West Virginia Trilogy – Michael Dacar
West Virginia Trilogy
The West Virginia Trilogy is a 3-day trail race with distances of 50K, 50 miles, and a half marathon for the respective days. The individual races start and end at The Mountain Institute (TMI), an outdoor education place situated at half way up to Spruce Knob (the highest point in WV). You can sign up for just one or two of the races but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to only half destroy themselves when they have a perfect opportunity to finish the job. I signed up for all three of course: not only do you get a nicer t-shirt but you also get some extra blisters at no extra charge! It really is a terrific weekend though. TMI is a beautiful place, the trails provide amazing scenery, all the people involved are incredibly friendly (especially the staff at TMI who were all cheerful despite the mess of zombie-like runners picking over the place like locusts) and there’s free beer! For my part I drank a lot less beer this year which could explain why I didn’t finish last year but did this year, despite the more challenging course. Last year I also had no idea what I was in for. I had done multi-day races but I’d never tried to run trails like this. This race is hard, like getting Lindsay Lohan into rehab kind of hard. The distances alone would make it a stiff challenge but the technical terrain, complete with plenty of stream crossings, and the merciless hills make this a uniquely difficult race.
Despite the difficulty I would be facing I packed up the camping gear and with my trusty crew ( my girlfriend Shauna) I set off to erase the shame of my DNF from last year. Things were not off to a promising start when we arrived at TMI both very carsick. Nonetheless, the tent was set up, dinner was eaten and registration was completed. Shauna, who would not actually be crewing for me this year since there are so few crew stops it makes a crew pretty much useless, got to sit in on a long volunteer meeting while I got the rest of the camping gear set up. After a small sample of the free beer it was off to bed to get ready for the 7AM start the next morning.
Day 1 – 50K
One thing to note about the weather was that it was going to be very warm during the day (highs in the upper 70’s) and very cold at night (lows in the low 40’s) so any of my readers who are familiar with the workings of tents and humidity know that makes for a very moist tent. I was up like a shot though, and off for breakfast and a quick shower before the start. All three races start with a loop around the meadow in which TMI is located and with the tall grass and dewy morning that meant wet feet from the word go. Nothing too terrible yet though. There were lots of downhills and uphills and even some confused looking cows. I think confused is just the currently fashionable look among cows and not any sort of reaction to a bunch of ultra marathoners jogging through their field. Everything was going smoothly when I arrived at the first aid station which was manned by Adam and Dan, the race organizers. Adam warned me that the fields of Goldenrod I was about to run through was sort of bent down over the trail due to recent snows so I could expect lots of scratches on my calves. Thankfully I had on calf sleeves so I wasn’t too worried. And the bent-over Goldenrod wasn’t really much of an issue, not nearly as much as the constant shoe-sucking mud. But I made it through and arrived at the 11 mile aid station with just some muddy wet feet but otherwise in good spirits.
Let me just take a moment here to say that while I honestly believe having run the race last year helped me quite a bit, there were times when it was not such a blessing. One of those times was after that 11 mile aid station because I knew the longest, nastiest hill was right around the corner. It took 30 minutes to get what probably amounts to a single mile up that hill. It’s relentlessly steep and long. I had to stop several times to stretch my hamstrings and lower back because the constant uphill was more than they could take. My lower back would be a source of discomfort for pretty much the rest of the race when I was going up hills. But I made it to the top and then back down in a river valley again where we made our first stop at the Judy Springs (16.9 miles) aid station. The wonderful people who man that aid station had to pack in all the food and drinks (except water) on horses so a big thanks to them for going well above and beyond the normal race volunteer level of effort. From that aid station it was a big loop going uphill (very steep of course), along a ridge, back down a very steep hill (I’m just going to stop mentioning that the hills are steep, there’s only one kind of hill in this race and it’s the steep kind, if it’s not steep it no longer qualifies as a hill), and back along the river with the obligatory crossings to help with the free blisters I noted above. Leaving the Judy Springs aid station for the second time (22.6 miles) we crossed over the river one last time and heading up the mountain on the other side of the valley. This mountain had a meadow which, when you stopped – and you had to stop because you had run a long way and it was really steep and warm and without the trees the sun was beating down on you – you could look across the valley and get the most spectacular view of the valley and mountains on the other side. It reminds me why I actually enjoyed this race. At the top of the meadow there’s a nice long, relatively flat section of trail that would been easy if not for all the mud and downed trees caused by the previous weekend’s snowstorms. Some of the downed trees were kind enough to fall with their trunks across the path so it was easy to step over them. The less considerate trees fell with the crowns across the path which left you with the choice of bushwhacking on a very steep slope or just fighting your way through those branches. In many cases you didn’t have a choice so you just marched on through. By the end everyone looked as though they had spent the weekend with evil, Westboro Baptist chuch kind of ferrets in their sleeping bags. But after a few miles of that it was out onto the road to the last aid station (27.7 miles) and then a relatively easy bit of running, with only one steep hill, to get to the finish.
