Gear: Patagonia Air Flow Shirt, Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts, Smartwool PhD Run Graduated Compression Socks, Salomon Sense Pro Shoes, Suunto Ambit 2 (HR) Watch, Camelbak Handheld Bottle, Salomon S-Lab Advanced Skin Hydration Pack, Hammer Gel Flask(s)
It’s funny how you can build something up so big in your mind, and think you’ve worked out all the nitty-gritty details, and just know that it’s going to unfold exactly the way you’ve got it worked out… and then, when that plan actually comes to fruition it takes on a life of its own and develops completely different from what you had planned.
Rock/Creek’s inaugural Thunder Rock 100 mile trail race was, without a doubt, going to be my first ever 100 mile trail race, I knew that I was going to be a finisher at R/C’s maiden 100-mile voyage, and I knew that I was going to finish in time to attend my little sister’s graduation Saturday morning at 09:00. I knew that if I put in the training and had a game plan to get me from start to finish in 20-hours or less then I had nothing to worry about.
Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t trying to be overly confident in my abilities; I mean, the furthest I had run in any single day up until race day was a little over 50 miles. I knew that my time constraint was aggressive but I liked the challenge and it gave me something to work toward. I figured if I really believed in the plan and removed all doubt from my mind, I could attain that goal without any real issues. Well, spoiler alert: I did not finish the Thunder Rock 100. I pulled out of the race at mile 75, but I was still able to make my sister’s graduation.
Late Saturday morning, following graduation I had concluded that I was not going to be writing a race report. I mean, I didn’t finish the race! Who would care to read a report about 3/4 of the race, a report from someone who had failed? Then, later that day I realized that I was being selfish and unfair to all my fellow runners (finisher and non-finishers), my family/crew, my friends, and most importantly to God.
I consider myself a pretty new trail and ultra runner. My first trail and ultra race was the 2010 R/C StumpJump 50k. Man… what a brutal day! I think I trained for that run with about 6-8 actual training runs and then proceeded to get my tail handed to me over and over throughout that race. It was great! I finished, but paid for my unpreparedness for the next 3+ weeks.
I didn’t run another trail race until the 2011 StumpJump. I knew that I could do better and had a real drive to finish stronger than the previous year. I wanted to get under 5 hours and worked pretty hard to get there. I missed it by about 7 minutes, but had an awesome time trying. I realize that my Thunder Rock 100 mile attempt was similar in that I went out with a couple of goals (finish in <20hrs & make a graduation), I didn't complete both goals but had a great time trying. Luckily for me, I learned some great lessons and can use those in my future runs/races and have other opportunities for completing my first 100-miler.
Weather on race day was crazy. The week prior to the race, temperatures had been in the high 80s and humid. About 2 days before the race a cold front pushed through the valley, bringing quite a bit of rain and cooler temperatures. Now race day temperatures were forecasted as high 60s and low 40s, with a very low chance of rain. About 15 minutes before the race, dark clouds rolled in above the Ocoee and unleashed a ridiculous amount of rain.
Knowing the rain was going to make it a lot colder, my Dad started down to the truck to get my arm warmers and jacket — but almost as soon as he left the rain stopped and the sun came back out. Thinking that all of the rain was gone, I yelled for him to come back and don’t worry about the sleeves or jacket. Mistake #1.
With the rain stopped all ~175 runners lined up at the main bridge crossing the Ocoee directly behind the White Water Visitor Center. Sun was out, water dripping from the vegetation, crisp clean air, and an awesome buzz from all the excitement at the start line.
5.. 4.. 3.. 2.. 1.. we were off!
The 5 miles over to Thunder Rock (Aid #1) were nice and easy. I came through Aid #1 somewhere in the top 10, grabbed my hydration pack and kept on trucking across the road to jump onto the Benton MacKaye trail toward Reliance. This section had a nice climb up from the road for a mile or two before jumping off the main trail and heading down a bushwhack section to a beautiful grass-covered forest road. It started to rain on us through here and then turned to hail. Not baseball sized hail or anything, but BB-sized and it was cold.
Man… I wish I had that coat, or the arm warmers. It didn’t last too long and we were running at a decent pace, so it didn’t take too long to warm back up. The grass fire road was nice and wide allowing people to run in groups and beside each other for conversation. Feet were soaked the whole time thanks to the nice mid-calf high wet grass that wrapped around legs as we pushed forward. Just as everyone was warming back up from the rain/hail storm, it started up again! This was somewhere around 11-12 miles, and the second storm was a lot more hail than rain. It really made for some cold extremities.
