The day of the UROC 100K/Uber Rock 50K was one of the most fun days I can remember. Matt and Jackie and I arrived at the Wintergreen Resort at about 6:00am to retrieve our race packets and then immediately begin stalking the premises for some of our favorite elites, who would be racing the 100K. First we saw Ian Sharman, then Geoff Roes, Devon Crosby-Helms, and then many more. We became very distracted and then, after the 100K started, remembered that we did have our own race to run still.
None of us had ever run a race with this much elevation change before. Not that it was extraordinary by mountain running standards, but the 6,400ft of both up and down over 50 kilometers certainly created a course profile unlike anything I'd ever raced. The three of us had a couple of outstanding training runs in the Maryland Appalachians the weekend prior, where I had a blast on the steep climbs and technical descents. I expected the Uber Rock to have lots more of that, and it certainly did not disappoint!
So the three of us stood on the starting line, in the middle-back of the crowd of 50K and half-marathon starters, not really knowing what to expect from ourselves on this course. Considering, too, that we had all trained completely through it, I think we were all interested to see how we would fare on these mountains.
I felt great when we started running, which actually didn't surprise me. I knew this was going to be a really fun day, and I was thinking about how much fun I was having more so than the potential difficulty of the run. Admittedly, though, I was looking forward to the difficulty, too.
We fell in to the single file line of runners on the rolling singletrack. Within the first mile or two, we already experienced a stream crossing or two, some sweet views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and a furious nest of bees which left everyone with at least a welt or two. Soon, we were climbing up the Wintergreen Mountain, partly on trail and partly on road. There was nothing too steep, really. Matt and I began tagging along with a seemingly experienced ultrarunner named John. We felt like he knew what he was doing, so we decided to hang with him. We ran most of the way to the top of this first ~1100ft climb, walking in a few spots just to save energy for later. I was loving the ascent, enjoying the trails, and just generally satisfied with the moment.
At the top of that climb, the peak of the Wintergreen Mountain, was the first aid station, where I quickly refilled my bottle and grabbed a couple bites of something before beginning the descent. It was now about 1,500 feet down, with the first half mostly on singletrack (some of which was very technical and a lot of fun) and the second half on road...steep, pounding asphalt.
The road brought us to an intersection and we immediately began the steep uphill for about a mile to the next aid station. Matt and I steadily alternated between walking fast and running. We were now in the vicinity of a couple of racers from VMI who were doing the half marathon. They were turning around at the top of this climb for the final ~4miles of the half marathon. Although we weren't in the same race, I was a bit motivated to arrive at the top of the climb either right with or ahead of some of them.
On that climb, Matt and I began to drop the folks around us, albeit unintentionally. After the aid station at the top was a rolling 4-5 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway. I say rolling, but it was basically either long gradual uphill or long gradual downhill. Basically, this part was very runnable and we were both feeling good, which was probably reflected by our pace. We began passing lots of 100K runners, who had started an hour before us, encouraging them all on the way. As we began to wonder where we might stand in the 50K (because it had been a while since we'd seen any 50Kers), a pair of 100Kers said as we passed, "Are you guys 2 and 3?" Matt and I looked at each other at the same time, wondering if he was right. We continued along the parkway, trying not to let the prospect of placing affect the way we raced - at least not yet, before even the halfway mark.
In due time we were refueling quickly at another aid station, and then back on some nice runnable trails for several miles. On this section we had a Devon Crosby-Helms sighting, and then a David Goggins sighting, both coming the opposite direction in the 100K. We rolled into the aid station at Sherando Lake feeling good and entered the 1.1 mile loop around the lake. Although this was still quite runnable, I think we both started feeling a bit tired. We also were not really at all sure what mile in the race we were at. We completed the loop and refueled quickly again, before hitting the trail again for several miles mostly uphill back to the Blue Ridge Parkway. Shortly after the loop, we saw Jackie coming the other way, looking great as expected. I wondered when she might be catching us :-D
Thinking we must now be more than halfway done, I was feeling decent. However, some of the uphills on the trail, which were nowhere near what we saw in the earlier miles of the race, were costing me a decent bit of energy. We continued to run mostly, walking quickly up a few of the inclines.
