I first became aware of the Cruel Jewel 100 in 2015. As I followed a couple of friends who were running the race that year, I thought to myself that I would like to run it someday. Then I saw the buckle. HOLY SHIT! As big as a pie plate and 10 pounds of metal. OK, not really, but you get the idea. It was HUGE! I was doomed from the minute I saw that buckle. It was my Gollum moment: “My precious!”
Fast forward to January 2018. I was training for The Barkley Marathons, and in my state of complete delirium from hitting hills in freezing temperatures one afternoon, I got back to my car and had the brilliant idea that I should sign up for Cruel Jewel since my Barkley training would have me in top form and I really had nothing to lose.
In theory, it was a perfect training plan. But as we all know, yeah, stuff happens. I came off Barkley with unexpected results and rolled that right into Ouachita Trail 50 with a nagging ache in my right heal. Two weeks prior to Cruel Jewel, my orthopedic diagnosed an irritated heel bone spur caused by Achilles tendonitis from running all those hills. I looked at the doc and said I had a 100-mile race coming up. He shook his head, handed me some anti-inflammatory ointment and said, “I’m not going to tell you to not run. Come back in 15 years when it starts to grow and needs surgery.”
Race: Cruel Jewel 100 is a 106 mile foot race
Race Directors: Josh and Leigh Saint
Location/Course: Chattahoochee National Forest in the North Georgia mountains. The race consists of 94 miles of trail and 12 miles of mountain road. The course is an out and back, as you journey from Vogel State Park to Blue Ridge, Georgia and back. The terrain is technical, with a mix of rocks, roots and ridgelines as you traverse some singletrack trails along the lush green hardwood forest and some gorgeous flora and fauna. Thrown into the mix is 33,213 feet of gain and 33,213 feet of loss. The ascents are steep and the descents even steeper!
Difficulty: Extremely rugged and hard
Time Limit: 48 hours for 106 miles
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer/Crew: Tim Landewe and Corey Lamb
Goals & Training: If I’m being honest, after hearing the news from my orthopedic, I knew it would be a long day and night and day for this girl. I figured 35 to 38 hours in the woods, but the ultimate goal is always to finish the race — and I WANTED THAT BUCKLE BAD!
Regarding training, as previously mentioned, I had been hitting a lot of hills and kept an average of 50 to 55 miles with 10,000 to 11,000 feet of vertical gain each week.
Tim, Corey and I drove to Blairville, Georgia on the Thursday before the race in pouring rain and stayed at an Airbnb that was 4 miles from Vogel State Park. We got up race morning with little to no signs of rain, full sunlight and dank humidity that felt like an armpit. We went out for breakfast and leisurely made our way to the race start as the 100 miler started on Friday at noon.
There were no big strategies laid out. The loose plan was to see my crew at Skeenah Gap (20Mi) in approximately seven hours, then again at Old Dial Road (31.0Mi) and finally at Stanley Gap (69.1Mi), where I was going to pick up Tim to pace me for 16 miles until Skeenah Gap (85.4Mi) and at Skeenah Gap I would pick up Corey for the final 20-plus miles to the finish.
I was making good time and was 30 minutes ahead of my projections when I hit Skeenah Gap for the first time and kept running steady all the way until I hit Old Dial Road (31.0Mi). This is when I started to feel hot spots on the balls of both my feet. My guess was it stemmed from all those climbs and being on my toes with my heels rarely touching the trail.
It had been a really steamy trek to Old Dial Road, and it was hard to breathe on those climbs as the humidity kept rising. I was drenched in sweat within the first 5 miles of the race and never dried thereafter. At Old Dial Road, I swapped my socks, which felt much better, and after grabbing my headlamp, I said goodnight to my crew. The next time I would see them would be sometime Saturday afternoon.
Stanley Gap (36.9Mi) to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi)
It was dusk as I left Stanley Gap, and within an hour I’d have to turn on my headlamp. I was looking forward to the cool temperature and just being able to zone out and hammer the night miles. I love running at night! Some of my fastest running is done at night, but as I left the aid station, one of the volunteers announced there was a chance of thunderstorms around midnight. Gah! I did a quick mental check of my gear to make sure I was ready to tackle the rain and charged ahead as hard as I could knowing that once the rain hit things were not going to be pretty.
Before I made it to Deep Gap (41.7Mi), I could hear roaring thunder and see lightning out in the distance. It was not a settling sight or sound. I got to the aid station as a little drizzle starting to hit the ground, put on my light windbreaker and continued with the Deep Gap Loop. Before I had hit a mile on the loop, the sky just gave out — it was a shit storm. I was soaking wet, and water was just rushing down the trail. My headlamp was useless in the downpour. My waist lamp saved my rear on this night trek.
There was no keeping dry! The rain felt good, as it helped cool down some of the heat and humidity that had built up during the day, but running was impossible. I slogged my way back to Deep Gap for the second time feeling like a wet feline. It was my worst nightmare. I had encountered similar conditions at The Barkley Marathons, and moving forward had become unfeasible, so here I was standing in the downpour wondering if it was just sheer bad luck or I was destined to DNF. I can’t DNF, I just can’t. Because I want that buckle. Plain and simple!
I pressed on as the downpour continued all the way to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi). I’d like to mention a few good and few not-so-good things about Camp Morganton. It’s the mid-point for 100-mile runners, and I’ve run enough 100-mile races to know that it’s at about the 50-mile mark that things get ugly. So, Camp Morganton was a runners’ graveyard.
- Camp Morganton is a campground, so the aid station was a covered shelter, with bunk beds, bathroom stalls and showers. All the luxuries! You can change clothes, dry out and catch a snooze if you have the time.
- All the above-mentioned things make it almost impossible to turn around and run back out and retrace the 52 hellish miles that you have just completed. This aid station has DNF written all over it.
Some observations/suggestions on Camp Morganton:
- Make sure you have a crew waiting for you at Camp Morganton, so they can get you in and out of there quick. By the time I hit Camp Morganton, it was 5 a.m. on Saturday morning and no one seemed to have a clue as to what was happening. There were a lot of folks at this aid station, and the race crew was preparing for the 50-mile packet pickup.
- Have your crew bring you some real food. It took me an hour to change out of my clothes, refill supplies, patch up my feet, change shoes and socks, and get my head back in the game. By the time I went to ask for food, all that was left on the table were scraps from the previous night, and the beef broth was nothing but beef bouillon in water.
I cannot stress enough on how important it is to have a crew at Camp Morganton!
Camp Morganton (50.2Mi) to Stanley Gap (69.1)
I had rolled into Camp Morganton while it was still dark, but by the time I finally made my way out of there, it was daybreak. I hadn’t eaten anything and being low on calories made me irritable. I reached for some bars in my pack, and as I slowly hiked up a hill, there was a bleak ray of sun peering through the thick clouds of fog. It was beautiful!
I reminded myself that I had to get moving fast, as within a couple of hours the 50-mile runners will be out running the trails. I made my way back to Deep
Gap for the third time and continued onto the loop. The loop sucked! It was muddy as hell, and there was absolutely no running happening. It was going to be a mud slog! Somewhere in the middle of the loop a few guys came flying by, which I assumed were the 50-mile runners, and by loose estimation I figured it was around 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Back to Deep Gap for the fourth time, I was in and out, making my way to the horrendous drop at Weaver Creek Road. The sun was out, and it was once again turning into an armpit. As I started the trek back up Weaver Creek, I paced with Simone Valentin Austin. It was Simone’s third time running Cruel Jewel, and she mentioned it was probably the worst conditions she had encountered during the race in the past two years. Simone was kind enough to share some coconut water with me, which at that point in the race proved to be my go-go juice.
