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.
The race was scheduled to start at 8 AM Friday morning. On Thursday evening I drove to the trailhead to set up camp. When I arrived, no one was there, and with no data service on my phone I had a bit of a panic wondering if I was in the right place. Eventually, someone else arrived, and then finally a few others that confirmed I was at the right place. With this information I set up camp to try to get some sleep.
It had been an extremely mild winter, except for the two weekends I had races. As I slept in my tent the night before the race the temperature dipped into the teens with extremely strong winds. By morning the wind had died down, but it was still around 20 degrees. I woke up after a pretty restless sleep and got ready to head up the mountain.
The 1st loop may have gone a bit too well. I had to stop and check my map a few times, and at one point I had to stop to jab at the frozen top of my bottle with a stick until the water shot out like a geyser into my eye, but I was otherwise moving quickly. The trail was also incredible: beautiful vistas around every corner and just the right mix of highly technical and runnable sections. Near the end of the loop I somehow got it in my mind that I was close to the single loop record, so I pushed harder than I should have and came in at 5:13. The record is actually an hour faster than I had thought, so that was a good deal of energy that I had needlessly wasted.
I was a bit fatigued from that push and after a 13 minute transition started the 2nd loop slow, but I was still in great position and had my sights set on the 4 loop record (which I thought was just over 28 hours). I finished the loop in 6:20, putting my overall time at 11:47. I practiced the same transition I would use between loops at Barkley – swapping out the UD packs I’d be using at Barkley, adding water, Perpeteum, and Hammer gel, swapping shoes (Mutants and Akasha), checking headlamp batteries, and getting back out as quickly as possible. I didn’t have my all-star crew here that I would have at Barkley, and it took me 16 minutes to get back out, but going through the steps to make sure nothing was missed was a big confidence builder.
As night set in I was fairly relaxed and continued at that effort level on the 3rd loop, as I didn’t see a reason to risk blowing up or injuring myself at that point. The trail was equally amazing at night: the vistas were lined with lights from houses and cities for miles. The full moon shown through bare trees and reflected off the dusting of snow so well that a headlamp was hardly necessary in places. It was cold, but I was comfortable. This was the place I love being in: the mountains, a peaceful night chill in the air, and a sense of temporary solitude that always puts Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening in my head.
To be sure I didn’t get too relaxed, a bobcat greeted me near the end of the loop (by “greeted” I mean “looked at me momentarily and then vanished into thin air”). I could see its eyes reflecting my headlamp, just the right height and space apart, before making that circular motion with its heads that curious cats do when checking something out. Then, it was gone. No sound, no watching it run off into the woods… it just disappeared.
My loop 3 time was 7:14, putting me at 19:20 for the race. During transition, though, I found out that the 4 loop record was 27:11, also an hour faster than I had thought it was. This altered my plans and it was back to business. After a 10 minute transition I took off pushing hard up the initial climb.
About halfway through the loop, while making good time, I started feeling incredibly sleepy. Shortly after, my stomach shut down. I had been keeping my water bottles under my shirt to keep them from freezing, but I ended up drinking much less due to their lower accessibility. I had become fairly dehydrated. My time was good at that point, though, so I chose not to risk anything and didn’t push it the rest of the loop. Fortunately the sunrise also showed up with good timing to give me a much needed final boost of energy. There are few things as uplifting as the sunrise in an overnight ultra, particularly when it’s freezing cold.
I came back into camp at a total time of 26:35 (7:05 on loop 4) for a new course record. After a long string of 2nds and 3rds this was my first overall win in a real race since I was 5 (if races when you’re 5 can count as real).
It felt great, and more importantly the race was an awesome experience. To top if off, I got one of the best awards I’ve ever received, and I got to receive it from none other than ultrarunning legend Dennis Herr – two giant jars of apple butter (one for the 4 loops and one for the record), which happens to be one of my absolute favorite things, and it even happened to be my favorite brand (McCutcheon’s).
One of my favorite parts of ultrarunning is the community, and I was able to spend some time back at the trailhead with some of the people that make that community great. And of course as I did so the temperature quickly rose to the 60s since I was done racing.
My goal for this race was to go for the record without setting my Barkley training back with weeks of recovery. To that end it was a resounding success. At the same time, though, I know I can go faster there and that magical 24 hour number seems tantalizingly just within reach.
The image below is just my first loop (I won’t post all of them because, well, they’re the same other than the time / pace). But if you’d like to see them all here are the Strava links: loop 1, loop 2, loop 3, loop 4. The terrain has more variability and total gain/loss than the elevation plot shows, but I had my watch set to only update once per minute. You actually have the option of going clockwise or counter-clockwise on this course, but to me counter-clockwise is far better. It’s harder to miss a turn and there are a couple of extremely runnable slightly downhill sections near the end of counter-clockwise loops. The downhill sections going clockwise are steeper and/or more technical and I believe would be harder to run.
I owe a big thank you to Hammer Nutrition and Chopt for helping me fuel my training, races, and recovery properly, but immediately following a big race I also typically let my body have whatever it wants. I figure if it took everything I just put it through, that it’s earned it. During the latter parts of ultras my body can start having extreme cravings for some pretty random things. I once told my loving, supportive wife that that must be what pregnancy cravings are like… I don’t think that one ended well for me. 😉 For some reason, all I could think about for the last half of this race was a country fried steak. So for lunch on the way home, that’s exactly what I got to cap off a great day in the mountains.
Hours slept: 12.5
Black toenails: 1
Places that burned when I got in the shower: 0 (miracles do happen)
Weight lost: 7 pounds (yup, pretty dehydrated)