Anyone seen my wheels?

One of them you’ll find around mile 30, and the others are spread out between 50 and 80 somewhere. My original goal of 22 hours was out the window before noon, my second goal of sub-24 was still possible until I was part way up Sherman Gap (mile 75), but ultimately it became a long walk from that point on — just finishing became perfectly acceptable.

Background and Pre-race

There was little info on this race, even though it’s one of the oldest in the country (est 1979) — I basically read old race reports, and Bob Boeder’s first chapter in his Grand Slam book. I also had Stan Jensen’s splits from the 2 times he’d done the race before, so used that as my guideline until I threw it out around mile 40.

The race is held in a small town (pop 4000) of Woodstock, VA about 90 miles west of DC in Shenandoah County. The town was formed in 1772, and has the oldest courthouse still in use west of the Blue Ridge Mtns. The start/finish is at Shenandoah Co Fairgrounds, located just east of I-81, and 1 block from the host hotel, the Comfort Inn.

Friday morning, I packed all my drop bags — 6 total (2 we’d be visiting twice). They were 770/758 (miles 19.6/91), 4 Points (miles 32.6/47.7), Edinburg Gap (mile 56.6), Little Fort (mile 64.3), Elizabeth Furnace (75), and Veach West (86.6). I didn’t have much in them — mainly food (Bloks), E-caps, extra/warm clothes, and lights.

Once I was satisfied, I went out for lunch at Paisano’s, a small Italian restaurant next to Wal-Mart, then headed back to the hotel to check in. I saw Xy in the parking lot, so we drove the 1 block together. There I met Jamshid Khajavi, who was not only doing the Last Great Race, but also attempting to break Monica Schulz’s record of 23 100 mile races in one calendar year. We spoke to Pat Botts (who originally founded OD in 1979) briefly about the race, then saw that Gary Knipling was there to greet us. His son Keith, was attempting to complete the Massanutten Triple — 3 100 mile races in three weeks. David Snipes, who I also met that day, was making that attempt as well. Needless to say, I was surrounded by many very talented and experienced individuals, in addition to those who would be running the distance for their first time.

After the weigh in (134.5#), and the mug shot, we waited for the pre-race briefing, which consisted of the usual stuff — course description, aid station locations, etc. conducted by Ray Waldron, who with his wife Wynn are the co-RDs. While waiting, I met Jay and Anita Finkle, Liz Walker, Vince Swendsen, Scott Brockmeier, and Dmitry Rozinsky — all very accomplished runners.

Once the meeting was over, I got a group of people to head out to dinner — it was Phil Rosenstein, Dan “Ironman” Goodman (Phil’s one-man crew), the Kniplings, and David Snipes. We headed over to Spring House Tavern on Main St, just across from the Court House. It was a good choice, and I would highly recommend it.

When we were done with our meal, David suggested we drive the final road section of the course, since there were some runners from the previous year who managed to get lost and another time, a few were DQ’d because they didn’t take the right streets back. We started at the intersection of Water St and Mill Rd, then back-tracked to the finish. I’m glad we did that, since the ribbons were hard to see, and we could’ve easily taken the wrong street if we weren’t paying attention.

Me, Phil Rosenstein, Xy Weiss, Jamshid Kajavi, and Ray Waldron

Race Day

Back at the hotel, I watched a little TV, then tried desperately to go to bed but since I am a night owl, plus the timezone difference, I didn’t fall asleep until close to 11. After tossing and turning most of the night, I got out of bed almost 30 minutes ahead of my alarm clock, which I had set for 2:30AM. After getting dressed, and eating some yogurt, I headed over to the fairgrounds.

Hardly anyone was there, then around 3:30, people started to arrive. I checked in, then chatted briefly with Barb Isom who was a first timer at OD, but had run the MMT before. It was a small intimate group — 24 runners in all. Made me feel less nervous and stressful as compared to bigger races, and seemed like it was just a group going out for a weekend training run. It was a few minutes before 4am, so we all went outside to the start line, where Pat gave a little prayer, then at the top of the hour, we were off.