Stanley Gap (69.1) to Skeenah Gap (85.4)
I was so looking forward to seeing my crew and having Tim along for the next stretch of the race. We didn’t waste much time at Stanley Gap and continued forward. I saw Simone and her crew and bummed another coconut water from them. It was nice and cold, and it felt refreshing! By the time we hit the pavement, my feet were starting to hurt and running the exposed stretch of the road made it mentally difficult. I stopped quite a bit before running again. At this point, I knew I would be looking at 40 hours for the finish. As long as I was moving, I’d be alright, as I was well ahead of any cutoff. Tim kept me moving steady, but there was no avoiding the pain in my feet and it slowed down my pace. Downhills hurt more than the up hills.
We made it to Wilscot Gap where, I had a drop bag. I changed my socks and shoes for the third time and was horrified at the size of the blisters on both my feet. This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’ve never had blisters/foot issues in my past 10 100-mile races. Aside from freaking out A LOT, I knew there was nothing to do as the damage had been done, so I popped whatever blisters I could, duct-taped my feet and kept moving forward. By the time I made it to Skeenah Gap, every step felt like a stab and my feet were on fire.
Skeenah Gap (85.4) to White Oak Stomp (97.9)
I hit Skeenah Gap, and Corey was waiting for me with a coconut water. Say what?!? That coconut water is good stuff! Tim was off pacing duties, and Corey lead the way as daylight started to fade once again.
This was the most miserable stretch of the race! It got dark, and the bugs came out and were flying at my headlamp like I was being attacked. I was tired, my feet hurt and my brain just about gave out on me. I had been at it for close to 40 hours. Every inch of my body was screaming for me to stop.
I was walking a 30-minute mile. I complained, I whined and I asked Corey to stop. I would sit at every fallen tree and rock that we came across and close my eyes — and there was Corey with his red nightlight staring me in the face. He was the devil! I swear I wanted to punch him, because he wouldn’t let me sleep. I tried talking him into letting me nap for 15 minutes on a rock.
Me: I just need 15 minutes to shut my eyes. I promise we’ll get moving after that.
Me: Why not? I’m not chasing cutoff.
Corey: Because if you sleep now I’m afraid I won’t be able to wake you back up and get you moving.
I just sat there on the rock pretending to have not heard him and closed my eyes. Somewhere in the back corner of my brain where I was still functioning I knew Corey was right. If I fell asleep, I won’t be able to wake up. So, I pressed on with my death march. I was “sleep running.” Everything felt numb; I felt no pain, no sense of smell, no nothing. Yet, somehow, I was able to put one foot in from of the other. I also hadn’t eaten in the last 6 miles. Not only was I sleep deprived, I was also calorie deficient. Everything turned my stomach. The thought of peanut butter and jelly made me nauseous, and I could smell the ramen in my head. I just wanted some real food.
We stopped once more because my feet hurt, and I figured adding another layer of socks might help. As I swapped my socks, I saw a tick embedded on my leg along the edge of my sock. I pulled at it and its mouth part snapped. I yelled for Corey: What do I do? Squeeze it and try to get it out, he said. I did as I was told and in doing so made a tiny hole in my leg where the tick was.
Onward! While in my state of delirium, I stuck my pole in the ground only to feel something swirl on my pole. I looked down. I had stabbed a copperhead and it was now partially wrapped on my pole and hissing loudly. I shook the snake off my pole and jumped ahead to follow behind Corey. We could hear the copperhead hiss loud for a few seconds afterwards.
Holy shit! That was enough to wake me up. After that, I tried not to sit on any trees or rocks and kept a steady hiking pace until we hit White Oak Stomp (97.9Mi).
White Oak Stomp (97.9) to Vogel St Park/Finish (106Mi)
White Oak Stomp is the last manned aid station, and by the time Corey and I got there, it was dawn once again. The realization that I had now been running for two days and two nights set in, and I just wanted to finish. I was famished and felt like death. I sat at the aid station trying to muster my strength for the last 8.5 miles to the finish. I cringed at the thought of the next section we were about to hit, as it was 5 miles of downhills and I was completely useless going downhill at this point. I dreaded every step I’d be taking to get me to the finish. The volunteer at the aid station was kind enough to fix me an egg with cheese on a slice of bread — it was the best thing I had eaten in the last 24 hours. I was in heaven! I filled up my water and quickly pressed on to the next 1-mile climb before we started the descent.
It was somewhere on the first decent that I heard someone coming up behind me as I commenced my death march. I turned to look back, and it was Samantha Turco. I had shared my water with her going down Weaver Creek, and she had been way behind me, but now to see her flying down the hill about to pass me. No way! I’m not ultra-competitive, but I don’t like people passing me in the last 10 miles of a race. Something about getting passed in the last few miles to the finish just blows my lid.
I looked at Corey a few paces ahead of me and said, “Let’s run.” And we ran hard! I was flying down those hills, the same hills I had been dreading going down 30 minutes earlier. The sun was up, and it was a new day! Nothing hurt anymore. I’m not even sure how on earth was I running so fast down those hills. I passed five more runners and never saw Samantha again. Running felt great! We powered through to Wolf Creek (102.3Mi). I passed two more runners and, as I ran once again, my faith in what I do was restored. I love Ultrarunning!
It’s miserable, it’s painful and it breaks you down. There’s no room for ego, and just when you’ve lost all your shit, it comes back to you. The joy, the exhilaration, the downhills, the grit and all that the human spirit is capable of enduring. Your entire life’s story can be told during a 100-mile race.
As Corey and I made it to the last bridge before we hit the 1-mile section of the pavement to the finish, Tim was waiting for us. The three of us ran hard. I passed another runner before I crossed the finish. I had left it all out there in the last 8.5 of the 106 miles to the finish.
And, finally, the buckle. My precious! I held the coveted buckle in my hands in a state of complete delirium and ecstatic bliss. I was finally done.
My feet were trashed! I threw out my shoes after I was done with the race, and I had blisters the size of eyeballs on my feet. Sound painful? More than anyone can imagine, but it was worth it! It’s always worth it!
Cruel Jewel 100 is not a race to be taken lightly, in hindsight I wish I had made Cruel Jewel 100 my goal race for the year. I can’t stress enough to make sure you have a solid crew if you plan on running this race. Things can go from good to bad to ugly fairly quickly. Keep an open mind and your goals loose. Humidity is a B.I.T.C.H!
To my pacers:
Tim, you are rock solid! If you ever decide to quit your job and take on pacing full-time, I will happily be your pimp. Your time and patience are valued as a friend. I look forward to many more running, crewing and pacing misadventures with you!
Corey, you are still the devil! That red nightlight will haunt me for years to come, but I’m so glad you didn’t let me sleep. Thank you for being there for me and patiently listening to me whine and complain about everything and then cranking the gears when I needed to run. I hope to return the favor one day when you decide to lace up for a 100 miler!
Shoes – Women’s Altra Timp
Jacket – Columbia Women's Titan Lite Windbreaker II
Socks – Fits Medium Hiker Crew
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
Hydration Pack – Salomon Advance Skin 12 Set Vest Pack
Headlamps – Petzl Nao Performance Headlamp
Waist Light - UltrAspire Lumen 600R Waist Light
Stories from “Out There” – The Barkley Marathon
I was only about an hour into the 2018 Barkley Marathon, standing on top of the Pillars of Death, when I looked down and noticed my map was gone. Just freaking gone! My gut dropped. I looked around, feeling queasy. The two veterans I was keeping in sight had moved on. I hopped back and forth, scanning the area, only to conclude that my map was somewhere in the depths of the stone columns on which I stood. I considered climbing down the Pillars of Death in hopes of retrieving the hand-drawn map that I’d copied from the race’s master map the night before. I’d made two copies but was only carrying one on me. Dumbass!
Time to take a breath, calm down, think…and pray.
