2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

2019 Cheviot Goat Ultra

I’ve long known what it’s like to have a home field advantage. At Barkley, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit in the briar patch. The first time I ran it I was shocked to see how shocked people were by the terrain. In ultrarunning just the mential stress caused by misaligned expectations can often present a large problem, let alone the lack of proper preparation. Running in the cold is fine. Running in the heat is fine. Running in one when you expect the other (or both in one day) is often disastrous.

And so when Jim Rutherford picked me up to head to the Cheviot Goat Race, I thought I had an idea of what the race would be like. It would be wet, there would be some bogs, but I mean, it couldn’t be much worse than Paddy Buckley on the Grand Round, right? I’ve dealt with that stuff before. It would be fine. And with work having been overwhelmingly busy leading into the race, I just hadn’t been able to prioritize giving it any more thought than that.

Welcome, won’t you stay (stuck) awhile

We got started early in the morning, in what I’ve come to consider rather good conditions for English mountain weather. It was expected to get increasingly bad through the day, though, so the course had been reversed to get the higher more exposed section out of the way early. A group of 7 of us headed up the first climb together. Near the top I looked back down to see an incredible, beautiful trail of lights behind me leading all the way back down through the valley. I hadn’t realized there were so many people in the race and thought at first I was seeing a busy morning commute on a highway (except it was Saturday).

Our lead group started to split in half at the top. I was hanging off of the back of the first half when I took a slight miscalculation on the path and stepped on something that looked like ground just slightly to the right of where the others had gone.

Before I knew what had happened I was standing waist deep in a bog. I couldn’t move my legs. At all. I thought quicksand had been invented by Hollywood, but here I was. I looked behind me, wondering if I was going to have to wait on someone to pull me out. I reached out with my pole and found there was solid ground just a few feet in front of me. I lunged forward and grabbed it, slowly pulling myself out.

Shortly after, largely to my relief, the next group caught up to me. We stayed together up to the Cheviot and on the descent two of us broke away. It turned out to be Galen Reynolds, and I found myself running alongside a bearded, gluten-intolerant Canadian with initials GR. Why does this seem familiar? Galen was great company, and it was good to get to pick his brain a bit about Tor Des Geants, where he has had tremendous success.

We ended up getting a bit closer than intended, though. The Penine Way was actually laid with stones for that portion, with those stones occasionally being slightly covered with murky water. I stepped on what I assumed was one of those spots, only to subsequently find myself completely buried in mucky slop. Galen immediately came crashing on top of me. I hadn’t found myself thrashing about in the water like that since my last triathlon. When we climbed out we both enjoyed a good laugh, compeletely covered in mud. Two North Americans do Northumbria: a comedy.

Nice trails y’all. The ample water sources make this a breeze. Photo: Craig Kilday

Flying solo

We stayed together until the half way point, where we grabbed some food from our drop bags and continued on. He got out ahead of me a little, but I stayed close behind until taking another unintended excursion. There were no course markings, and in many places no discernible path, but there was a GPS track that I had loaded onto my watch.

Unfortunately it was not behaving as expected. I mention this only in case someone has had a similar experience and knows how to fix it. The watch wasn’t showing the exact route, it was showing straight lines between waypoints on the route. So where there were curves it differed quite significantly, and in one case I found myself going down through a sheep pasture, over a fence, and down and back up a steep overgrown ravine (hooray, Barkley terrain!). The strangest thing is that my watch seemed to know where the correct path was, telling me I was off course when I followed the displayed route if it diverged from the actual route. So it’s as if it just wasn’t displaying it correctly.

In any case, by the time I found my way back onto the course Galen was out of sight. He went on to have an incredible second half and came away with the win. Meanwhile I wouldn’t see another runner for the remainder of the race, not in front of or behind me. I repeatedly strayed from the best path and found myself wandering through fields of heather, where running seemed like a gauranteed way to break an ankle or end up in another bog, this time never to be seen again.