We started with a big counter-clockwise loop around the track, which should not be mistaken for a 1/4 mile human version, since it was meant for dogs/horses. It was dark, but I didn’t use my flashlight. Once around, we were out on Ox Rd, heading north away from Woodstock. I followed Keith, who was led by a police escort — it was kinda funny, since the whole town was asleep and the roads were empty. The temperature was comfortable, but a little bit too warm for 4am — I knew it wouldn’t be long before the heat/humidity would kick in.

A steep downhill, over the tracks, across to Court, through Main then left on to Water St, nearing our first aid at mile 3 — I ran through it as the volunteers were still setting up. The air smelled of honeysuckle, and fireflies were hovering around everywhere — I enjoyed the moment, as I saw the flashing of the lead vehicle far ahead, which also indicated Keith’s position.

Then after crossing the bridge, with Burnshire Dam to our right, I began the ascent up the many wide dirt switchbacks to Woodstock Gap. I reached the top in about 3 miles, where I filled my bottles and began the long steep downhill. The aid folks reminded me to stay left — I thanked them and hammered it. It was still dark, but didn’t need any lights. I had to remind myself to take it easy, but it was hard not to take advantage of the gravity and smooth road.

At the Boyer intersection, Ray was there with his truck — 100 yards up, we turned left onto the first trail section along the purple blazes, then looped back around to the same spot. Immediately, I recognized the Massanutten Rocks, but it wasn’t too bad — one of the less rockier sections. That was when I felt like I could’ve used a little bit of lighting, so took my handheld out and used it since I had it. If I didn’t have it, I would’ve probably been ok — just would’ve moved a little slower. After coming off the trail, we closed the loop by running on the fireroad back to the Boyer aid — 14.6 miles, and 2 hours 25 minutes into the race.

From there, it’s 5 miles to the 770/758 intersection, where you can have crew and a drop bag. I was still in second place at that point, waiting to get passed, but occasional glances behind me revealed there wasn’t anyone within a few minutes at least. If you’ve done Vermont before, you would have gotten a sense of deja vu, as the roads/scenery is very similar — rolling gravel/dirt roads adjacent to all the farms. I got to the aid (~20 miles) around 3:15 into the race — a little faster than my goal split. I think Keith went through in about 3 hours, but had no idea how far back the rest of the runners were behind me.

The temperature was warming up, but still very comfortable, although the humidity was starting to take effect. Between 770/758 and the next several miles was when things began to unravel — barely 25 miles into the race. Not good. I slowed down, walking some of the sections I’d normally be flying through at that point. One runner (Dane?) finally passed me after St David’s Church, which wasn’t really a church. More rolling roads along farms/fields, then a wide left hand change of direction, a short straight away, then up to Creekside — mile 28.5, and just under 5 hours into the race. The man at the aid joked that the runner in front wanted him to tell me that he was an hour ahead, but I knew that he wasn’t. So I told him to do the same for the person behind me — we both chuckled, and I continued on.

Soon I popped out onto a very busy street — I didn’t like that stretch much after almost getting hit a couple times. The road seemed to go on forever, but just about a mile after the Lutheran Camp, I reached 4 Points — mile 32.6. As I was entering the aid station, Dane was just leaving, saying that he took a little rest and changed shoes. So we were still 2nd/3rd in the race interestingly enough. Where was everyone else? Then again, there weren’t too many people in the race to begin with I suppose.

I felt a little better than I did earlier, but still knew that I should’ve been in much better shape than I was at that point in the race. I wasn’t struggling, but at the same time, I was having more difficulty than I should’ve, considering it was still very early on in the race, not to mention the most difficult and hottest part of the day was coming up.

After leaving the aid, I made a quick right uphill, still on the paved road until I got to a volunteer who guided me the right way. Initially, I would be heading up a trail to the left, and he explained that later when I’d see him again, I’d take a different one to the right. It was a rather short trail section when I reached the Luray Overlook, where there was a volunteer offering water, and Shanna the photographer. I turned right there, heading downhill on paved road again, back to where we turned off. When I saw the volunteer, he pointed me in the right direction, and mentioned that there would be a lot of flat sections, followed by a big climb — that was Duncan Hollow.