It was March 2015 when my curiosity about the Barkley Marathon first took hold. I sat there in a van full of runners on my way to Urique, Chihuahua, Mexico to run Caballo Blanco, listening to Don Winkley talk about the legendry race and Lazarus Lake, the mad scientist behind it. Don told us how Barkley was “the world’s toughest foot race” and how bad things happened when you were “out there”
Up until that point, I was aware of Barkley but had never met anyone who had run it. And I’d never considered running it myself. But, really, how insane could a race really be?
Upon returning to the U.S., I began to the scratch the inevitable itch. How did you even enter the race? It was like piecing together a puzzle; no one ever gives you all the information. As I researched and read and learned more about the Barkley “cult,” there was this underlying sense of exhilaration — and fear — that set my heart racing.
I researched more, learned more, networked more. I was finally able to learn how to apply, and later in 2015 I submitted my entry. (No, I’m not telling you when or how.) Those lucky enough to get into the race receive a condolence letter rather than a congratulation letter. I didn’t get one, but I landed on the “weight list,” which meant that Lazarus had seen something he liked in my application. Or maybe he was lining me up to be a future “human sacrifice,” the person who has “no business” running Barkley but whose certain failure provides comic relief.
As I followed the slow progress of the weight list, it became apparent I wouldn’t be running Barkley in 2016. Fast forward to sometime later in 2016, and in my second year of applying I moved up the weight list. In fact, I was number 10! Panic set in as I realized I had a very high probability of making it into the 2017 edition of Barkley. I started training.
Admission of stupidity: Up until this point I’d never held a map and compass in my hand, even though navigation is central to traveling the course at Barkley. I reached out to Al Beers, who at the time was vice-president of the St. Louis Orienteering Club. We’re fortunate to have a permanent orienteering course in St. Louis, so once a week I met Al and he helped me learn the ropes. I wasn’t very good at first, but I kept at it because, well, what choice did I have?
I made it up to number three on the weight list for the 2017 Barkley Marathon, but once more received no condolence letter. So, I did what any stubborn and spurned ultra runner does and applied again. I patiently waited until, one afternoon while out running errands, my phone pinged to notify me of a new email message. I opened my inbox folder, and my heart skipped a beat. There it was: the much-awaited and dreaded condolence letter. I was in the 2018 Barkley Marathon! I was ecstatic!
As the realization of what I would be up against set in, a questioned emerged: How the hell was I going to train for the menacing elevation of Barkley? The steepest climb near where I live is no more than 340 feet per mile! I was at a major disadvantage and almost certainly lining myself up for failure, but lack of vertical was no excuse for not going out there and trying. Sometimes trying is all you can do, and I had to try.
In short, my training plan consisted of registering 50-mile weeks with 10,000+ feet of vertical. I bushwhacked, a lot, mainly to get accustomed to running and hiking off trail. I figured that instead of pushing my mileage I’d condense my weekly average vertical, hoping this would keep me upright for a loop or two at Barkley. I also, reached out to Jeff Ryan, a board member of the St. Louis Orienteering Club, to help me brush up on my navigation skills. (Al had since moved away.) After a few rustic rounds of navigation with Jeff, I decided the only way I was going to learn was to do it alone. So, a few times a week I’d head out to the orienteering course, working on reading the map features and shooting bearings — and in the process getting lost and finding my own way out.
By the end of my taper week, I’d gone from “where the hell am I?” to being able to pinpoint exactly where I was on the map and where I needed to go. I was comfortable getting lost in the woods, yet I questioned my ability to navigate at Barkley’s Frozen Head State Park.
Failure to Launch
So, there I was at the Pillars of Death with no map. Was my race over even before it had started?
Think…and pray. After a series of arguments with myself, I decided to wait for the next runner to come up behind me, hoping I could hang with them and try to knock out at least one loop.
Just then, Amy Winters came around the bend. After a brief introduction and explanation of what had happened, we decided to work together. I would need to run at Amy’s pace, which I was fine with as long as we got through the first loop within the cutoff time of 13 hours, 20 minutes. Except it was going to be slow; Amy had a prosthetic leg and had been invited to Barkley because Lazarus wanted to see “if a girl with one leg could finish a loop.”
I was instantly in awe of Amy. She moved exceptionally well on the ascents, much better than I did on two legs. It was truly admirable to watch. With me navigating and Amy keeping a steady pace, we made it to the first of the 13 books from which we would need to retrieve the page that corresponded to our bib number. All was not lost!
Not long after that, another female runner, Melody Hazi, who had blown past book 1, caught up to us from behind, and the three of us navigated to book 2. At this point we were about three or four hours into the race, and Amy had already run out of drinking water. She didn’t want to fill up from the nearby creek because the filter she was carrying didn’t fit her bottles; we would hit the first water drop after book 4, though, so we went on. I offered to share my water, since I had a 2.5-liter bladder and another 20-ounce flask. Amy said she’d ask for it when she needed it. We grabbed our pages from book 2 and continued with Melody in the lead. We “scurried” up the high wall instead of going around it to save some time.
Somewhere between book 2 and book 3, about five hours into the race, Amy announced she had exhausted her food supplies. I had a moment of panic but then realized I’d packed enough food to last me for 24 hours, and from there on out, I shared my food with Amy. This was also the moment I looked up to see that
Melody was moving out of sight. I considered dropping Amy and continuing forward with Melody, but she was already ascending the crest of the hilltop. No big deal, I figured. If we ran into Melody or another runner later on, I could split with them.
Does that sound cutthroat? Perhaps. But that’s the Barkley Marathon. It’s an every-person-for-themselves, last-person-standing kind of race. You need to be self-sufficient. There’s no margin for error; any small mistake can lead to a major catastrophe. This might mean you have to be ruthless and selfish in your decisions. If you’re working together to get from one book to another, and the thread breaks because you’re the weak link, then you get left behind.
This coming from a person who had lost her map just an hour in!
Anyhow, on our way to book 3, I overshot my bearing and, as we ran the trail and started to descend one of the switchbacks, I realized my mistake. Book 3 was on top of Bald Knob, so we backtracked and started the assent. We made our way to the hilltop and got our pages. I looked over the edge just as we were engulfed by a thick cloud of fog and a light, steady drizzle commenced. It was earie, and visibility was shot. Was it still daylight? It was hard to tell.
As we made our way back to the trail, Amy mentioned she was worried about carrying on in the thick fog and the dark hours of the night that lay ahead because she did not have a headlamp. I didn’t know how to react to this…. How does someone attempting the Barkley Marathon forget to pack a headlamp?!?!?! Just how?
In that instant, my fate was sealed. Time was ticking away, and with each passing hour, daylight faded. The rain became a thunderstorm, only getting worse as darkness descended (except for the occasional stab of lightening). I tried to stay positive and continue forward. We just needed to get through a loop, I kept telling myself, even if we were over the time limit.
I had to empathize with Amy, because, whom am I kidding, I was the dumbass who had lost her map. Still, it was difficult to comprehend having not packed enough water or food — or a headlamp! — on what is considered one of the toughest 100-mile races in the world. I’d packed two headlamps with three sets of backup batteries, so doing the math I figured we could keep moving forward in the dark, but I wasn’t sure if my food supplies were enough for the both of us.
Following the park boundary on the “candy ass” trail, we made it to Garden Spot, took our pages from book 4, and put on our rain jackets and extra layers of clothing. Temperatures were dropping steadily, and showers were coming down with no sign of stopping. Every footfall felt like stepping in slop. In a rush, we blew past the water drop and ended up at a T on a Jeep road. I stopped, trying to figure out which direction we had to go, when Thomas Armbruster appeared out of nowhere. He had been going up and down the road in both directions for the past two hours, unable to find his way to book 5. He’d finally decided to throw in the towel and was headed back to camp on Quitter’s Road, where it would take him another three hours to reach the start/finish line at the yellow gate.
