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.
The accidental goal
In preparation for the 2017 Barkley Marathons, I was looking for a race about 6-8 weeks out from Barkley that would give me a great training run and provide a good indicator of how ready I was. Julian Jamison, my Barkley crew chief, told me about this small race in Virginia called TWOT 100.
It looked perfect: right in that 6-8 week window on a course that was actually 112 miles with 30K feet of elevation gain (and loss). It was also a 4 loop course, so I could even practice my loop transitions. So I put the 2017 TWOT 100 on my calendar and headed down there with the primary goal of getting in some great training without going so hard that I wrecked the rest of my training.
I ended up coming away with a lot more than I bargained for: a beautiful course, a great group of people, and a new course record of 26:35. It was just close enough to sub 24 to put the idea in my head that if I went all out I could do it. Then when searching for my next big set of goals after Barkley, the idea came right back to the front of my mind.
Why? Because it was there, and it was just on that edge of what I thought I was possible for me. After experiencing firsthand the community, spirit, and beauty of the race, I also had all the internal motivation and personal meaning that I needed to ensure that I could push myself all the way to that edge.
As a bonus this year, John Fegyveresi came down to experience the race for himself and I was excited about getting to spend the weekend with him. He flew into DC and I picked him up to head down there. We opted for a cheap motel in Harrisonburg rather than camping like I had done in 2017 (and gotten very little sleep in the process). We got our gear prepped, which was actually a bit of a challenge given the forecast. It called for a rainy start at around 60 degrees, with the temperature then constantly decreasing to around 25 in the valley as it dried out overnight before snow and sleet moved in the next day (hopefully after I finished).
I managed to actually get one of the best nights of sleep I had gotten in a long time. I had had a busy few months at work, and this was the culmination of a short but very active ultrarunning season for me (thanks to Terrel Hale for helping me work through it). Fegy and I headed out before dawn to drive the remaining 30 minutes to the trailhead. It was much less stressful than the year earlier when I was alone, arrived the night before, and wasn’t even completely sure if I was at the right trailhead.
As for the plan, I needed to run a steady-effort race. In 2017 I went out hard, and then immediately backed off. I didn’t have the luxury of backing off this year even for a moment. I had done the math on my 2017 splits to figure out the times I needed to hit to get 5:40 on the first loop, and then to gradually slip back to about a 6:00 on the last loop (not counting loop transition times). I don’t believe in trying to run negative or even completely even splits on a race that long, because no matter my pace I know that mental fatigue is going to set in. If my legs still feel fresh once my mind is gone, then I won’t end up fully using my physical capacity. The goal is to come across the line both physically and mentally spent.
At 8 AM on Friday, with a sudden whistle blow from Dennis Herr, we were off into the Virginia mountains on The Wild Oak Trail. As is so often the case, I found myself eagerly and excitedly pushing at the start, attacking the 3,500 foot climb up Little Bald Mountain. Initially, I noticed that someone was coming with me, but after about 30 minutes I found myself seemingly alone (I would later find out the person was Jeremy Lucier, who actually stayed pretty close behind me on the first loop).
After the Little Bald climb, I didn’t hold back at all on the screaming descent down to Camp Todd. A full speed descent on a wet, leaf-covered, rocky trail is exactly the kind of thing that can cause an unpleasant and premature end to a race, but I absolutely had to capitalize on those descents.
At the bottom the creek crossing was swelling from the rain. I had the choice of getting wet, heavy feet just before the next big climb, or losing much more time than I could afford taking a long detour to a bridge.
I was well ahead of the splits I had calculated the night before, but I kept pushing. Other than some tight quads I felt good and the conditions were the best I would experience the rest of the race. That’s the other major factor to consider in pacing: don’t save physical capacity for a time when conditions (temperature, precipitation, night, etc.) are going to dictate a slower pace anyway.
I continued on steadily. As I flew along the spine of Lookout Mountain before starting the final descent back to the start / finish I realized I could turn in a sub 5 hour loop. Just as my mind entertained the thought, my foot entertained one of the rocks hidden under the leaves and I found myself flying face first. Fortunately I was in my Akasha this time and my toes didn’t suffer the same fate they did on my AT 4 State Challenge FKT, but my shoes did very little to protect my knees, which both went straight into two more conveniently placed rocks.
I had never experienced a fall so hard that I felt nauseous from it. I didn’t hit my head, but the sudden shock and jarring force left me feeling disoriented and on the verge of throwing up. I looked down at my throbbing knees and saw blood oozing from each one. Momentarily, I wondered if I was done. I didn’t know how bad my knees were, and my margin for error on sub 24 was slim to none.
After a minute or two enjoying the view looking up from the trail, I got to my feet and started trying to walk it off. This was a very runnable section that I was losing valuable time to. Eventually I was able to transition to a ginger jog and then a steady run, but my earlier pace and intensity level were gone for the remainder of the loop. I came in with a loop time of 5:06 at 1:06 PM. (Strava link)
The goal was not sub 5 for one loop, though; it was sub 24 for four. The first loop was far faster than I had planned, and if I could maintain a good pace on the second loop I would be in great shape. I quickly switched out gel flasks and grabbed my headlamp while someone refilled my water for me. I was back out of camp in 6 minutes, which I was pretty happy with for a turnaround that was self-supported other than water refills.