The initial trail section was great — very smooth and runnable, then it got extremely technical. As I had Massanutten flashbacks, the bugs, heat, and humidity seemed to come out of nowhere also. As I continued on, two motorcyclists came towards me — they were the father/daughter aid station team I recalled Ray mentioning at the pre-race meeting. I couldn’t believe they were riding over that rocky terrain. Soon after, I saw another bike, but it was parked, then realized I had reached the Peach Orchard aid station — mile 38.7, 6 hours and 15 minutes into the race. I couldn’t believe they were able to get everything they had there, since it was so remote and rocky, but they did. I was very thankful he was there, since I would’ve run out of water before the next aid for sure. I took just enough so the others behind me would have some, then thanked the gentleman for being there, and continued on after a couple squirts of DEET he had available.

I was still over 4.5 miles away from Crisman Hollow. The rocks continued, alternating with spots of mud, which this year was not an issue, but could’ve been during a wet or rainy year. Soon, I heard runners behind me — it was a trio, consisting of LIz Walker, Scott Brockmeier, and Dan Brendan. They were flying over the rocks, so I let them get by. Once we got out of the worst section, it was still a long downhill to the bottom, at which point we crossed a stream to the Crisman Hollow aid station (mile 43.1).

That was our first medical checkpoint, so I got weighed in — 133.5, so I lost a pound. After leaving the aid, I made a right onto a wide road, which I stayed on until we reached 4 Points again from the other direction — this time, it would be mile 47.7. I managed to catch up to Dan there, so I knew that he slowed down a bit from before, since I definitely didn’t speed up. At that point, I was still in 5th place, although I didn’t really care. What I was more concerned about was seeing what my 50 mile time would be, which would give me an idea on my finish ETA.

Out of 4 Points, we made a left down the road, then a slight left to start the climb up Moreland Gap to the next aid at the top (Mountain Top Mile 50.9). Not long after, the skies opened up, and began pouring. Dan was right behind me, and we were quickly drenched. Initially, it felt good because it cooled me down, but I soon got cold. I thought it would let up, but continued to pour, and was so distracted by the rain that almost didn’t see the halfway point, which we crossed around 9:50. For my 22 hour goal, I was supposed to be through there in 9:30, so knew that I still had a good shot at sub-24. Based on how I was moving at that point though, I knew that it would be tough.

The gentleman at Mountain Top was desperately trying to cover his aid station, and wished I could’ve stayed and helped, but I knew I had to keep going, because I got cold whenever I stopped or slowed down. From that point on, it was mostly downhill into Edinburg Gap, which I was very familiar with, since the aid station at MMT with the same name was a very welcome site after coming off Short Mountain in the middle of the night — this time though, we took the roads there instead. As I continued looking for something that looked familiar, I suddenly came across the OD version of the Edinburg station, which was setup along the side of the road. A little different than MMT, but I didn’t care — was just glad to see it. I made it there in just over 11 hours.

There I changed into a dry shirt, grabbed some Bloks, then headed up the next section — Powell’s Mountain Trail, an ATV road, which took us up and over to Little Fort, about 8 miles away. I wondered if it rained there at all, since the trail seemed pretty dry, especially when the off-roaders came barreling through kicking up dust. Somewhere after cresting the top, I found a set of keys, which I left next to Peter’s Mill Pond — an unmanned aid station, with minimal supplies. There was a jug full of sports drink (no water), and some minimal food. I didn’t take anything, and kept going. We continued on the ATV road, all the way into Little Fort (mile 64.3), and where I’d see my drop bag.

I picked up my headlamp there in case I couldn’t make it to Elizabeth Furnace before dark, and Ialso grabbed a burger, since I was getting tired of eating Bloks all day, then started the long climb up the road. At the top, there was an intersection with a sign where we’d go right — I’d be passing through there again later on, but going left at that point. It was rolling jeep roads all the way into the Mudhole Gap aid station — mile 69.5 and 15 hours into the race.