Not even quitting Barkley is easy. Self-extraction is mandatory, and if you dare to go out there, then you better be able to get your arse back. Help is not coming.
After a brief chat with Thomas, we decided to continue to book 5 in the same direction that Melody had taken. I wasn’t sure if we were headed in the right direction, as none of this was on the map — no Jeep road, just directions that were hard to follow. I couldn’t shoot a bearing and follow that because we’d technically be cutting course.
Wandering for an hour in the downpour, Amy and I were nowhere close to any of the landmarks mentioned in the course directions. It was getting dark, and I handed my spare headlamp to Amy. I stood staring down at the map, trying to find any recognizable landmark. I was completely drenched and hypothermic, my hands shaking and rain pouring off the bill of my jacket hood like it was an awning. I told Amy we needed to backtrack to a point where I knew where we were on the map, then shoot a bearing for Stallion Mountain.
Amy didn’t want to go back and asked if I could take a bearing and continue on. Shooting a random bearing would be futile and dangerous since we had no idea where exactly we were and I was hypothermic. We hiked back up the Jeep road, and after getting a better handle on our location, it was mutually agreed that we needed to head back to the yellow gate. I shot a bearing straight for Panther Gap Trailhead, and we took the trail back out to the parking lot.
On our way back to the yellow gate we picked up Leonard Martin, who had turned around after book 8, unable to ascend the epic climb at Rat Jaw due to poor footing, torrential downpour and no visibility. As the three of us hiked back to the start/finish to face our demise, I was shivering and couldn’t think straight. Back at the yellow gate, we each earned a round of taps on the bugle, as all quitters do. I gave Amy a hug for our time shared together and made a B-line for the car to dry off and get some food to eat.
And, just like that, my Barkley Marathon experience was over.
I have a lot of mixed emotions about what happened out there. Sigh! To say I’m disappointed in myself would be an extreme understatement. I’d like to think that sticking with Amy was the right thing to do, but there’s another part of me that wonders what would’ve happened if I’d stuck with another runner instead. What if? I sit here second-guessing the choices I made that resulted in my failure, my inability to finish a loop. The question is not how but whether I’m ready to deal with the aftermath.
Barkley is unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I doubt anything will ever come close to my experience of being “out there.” I went into the race unsure of my orienteering skills but came back feeling confident in my ability to navigate. I know that I need to move on with rest of my racing season but somehow can’t.
Anyone who has run Barkley knows how the race gets in your blood and poisons you for good. Everyone who passes the yellow gate on race day makes their own reality while out there. I hope I’ll be invited back to Frozen Head in the future, so at least I’m able to complete a loop. When I’m 70 years old, sitting on my front porch, smoking my pipe, I want to be able to look back and say, “I was really, truly ‘out there.’”
To my crew Brad Kovach and Tim Garvey: Thank you! Your support was invaluable, and I will always be in debt to you guys for being “out there” for me.
Ode to “Out There”
Out there it’s beautiful
Out there is where it’s wild and untamed
Out there is where time gets fast but everything else gets slow
Out there you create your own reality
Out there is where dreams go to die
Out there help is not coming
Yet “Out There” is where I long to be.
Shoes – Women’s Altra Timp
Rain Jacket – Showers Pass Women’s Refuge Waterproof Jacket
Shirt – 32 Degree Long Sleeves Base Layer
Jacket – Pearl Izumi Women’s Fly Softshell Run Hoody
Pants – Showers Pass Women’s Track Pants
Socks – Fits Medium Hiker Crew
Gloves – HEAD Sensatec Running Gloves
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
Hydration Pack – Osprey Women’s Dyna 15 Hydration Pack
Headlamps – Petzl Nao Performance Headlamp and Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
The Miwok 100K, held in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco, is a legendary race now in its 22nd year — and it has a lot of history. The race is fabled to be one of the most beautiful and iconic ultramarathons in the U.S. I met Tia Bodington, the race director, at the American Trail Running Conference back in September 2016, and that piqued my interest to the point that, when I started to lay out training races leading into the Bighorn Trail 100 (my next big race for 2017), I kept coming back to Miwok. Call it fate, good luck or mere coincidence, but I was one of the 500 runners that made the lottery for the 2017 Miwok 100K.
As race date approached, I felt confident in my training and set an ambitious finish goal, but, as we all know, ultrarunning is one of the most unpredictable endeavors ever….
Race: Miwok 100K (62.2 Miles)
Race Director: Tia Bodington
Location/Course: The course features fire roads and single track, and the 2017 course modification had a couple of miles of paved road. The course is hilly (approximately 11,800 feet of elevation gain and 11,800 feet of elevation drop), with spectacular views of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge, Mt. Tamalpais and the Point Reyes National Seashore.
Time Limit: 15 hours, 30 minutes
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Crew & Pacer: None. The race is extremely well supported. Aid stations and drop bags are accessible, and for 62 miles through the woods there was no need for a pacer or crew.
Goals & Training
Well, I was hoping for a 13- to 13.30-hour finish, and, don’t ask me why, but my head was stuck on that time. Of course, getting to the finish is always the top priority. As for training, leading into Miwok 100K, my peak mileage week was 65 miles with an elevation gain of 10,164 feet. I simply focused on climbing and running lots of technical terrain.
As the saying goes, “Getting to the race start is an unpredictable victory.” I found myself with a sore throat and stuffy nose on Wednesday, three days prior to the race. Ugh! Like most any “stable-minded” ultrarunner would do, I started to heavily self-medicate, and by Thursday morning, I was a walking zombie. I dreaded the fact that I had a race in two days and that my finish goal, although not completely out of the realm of achievability, was going to prove somewhat difficult to attain given my state. Regardless of how the race would break down, my bags were packed and I was on my way to the airport on Thursday afternoon.
Start to Muir Beach (8 miles)
It was 4:45 a.m. on Saturday, May 6, as we lined up to start what would be 62.2 miles of some challenging, quad-busting but incredibly breathtaking views for 14:24 hours under the California sun! My cold at this point had become a full-blown sinus infection, and lingering symptoms like mild headache, stuffy nose, ear ache/popping, loss of smell and little to no hearing in my right ear were becoming hard to ignore even as I stood there being swept away by the electrifying energy at the start of the race.
I had also decided not to take my sinus medication but rather stow it in my hydration pack, a decision that would save my rear mid-race when all my bullheadedness wore off. The clock stuck 5:00 a.m., and we were off! On recommendation from a few others that had run the race, I had lined up to the front of the pack, so as to avoid getting stuck in a conga line at the start of the race up the steep Dipsea Trail climb. We immediately funneled onto the single track as we climbed 2,000 feet in just under three miles. The cold Pacific air made it difficult to breathe as I climbed and tried to keep my footing steady in the light of my headlamp on the stairs, dodging the gnarly roots and rocks.
As we turned to descend the Deer Park fire road, I could hear a faint sound of the bagpipe being played at the Cardiac Aid Station. It was a pleasant wake-up sound, and I could see the sunrise far out in the distance. What made it even better was the steep descent that followed. It was like someone had just shaken me out of my funk. I was hot-stepping the downhill and passed a few runners as I made my way in and out of Muir Beach Aid Station.
Tennessee Valley (13 miles) to Bridge View (18.6 miles), then back to Tennessee Valley (26 miles)
By the time I hit Tennessee Valley Aid Station for the first time, I had shed all the layers I had started the race with and was somewhere between feeling hot and clammy. I refilled all my supplies and was on my way. I don’t recall much of what and how I was running, except that as I climbed over the hills, there was the panoramic view of San Francisco Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Pacific Ocean. It was breathtaking, both literally and figuratively!
I was having difficulty breathing through my nostrils, and breathing through my mouth was extremely labored when climbing. My ears popped as I tried my best to enjoy the view and not let the constant thumping in my head bother me. My pace was excruciatingly slow, and this is when I decided not to focus on my goal finish time and instead to enjoy the scenery.
