On the edge of the trail sat a fat, five-foot long alligator. My eyes widened and I glanced at it again with my headlamp to reveal rocks and sticks. Of course there was no alligator, I was running down a mountain in western Virginia and it was below 50-degrees outside.
“Terry, I’m hallucinating,” I said.
“What?” he replied without breaking stride.
“I just saw an alligator on the side of the trail.”
“Well, at least you know it was a hallucination,” he chuckled.
The Yeti 100 was both my first 100-miler and Yeti race. Which meant that there was a lot to take in. The Yeti Trailrunners are a whiskey drinking, foul-mouthed, doesn’t take this seriously, group of people. It’s what makes them so great because there is no elitism; there is no difference between first finisher and the last finisher. You are all finishers, and if you have to drop out then you’ll finish next time. Yetis are everything I love about trail running!
My crew and I arrived at the aptly named Rock School (it’s a school building built of rocks) for packet pickup. There we were greeted by a carnival of people in anti-road running paraphernalia and trucker hats. It was a raucous crowd filled with reunions and anticipation for the next days run. Once we made it inside we were entertained by the Damascus Senior Citizens’ Band playing every Johnny Cash song they knew. I chatted with my pacers and a few runners around me about a race I plan to run next year.
After a simple yet tone-setting prerace brief from the Race Director (RD) Jason Green, my crew decided that we need some prerace hydration from The Damascus Brewery. There we laughed at all the ways they used beaver themed double entendres in naming their beers. I also met some other runners who shared some words of encouragement. Afterwards, we returned to our cabin to talk race strategy.
It was crisp at Whitetop on Friday morning. I jumped out of the van was immediately greeted by a man with the most amazing muttonchops. He wanted to tell me about the time he was left in the dust by a group of Hashers wearing kilts like me. I passed another runner in a kilt and we exchanged greetings. Then I started to panic, as I looked for my crew who were parking the van, because I had overheard that my crew was not allowed to be at certain points on the racecourse. This ended up being bad information.
Once I found them, I told them the information and we moved towards the start line. Standing on the porch of Whitetop Depot, Jason told us to have a great day and then walked to the front to start the race. Without hearing anything I just saw a surge of runners take off. Now it was time to see what this course was like.
I kept reminding myself to not go out too fast as I had a 100-miles to go. The course was wide at the start but people spread across as they started out. I used this to try and find a group to keep pace with. The downhill nature of the first 17-miles made it really easy to take off. I did not want to go too fast but the ease of the course definitely drove me. I also found a way to trip twice on the crushed-gravel bike path in the first 10-miles.
Upon reaching the aid station at Taylor Valley, I realized that my race plan had a major problem. Creek Junction, where I planned to swap out Terry and Josh as pacers, was not a good access point. Silvia was supposed to meet me there and I did not see her. Now I feared she would always be a step behind me, as I had no way to reach her and was moving a lot faster than I had planned. The panic only lasted three miles as I reached Straight Branch and saw Silvia, Brian, and Erin there. I told them to pass along to Terry and Josh, back at the cabin, that the new exchange would be at Taylor Valley that night. I had been running for 2-hours and 11-minutes to complete a half marathon distance.
It was another 5-miles to Damascus, which was the defacto halfway point of the course. I moved quickly through this section, arriving at Damascus at in 2-hours and 51-minutes. Silvia had not walked into the aid station so was sitting up the trail from it. I exchanged information with her and topped off my water. Then I ran to the aid station to see the unicorn dance party.
Jason likes to use a DJ that goes by the name Mr. Inspiration. He’s a large man with a thick beard, which he dips into glitter, wears a tutu, and a unicorn horned hat. He yells out positive affirmations while continuing to dance non-stop. Here the aid was inside a small building but I only topped off fluids and got back onto the course.
What I didn’t realize is that the next 7-miles would be the worse section of the race for me. It was getting hot and this section had the most exposure. First, it parallels road for a while and you are running double track through people’s front yards. It’s not the most scenic. I also found myself battling an urge to defecate.
About a half-mile after I passed the bathroom in Damascus I found myself fighting the urge for a Bowel Movement (BM). This had me slowing down and letting my stomach to settle as I was passing through people’s front yards. This may have helped me a bit in conserving energy later but it also made me start realizing that I was not feeling a bit fatigued. After the yards, we did pass under the road and go back into the woods. This was a nice section that lasted a bit before turning into a field. Passing through the field, I did not take much notice as I was still moving on and was just focused on getting to Alvarado Station where I could refill my water.
The day was beginning to warm up and I was not prepared for how much water management I would have to do. I got to Alvarado station without a problem, topped off water and pushed back out. It was four miles to Watauga Trestle the next point. For some reason I thought there would be an aid station there so I was a bit carefree in my water management.
This section was not so bad because it was in the woods for a while before crossing some rolling hills of farmland. It also had an interesting, curved trestle. I made it through here fairly easily but as I approached Watauga Trestle, I was out of water again. I believed that there would be an aid station there.