From there, I criss-crossed the stream for the first section, then it’s a long very runnable downhill that took us towards Elizabeth Furnace. I was passed there by Bob Oberkher, who I hadn’t seen since the first time through 4 Points — apparently, he had some issues earlier, but was now looking strong. I told him that I wanted to start the climb up Sherman’s Gap in as much daylight as possible, but looked like it wasn’t going to happen, since it was already around starting to get dark at that point.

The last singletrack down to the road was the same as MMT, which took you just across the street from the parking lot and the picnic area where the aid station is setup. I got weighed in, and was happy to say that I was still the same as I was back at Crisman Hollow, over 30 miles ago. I picked up my handheld, and switched to my primary headlamp, but didn’t take any extra clothing for the night.

From Elizabeth Furnace, we took Botts Trail, named after Ray Botts, Pat’s late husband, which skirted around the stream at first, before heading up the mountain — the MMT course is farther to the left, and for that race, is mile 90, but this time, I was still only 3/4 done. I was passed there by Jay Finkle whose presence I felt, turning around almost mistaking him for a large tree — he’s about 7′, or at least that’s how tall he seems compared to me. I knew we were still on the 24 hour bubble, but knew that I would have to press hard if I wanted it. I also knew that we had to reach Veach West by midnight or 12:30 at the latest, but I was well off pace at that point, so I basically resorted to my third option — just finish.

The infamous Sherman’s Gap that we were warned about was almost exactly what I had envisioned — a very rocky climb up to the top (1.5-2 hours), which is indicated by a wind chime hanging from a tree next to a memorial, then an equally rocky and long downhill to the road. The frustrating part about that section is not just the steep and rocky trail, but the fact the climb doesn’t start right away — we go up and down through the canyon before making the final push to the top.

Somewhere during the descent, I was caught by Tyler Peeks, who I ran together with all the way down to 613T. We both came to the realization that our shot at 24 was not going to happen this year, so took our pace down a couple notches. When we saw lights along the road, we knew we were close, and finally got to the unmanned aid station. From the trailhead, we turned right onto a paved road, then made a long climb up to Veach East. Tyler pulled ahead, but I caught up to him at the aid station. Around that point, I was noticing that my feet were developing some hot spots, but of course I ignored it — not good.

Two very helpful and friendly guys were manning the 82.8 mile station, which we got to just after midnight, 20 hours into the race. They explained the next section, and how runnable it was down into Veach West, so I looked forward to it. The trail started with a climb to the top, where Tyler passed me, then the usual downhill into the aid. I saw Ironman Dan there again, waiting for Phil — I asked him how he got in front of me without knowing, mistakenly thinking that he was going to pace Phil from Elizabeth Furnace. He looked at me strangely, and as he tried to explain, I remembered that he was only there to crew. I wasn’t delirious…really.

I knew from that point on, it was all roads (both dirt and asphalt) to the finish. I contemplated walking the whole way in, since my feet were killing me at that point. But I did the math, and realized that if I did, it would probably take about 4 hours — I definitely didn’t want to stay out on the course for that long, so tried to run as much as possible.

I was surprised that no one had caught me at that point, since I slowed down significantly due to my feet, and also dropping down my pace after coming off Sherman’s Gap. The roads were familiar, having gone through there earlier in the day, but seemed much longer then — of course I was just running slower. I eventually got to the 770/758 (mile 90.1) aid station again, and finally started to smell the barn.

From there, I headed back to the same intersection we passed coming out of Little Fort, but instead, turned left up to Woodstock Gap, the first aid station I went through almost 24 hours before at the top of the hill. Just before the intersection, I passed Tyler — he was also having foot problems, but think he was in much worse shape than I was. I hoped that he would stay with me, but I pulled ahead as he fell farther and farther behind until I couldn’t see his lights anymore.

The Woodstock aid station was setup on the other side of the road this time, and was manned by a bunch of teenagers who were smoking (and probably drinking too). It was a bit odd, but they were very vocal — shouting the usual, “you’re almost there.” Well, considering it was only 7 miles left out of the 100, I guess I was.

