After picking up trail running last fall, the weekend of my first ultramarathon had finally arrived. The week leading up to Holiday Lake was anything but ideal. A rolled ankle on my last long run Sunday had be hobbling around for the better part of the week, unable to run until we got over 20 inches of snow Wednesday night through Thursday. I just couldn’t resist the beauty of the freshly fallen snow and ventured out. It was the best way to clear my mind of any doubts I had coming into the 50K on Saturday.
Race weekend began on Friday afternoon by waiting around for a few girls, just about how every trip in my life begins. After a car ride of full bladders and laughter we had finally arrived at the Holiday Lake 4-H center. 30 minutes of relaxing followed by a great dinner and a night of hanging out with the team listening to David Horton’s tips for your first ultra. Nothing beats learning how and when to take a dump from an ultra running legend. At this time we also got a trail condition recap from Mike Jones and Darren, and it wasn’t promising; lots of hard snow, a thigh deep creek crossing, and overall slow trails. For those of you that don’t know Holiday Lake was said to be one of the easiest ultras you could ever run, promising only a little elevation gain on smooth dirt trail, oh boy were they wrong this year. As the fun came to an end Jonathan and I headed back to the car to get a good nights sleep before the race, well as good of a sleep as you can get in the back of a jeep while its 33 degrees and raining outside.
Race morning began with a 5:05 wake up alarm, that both of us ignored, the rain and cold had both of us questioning why we had even signed up to run. After getting up and eating my favorite pre-run meal of cinnamon raisin bread with maple almond butter I was ready to run, by that I mean ready to start because the sooner we started the sooner it would be over. Coming into a race that I had no idea what to expect and no expectation from others I decided I’d shoot for a top 50 finish and would be ecstatic with a sub 6 hour finish especially considering the conditions.
Since much of the training I had done for the race had been with Jonathan I was very relieved to find him at the starting line at about 6:29 only a minute before the race was to begin. And so the race begins, and very slowly at that. Being told many times not to go out to fast Jonathan and I held back and got to the trailhead in around 200th out of nearly 300 runners. This meant a very slow first 5 miles of getting used to the sloppy trails and hiking (or as a non-ultrarunner would call it, walking) any sort of incline. Around mile 3 we realized we needed to get out of this mass of people because we couldn’t deal with the hiking. Being from Blacksburg where nothing is flat we had no problem cruising up the early hills to find ourselves in a nice spot when we exited the first stretch of single track. Once the trail turned into fireroad with some nice truck tracks we started to push the pace and see what we could do. Shortly afterward we came across the dreaded stream crossing. I am not at all exaggerating by saying it was thigh deep with ice chunks floating by. In the next few miles we caught a passed Steve, D-mack, and Wyatt, but both felt good enough that we weren’t too worried about our pace. But then when we caught Jordan around mile 13 I started to worry a little and asked Jonathan if we should back off the pace or just keep running. He had absolutely no objection to maintaining our pace, we were both feeling great at this point. Heading into the turn around point at just over 16 miles Mike and Darren were shocked to see us as soon as they did. I asked Darren if he could help me with getting some things out of my bag because my hands weren’t working but he already had some pills in his hand for Wyatt, anticipating he would see him before us. Upon leaving the aid station I grabbed a clementine, my favorite fruit!, and thought I heard someone say we were somewhere between 15-20th place. I didn’t really believe it so I didn’t say anything to Jonathan about leaving the aid station.
