I had the 50k crowd to cheer me in as well, as they were starting their race at 8 J


To close:  Within minutes of finishing, I lost the capability to stand for more than a minute on my own.  I managed to keep from passing out until I took a bath, then just made it to the bed before I collapsed.  This is an improvement compared to my other 2 100s.


My recovery has also gone remarkable faster in comparison as well, although I admit I have been smarter about it.  By Monday, I was walking close to normal and ran 3 mainly in my quads and ankles that I rolled numerous times.  I could also see my ankles within a few days.  My quads are still rebuilding the muscle I had destroyed.  After the race, I could actually visibly tell my muscles were deteriorated as the normal curve in my quads had become a straight slant to my knees.

Regardless, I know those muscles will be stronger by the end of my recovery.  The will be another testament to how I have become stronger even after breaking down.

I am so thankful for all the hills I have had to climb.

Happy Adventures,


1 comment:

  1. Next time Steve can come for 5 days or the whole trip. It's just hard to really take in CO in 5 days. :) Can't wait to hear the rest of the story!