As I made my way back to Tennessee Valley the second time around, I was feeling sluggish — not quite halfway done and here I was just hating on myself. Another runner came up behind me and said, “Whew! Glad we made it out of there 30 minutes before the cutoff.” As we chatted on how tight the cutoff was given the difficulty of the terrain we were all hiking, the sun was out and it was starting to warm up quick.
Muir Beach (30.3 miles) to Cardiac (35.5 miles) to Bolinas Ridge (42.5 miles)
I felt a little unnerved about making the cutoff at Tennessee Valley by only 30 minutes simply, because I was unable to keep a steady pace and there was a sinking feeling of not being able to make the cutoff at Randall a few hours later. This is when I came upon Troy Meadows; it was his first 100K, and I noticed he was doing the “duck walk.” As we chatted, he mentioned having some knee issues, and I offered him some ibuprofen. As I reached into my pack for the ibuprofen, I saw my sinus medication. I debated in my head whether or not to take it, and if it would help at all. But, seeing as I wasn’t exactly doing all that hot and had been feeling worse as the day progressed, I decided it wouldn’t do any harm to take the meds. Here goes nothing!
Somewhere along this part of the run, I had actually started enjoying myself. My guess is the meds had kicked in. This is when I came upon Robert Myers. Deja vu! No, I mean for real! Robert and I had run a few miles together at Western States in June 2016. Robert lives in Auburn, and I’m from St. Louis, and here we were together again 10 months later. What are the odds of that? As we chatted and ran along, something inside me had turned on…I guess you could say it was the faith in ultrarunning and in myself. I was about 30 miles into Miwok, and I knew slugging along at the pace I moving was not going to cut it, so I decided to run.
I ran steady until I hit Bolinas Ridge Aid Station at 42.5 miles. This was one of my favorite trail sections on the course, the gorgeous Redwoods towering over the trails providing shade from the sun and the moss swayed in the cool breeze. For the first time in over 30 miles, I felt connected with running, the trails and my surroundings. This is what I live for! If I had all day, I would have simply wandered off into the woods.
This was also one of my favorite aid stations on the course. For starters, leading into the aid station were two motivational signs that resonated with me. The first one read, “The price of success is much lower than the price of failure,” and the second one read, “You can either throw in the towel or use it to wipe the sweat off your face.” I know they were both a bit cliché, but when you run distance, you must find something to hold onto if you want to continue forward — and these messages were mine to hold onto and move forward. As I approached the aid station and the volunteers started to top off my water, I was told I needed to drink more than I had been drinking. It dawned on me that I had hardly been drinking and needed to stay on top of my hydration if I was to make a run for the finish.
Randall Trailhead (49.2 miles) to Bolinas Ridge (55.9 miles)
I felt great leaving Bolinas Ridge at 42.5 miles, I was running hard and pushing pace and — finally — hit the turn to the downhill bomb to Randall Trailhead at 49.2 miles. Weeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I love downhills. I really, really do!
As I made it to the bottom of the hill, I cut a B-line for my drop bag, refilled everything and I turned to ask a couple sitting next to me what time it was.
The couple: “It’s a little before 4 p.m.”
Me: Doing the math in my head…. “I don’t need the headlamp, I’ll be at the finish well before 8 p.m.”
The couple: “NO! Take the headlamp just in case you roll an ankle or bust something.”
Me: “Good point! Should I take this jacket, too? It’s too hot right now.”
The couple: “YES! If you are struggling and it gets dark you will be cold.”
Me: “OK, OK, you are right!”
As I turned to make the steep climb back the same way I had come a few minutes earlier, all the way out to Bolinas Ridge for the second time, I happened up Andy Black. Who is Andy Black? Well, stalk him on ultra signup and find out for yourself. Super badass ultrarunner, and I wasn’t going to just keep running past him, so I decided to hike up the hill with Andy and share stories. As we made it up the hill, Andy once again reminded me I needed to run and not kill my time chatting with him.
Me: “Yes, I know! I’ll start running here in a few.”
So, I bid goodbye to Andy and told him I would look for him at the finish. With that, I was running hard again. I was in and out of Bolinas Ridge the second time with a quick shout-out from the volunteers: “Go get it! Just 6.3 more miles to go!”
Stinson Beach Community Center AKA Finish! (62.2 miles)
After leaving Bolinas Ridge, I kept running steady once we hit the Coastal Trail. About a quarter mile behind me was a line of eight or 10 runners gaining on me, and in my head I knew I had to keep plugging at it. I had no concept of what time it was and where in the race I was, but having run enough ultras, I know the last 5 miles to the finish are critical and can make or break your finish time. So, I just focused on moving forward, and each time I saw a runner up ahead, I reeled them in. I only slowed down on the technical sections of the trail, so as to not fall.
I had finally made it to the Matt Davis Trail. Earlier in the day, Andy Black had mentioned to me how steep the descent was — technical, rocky and root-strewn. The last 2 miles of switchback to the finish had it all, with wooded stairs thrown into the mix for good measure. This was it: I had to make a run for it.
I ran hard as I spiraled down the steep descent with tricky left turns and low-hanging branches. I had to stop and limbo three times under some fallen trees. I passed eight runners slowly making their way to the finish as I bombed the hills recklessly. There it was, the big rock signifying the final switchback. Across the bridge over the creek, and the final downhill stretched into town. I was levitating! Or maybe it was all in my head. Not knowing what the race clock said, I was through the finish, got my medal and stood there talking with Stan Jensen. Who is Stan Jensen? Well, look him up!
I didn’t make my goal time. Am I disappointed? Honest answer: nope! As I was told by my BFF Denzil Jennings, “If you enjoyed it, then time is irrelevant.” I hate it when he’s right.
Sometimes, you can’t fight your own body. Had I felt 100 percent and not been under the weather, would I have pushed for that finish goal and attained it? Possibly, but I don’t believe in “could have” and “should have.” This is trail running; you take what the trail gives you and how the day breaks down and you make the most of it. I made the most of Miwok 100K!
Up next is Bighorn Trail 100 in June. Six weeks and counting! Bighorn will be the most difficult 100-mile races I will attempt to date, and I will be flying solo, no crew and or pacers. I’m confident in my training, and if these legs don’t fail me, I will see my arse to the finish and have myself a Hardrock 100 qualifier!
(Still, seriously, ping me if you want to pace me at Bighorn.)
Garmin Fenix 3, Columbia Montrail Women’s Rogue F.K.T Shoe, Columbia Montrail Titan Ultra Short Sleeve Shirt, Columbia Montrail Titan Lite Windbreaker, Buff, InknBurn Spring 6inch Shorts, Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Toe Socks, Petzl NAO Headlamp, Running Tee Shirt, Camelbak Ultra Pro Vest
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost and Hammer Nutrition Fully Charged
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in a 17-ounce bottle, Hammer Gels (peanut butter and espresso flavors), bananas and Coke at aid stations. Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) 100 Mile in Hot Springs, Ark., had been on my radar since 2014, but it wasn’t until spring break in March 2016 that I had a chance to run about 30 miles of the course. I had no doubt afterward that I really, really needed to run this race. Fast forward to December 2016. I found myself on the Barkley Marathon “weight list,” uncertain of my demise, and I frantically started to search for a training race. Boom! LOViT 100 Mile was mine for the taking.
Now, before I ramble on any further there were couple of other factors that played into zeroing in on LOViT. First and foremost was the approximately 20,000 feet of ascent/20,000 feet of decent, the 5 p.m. start time and the fact that I could jump in my car drive for seven hours, run the 100 miles, and then drive back home. Cost effective!
