This time my best just wasn't good enough.
Short story: I did the distance but
finished nine minutes past the final cut-off in the New River
Trail 50K on Saturday. I trained hard for over four months for
this race. This optimistic, glass-half-full gal is discouraged
and frustrated and vowing never again to enter a race with a
tight cut-off. I've come in first (female)
and now I've come in last.
I can assure you, first is a lot more fun.
Until the final five miles, I thought I could do it. I beat the
cut-off at the last aid station by 20 minutes. I had an hour and
twenty minutes to do the remaining 5.2 miles: a
15-minute-per-mile pace, easier than the 13-minute pace I'd just
run for 26+ miles, and I'd finish in time to get my nice
technical shirt and the satisfaction of a job well done.
I'd already been battling cramping hamstring and calf muscles in
both legs the last ten miles but a
dogged run-till-something-cramps /
stretch-and-walk-till-it-goes-away pattern had gotten me to the
Fries Junction aid station with a bit of time to spare. However,
the adductors began cramping in my right leg right after I left that
aid station, it was all she wrote. I could not run, period.
few times I tried to run, the cramping only got worse. And I
can't think of any pain I've had that's worse than when my
adductors clench up -- not even the pain when I ruptured my peroneus brevis and longus in my left ankle eight years ago
(that was intense but brief). Massage just doesn't work on my
adductors like it
does on my hams, calves, or shins.
Beautiful, shady trail along the New River
in the first and last five miles (photo taken 9-17-08)
So there I was, being passed in the
last five miles by most of the people who were behind me at that
aid station. Some barely made it under seven hours, some didn't. At
least one runner was in the sweep van driven by one of the many state
park rangers who helped make this first-time race a big success.
The van caught up to me less than two miles from the finish and
shadowed me on the trail until the end. Our ultra running
Townsend, who'd been helping all day at the Fries Junction aid
station, walked with me those last two miles and helped keep my
mind off my misery. As long as I walked fast and didn't run, I
wasn't in pain. Any time I tried to run, I was in worse pain
So I walked. And walked. And
walked. I focused on getting to the finish as fast as I possibly
could. That translated into a 17:07 pace the last five
miles. Not fast enough.
In the first / last mile of the course
(photo taken 9-17)
I tried to get the van to go on to
the finish since Kevin was walking
with me, but the ranger wouldn't go away. Talk about pressure! I
knew I was holding everyone up and it was embarrassing to be
last. I don't think I've ever been last before. Jim gives me
credit for continuing on, saying he probably would have just
gotten into the van at that point! I was too stubborn to do that
(but would have, if required by race protocol).
I was fortunate that RD
Annette Bednosky let the runners who made the cut-off at Fries
Junction continue, even when it was obvious they wouldn't finish
under seven hours. Four of us can claim a 50K
finish, even if it isn't "official" (we're on the
list). Some races pull
runners from the course if it's clear they can't finish before
the cut-off and/or don't list them as finishers if they're a few
seconds or minutes late.
Finally the park in Fries came into
view. I was surprised how many people were still there, cheering
for me to run and finish. I still couldn't run, even for an
audience. Jim came out a little way and let Cody run pell-mell
to greet me. That made me laugh for the first time in three
hours. I saw Annette cheering me home, and Jay and Anita Finkle.
Anita had finished an hour earlier but patiently waited for me
Anita coming into the finish (photo by Jim)
I was so close to tears that I
barely talked to anyone. They weren't tears of joy at
accomplishing my goal. They weren't tears of relief at finally
being done. I wasn't that tired, although my legs were toast. I
still had energy.
No, they were tears of frustration
and disappointment and regret and a gamut of other emotions that
are still close to the surface two days later.
After the race we took our bowls
and spoons (as requested by the RD to continue the "green theme"
of the race) to a nearby building for the post-race homemade
chicken and veggie soups, breads, and fruits. We were hungry and really looking
forward to that soup. Unfortunately, it was all gone by the time
we got there. I felt very bad for Jim, Anita, and Jay;
they didn't get any either because they were waiting for me
to finish. That was the coup de grāce for me. I about
lost it at that point, so we quietly left for home.
A RACE FOR THE SWIFT
This race is for the average to
fast runner and is ideal for a person who's moving to ultras
from road marathons. It's a good introduction to "trail" running because
the surface is relatively smooth. It's a
PR course if you're in shape; there aren't any hills or
roots or rocks to slow you down. Even a 4- to 5-hour marathoner
should be able to finish it. But if you are slower than that or
aren't used to running most of 31+ miles on a flat course at a steady pace, it's
a challenge to finish in seven hours. I was one of several
runners (even fast ones) who commented that there was
"too much running" involved. What we all meant was
that there weren't any obvious places
like long uphills to walk without guilt! I've run hilly courses
for so many years that it's a real challenge to run flat so
Part of the course on September 17 (during
our training run)
Although I've trained at a steady pace on a relatively flat
course for over four months for
this race, I just wasn't able to pull off a fast enough pace for the total
distance. The time limit required me to run more and walk less
than I was able to do. I ran faster than I did at Hinson Lake, where I got only
about 27½ miles in seven hours, but not as
fast as I
did on my long training runs of 20-23 miles. I couldn't hold it
for the 50K distance. I
wasn't expecting a 50K PR, but I thought I had at least a 50-50
chance of finishing New River in seven hours. I was wrong.