What I wasn’t looking forward to though, because of my feet, was the long downhill all the way to the bridge, but I ran as much as I could. When I finally got there, I knew I still had to go through town, which included a couple uphills. Before the short descent to Water St, I saw Pat Botts headed up the road to check on other runners. I eventually made the left turn at the unmanned aid station, and knew that it was a long 2.6 miles back to the fairgrounds, and ultimately the finish. That was where we drove the course the previous night after the dinner, so I had a perfect image in my mind as to what I had left to run — a long straight section on Water, a right turn on Court, pass Main St and the courthouse, a left on Commerce, turning into Massanutten Heights, across the railroad tracks, a slight uphill, followed by a down and up, and onto Ox Rd for the last gradual climb to the finish.

The difference was that I was now having to do it on foot — sure seemed much shorter when we drove it. Also, what I hadn’t noticed the other night was how bad it smelled there — I looked to the left, and saw a bunch of cows. It was not something that you really wanted to experience at that stage in the race, but the good thing was it made me run a little faster to get through that area.

The sun was starting to rise, since it was almost 6am, and also realized that I managed to stay awake all night — something I’ve had trouble doing in some past 100’s. Perhaps it was because of the difference in timezone, plus getting to the tough sections still early on. The roosters were starting to crow, and the sky got lighter as I approached the last climb onto Ox Road. I instinctively looked behind my shoulder, since I always tend to get passed just before the finish, but this time, there was no one remotely close. I switched between running and walking, trying to keep the pain in my feet from getting too unbearable.

I finally turned right into the fairground, and saw the track. I noticed the race clock, but looking around, there was not a soul in the area — the entire place was deserted. I kept thinking that someone would emerge as I rounded the track heading to the finish, but there was no one. It was one of the oddest finishes for me — I didn’t expect a huge crowd, but figured I’d see someone. In fact, the person who was doing the timing and recording runners as they came through was also absent. I came through at 26:14:40 according to my watch. I saw a video camera setup at the finish line, so figured I was being recorded, since no one took down my time. I wandered around not knowing what to do for a few minutes, and when I realized that nothing was going to happen, I left for my room, since I was longing for a shower and to lie down and rest. As I started to leave, I saw Tyler begin circling the track — I waved over to him as I drove off.

After getting back to my room and taking off my shoes, I was afraid to see the damage to my feet — basically, turned out to be two medium-sized blisters on the balls of each foot. Because my feet never got a chance to dry, they were completely macerated, which resulted in the blisters (I think). I’ve been in similar conditions where my feet were continuously wet, but didn’t have problems, so I’m not entirely certain that the wetness was the only factor.

Once after I cleaned up, I crashed out, only to be woken up shortly after by a phone call — it was Phil and Xy. They wanted to know if it was ok if they used my shower, so my nap didn’t last as long as I would’ve liked. Soon it was time for the buffet breakfast catered by a local restaurant, and awards afterwards. Keith Knipling of course won the race — his 2nd win in two weeks, followed by an incredible 3rd place at MMT. He and David Snipes were able to complete the Massanutten Triple — 3 100s in 3 weeks, all located and held in and around the Massanutten Mountains. There were 5 additional runners who came in under 24, with Jay Finkle, squeaking in with less than 7 minutes to spare. Unfortunately, of the 5 Last Great Racers to start, Jamshid was forced to DNF due to unfortunate circumstances. He will still be competing for the Grand Slam though, so I’ll see him at the next 4 races. Xy was the last official runner, finishing with less than 15 mins to spare before the 28 hour cutoff. A couple others came in after, including a first-time 100 miler, and Vince — way to gut it out. The sub-24 hour runners were awarded buckles, and everyone else got finishers’ hats. After I said my goodbyes, I had to do the 2 hour drive back to DC to catch my flight back home.

Final Thoughts

Old Dominion is a very well organized event put on by people who really care about the race and its runners, and it’s a shame that more people are not willing to experience it. I will definitely return at some point — need to trade in my hat for a buckle next time.

Next up…Western States!

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