After a few miles it let up again and I was puzzled for a minute when I saw white areas along the sides of the trail where there was still canopy shade. I realized that these white areas where hail drifts that had accumulated during the storm. Other than the fact that I was frozen, it was pretty cool to have such crazy weather for mid-May in Tennessee.
A mile or two later, we came in toward Deep Gap aid station (Aid #2, 15mi). A big thanks to the volunteers at Aid #2! My hands were so frozen that I couldn’t work the zipper on my shorts pocket and I couldn’t grasp the lid on my bottle. I tried a few times, and finally someone came over and gave me a hand, an unfrozen hand. A fresh bottle and I was off again.
Running out of Aid #2, the singletrack is fairly overgrown, and with the hard rains the vegetation was laying over and across every part of the trail… so it was like running through a car wash. Even though the rain had stopped, I was still soaking wet from all the water coming off of the vegetation. See what all the road runners are missing, trails are so much more interesting!
The next 10 miles over to Reliance are pretty much downhill the whole way with some absolutely stunning views of the creek. During a training run up here I got to see a beautiful black bear on this section. That was not the case today. I don’t think I saw any wildlife all day. Just before coming into Reliance there is a nasty little climb up from the creek trail that breaks and sends runners down a short road section and runs everyone through a mid-calf high water crossing.
I try my best to not focus on my running hardware too much during a race, and just stick to how I’m feeling, but glancing down at my watch as I was coming into Reliance (Aid #3, 25mi) I realized that I was pretty far ahead of schedule; I was on about an 18.5-hour pace. I met my crew and ditched my pack and bottle while I ran to find the facilities. Figured I wouldn’t be at another restroom for a little while, so I had better make the best of an opportunity. I finished my business, grabbed my supplies and took back off.
I didn’t want to push too hard through the next 25 miles because I had a goal of not being at 50 miles until right around 9 hours. I figured that holding back some for the first 50 miles would leave me enough energy to finish the last 50 in 11 hours or less. Leaving Reliance, runners jump onto the bridge that will carry them over the Hiwassee and along the other side of the river via river trails and intermixed road sections. By now it was just after 4PM, and temps had actually warmed up. The sun provided some nice warmth to cold bones.
There are about 8 miles between Reliance and the Powerhouse aid station. This was a nice, fairly flat section that was actually a little difficult to run… not because I was tired or because it was difficult, but mainly because I’m not used to holding myself back while running. So, trying to slow myself down so that I didn’t get to 50 miles too fast was kind of difficult. I was running with a fellow runner through this section who had a sub-20 hour goal and we would get caught up in conversation and then quickly realize that we were running too hard and would tell each other to slow down and pace ourselves.
We came into the Powerhouse (Aid #4, 33mi) and grabbed a fresh bottle of water and some oranges. Leaving the Powerhouse I knew that we were about to get back onto some good trails and would get some more technical running and climbing… my favorite! The next 7 miles consist of a continual saw tooth climb up to the Coker Falls aid station. Most of the climbs include 2-3 good switchbacks and then a few hundred yards of mid-ridge trail running, amazing views over the Hiwassee river, and then a couple of quick downhill switchbacks for some more creek-level trail running.
This is by far the most gorgeous section of the first 40 miles. The last 3 miles of the trail up to Coker Falls are pretty spectacular, with some amazing water sounds from the many waterfalls that stair step up to the main falls. Coming into Coker Falls aid station (Aid #5, 40mi) I was still about 15 min under my goal time and was still around an 18.5-19 hour pace. My family/crew insisted that I take a minute and change my socks and shoes at this aid, but for some reason I reasoned that I didn’t need to change them and would hold off until mile 50. Mistake #2.
From the Coker Falls aid station, runners have 6 miles of gravel forest roads to the Manning Cabin aid station. Not a lot to tell from this section, other than about 2 miles into the run I realized that not changing my socks and shoes was a BIG mistake. I stopped to adjust my shoes and realized that I had some monster blisters on both of my pinky toes. Oh well, too late now.
As I came into the Manning Cabin aid station (Aid #6, 46mi) I was starving! This aid station stole my heart! They had watermelon, grapes and some ridiculously good ramen noodles. I grabbed a few things for my pockets and got back to running. With less than 4 miles up to the Servilla Church (crew only aid station) I let my legs fly, a little with anticipation of seeing my wife and daughters at mile 50.