The bogs weren’t as bad on the 2nd half, but I still felt a bit like Frodo.

I did manage to make it to the finish before the weather got really bad, and I only needed to take my headlamp back out for the last few miles. I came in 4th, fortunately well behind 3rd place or otherwise the sting of finishing one spot off the podium would have hurt a bit more.

I got to hang around in the cafe at the end and chat for a while before heading out to completely destroy my hotel shower with peat bog filth. The race was put on by great people and was a wonderful event. I may not have gone home with any extra hardware but I did take away what was for me a truly unique experience.

I don’t think that shirt will ever be yellow again.

Until we meet again

The Cheviot Goat was great preparation for The Spine, which I have in just a few weeks. Learning the terrain features, what to look out for, and how important it is to stick to the right path, will of course be a big help, but just as importantly my expectations will more closely align with reality. There won’t be another shocking moment from being waist deep in a bog and not knowing what to do. I’ve never been on the bad end of a course where local knowledge is so important, and I actually have a much greater appreciation now for the challenge faced by people who show up at Barkley having never been in the Tennessee mountains. I’m just glad I won’t have that introduction in January when I set out for 268 miles.

Gear and nutrition

Despite the conditions being pretty unusual for me, my gear was my pretty standard setup. Note: I have relationships with many of the companies mentioned below and much of the gear was provided to me. For a full list of those companies, and in some cases discount codes, see this page.

I used a pair of La Sportiva Kaptiva GTX with winter running gaiters in hopes that my feet might stay somewhat dry. They actually did really well until I went waste deep in a bog, at which point nothing short of waders would have helped me.

I went with an Ultimate Direction Mountain Vest, which did very well carrying the rather extensive kit list (the weather can turn nasty quickly, and people can get stuck out there for a while).

My XOSKIN long sleeved shirt, calf sleeves, and socks (toe socks with normal socks over top) kept me comfortable, warm, and chafe-free, and my standard nutrtition plan did quite well at this race: Perpeteum to start and at mid-way, with Hammer gels and a bar distributed over the rest of the race.

I did have to enjoy my first Irn-Bru while I was up there, though. Speaking of unique experiences… that one hit the spot.

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

2018 Barkley – A View from the Other Side

Be more concerned with your character than your reputation, because your character is what you really are, while your reputation is merely what others think you are. – John Wooden

This year my return to Barkley was a much different experience for me, but one that may have taught me as much as any of my previous three trips there. I witnessed some amazing performances in some unbelievable conditions, and had the honor of crewing for two of those athletes. Sometimes it’s not the completion of a goal itself, but the experience and the lessons learned in pursuing it that are the most valuable. Seeing close up the attitude and perspective that Jodi and Karine, Gary and Linda, and others had this weekend in the face of the tough conditions and the resulting “failure” was a true privilege, and I hope that some of that rubbed off on me.

The weekend allowed me to see things from an entirely new perspective, experience what my own amazing support system has gone through the past few years, and reflect on how some incredible people handled adverse conditions and outcomes that were far from their goals. Thank you so much to Jodi and Gary for inviting me to be a part of it.

If you just want to find out what happened to Gary’s headlamps, click here.

Or if you’d rather just see the footage I grabbed while out there, head over to Youtube (thank you to James DeFilippi for the camera for the weekend).

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2018 TWOT 100

2018 TWOT 100

TWOT 100 was a great weekend retreat to the mountains, somehow relaxing yet at the same time one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I came in just under the wire (23:48) for a goal that I honestly had serious doubts about being able to do: almost entirely self-supported sub 24 on 112 miles of mostly rough trail with 30K ft of climbing. Congrats to John Fegyveresi and the other runners I got to share the experience with (and who had to deal with much worse conditions than me), and a huge thank you to RD Antoinette Landragin, founder and true legend Dennis “The Animal” Herr, and the volunteers for making an event like this possible. And of course my wife for making an event like that possible for me to do by taking on the kids solo this time for a couple of nights.