Last year I finished the first day in about 7 hours and 15 minutes and I felt reasonably good. This year I finished in 7 hours and 52 minutes and I felt like I had been run over by a train. Things were not looking good for the next day when I would have to run 50 miles over a lot of the same course. Perhaps because I felt so horrible I was very diligent about my recovery drink and re-hydrating before I had my one and only beer for the night. But it was only 3PM when I finished so I had lots of time to recover and get ready. I’d like to say I spent that time stretching and preparing myself mentally for the day ahead but that would be a lie. Instead I sat in a chair and moaned about how hard the race was while downing about two thirds of a bag of Doritos. The Doritos weren’t really my fault though since I was starving and dinner wasn’t until sometime after 6. What was I supposed to do, moan about how hard the race was and about how hungry I was? But eventually dinner did come around and afterwards there was a brief meeting about the next day’s race then off to bed for a very early night.
Day 2 – 50 miles
The alarm went off at 4:30AM and my stalwart crew member Shauna smacked me to wake me up since I had ear plugs in and couldn’t have heard a jet land next to the tent. Instead of shooting out of bed like I had the day before I laid there and whined about wanting to quit. To her credit Shauna did her best to be encouraging when I’m sure all she really wanted to do was go back to sleep. Eventually I dragged myself out of bed to get some breakfast and tea in the hope that a little caffeine would get me moving. No such luck there. But, despite genuinely not wanting to start the day, I managed to get myself ready to race again. I was cold, stiff, tired, and sore all over so I honestly wanted to quit. That sort of thought is always there in the back of my mind during events like these so I know if I just keep going I’ll feel better about things. It wasn’t until about 5 miles into the race that I finally stopped wanting to drop out. But that’s getting ahead of myself.
The race started at 6AM under an amazing array of stars. You really can forget just how many stars are in the sky when you live in an urban area. I didn’t get much time to admire it though since I managed to get out to the start about 30 seconds before we actually left. That was a lot better than many of the runners who were late. But off we all went through most of the same loop we started with the day before except this time we turned off and headed up to the top of Spruce Knob. There were several miles of wet grass before we got to the road that led to the top. I really enjoyed the road section since there was about a quarter of a mile that was downhill and I was able to really let my legs go and run. It was a fantastic feeling and really woke me up and made me stop wanting to drop out. I was still cold and tired and sore but at least I was now slightly less stiff. It was chilly up there at the top though, being at the highest point means lots of wind and and all my clothes were slightly damp from the condensation in the tent. But the views up there were stunning. All misty valleys and mountains covered with red and gold trees. I won’t even try to describe the sunrise because I can’t do it justice. All good things must come to an end though, and this was no exception. We arrived at the top to find Adam and Dan once again manning the first aid station (6.9 miles).
Off went the headlamps and down went the runners. It was a long, slow, rocky downhill from there. Last year I accidentally kicked one of those rocks hard enough that my big toenail eventually came off. I was a little more careful this year and managed to get through this section with no injuries. I even joined onto a little caravan of Mark, Darcy, and Angie, which was nice because that was the only part of the day when I had company. We made really good time along the ridge from the top of Spruce Knob until we dropped down from the ridge to a lower trail. In fact, I’m fairly certain it was the same muddy, downed-tree covered trail from yesterday, just a different and, if possible, muddier and more tree covered section. The going got slow here. Slow and muddy. Eventually, after climbing through lots of downed trees and sliding through lots of mud we got back to the same meadow we had run up the day before; this time though, we were going down so there was a lot less time to appreciate the scenery. At the bottom we were once again at the Judy Springs (16.1 miles) aid station. The next section was back along the river with the same crossings to wash all the mud off our feet. We were once again making good time until we got to another hill. Uphill was more of the same since we had already been down this hill the day before…and although Darcy did hear something growling at her from beneath a downed tree, nothing attacked.
