Long before I started distance running, I was actually a sprinter on my high school track team. In 1998 I signed up for the indoor track squad at Clover Hill High School in Richmond, VA. It was a walk on team, but I still had to try out for different events to see which I was best at. The word "best" would be an overstatement as I was either average, or below average at everything. However, I didn't plan to take track too seriously, and saw it as a means of getting in shape for varsity baseball in the spring. Afterall, as a pitcher with a low 80's fastball, and a student with a 4.0 GPA, track & field clearly wasn't going to be my ticket to a college scholarship.
Either way I found myself at track practice for the first time. My 7.0 second 55 meter dash wasn't fast enough, my 26 second 200 meter dash was okay, but still on the slow side. I cleared 5'2" for the high jump, when most A-squad guys could jump over 6'. I even tried out for shotput, occasionally tossing the 12 lb ball over 30 ft....a full 15 ft shorter than my 250 lb peers. As a last ditch effort to make a single track roster, I ran a time trial for the 400m dash and clocked a pedestrian 1:07 for my first attempt and almost passed out on the spot. With all the A-squad, aka fast guys, already named to specific events, there was a pretty good handful of guys and gals who remained with limited talent, myself among them. We became the B-squad, better known as the slow pokes.
As far as running events, coach Mike Justice had pitty on me, and placed me on the men's 4x400 team. He was convinced I could probably get my 400m time down to around 60 seconds with practice, but we both knew I wasn't going to run in the 50-55 second range needed to be on the competitive team. With that, my first track meet was at Manchester High School on a cool autumn night, 1998.
I was the lead runner for our 4x400 team. I had waited hours for our big event to come around, and had gotten pretty pumped up watching all the other events take place. Our team of guys had spent the last few weeks practicing baton hand offs, pacing, and going through rigorous track repeats. Finally, it was time for action! I took off my green and white track warm up and made my way to the track, gold baton in hand. My teamates gave a few last words of encouragement, something to the effect of "Kick their ass Mike!", and "You got this dude!". Aaahh high school. As I stepped to the starting blocks, I glanced around at the competition, and noticed I was among guys who looked way too fast to be in a B-squad race. Never the less, I crouched down, waited for the gun, BANG!, and was off. I blew out of the blocks with reckless abandon and completely forgot what race, and what distance I was running. After 100 meters I was already in the lead, by 200 meters I was on record pace, and at 250m I was literally 30 feet ahead of the second place runner. I could hear the people in the stands getting louder and louder in wild expectation of witnessing something great.
I was 30 seconds into a 400 meter dash when my body realized in needed oxygen. I had blazed through 30 seconds of anaerobic chaos and that's when the lactic acid starting flowing, the muscles screamed, and the lungs came to the verge of explosion. In other words, Mike went out too damn fast! As I banked around the turn at 300 meters my body felt like it has ceased forward motion. If the first half minute was a speeding blur, the last 40 seconds was an eternity. The world was starting to stand still, as if the rotation of the earth were coming to a screaching halt at that very track. One by one the other runners started passing me. I watched in disbelief as they gracefully trotted off into the distance, meanwhile the sounds of my frantic gasping overwhelmed whatever cheers came from my teamates. I rounded the corner down to the last 100 meter straight away, easily in last place. I jogged along at a feeble pace, embarassed, tramautized, and ready to collapse. The hand off to my teammate was more an act of desparation to put an end to my misery. After 400 meters I wobbled over to the side of the track and flopped on the ground for ten minutes.
I wish I could say I had fond memories of my first race. To be honest, I wanted to quit the track team right then and there. I didn't. I stayed aboard for several more months and ran at several other track meets and invitationals. I'd like to say I got faster, but I didn't. I never ran another 400m event, and found myself sticking to the 4x200 and 300 meter races. Afterall, I ran a pretty fast 200 meters during my initial 400 meter race. That's gotta count for something, right? I ran another embarassing 300 meter dash when I slipped out of bounds at the start and thought I was disqualified. However, the race officials prompted me to keep running, but now already 50 meters behind everyone. Although I almost caught the last place runner, I finished the event dead last, for the second time in three races.