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AT 4 State Challenge FKT

AT 4 State Challenge FKT

I was fortunate to have perfect weather in January and great company for my fastest known time attempt on the AT 4 State Challenge, the section of the Appalachian Trail that starts at the Pennsylvania border and travels through Maryland and West Virginia to the Virginia border. It was a beautiful stretch of trail with a rich heritage and I can’t imagine a better way to spend a day of running. Conrad Laskowski and Chris Roberts joined me for the day and while I hope they enjoyed it just as much, I owe them a huge thanks for coming out and providing the company, the support, and of course for making the logistics of getting back to the start afterwards easier. And as always, I owe my wife Jessi a huge thanks for providing the support back home for letting me get out for the day to try these crazy things in the first place. At the end I ended up with a new FKT in 6:39:51 and a new appreciation for some of the terrain I have in my own backyard.

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DC / MD Area Training Routes

DC / MD Area Training Routes

One of my favorite parts of running and biking is exploring new places, but there’s still something comforting and exhilarating about the familiarity of a regular, well-trodden route. Like being in the company of an old friend, we can let our minds relax and just enjoy being there.

As a follow-up to running a local 5K, I wanted to post some of my favorite local routes. The landscapes, climates, and infrastructures of the areas we call home have a huge influence on how and why we train and our experiences doing it. It’s fun to dream about far off mountains and incredibly scenic races, but we should all have an appreciation of and make the best of wherever we find ourselves at the moment. Need some ideas for routes around your area? Check out the local groups that make up our running and biking communities, and that create a lot of the infrastructure, opportunities, and support that make training and racing possible in the first place.

A large part of what’s below originally appeared in a blog post for Chopt a few months ago, when they were creating local destination salads and focusing on the local farms that make up their supply chain.

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2017 TWOT 100

2017 TWOT 100

I originally signed up for The Wild Oak Trail (TWOT) 100 as practice for Barkley. As I learned more about the race, though, I became quite excited about it in its own right. While I stuck to my original plan of using it primarily as part of Barkley training, that excitement was justified. It was a really fun race that’s actually about 112 miles with 30K ft of climbing on a gorgeous trail in Virginia. I met some great people, had no major problems during the race, and came away with a new course record.

A huge thanks goes to Antoinette Landragin and the volunteers that made this exactly the kind of race I love: low key but well organized and on some great trail with great people. Also thank you to Antoinette and John Daniel for the pictures.

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2016 Hellgate 100K++

2016 Hellgate 100K++

Hellgate was an awesome race, and actually my first “normal” ultra over the 50 mile mark. It was a bit colder than I’d hoped for, but otherwise was a great night (and morning) in beautiful mountains and a chance to meet some more incredible people in the ultrarunning community. This is a race that I’ll definitely be back to at some point, and can definitely see it as being one of the primary races I focus on in the future.

As always the community and race organizers were to thank for making the race so enjoyable; without that I’d probably just stick to trail running on my own and wouldn’t do these things. Thank you in particular to Scott Livingston for some pictures from the race, as I actually didn’t get any myself. And of course without my wife’s support and her making it possible for me to shirk dad duties for a day, I wouldn’t be able to do these things at all.

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Sonora Pass

Sonora Pass

This is a story from 2013 about how to make a bunch of bad decisions to put yourself in a pretty bad situation in the backcountry, but then I like to think it’s also a story about how to get back out of that bad situation. I was at that dangerous point where I knew enough to think that I knew what I was doing, but was not experienced enough to know how much I still had to learn. Bottom line: the wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place (as I hope it always will be) and Mother Nature is unsympathetic and dangerous. Don’t be an idiot, and before you venture out into that wilderness make sure you have the proper experience, preparation, and planning for all scenarios you could face. Then, have fun and enjoy the awe-inspiring landscapes and the incredible wildlife that we get to share them with.

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