As race date approached, I found myself slowly moving up that “weight list” for Barkley, and after a series of arguments with myself, I decided I was going to race LOViT, as my odds of making the cut for Barkley weren’t looking good. Just to clarify: Racing and running a 100 miler are two very different things, and for the record, I have only “raced” one of the seven 100 milers that I’ve run since 2014. Most of the time, I just go out and run on a whim and let the day break down how it will for me.
Race: LOViT 100 Mile
Race Director: Dustin and Rachel Speer
Location/Course: The LOViT Endurance Run covers sections of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail from Denby Bay in the west to Avery Recreational Area in the east. The terrain is rocky, rolling hills and ridge lines that take you along the southern rim of one of America’s most pristine freshwater lakes and through the ruggedly beautiful Ouachita National Forest with approximately 20,000 feet of ascent/20,000 feet of decent. The race course follows out-and-back sections along the single track trail — one of only 40 worldwide trails to receive the IMBA Epic Trail designation.
Time Limit: 34 hours (100 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Crew & Pacer: Amanda Smith! Amanda and I have shared many glorious and miserable training miles, and she also paced me for Superior 100 in September 2016, so there was a solid understanding of running style, attitude and reliance on both ends.
Goals & Training
Goals: Well, I was hoping for a sub-26-hour finish, but finishing the course is always the top priority. As for training, I was logging 50 to 55 miles per week with an average elevation gain of 200 feet/mile. Leading into the race, my peak weekly mileage was 68 miles with 11,154 feet gain. I simply focused on climbing and running lots of technical terrain.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how LOViT broke down for me, I must refer to the tagline for the race: Ankles of Steel…Iron Will. That’s what you’ll need to take on this challenge!
Start to Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook (34 miles)
The clock struck 5 p.m. on Friday, and we hit the trail running. The first 34 miles were pretty uneventful other than the steep and extremely rocky decent and ascent up Hickory Nut Mountain. This section of the course is deceptively runnable, and the course layout for the first 34 miles lulls you into thinking the east end will be similar. But, that is not the case. The latter half of the course is unrelenting, and you better believe in the above tagline.
I had run this section of the course last year, and that familiarity left no element of surprise or worry. I knew what pace I needed to run, and there was going to be no dillydallying about it. I was focused! Within the first hour and a half, the headlamps were turned on and I cruised along admiring the gorgeous sunset while the temperatures held steady in the 50s. There was some talk of a passing overnight storm in the area, with a drop in temperature and 20- to 25-mph winds, but for now the sky was clear.
I saw Amanda at the Joplin Road aid station about 9 miles into the race, and after a quick gear check and hug, I was off. This was the first out-and-back section, and as I made my way back to the Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook for the second time I was leading the women’s field and held my position as fifth overall.
Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook to Getting Lost (42 miles)
OK, this is the section where things get interesting! As we descended from the Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook aid station, I met Shannon Hampton, Arron Lebell (who was running his first 100 miler) and Kamm Prongay. The wind had picked up, and the temperatures had dropped to low 30s. It felt like we were running in a wind tunnel!
I put on my jacket, pulled my gloves and hat on, and the four of us ran steady until we hit a split in the trail at the Pipe Spring. We were at a complete halt. It was dark, and there were signs both to the left and right of us, so clearly we didn’t need to carry on straight. We first went right, but the sign made no sense. We then went left, and the sign said 100K and 100Mi, so clearly that must be the way we needed to go. Not!
The four of us stood there with the course map in our hand contemplating which way to go first. The problem with this intersection at Pipe Spring is the 100-mile runners get to run this out-and-back twice each direction, and although the course was marked, which direction to go first was not clear on the signs. After five minutes of back and forth, we unanimously decided that we needed to go left first. About 4.5 miles later, all four of us hit Crystal Springs Pavilion aid station. We had barely made it into the aid station when the news came crashing in: We should have gone right at the split to Charleston aid station, then back to the split and then to Crystal Springs Pavilion. WTF!?!
My brain just stopped working for a split second. Then, it sparked and I panicked when I realized I was 4.5 miles off course and needed to retrace 4.5 miles back to the split, and then onto Charleston aid station. Not only had I lost my lead, but in that moment, I realized I also would not be able to make up the lost time. I was frustrated with myself, but quickly my brain switched to “you have to move past it.” It’s moments like this that keep us grounded when running 100 miles. Goals have to be adjusted, and it’s because of this unpredictability that we get suckered into running one 100 miler race after another. We’re always chasing the perfect run.
Shannon and I stood there helplessly while Arron and Kamm had started their run back to the split. Just then, I caught the tail end of a conversation between Shannon and one of the race organizers; we were getting a ride back to the split at the Pipe Spring instead of having to run back to where we went off course. Arron, Kamm, Shannon and I hopped in the car and were driven to the Pipe Spring split to carry on in the right direction on foot — and none of us protested. Turns out this wasn’t the first time runners have gotten off course at the split, and there was also some question of the signs being vandalized. Since it was four of us that took the wrong turn at the split rather than just one, the race organizers decided to drive us back and check the signs so no other runners would make the same mistake.
Charleston to Brady Mountain Road (58 miles)
The trip to Charleston and then back to the Pipe Spring is about 2 miles each way. Going out, it’s a steep descent that’s narrow in places, and the footing was tricky going downhill in the dead of the night. Shannon and I stuck together and shared stories as we made our way to the aid station. On the way back, I stopped for a pee break and lost Shannon somewhere on the steep ascent.
The rest of the race I ran solo until 83 miles, which is when I picked up Amanda. I can’t remember much of this section, as it was dark and the entire time we were switchbacking up and down hills on really rocky terrain up to Big Bear. By the time I hit Big Bear, the sun was starting to come out and I could feel and smell the crispness of the early morning hours in the air. There was a bench that looked over Lake Ouchita, and I considered stopping, but I was in grind mode. So, I bypassed the Trail Dog Overlook and descended to the Brady Mountain Road aid station, fueled and kept plugging at it.
Brady Mountain Road to Avery Rec Area (65 miles) then back to Brady Mountain Rd (72 miles)
After leaving the aid station, I made the ascent onto the Emerald Ridge section of the LOViT Trail, so named for the tons of moss-covered rock outcroppings. This section of the course has some gorgeous views and lots of technical terrain. This was also the section I had run last spring break, overlooking the Blakey Dam and then descending to the Avery Rec Area aid station at the LOViT trailhead.
I cruised along with the certainty of knowing where I was going, or so I thought. Avery Rec Area aid station is also the turnaround point for both the 100-mile and 100k distances. It was well into the morning at this point, and I was starting to see the front end 100K runners as I made my way back to Brady Mountain Road. Head down, I could feel the fatigue setting in, and I had not yet let go of the fact that I had lost my lead and my finish goal time.
As I moved forward into my own head, the terrain under my feet did not feel right. I was climbing, and the ground cover felt soft, unlike the rocky terrain that I had just come in on a couple of hours back. I stopped to look around for a marker but saw nothing. About a quarter mile down from where I stood, I could see the trail switchback. This isn’t right! I can’t be lost again!?! I wanted to scream but decided to be more ladylike — so a few F-bombs later I made it back to the trail. I stopped to scan the trail, and far out in the distance I could see the flagging tape. It was hard to make out, as the tape was red and silver stripe and with the glare the sunlight made it impossible to track.
Brady Mountain Road to Crystal Springs Pavilion (83 miles)
After going off course for the second time in 24 hours, I decided to get my shit together and hammer out the run until I got to Crystal Springs Pavilion. There, I would get to see Amanda and hopefully have her along for the last stretch to the finish. Since it was just Amanda and I, we had not figured out what and where to leave the car and how to get back to it once I had finished. So, there was the question of whether or not Amanda would be pacing me or just providing support at the aid stations.
At this point, though, I had concluded in my head that I would ask Amanda to run with me and that we’d worry about the car later. I had run so much of the course solo, without seeing another runner for hours, and I was starting to question my ability to soundly navigate the course. Alas! If only things were that easy.