After high school, I would not run again for four years.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
June 5th-6th, 2010.
The 32nd Old Dominion 100 Mile Endurance Run began at 4am this past saturday morning at the Shenandoah Valley fairgrounds. 55 runners embarked on a day of 90 degree temps, high humidity, and swampy evening conditions. This event, years removed from the days of 100+ runners, seems to be regaining strength in the wake of "politics" and the increasingly popular Massanutten Mountain Trails. Sadly, in previous years there have been as few as 25 entrants to this race. Old Dominion is the 2nd oldest 100 mile foot race in the country and only the famed Western States 100 is older. Due to not getting into MMT this year, the rich history of Old Dominion, and being home turf, I decided in mid May to enter.
The first fifty miles of this race are fast. There are only a few major climbs, lots of road, and only a couple rolling hills. In a little over an hour I reached the top of Woodstock Gap, still very much in the dark, and followed by dozens of headlamps in the distance. We arrived at the first crew access point, mile 19.6, and I commented that the time was really flying by. I hit my marathon split in 4:10, and my 50k in 4:55.I spent most of the morning running with Abran Moore who was on his 3rd attempt at earning the coveted pure silver buckle. Abran went on to run a very strong second half and finished in 20:12, finally earning his buckle! 5 hours 8 minutes into the run, I pulled into the Four Points aid station at mile 32.5. When I arrived, the drop bags had not arrived yet. Without a crew, I had no access to my gels, second water bottle, and s caps. This was the only time I can say I was concerned about logistics. Thankfully, an awesome volunteer let me borrow a water bottle and salt caps. During the morning I also ran back and fourth with Montrail runner, and eventual female winner (19:54), Sabrina Moran until she took off for good around mile 35.
All in all, the early miles went as expected. Things felt easy, runners were still social and upbeat, but that is to be expected before the miles strip it away. Despite muggy conditions early on, I maintained a pretty solid pace and was still within 30-45 minutes of leaders Bobby Gill and David Ruttum through Four Points II, the 47.7 mile aid station. The time keepers said I was just 8 minutes back of Moran, and closing the gap on Brad Hinton. After crossing the 50 mile point of the race in a fairly relaxed time of 8:38 it was obvious that we were now entering the hottest, and most exposed part of the day. It was around a road climb at mile 52 where I caught and passed a struggling Hinton. Brad was last year's OD 2nd place finisher, however, this was not one of his good days the heat was taking it's toll. Unfortunately, Brad made the wise/hard decision to drop at mile 56.
Entering Edinburg Gap (mile 56) I was in 4th place and still feeling strong despite the conditions. I realistically wanted to make a run for a top 3, but knew the three folks ahead of me were all legit runners who could maintain their pace. I also had hopes for a sub 20 hour finished, which would require an 11 hour 22 minute second half over tougher terrain. As I changed socks, I noticed I was developing some problamatic blisters on my left foot, which may have been a result of wearing Brooks ST4 racing flats for 56 miles. I decided to swap into my half size larger Nike Pegasus, and wore them for the remainder of the race. The steep climb up the ATV trail was challenging yet went by quick. Ironically, it was the smooth downhill off the mountain that gave my feet the most issues as my beat up toes painfully hit the toebox on the downward grade. Hesitantly, I opted to walk sections of the downhill which I would have otherwise hammered hard. Through mile 60, I was still in 4th place overall, but the downhill walking provided opportunity for three runners to pass me, including Abran Moore.
At the Little Fort aid station, mile 64.25, I was welcome by my old friends Mr. and Mrs. Pugh. Their son introduced me to ultras in 2004, and they have managed the Little Fort aid station at OD for over a decade. Little Fort may very well be the best aid station on the entire course, and it is where I decided to get my left foot patched up. Leaving Little Fort, I renewed my running,thankfully with less discomfort than before. It was just a short jog up the road to a sign that said "65 miles, go right, 93 miles, go left". I think at that moment it hit me just how rediculously far running 100 miles is. I had run 65 miles and still had 35 to go. During miles 65-75 I repeated a part of the morning road section and indulged in some fast trails leading into the 75 mile Elizabeth Furnace aid area.