The second loop of the race was the same exact as the first, by just run backwards. So this meant that we would be doing a lot of passing on very narrow single track, made narrower by the abundance of snow lining the trails. At the 18 mile mark a man was counting off places and informed Jonathan and I we were running in 15th and 16th place. I thought “Sweet, but I’ve got to bonk at some point right?” A mile or so later we found one of the larger hills on the course, still incredibly small compared to what we are used to and saw 4 guys ahead of us struggling so we decided to run it instead of hike and came out at the top in 11th and 12th. About 13 miles left and we were still feeling great. At this point one of the guys working the course saw us and informed us that there is no difference between finishing in 11th and dead last, you both get the same thing, nothing. At this point we began fantasizing about what it would be like for one of us to get a top 10 in our first ultra and made a deal that if one of us got 10th and the other 11th whoever took 10th could choose between the Hokie Award, assuming we won it, and the backpack giving the other person the other prize. This was because we both felt it would be a little unfair since I paced us through the first lap and he was pacing through the second. With our emotions high we had gotten a little carried away and ran a mile in the mid 8:30s, our fastest through the snow all day. At this point we caught one more person putting us in 10th and 11th, from here we hit auto pilot. I made the race go by so much faster by breaking it up into 15 minute segments, at the end of which I would force myself to eat another shot bloks. The last thing I was going to do was bonk because I wasn’t eating enough. Out of the aid station at mile 20 we caught another runner going up yet again another hill. And realized that it we could continue running well for the next 12 miles we’d both get top 10! By the 24 mile aid station we had padded our position by one backpack. We stopped thinking in terms of actual position but by how many people could pass us and still have both of us in the top 10 and receive the coveted Patagonia top ten backpack. A quick pee stop and last top off of the water bottle sent us on our way with just 8 miles left. The mood entering the water crossing on the way back was much greater than the way out. It was another mile closer and one more person passed. At this point we had ~7 miles to go and were sitting comfortable in 7th and 8th, still both feeling great. The next few miles before we got to the last aid station had grown very quiet, we were both focused on finishing strong and we were deep into the race, miles further than either of us had ever run before. Upon hitting the last aid station I dropped by jacket and we began to race for the first time. We had been told 6th place was not to far ahead and bonking hard, we made it an unannounced goal to catch him and beat each other at the same time. This is the first time in my mind I completely disregard the people chasing us and was locked in on what was ahead. I can’t speak for Jonathan here, but I ran from aid station 3 to aid station 7 with fear of Wyatt catching us in the forefront of my mind. I know he’s a very strong finisher and had been giving me tips on how the race for the last few weeks on our daily treks to and from 6:30 am swim. With under 2 miles to go we missed a turn by about 10 feet, luckily I was able to catch it and get it us back on track without losing any time. Just before this from mile 28-30 Jonathan and I had seperated for the first time all run, but only by about 30 seconds as he took off and I did as best I could to match him but couldn’t quite close the gap until he slipped and fell in the mud just a few minutes before almost missing the turn. With two miles to go I spotted 6th place and began to push the pace, putting just a little time between Jonathan and I. After catching 6th and putting distance between us, once again going up hill, it was all down hill to the finish, much of which was on pavement. It wasn’t until the finish line was in sight and Jonathan wasn’t that I realized what I had just done. I could and will attempt to describe how I felt as I crossed the line but I just don’t think it could do the actual feeling justice. Excitement, relief, joy, shock, exhaustion, pride, and it will all over. Huge congratulations from Mike and Darren who were just as shocked as I was to see where I crossed the line and just a minute later Jonathan comes across the line in 7th. A great embrace and a mutual thank you for pushing each other was a one of a kind feeling. When you are able to run for just under 32 miles with one of your training partners and friends its a special feeling. We could have finished last and second to last and it still would have been a great time because of the company we shared the whole race. Standing around the finish line for the next hour or so was great, especially know 6 of the top 12 finishers are Hokies, current or former. Once again being able to share my first ultra with 14 or 15 other Hokies was very special.
Overall, I couldn’t have asked for a better night and day at Holiday Lake. I feel as though much of this was because of the ultrarunning community I spent some time with. I’ve spent time in a lot of sporting communities, between growing up spending summers at soccer tournaments, high school track meets and more recently triathlons, but I’ve never seen so much support for another athlete than I did yesterday at Holiday Lake. The parade of high fives, “good work”, and other encouraging comments in the over lap after the turn around along with the crowd gathered around the finish line for over 4 hours was something I had never witnessed before. You also can’t forget about the crew members out of the course in the rain and cold weather all day supporting their runners and many others. It was amazing, and I was so glad to be a part of something so special.
Final Place 6th in 5:19