By the time I made my way back to the ridgeline at the Trail Dog Overlook, it was closing in on noon and I was tired. The conversation with myself went something like this:
Me: Why am I still running? I should have been done by now. It’s well after noon for crying out loud!
Myself: Duh! The race didn’t start until 5 p.m. You’re only about 75 miles in, fool.
I: I am so freakin’ tired, and I need to sit. Why, hello bench overlooking Lake Ouachita!
Yep, I sat down on it! Wow! The cool breeze, sunshine, blue sky and blue water in the lake was simply perfect. Far out in the distance I saw a boat zip over the water across Lake Ouachita.
Me: I should lay down on this bench. It will feel so good to stretch and close my eyes.
Myself: What!?! Are you stupid?
I: Don’t do it.
Just like that I snapped out of whatever it was that I was going through and started running. I ran straight until I hit Crystal Springs Pavilion. AMANDA!!!!!
Crystal Springs Pavilion to Mountain Harbor Resort AKA finish (105 miles for me)
By the time I hit Crystal Spring, it was a little before 4 p.m., not quite 24 hours into the 100 miles, as I had earlier concluded. I have never been as elated to see anyone in my life as I was to see Amanda in her running gear ready to pace me at 83 miles. I was in and out of the aid station with my headlamp while Amanda and I chatted.
I talked my arse off…all about getting lost, losing the lead in the race and now just needing to finish. In that moment I realized how lonely running a 100 miles can be. Not seeing another runner for miles on end can be unsettling, so I was thankful to have Amanda by my side for the trip back to the finish.
We ran steady. Amanda stayed ahead of me, picking up on my highs and lows, and we talked and talked and talked! But remember when I said if only things were that easy…?
The overnight storm had knocked out some of the course flagging, and as the sun set once again, it was getting hard to trace those markers. Having gotten off course twice already, I kept questioning every split and turn. Headlamps switched on and Amanda in the lead, we made it to the turnoff at Hickory Nut Mountain about 94 miles. And in there we stood trying to figure out whether to turn at the split or carry on straight.
Me: Do you see any markers?
Amanda: None, and no signs either. Not sure if we turn here or keep straight.
As I hiked up to the split, Amanda was ahead of me scanning course markers.
Amanda: I see a marker to the left.
OK, let’s go. We started running again. This was the section we ran at the start of the race, and there were markers there, but something in the back of my head didn’t feel right. We were about a three quarters of a mile in when we saw a car fast approaching and the driver was saying something, so both Amanda and I stopped. As the driver came into view, we were informed that we had once again gone the wrong way and should have stayed straight at the split. GAH!
But there were no signs or markers directing us to go straight, I protested, and there are markers here, thus the obvious choice. The driver apologized and said he was taking the markers off so others didn’t make the same error as we did. He told us we weren’t that far from the Hickory Mountain Overlook aid station and 5 miles to the finish.
Sigh! We made our way to the aid station, double-checked the direction we needed to go and once again started running. We descended fast down an ATV trail that was chewed up. It was impossible to find decent footing. I didn’t recall this section from the start of the race, but that could also be because my brain was fried. We got to the bottom of the descent and saw a runner just standing there. WTH!?! As we got closer, I realized it was Arron Lebell. We had both gotten off course together the first time, so I was surprised to run into him.
Me: Hey! What’s going on? You doing alright?
Arron: Yeah, just hurting and want to be done, and I don’t see any markers. Not sure if I’m going the right way. I’m done getting lost, so I stopped when I saw you guys approach.
Me: Are you kidding me?
F-bombs were flying, and both Amanda and I were cussing now. It wasn’t funny at the time, but in hindsight it was kind of funny — two female runners with truckers’ mouths and Arron hurting and helpless, trying to navigate to the finish with only 4 or so miles left to go. In that moment, Amanda decided she was going to run ahead and see if she could find any markers. While Arron and I just stood there completely trashed, we saw two runners fast approaching from the direction we had come. As the two runners came near, they confirmed that we had to stay straight and at the bottom. There was a sinkhole or pothole — I couldn’t remember — and that’s where we needed to turn left to get to the finish. Both of the runners were running the 100K and seemed with it and had run the race before, so knew the course well.
OK, so all was not lost! Amanda and I started to run again and realized we had dropped, Arron who was hobbling slowly.
Me: Ugh! We should wait for him.
Amanda: He’s definitely hurting.
Me: Arron, you doing OK?
Arron: Yeah, I’m fine. Just go. Don’t wait on me.
We pushed hard to the finish. 27:54 was my official finish time. This was not my best performance, nor my worst. All in all, I lost 90 minutes of time and ran an extra 5ish miles, but I still managed to place 9th overall, third female, and first in my age group (40-49). The best part, however, was to see Arron finish his first 100 miler race and cheer him on at the finish!
Ain’t nothing to it but to do it! Run LOViT is a great race with challenging terrain and gorgeous views. The race has all the making of an A-list 100mi event and someday I would like to return and race it.
To my pacer: Amanda, I love when we get mad and cuss the shit out of things. I can’t wait to return the favor as you toe the line for your first 100mi race in June!
Side note: Don’t buy moonshine in Arkansas and do visit Burl’s Country Smokehouse if decide to go Run LOViT.
What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
Garmin Fenix 3, Altra Women’s Lone Peak 3.0, Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Toe Socks, Petzl NAO Headlamp, North Face Women’s Capri, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Tee Shirt, Hammer Buff, Camelbak ULTRA Pro Vest.
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost and Hammer Nutrition Fully Charged
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in one 17-ounce bottle; Hammer Gels (Peanut butter and Espresso flavors); banana and orange slices at aid stations
Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
After the first 50 miles, I was fueling on a cup of soup with two slices of white bread at every aid station, supplementing with a gel or two as needed. I also dropped the intake of the above-listed supplements.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
The Lookout Mountain 50 in Chattanooga, Tenn., was a race I’d been following for the past few years, but each December just seemed to be the wrong time for me to sign up for a 50-miler. This year, though, as I started to call my season a wrap at the end of September, I heard from some other ultra-running friends who also wanted to do the race. So, since misery loves company, I signed up.
As December approached, I dreaded having to prep for the race. Let’s face it: No one really needs more obligations during the “holidaze” season. What’s a girl to do? Simple really: Train and run free. That became my mantra. I wanted to run Lookout Mountain absolutely free. Free of expectations, free of onuses, free of tangibles and free to explore.
Race: Lookout Mountain 50
Organizers: Wild Trails
Race Director: Randy Whorton
Location/Course: The Lookout Mountain 50 begins at the spectacular Covenant College campus and is known for its scenic and historic climb to its namesake peak. There’s challenging terrain, creek crossings, highly runnable sections, 120-foot Lula Falls and the infamous rope handrail that runners use to traverse Eagle Cliff. The course covers a little over 7,100 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles on predominantly single track trails. The course is a 22.5-mile loop to start/finish, then out to Long Branch for 34 miles, where you do a lollipop for 4 miles before heading back to the start/finish. My Garmin Fenix 3 clocked 45.3 miles with 7,165 feet of total elevation gain.
Time Limit: 13 hours (50 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Goals & Training
Goals: I had none. Finishing the course is always the top priority, of course, no matter the distance and difficulty. But this was probably the most nonchalant attitude I’ve had entering into a race. Maybe I can chalk that up to my strong performance and running base for the year, or perhaps to my experience with this distance — or, for that matter, the simple fact that this was my last race for 2016 and I was already looking ahead to 2017.
Whatever it was, on the surface I was at ease, but in my head I was a little freaked out at my lack of engagement. To be completely honest, I just couldn’t nail it, so I decided not to worry and just go run.
As for training, I was logging 50 to 55 miles per week with an average elevation gain of 6,500 feet, which turned out to be enough.