The climb up Little Bald is where I had let myself ease off in 2017 and I knew that hitting it hard here would be critical. The climbing also gave my knees an all important respite from the impact of descending.
I didn’t make it to the top as fast as I had on loop 1, but I had actually hit the split that I had originally planned on for loop 1. By the time I started the descent to Camp Todd my knees were feeling much more manageable and my legs had even started to loosen up. I flew back down, forded the creek, and continued to hit those splits I had initially calculated for a 5:40 loop.
I fell into a nice rhythm and was able to turn it on auto-pilot for a bit and take in the beauty of the course that had drawn me back in the first place. There are a number of stunning vistas along the course, and a truly unique feel to each section that makes things feel continually fresh while also giving a great feeling of incremental progress. Regardless of my time, I was in complete solitude out in the woods and fully disconnected from any worries from work or day-to-day life. Those were compartmentalized, and it was just me and the mountains.
But, the goal still remained. I kept hitting my splits and returned to camp just after dusk with a loop time of 5:40. It was 6:52 PM and my total race time was at 10:56. My legs were actually feeling great, better than they had after loop 1. Perhaps not nailing my knees on rocks had helped. (Strava link)
I took 13 minutes on this turnaround, actually sitting down (the only time during the race other than tripping on rocks), changing shoes, and gearing up with some warmer clothes. As I set back out I had around 13 hours left. If I could get a 6 hour loop, or even as high as 6:10, I would be in outstanding shape for the final loop.
As nightfall crept in, though, and I faced the Little Bald Climb once again, the doubts also crept in. Running in the dark doesn’t bother me, but for some reason the onset of darkness can completely sap my energy and spirits. On the approach to the summit the winds were strong. It was also getting cold, and things were starting to hurt.
My previous thoughts on being able to disconnect from life’s worries now turned towards wondering why on earth I had disconnected from life’s pleasantries and put myself out here. I could be at home, warm, with my family. I could be enjoying a nice beverage and watching a movie instead of sipping gel from a tiny flask and watching out for hidden rocks that could make my night downright miserable.
But subconsciously I still knew why. There is an innate part of us as human beings that needs to strive, to pursue ambitious goals and see what we’re capable of. Oftentimes the result of achieving those goals is important and tangible, and sometimes the result might be, well, just gaining the knowledge that a mountain can be run around really fast. But the experience and confidence obtained from the latter type of goal can often enable or inspire the former, or at least lead to an appreciation of a goal’s real value.
And this is also part of running an ultra. There are highs, and there are lows. And it’s during these lows that I repeat to myself what someone told me when I first started in the sport: it doesn’t always get worse. I could let this low get to me and assure I fall short of my goal, or I could focus and if things really did not get worse, then I could still reach it.
So I pushed on, my splits starting to slip significantly despite the fact that I still felt like I was moving fast and putting out a consistent effort. As I crested the final climb I wanted nothing more than to quickly get back to camp and re-energize. Unfortunately, though, my headlamp (which I had hoped would last all night) was starting to die and the dim light it was providing would not be safe for the descent.
It was a cloudy, moonless night, and when I turned off my headlamp to change the batteries the night went absolutely pitch black. I fumbled around like a fool trying to swap out the batteries with no light and no feeling in my hands (note to self: next time, just bring a 2nd headlamp instead of being “clever” and trying to save 2 ounces). I got them in, but then the light didn’t work. Were my batteries duds? Finally, after some more panicked fumbling around I had light again. I looked down at my watch. Seven precious minutes wasted.
I took off towards camp, feeling a true sense of urgency for the first time. I arrived in 6:22, far below the goal I had for a comfortable last loop. It was 1:27 AM. (Strava link)
After an 8 minute turnaround, my race time stood at 17:35. I had to basically match my 3rd loop, returning in under 6:25. I’ve faced similar scenarios before, and it’s actually quite common for the next to last section to be the worst. The physical and mental fatigue has really set in but it’s still far away enough from the finish to not have that extra motivation from having the end in sight.
I pushed with everything I had left going up Little Bird. From here out, the recovery from hard ascents would be hard descents, and vice versa. I could not afford to lose a single minute to any section of the course. On the ascents, every time I hit a spot that leveled off for even 50 feet, it had to be run. The descents had to be all out. It’s so easy at that point to let ourselves not attack those tiny sections of runnable trail and lose chunks of time that really add up. I needed those chunks. All of them.
As I went through the checkpoints I had laid out for myself, I was seemingly back and forth at each one: ahead of pace, behind pace, ahead of pace. I came through the 2nd of two road crossings slightly behind pace. Someone had been kind enough to set up with a large warm tent and a small amount of aid there. I handed my bottle into the tent and asked for a refill, refusing the offer to sit and warm up. As I took off I was worried that I had come across as short, or unappreciative. I could remedy that later, though, after I made it to the finish.