Most people would agree that miles 75-86.5 are the toughest at Old Dominion. In short, I concur. Leaving mile 75 I started feeling queezy. Was it the hard pace through the first 100k? Was it the 30+ gels consumed? Who knows? All, I know is I couldn't stomach anything for the next 12 miles. Oddly enough, I managed to be very agressive up the notorious Sherman Gap climb and made it to the Veach East(mile 82) aid area in the waning minutes of daylight. From mile 82-86.5 I hit my lowest point. During the long climb out of Veach East I was running on fumes. I had now gone 3 hours without any calories, and my energy was completely gone. I took a few rest breaks up the mountain and got passed by two more non-bonking runners. I will admit that the 6.5 miles between mile 80 and 86.5 seemed like the longest I have ever run, or walked.
Leaving Veach Gap west, mile 86.5, my stomach starting coming around and I started laying down a few quick miles. Afterall, aside from sore hip flexors, my muscles still felt very good. The night section of the race felt surreal. The on and off rain throughout the evening made it feel like a sauna. With a headlamp on there was maybe 50-100 feet of visibility, and the fog was so dense you literally see the water vapor in the air. Lack of course flagging, perhaps a streamer every half mile, and the thick mist caused for more than a couple "oh crap, did I miss a turn?" moments.
At mile 93, I reached the top of Woodstock Gap for the last time. I could see the glow of the town lights below and it was a welcome site. I knew it was a mile of steep switchbacks down the mountain, and another couple miles of hilly country road, and three miles into the town of Woodstock. My stomach issues would linger for the remainder of the run, so I opted to just take it easy knowing that a silver buckle was now in the bag. From miles 80-100, I was only able to eat three gels, for a whopping 300 calories over the final 20 miles of the run. I made my way through empty town streets, the silence occasionally broken by the chirps of birds, or the grunts of local cows. Through the quiet night I patiently made my way back to the Shenandoah County fairgrounds,and completed the traditioned half mile lap around the horse track. I crossed the finish line at 1:52am with no spectators, no high fives, no fanfare, and no handshakes. I had run alone for nearly 50 miles of the race, and alone is how I finished. I made my way back to a friend's house for a shower, brushed my teeth, and hit the sack for a few hours of prescious sleep.
At 9am this morning we had our awards breakfast, and it was a great opportunity to share our great stories of the previous day's hardships, triumphs, and journeys. 100 mile races are a unique experience. You can never truly compare what your body and mind will go through in a 50k, or 50 miler with what takes place during 17-30 hours of constant forward motion. When I finished my first 100 miler in 2007 I could barely walk the few days after the event, and my legs and feet were swollen for days. This morning I woke up to find myself in amazingly good shape. There was obviously some minimal sorenss, but not much different than what I typically feal after a good effort at a 50k. My pre-race weight was 150 lbs, my post race weight was 146, thus a sign of good hydration and sodium managent during the day. I suffered only one small blister, one large blister on my big toe, and had a couple decent looking falls. Overall damage: not bad at all.
Thoughts on Old Dominion 100 as an event. I would classify race management as old school. Don't expect live updates, a slick website, or tons of race marketing. OD doesn't give out buckles for finishing under the cutoff like most 100 milers. However, if you do break 24 hours you will recieve one of the finest sterling silver buckles awarded at any ultra. That being said, they don't give out many buckles, and historically less than half the people who start the race will earn one. The race also boasts a drop out rate of nearly 50%. The OD course doesn't contain the rocky trails of MMT, the vertical climb of Grindstone, or the oxgyen deprivation of Leadville. It is truly 80% paved/dirt roads with about a dozen miles of gnarly trail, and a deceptive 14,000 feet of climb(the same as Leadville and Vermont). The course is significantly harder the second half, which leads to many folks going out too fast early and the June race date often results in very hot and humid conditions. For $135, which is cheaper than some 50 milers, I would recommend Old Dominion. The race itself and location are full of history,the volunteers amazing, and any Shenandoah area ultra runner should try experience this part of the valley.