As I crossed the road to the start of the trestle, I quickly realized that there was no aid station. I was lucky in that so many other runners had crews there who were quick to offer me a bottle of water. I topped off my bottle and kept driving across the long trestle. This next section feels like a blur and it was not long before I was passing under I-81 and new that I was coming to the first turnaround in Abingdon.
As I came into Abingdon and was greeted by Silvia in a green tutu, wig, and matching green headband. She was all excited but I only had eyes for the bathroom at that moment. I quickly dropped my pack and asked her to refill the bottles as I went and got in line for the bathroom. Those of us in line talked about how the race was going for us and then once we were done went our separate ways. I quickly changed my shoes and socks while Silvia informed me that I was almost 20-minutes ahead of schedule, which both delighted and scared me. Had I pushed it too hard?
I wanted to keep up the momentum though, so after accepting a ring pop that a volunteer foisted on me, I was back off. This time I was in high five mode. I took off high-fiving every incoming runner and giving them all sorts of positive affirmations. I was pumping myself up just as much as I was hoping to pump them up. I was 33-miles in and had a long climb in my future.
The plan was for Silvia to pick up Terry and Josh and then meet me at Watauga Trestle, so as the thermometer passed 75-degrees I was consuming fluids at a fast rate. I burned through the 3.5-miles to Watauga Trestle and was disappointed not to find my crew there. Again another crew came through for me by giving me a bottle of water and cookies. My crew seemed to have taken a wrong turn.
After waiting a few minutes, I texted my crew that I was off and headed out for Alvarado Station. I was still feeling pretty good but know I was now regularly mixing walking and running together. I had planned for my pace to slow after the first turn around and was not worried. I flip-flopped with a few runners as we were all traveling roughly the same pace but in different ways. I was happy to come into Alvarado Station though because I was again out of water. The first thing I saw as the aid station came into sight was what I assumed was Terry wearing an Umstead Marathon shirt. The Umstead Marathan produced a particularly bright orange shirt one year that stands out from most other orange tech shirts. I was right, it was Terry singing along to some classic NOFX songs.
At Alvarado station I scarfed down some food and pounded a bottle of Gatorade before taking off again. I was motivated to get to Damascus where Terry would join me but first I had to cross the 7-miles of Hell. The trail passed through a few small cow pastures and then back into the woods. This went well and I continued to vary me walking and running. It was not until I entered into the large meadow that I really began to feel the heat.
It was hot and found myself without the motivation to run this relatively flat section of the course. Instead, I found myself commiserating with the cows that were lying in the small patches of shade near the trail.
“It’s too hot for this shit, right?” I asked.
“Keep on moooving,” the cow responded.
Eventually, I reached the shade of the forest again and was able to pick it up. It was during this time that linked up with another North Carolinian named Tin. Tin did something in banking in Charlotte and we ran together talking about races. He was struggling to keep himself from overheating when in the sun so we’d run the shaded parts and walk the sunny patches. This went well until we got within a mile-and-a-half of Damascus. Now I was motivated to get in there and I started pushing it out. I left Tin behind and picked up my pace.
I was halfway through the race in 8.5-hours. I was so happy to see Mr. Inspiration dancing it up still and keeping us motivated. We high-fived and I was greeted by Silvia in a unicorn head, Terry in a pirate hat, and Josh in a moose head. I walked to the aid station, as I made sure Terry had everything he needed for our evening ascent of Whitetop. I ate a bunch of food and drank plenty of fluids and we hit the trail again.
I would say here is where the line behind hard run and light suffering was crossed. What I found now was that my legs were ready to take a break. I told Terry not to let me walk too much but also feared every time he told me to run for a bit. In the beginning, it was not so bad, but as the incline increased, I wanted to walk more and more.
We flip-flopped with two women for a while who at some point tried to figure out my run walk plan. When asked I responded that it was all by feel. I’m a whimsical person that way. I was surprised that we reached the aid station at Taylor Junction still in the daylight with how I was feeling. There was Jason handing out high fives and motivation while also asking us what the front-runner looked like. He was moving fast was all we could tell him. He was moving so fast it was probably 2 hours before we saw the second place runner after him.
Terry continued to push me up Whitetop where I had at least one fall and the only real standout thing was thinking we might have to fight a deer. Seriously, the deer seemed to attempt to stand its ground in the middle of the trail. It was not long after this that a burst of energy hit me and I started to run more and more. I made longer pushes and before too long I was at the top and we could see the lights of the Whitetop Depot.
There we found a Star Wars themed aid station playing John William’s greatest hits. Brian and Erin had rejoined them after an afternoon off and they had hot soup for me. They also told me that I was 3-minutes ahead of pace, something that I did not expect to hear. I kicked off my shoes to expose a horror show of blisters. Normally, I don’t get blisters but I guess 66+ miles will do that to you.
Brian went straight into medic mode and started lancing the blisters with a safety pin and patching my feet up with moleskin. All while Josh stood over him assessing his work in true Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO) fashion. With my feet patched up, they put my socks on and then struggle to squeeze my swollen feet into a fresh pare of Altra Lone Peak 3.0’s. The laces were way too short and Josh struggled to tie them. I worried about Terry who was both getting cold and tightening up. Once my shoes were on we hit the trail to finish this damn race.