Immediately in front of me I had a very runnable but slightly uphill section, followed by the “chinscraper,” a relatively short but remarkably steep climb. I clawed my way up it, and as I crested Hankey Mountain I was almost back on pace.
First light appeared just as my headlamp began to fade again and I approached the most runnable section of the course: a long, slight downhill on a well-packed dirt road. I had 1.5 hours left, and for the first time since loop 3 I started to feel good about my chances. I let loose and flew down the road, averaging sub 7 pace for the next 3 miles and gaining confidence with each stride. As long as I didn’t have another end-of-loop fall like in loop 1, I was going to do it.
About 15 minutes from the finish, I started thinking about the people back at camp. They had no idea if I was right around the corner or two hours away. I hit the trailhead at 7:48 AM, having completed the final loop in 6:13. With help, I staggered into a chair as the single loop race prepared to start in just 12 minutes. (Strava link)
I had actually done it. From the moment I set the goal, up until about 15 minutes before completing it, I had not been sure of whether I could do it. There was little time to think about it, though, as Dennis was quite eager to get me my prize (and I was happy to oblige). Plus, I had a busy day of napping and eating ahead of me that I needed to get to.
After heading into town for a bit, I returned to camp in the evening waiting for Fegy’s return. The roles were reversed, with me now sitting around a campfire in less than stellar weather not knowing when he would arrive. It was great to enjoy some time there with the people who had braved the dropping temperatures and the sleet throughout the day. They’re exactly the kind of people who make ultrarunning such a great sport.
Once Fegy arrived, we decided to make the long trip back to my place that night. Along the way I introduced him to Cook-Out shakes and hush puppies (I actually had no idea those were pretty much just a southern thing). He recounted what it had been like up there as the snow and sleet set in that day: obviously not good conditions but it sounded like an amazing sight.
I began thinking towards what my next big goal would be, but there was no rush in my mind to decide. I was thrilled to have managed this one (and kind of relieved, because I can be fairly stubborn about those sorts of things and now I could think about new goals). No matter the outcome, though, it had been a great weekend: good trails, good people, and a wild, unique, and truly worthwhile experience. Oh, and the apple butter. And jam and homemade apple sauce.
The long duration and the significantly varying conditions for this race required a bit of a different gear strategy than my last few races. For the first two warm (but wet) daylight loops I went with a La Sportiva Motion t-shirt. For footwear, the all-important choice at this distance, I used XOSKIN 5.0 ankle socks and a pair of La Sportiva Akasha (actually the exact same pair that I finished Barkley in) with Dirty Girl gaiters (probably also the same pair). The goal was to remain comfortable and chafe-free while keeping some of my other gear dry for once temperatures started to plummet at night.
For the last two cold (but dry) nighttime loops I switched to my XOSKIN 2.0 long-sleeved top with my usual Hammer shirt over top of it. For footwear, I put on XOSKIN 5.0 compression socks and a pair of Akasha that was half a size bigger, to give room for late-race foot swelling. Having dry feet, at least for a couple of hours until I forded the creek, felt amazing. That was the first time I had ever gone up half a shoe size later in a race, and it was definitely the right move and something I will repeat.
I also had a pair of La Sportiva Ultra Arm Warmers and a Task Hybrid Jacket with me in case I got cold, but I never ended up needing them (as a credit to the temperature range the XOSKIN top can handle). Fortunately the “extra” gear had an insignificant weight, but I would never call something like that extra as you always need to be prepared to spend the night out there alone and not moving in case you get injured.
For all four loops I used an Ultimate Direction SJ Ultra Vest 3.0. It was actually my first time racing in the vest and it was absolutely perfect for the conditions and distance: as light as can be while having easily accessible space for everything I needed. It also remained comfortable with no chafing at all the different loads I gave it.
I also stuck with my XOSKIN 4.0 shorts as a base layer with La Sportiva Aeolus shorts over top for all four loops, with no chafing issues despite the early rain. For the latter loops I also tied my arm warmers through the convenient loop on the side of the Aeolus shorts.
One area of disappointment was my headlamp. It was the new model of the Black Diamond Spot, which I picked up because I thought the Black Diamond Icon I had used at the past two Barkleys would be a bit overkill and unnecessarily heavy. The Spot was remarkably light and bright, but despite having lithium batteries it hardly lasted 6 hours at any kind of usable strength.
For nutrition, I had only four sources of calories the entire race: a bottle of Perpeteum to start each loop, a flask of Hammer gel for each loop, maple creme cookies specially imported from my friend Jodi in Nova Scotia, and once again the salty maple nut bites from my friend Anne’s blog (although pistachios were substituted for the walnuts this time… definitely will do again). I also used Fizz throughout in about every other bottle of water. Ok and I did grab a bit of coke on the fourth loop mainly just to combat the cotton mouth I was starting to get near the end. The usual endurolytes, endurance aminos, and anti-fatigue caps were used as needed.
After some recent failures with hydration and as a result being unable to stick with my nutrition plan, this was one of the best jobs fueling that I’ve ever done. I was extremely consistent and adapted when conditions dictated without letting anything knock me off my strategy.
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