As mentioned above, my attitude was blasé and to top it off the weather forecast on race day called for rain with a minimum temperature of 39 degrees and maximum temperature of 59 degrees. Humidity was 96 percent, which put a damper on things…literally. I tried my best not to have a poor attitude as we lined up at the start, freezing in the downpour that had commenced.
Covenant College to Craven’s House (8 miles)
I started the race feeling pretty shitty. I kept trying to tell myself I really, really did like running in the rain, and it was “only” 50 miles. About 3 miles in, I was sweating/overheating like I was trapped in an oven, so I pulled over, stripped two layers, packed my jacket and decided to run in my T-shirt. As I ran some single track trail with a thick leaf cover on the ground, it was hard to find footing. The trail was technical and required all my concentration; then about 5 miles into the race, I started to see the Chattanooga Valley from the corner of my eye. It was a beautiful sight! As rain trickled down, a thick fog covered the valley below. I stopped to take in the view and breathe — really, deeply breathe — and for the first time in 24 hours my faith was restored. In that instant, I knew why I loved trail running!
Cavern’s House to Nature Center (14.8 miles)
As I made my way past the aid station, to my right was a large Civil War memorial fixed to the rock. I continued to take it all in and move forward. The next few miles of the course were uneventful, as we made our way to the Nature Center and then onto the Lookout Creek aid station. This was the first aid station I stopped at, and as I turned to one of the volunteers and asked for a whole banana, I was told they were all out of bananas. WTF!?! We were only 14 miles into the race, and they had run out of one of the most basic and crucial aid station foods? I don’t have time for this, I told myself and continued on. But my brain wouldn’t let go: How does an aid station run out of bananas at only 14 miles into a race? Shake it off, girl!
The thing to know about me is that I typically only fuel on bananas and Coke at aid stations during ultras, at least for the first 50 miles. So, this made me just a little mad. Then started a series of arguments in my brain about how unreasonable I was being when I asked for a whole banana and then acting like a princess when I didn’t get it…blah, blah, blah. Finally, my brain concluded that a banana would not make or break my race and that, when running ultras, we all know we must be self-sufficient.
Nature Center to Covenant College Start/f\Finish (22.5 miles)
I call this “the grind” section. This is the section of the course when you start to ascend. You hit a 500-foot climb over 3/4 mile, then some rolling hills before you start a 2-mile climb with about 1,200 feet of gain that snakes and winds. It seems almost never ending, as you can’t see where it crests. My advice to anyone running Lookout Mountain 50: This section is best tackled when you put your head down and keep plugging at it one step at a time. Before long, I found myself at the start/finish aid station. I refilled my water, put on my windbreaker, had some warm soup, and was in and out to the latter half of the race.
Covenant College to Lula Lake (29.9 miles)
This section of the course, on ATV trails, was fast but extremely muddy. A dense fog blurred the views, and the persistent drizzle returned. The only saving grace was that the water level in the creek crossings was low. As I approached a split in the trail, I made a left turn to go off course for a pee break, and as I turned to duck into the woods, three other runners followed me.
“Timeout dudes! I’m going to go pee. Go back and stay to your right.”
It was getting hard to see the trail markers, which by the way, are limited and in-ground. As I made my way back on course, another runner came up behind me and said he had gotten lost missing a turn on the trail. As we approached Lula Lake aid station, I was so caught up in making sure I was following the course that I completely missed Lula Falls. How do you miss a 120-foot waterfall? Well, I wasn’t going back to find it.
I was in and out of Lula Lake aid station and made my way to the infamous rope climb up Eagle Cliff, arriving on the opposite side of Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga Valley. I could barely see 50 feet ahead of me; dense fog made the woods eerily spooky. The entire time I had a vision of the legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman in my mind’s eye. Must run fast and get out of the woods to the finish before daylight fades!
Long Branch Loop (Long Branch Aid Station to Long Branch Aid Station – 38.2 miles)
I got to the aid station and asked for Coke. They were all out of Coke. WTF!?! Before my brain could repeat the sequence of earlier in the day, I decided to make a run for the trail.
This is what I call the “douchey” section of the course. It’s a 4.2-mile lollipop that runs on private property, so you pass a lake, some homes, a barn and rolling hills. I was feeling sluggish and with much irritation made my way back to the aid station, still a bit whiny about not getting any Coke. This is when I should’ve grabbed my headlamp, as the race details clearly indicated that runners will need a headlamp for the trip back to Covenant College. But I was being stubborn, and as I looked at the time, doing the math in my head, I felt confident I’d be at the finish before full dark. In hindsight, this was a bad move, as I underestimated the rainclouds and the thick fog cover.
Long Branch to Lula Lake (42.5 miles)
I made my way back to Lula Lake with the goal of getting my arse to the finish before all daylight faded, but as they say, the best laid plans fail. I was running steady until I started the decent from Eagle Cliff. Now, I’ve run some pretty treacherous trails, and never once has my spirt waivered — except here I was standing atop a nasty clifftop, heartbeat racing, unsure how I would make it down alive. I could barely see where I was stepping. It was muddy as hell, and the slick rocks made the footing impossible. I considered sliding down the rope. If only I was Tarzan!
Instead, I sat on my butt, clutching to the rope for dear life and slid down the cliff. Whew! As I approached Lula Lake aid station once more I had a pleasant surprise when I happened to look to my right and saw the gorgeous Lula Falls! A thick fog danced around the cascade and the loud sound of crashing water filled the air. How the hell did I miss this on my way out?
I refilled my water at the aid station and turned to ask one of the volunteers: How far to the finish?
Volunteer: About 7 miles. If you hustle you can make it before it goes dark, but get moving quick.
All I remember was saying thanks and making a b-line for the trail, with a fading voice in the background saying, “Get it girl!”
Lula Lake to Finish Covenant College (50 miles)
I’d barely made a 1/4 mile from Lula Lake aid station when I came upon a fork in the trail that I didn’t remember seeing earlier in the day. I stopped while my eyes tried to peer through the fog for a course marker. Just then, another runner came up behind me and we both stood looking at each other.
Runner: Now what?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t see a marker.
Runner (throwing this handheld to the ground): I hate this shit! We’re 43 miles in and no markers. Why do they do this? Every year, they mark it less and less.
Me: Well, let’s walk a bit and figure it out.
As we hiked a few paces, I noticed some homes along the ridge that I remembered seeing earlier in the day.
Me: I think we’re on the right trail.
Runner: I see something! There’s a runner up ahead, and look a maker buried in the mud!
All was not lost! With that, he was gone and I slugged onwards, making my way across a road and heading back to the gate I’d come through on my way out that morning. I was on the ATV trails again. UGH! It was impossible to run. Not only was I tracking pounds of mud in my shoes, but it was like running on ice. So, I decided to hike, picking each step carefully to prevent wiping out.
I made my way to the single track and noticed I could barely see anything. It was foggy, and the rain had picked up some. All daylight was fading. It was like the moment when your headlamp flickers as a warning before it dies all together. I mentally kicked myself in the rear for not having picked up my headlamp at Long Branch. Gah!
Four more miles to go, or was it 3? Shut up and run! I hustled in the dark as best I could without a headlamp and no end in sight. I stopped to look behind me in hopes of seeing another runner with a light, so I could follow him or her to the finish. Nothing. As I rounded the next corner, I heard someone cheering, “Only a quarter mile to the finish!” I relaxed into a steady jog, and the lights heading up the slope towards the finish came into focus. Hey, I can see so much better with some light!
10:15:19 was my official finish time, making this a 50-mile distance PR for me by 15 minutes and a RRCA Female Master Championship win!
I came to realize that being self-reliant is always the best policy! Things won’t always go as planned, but that’s when we can all use an attitude adjustment. “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.”
A few quick pointers for anyone running Lookout Mountain 50 for the first time:
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.