At the top of the hill was a section that was 5 miles of almost constant downed trees. 5 miles of bushwhacking. 5 miles of quad-pounding downhills…at the end of which we get to stop at an aid station and then do it all over again in the other direction. It was described as soul-sucking by last year’s winner but I would say that doesn’t really do it justice. If you can imagine what it would be like to have someone spend an hour taking a belt sander to your feet and all the while having Celine Dion blasted into your ears you would have some idea of what this section was like. The trail though much of it is faint on the best of days. With all the downed trees it was non-existent. You’d be moving along and come upon a downed tree so naturally you’d try and go around. And then you’d try and go around the one immediately behind it, and then the one behind that. Eventually you’d run out of downed trees but you’d have bushwhacked so far off the trail that you couldn’t find it anymore. It did end though and Darcy, Mark, and I made it to the halfway(ish) aid station (24.9). That would be the last time I would see either of them until we were all finished because Darcy, knowing she was now in a good position to win the Trilogy, took off and Mark slowed down. I would actually spend the rest of the race from this point by myself. I passed one person and was passed again by that same person much later but he was the only other runner I saw on the course for the rest of the day.
There really isn’t much to say about the horror of going back over that same section of trail (which was mostly downhill the first time so you can figure out which direction it was the second time) that I haven’t already said so I will leave it at the only real observation I actually made while I was there. Despite the pain, it seemed a lot shorter going up than it did going down. Once I finished that section there were a couple of very runnable miles to get to the Horton aid station (33.6). The Horton aid station was the first cut-off for the day but I was a little over half an hour ahead of the cut-off when I arrived — a significant step up from last year when I was half an hour late. But I really wondered to myself, while I was charging downhill to get there, “why am I hurrying?” If I had taken my time they would have made me stop and I could have gone back to camp to start drinking. I wouldn’t even have had to get up the next morning to run since I would have been a DNF anyway. But hurry I did and once there I filled up on soup and other goodies before setting out for the first section of the course that would be new to me.
The novelty wore off quickly once I started on what felt like 3 straight miles uphill. It wasn’t particularly steep and the trail was mercifully clear, but it was long. I had made it past the first cut-off but there was a second one at 46.2 miles and I was worried because I knew I wasn’t going to get any faster. So on my way up this hill I put my exhausted mind to the task of figuring out what sort of pace I needed to keep in order to make that second cut-off. In normal life my math skills are rarely tested by anything more extreme than figuring out the tip after a few drinks. I get lots of practice at that sort of thing though, so the old melon has figured out a simple system for that. Not so with figuring out pace. And after 2 days and more than 60 miles my brain was just not up to the task. So I figured. And I figured again. Then I figured some more and still got nowhere. Having gotten nowhere I started worrying. I was going to be damned if I would fail after having come this far. So I hurried. I had been told the previous year that the course got easier after our second trip through the Judy Springs aid station (40.5 miles) and I hoped that was true — I was pushing myself hard to get up the mountain and then back down, and if the course didn’t ease up on me it was going to break me. I arrived at Judy Springs for the second time in sort of a daze. My brain had pretty much given up on me and for some reason it had gotten the idea stuck in it that there was going to be more than 7 miles to go to the next aid station. But when Dennis said it was only 5.7 miles to the next aid station, the clouds parted, a heavenly light shone down upon me, and a choir of angels sang out. I was dumbfounded. This was possibly the best piece of news I had ever heard in my life. It may not sound like much to those of you who don’t do this sort of thing but to me it was like I was instantly transported a mile and a half down the course and given a drink of ambrosia. I was going to make it. Barring some serious injury I was home free. Sure I still had to drag my tired ass another 10 miles. And sure, I had to run a half marathon the next morning. But that was just details; the hard part was behind me. You could throw in the 12 labors of Hercules too if you wanted — I could handle anything you could throw at me.
I’d like to say that this feeling of invincibility carried me for the next few hours to the finish but that would be lying. In truth it got me about 100 feet down the trail before I fell back to earth. But it didn’t matter anymore because I could handle the lows now. I would even repeat the cycle of exultation at the next aid station when I found out it was only 3.8 miles to the end. Wow, I thought it was 6, cue the angels please. In my experience that’s really the hard part of running ultras. The euphoric highs are easy to deal with but I’ve never been so low in my life as I get at some points during these races. And climbing out of those lows is like climbing out of the deepest blackest pits of hell. It’s always hard to see that out even exists when you’re down like that but I’ve always made it out so far.