It’s 3.4 miles to Green Cove from Whitetop but for some reason I thought it was only 2 to 2.5-miles away. It was all downhill so I found myself pushing as hard as possible. I told Terry that I didn’t want to rest until we hit Green Cove. H agreed and this had to be my best push of the night. While I did have to stop once or twice, I still was moving at a sub 10-minute mile pace.
After passing Green Cove, I came up with a new run plan; we would run from trestle to trestle and then walk the trestles. This plan wasn’t fool proof since some trestles were very short and also the distance between trestles greatly varied. It did make a good motivating factor though and kept me moving.
I reached Taylor Valley with 7-minutes to spare and it was time to switch out pacers. I was reinvigorated, after eating some more food and topping off bottles, I headed back out with Josh.
The trail flattened out a bit and it was harder for me to maintain speed while running. I tried to keep my trestle-to-trestle plan going, but as I neared the 80-mile mark, it was harder to maintain. Josh kept me going and we felt pretty good. The seven miles back to Damascus did not seem too bad in retrospect.
Once I reached Damascus, I was feeling tired and cold, so I went into the aid station looking for soup. Once a volunteer got me soup I sat on a chair near the fire and ate it. While I was 15 minutes ahead of schedule, I should not have sat that long as my legs started seizing up. As I returned to the course, I knew sitting down had been a major mistake. I was stiff and it was hard to get more than a moderate shuffle out of me.
My 7-miles of hell that separated Damascus from Alvarado Station was next. I shuffled through people’s lawns and eventually away from the woods. My shuffle walk felt painfully slow and the slight gains in elevation felt like massive hills. I became so fixed at on getting to Alvarado Station so I could check it off the list all while feeling very bad. It was 90-miles in that I will say I felt defeated and was seriously considering quitting, but I had no reason quit. I had all the time in the world.
I reached Alvarado Station at 3:03 in the morning and was barely hanging on. I was cranky and everything was an agitation. I got to the aid station and Silvia and Brian had hot soup for both Josh and I. I sat there being miserable and trying to comprehend how I was going to get back up. I had less than 10 miles to go. Josh had messed me up by breaking the section down to smaller sizes and for some reason I was holding onto that I only had 4 more miles to go. That was wrong; I had over 7 miles to go. That really messed with my head.
Eventually, I got back up after 10 minutes and headed back onto the course. The next 7 miles would be a slow shuffle of internal struggle. Josh did what he could to get me back to positivity. He tried to be inspirational, he handled my fragileness well, and all around treated me like a cantankerous child.
Finally, I decided it was time break out my Espresso Love Gu. I pulled it out and talked of its 40mg of caffeine. Josh looked at his Clif Shot and pointed out his had 100mg of caffeine. He gladly traded it with me and I consumed the magical elixir. This became a saving grace because my exhaustion was so bad that my eyes were struggling to focus.
Twenty minutes later I was pepping back up. I was talking excitedly and pushing a little bit harder. It was passing a runner we had been flip-flopping with for a while that I finally kicked into high gear. I told him that we needed to make the sub-24 hour cutoff and I kept pushing. Josh said this was when he knew I was back in the fight.
We finally got to Watauga Trestle and I knew it was only a few more miles to go. Suddenly this section seemed like and eternal hill and I knew I would be close when we got to the golf community. It felt like forever and was just darkness with no golf community to be found. We continued to move, as I felt worse and worse. I was questioning my sanity and when it felt like each mile was 10. Eventually, we got to the road crossing in the golf community as a light seemed to be coming up behind us.
We drove on and the plan was for Josh to run ahead when we passed under 1-81 to rouse the crew. Finally, we were at the overpass and sent Josh ahead. Now I was alone with just the headlamp behind me. I pushed to keep the runner behind me and even overtook two people walking.
My headlamp started to flash high-low to tell me that the batter was near the end. I had never run my headlamp this long so I did not know how quickly it would die. I stopped only to get my iPhone out to use as a backup light. I ran again and soon Josh was returning to tell me it was just around the bend. I pushed and pushed, dropping my pack, and cartwheeling across the line after 22-hours and 32-minutes of running. I accepted my finisher’s hug from Jason and was ready to sit with a beer.
When it is all said and done there are a few changes I would have made:
I do not know if I went out too fast. I know that I was going faster than I planned but I’m not sure how that would have finished in the same time. Maybe I would have had a stronger final third but most likely it would have washed out about the same. I don’t think there is anything about my training that I would have changed though based on the course.
I feel that everything started to go bad after my final time through Damascus. It was when I sat by the fire to take in some soup that everything started to tighten up. It took me awhile to shake it out so I should not have sat. Of course, I then sat again at Alvarado Station, which led to the same problem. I wish I had not have sat down that late into the race.
Finally, I wish that I had returned to the finish line after I got some sleep. I feel that I could have cheered a few more runners in and been more supportive. I especially regret missing the emotional finish of Tom Green as the final runner. That would have been an amazing site to see. Next time I hope to be there at the end.