The next aid station was a treat - it came much sooner than I was expecting. We reached the top of a hill and emerged from the woods to see the second to last aid station of the race. I stuffed my face with a couple of shot blocks, coke and watermelon, and refilled my bottle, while the volunteers ventured a guess at what mile we were at (we thought they would know). I think they said it was mile 23 or something.
On that previous trail section, Matt and I did get a few encouraging words from runners passing in the opposite direction - things like "Go get him!" - which seemed to indicate we might be closing on this elusive leader of the race. After this aid station, we were back on the Blue Ridge Parkway. After the initial climb for a half mile or so, I felt recovered from the trail section and put my road legs on. Matt and I began to drop the pace, working together in a fraternal harmony down the parkway, where visibility was as low as probably 30 feet at times from the dense fog. We were in hot pursuit, my legs were feeling great, and I was having so much fun. After a couple miles, we found our victim, at first just a silhouette in the fog. He was walking. Bingo.
As we passed him, we might have slowed just a little to exchange a few words and encourage him along. I thought it would be cool to have a 'lead pack' of three. Shortly after we passed, he began running again to try to hang on. Goooooddd, goooodddd....
This was when I really started to go. Seeing that he was going to try to fight back from a low point in his race, I thought that if I could drop him now, it would be very difficult to recover. So this was the fastest I ran all day other than on the steep descents. He hung on for a mile or so, before dropping off to take care of some cramping. Matt and I continued trucking into the final aid station at mile 26.8.
Leaving this aid station, I looked at my watch and saw 3:55, noting that we'd run a sub-4 marathon. That excited me because coming into this race, I thought 5 hours would be a quite good time even on fresh legs. So I took off down the steep road for about a mile. I don't think I've ever run that fast or that hard down a hill that steep. Sure, it was pounding, but my legs were still feeling good and I felt like I could handle it and still be okay to tackle the final climb. At the bottom, I rolled right into the 3 mile climb to the finish, which was about 1,200 feet up. The climb was a lot of fun, forcing me to alternate speed hiking and running quite frequently. I had never won a race before and I was now in first in the final miles of this one. Sure it was a small race, but that compelled me. I was not going to lose on the final climb. The gradient eventually began to ease, and then it was a short little jaunt down through the parking lot to the finish line, where I could hear them doing the half marathon awards ceremony (couldn't see anything, though, because of the fog). I came around a U-turn to the finishing shute as the half marathon awards were concluded, and I think they realized I was finishing basically as I crossed the finish line in 4:31:29. The photographer came up to me and asked me if I would run across the finish line again so he could get a photo. hahah
I was incredibly satisfied. My first race in any kind of mountains, after a few heavy training weeks with no taper, and my first 1st place finish ever. AND my legs still felt great at the end...it was awesome. Adding to my excitement even more was hearing Matt holler just a couple minutes later as he approached the finish line, and seeing him emerge from the fog to finish in second and deliver the 1-2 punch we had been fantasizing earlier in the race. Great way to rep Navy Marathon.
And THEN, to add to the jubilee a short time later, the sixth 50K finisher and first female was Jackie, adding another tic to her W column and giving us our first couple victory...which I think is totally cute.
So anyway, it was a really fun day. I think we all did much better than we were expecting, and got in an excellent training run for JFK. I absolutely loved the course, and am dying to get in some more mountainous races. One thing I thought was really cool about this course was the variety of terrain and surface - there was something for everyone. Some really fun, technical trail descents; some long steep climbs; some fast roads; some fast trails. All of that added some great variety and really kept me engaged and made the course fun. And on top of all of this, we had plenty of time to mingle with (read: stalk) the elites when they finished their 100K and get a few pictures and autographs...before heading to the Brad Paisley concert :)