There isn’t much to say about the rest of the 50 miler except that it did in fact get easier after Judy Springs. At the final aid station (46.2 miles) I finally saw Shauna who stuffed some food in me and then kicked me out without even letting me sit down. One of the race organizers (Adam) was also there and he told it me was just 3.8 easy miles to the finish. But while Adam and I both speak English, we speak an entirely different language. He says the the hills on the course aren’t that steep and that the trails aren’t that technical which means something very different in his version of English than it does in mine. So when he says 3.8 easy miles I assume he means 3.8 miles that would make a Mossad agent cry like a little girl who lost her My Little Pony. But it was actually pretty easy other than having to climb over some barbed wire.
So I had finished the 50 miler which meant I had pretty much finished the race. For those of us in the back of the pack the half marathon the next day was going to be more of a long victory lap than any kind of race. But before I got to that I needed to get a shower and some food. Dinner that night was lasagna, which I can’t stand, but I had 2 helpings anyway while the last of the runners came in. I would have liked to have hobbled down to the finish to cheer them on but the hypothermia that often accompanies these sorts of things was setting in and I decided to stay inside. I was shaking pretty bad and could barely drink which I’m sure was worrying Shauna quite a bit. But I wasn’t worried because it has happened before and I knew I just needed to keep going with my recovery and I would be fine. We had a brief post-50 miler/pre-half marathon race meeting and then it was off to bed for what was likely to be a very uncomfortable night. At least I would get to sleep in.
Day 3 – 13.1 miles
The half marathon didn’t start until 9am and, despite the pain in my hips, I took full advantage of the extra sleep. I felt bad for Shauna because I had woken up twice during the night to pee and having me towering unsteadily over her as I tried to exit the tent must have scared her half to death. But I managed to not topple over onto her and we made it through the night with no mishaps. And after much grunting and groaning (not that kind of grunting and groaning, get your mind out of the gutter) we were up, breakfasted, and eventually standing at the starting line for the race. Shauna was participating in the half marathon with me and, despite my repeated attempts to get her to run on ahead so I could take it easy, she stayed with me the entire way.
The course for the half marathon started out the same as the previous 2 days, with a big loop around the TMI grounds before heading down the mountain for 2 out and backs and then back up the mountain to the finish. The out and backs were nice because we got to see most of the race as they passed us coming the other way. We were very near the back so if it hadn’t been for the out and back we wouldn’t have seen much of anyone. The first out and back was pretty short and I, thinking that the two sections were pretty equal for some inexplicable reason, thought that we were going to be through this race in no time, but the second out and back was much longer and included a lot of uphill. It was fairly easy, though, since a good portion was on the road. When we got to the turnaround for the second out and back we were at the end of a very long uphill on the road. So when we turned around and started running down the hill I just flew. Maybe flew isn’t really the right term since it implies some sort of grace. Really I just fell down the hill but without ending up in a heap.
When I got to the bottom of that section of hill I stopped to let Shauna catch up…or, actually, I stopped in order to start heaving. I wasn’t actually throwing up, but my stomach, which had not been happy since day 1, was in a full on revolt at this point, which would really hit me on the way up the final hill to the end. But I managed to keep everything down and make it up the final climb and then on to the finish. I even took off running at the end to get in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes which was a much more respectable time than I had any right to expect.
So I had actually finished the West Virginia Trilogy and avenged my DNF from the year before. But I didn’t feel nearly as triumphant as I thought I would. Honestly I just felt really tired and sore. I wanted to go home and take a good shower and sleep in my warm bed that didn’t have condensation dripping onto it. But the folks at TMI had been roasting a pig and we weren’t about to leave before we got to tuck into that. So we put off packing up the tent for a little while and ate. There was also an awards ceremony where they got all 15 Trilogy finishers up there for our finisher awards (nice pottery mugs, definitely the best finisher award I’ve ever gotten). I really appreciated that acknowledgement because I definitely feel that just finishing this race is an achievement worth noting. I always say that finishing is winning for me but in this case it really felt like I had won. Thank you Adam and Dan for that, it’s not a feeling I’ll ever forget.