OK, let's go back to the beginning of the race . . .
IN A FOG
After driving down for our training run on the New River course
on September 17 we decided to cancel our motel reservations in
Hillsville, sleep in our own comfortable bed at home on Friday
night, and leave
at 4:30 AM Saturday for the drive to Fries (pronounced "Freeze"),
VA to the start of the race. Neither of us slept great Friday
night but we slept better than we do in a motel the night
before a race.
In the last few days before the race I was like a greyhound at the
gate, raring to run. Obviously I don't RUN like a greyhound, but
you get the idea. I was pumped for this race!
Foggy pre-race view of the race
The two-hour trip to the New River Valley was uneventful. The
weather was cool and clear, the stars bright in the early
morning darkness. We enjoyed
winding, hilly I-81 and I-77 through the Appalachian foothills
while the roads weren't crowded with semis and kamikaze cars hellbent on going 15 MPH over the speed limit. In the dark we
missed the beautiful trees just beginning to display their fall
colors (I predict a brilliant autumn in southwestern Virginia)
but sure enjoyed them on the way back home.
We stopped for a couple minutes at the Cliffview trailhead just west of
Galax, one of two southern termini of the New River Trail and site of the turnaround aid station
near the state park's ranger station. Jim was captain of this
aid station. He was pleased to see that the
rangers had already erected a large tent and set up a table full
of supplies. Jim brought some other equipment from home,
including several five-gallon containers of ice that he'd fill
with water and the electrolyte drink after the race began.
But now we needed to get to the start/finish area several miles
away at Fries.
It was no big surprise to find the *other* southern terminus of
the New River Trail enveloped in fog. Rivers have a tendency to
do that to the surrounding valleys. It was still pretty dark at
7 AM as we were directed to a parking area near the big race
got prime parking because Jim would be transporting runners'
drop bags and additional aid station supplies to Cliffview. Here
Cody guards the drop bags (and probably wonders if he's going to
have any room left to lie down!):
Everything seemed to be in order at the start. Two volunteers handled
After I got my number I was directed to
the display of beautiful hand-made pottery mugs at the end of one
table to choose my entrants' gift (we had a choice of the
locally-made pottery or a Nathan water bottle):
This is the pretty cup made by Pat Morrison that I chose:
Each runner could also enter a drawing for nice door prizes
donated by the sponsors. The gifts were on display so we could
see what was available.
I put both of my lottery tickets in the envelope for a women's
Nathan "Krissy" (Moehl) water vest but alas, my number wasn't
drawn. I think it's a great idea to be able to choose
which door prizes you want, so you don't end up with something that
doesn't fit or is unneeded.
I wandered around taking pictures while Jim talked with Annette
about aid station logistics and met a couple of his volunteers,
Amy "Flame" Brown (one of our VHTRC friends) and a local man
named Roy. Here's Jim with Annette and Roy:
Oh, there's Anita Finkle! Husband Jay was sleeping in their
camper, enjoying a relaxing weekend after running a great race
at the Grindstone 100 a week ago. He came out later to crew for
Anita. It was good to spend some time with her before the
race. She and Jay live on the other side of Roanoke and we end
up seeing them more
often at races than at home! Jim took this picture of us before
We knew fewer runners at this race than other ones we have run.
In fact, I saw more ultra running volunteers that I know
than race entrants. Before and during the race at least ten
people introduced themselves to me after asking if I was Sue
Norwood. It was good to meet them! They had seen my
Picasa photos of the course and
appreciated having a preview. Some even said they went through
all the other photo albums on the site and loved them. That made
me feel good. I'm always glad when my photos are helpful or
encourage people to go see the same scenery.
This is what the finish area looked like (without the fog)
later in the morning and afternoon as the runners came back to
Fries at the end of their journey on the out-and-back course:
View of finish line (photo taken pre-race)
There are additional pre-race and course photos on our
Picasa site and a description
of the course in the
last journal entry.
AND WE'RE OFF!
Finally it was 8 AM and time to run. Although it was only in
the mid-40s and still very foggy, I know how fast I warm up when
I'm running so I wore a singlet, shorts, and a pair of Moeben
sleeves to keep my arms warm. After two miles I already had
the Moebens turned down around my wrists. I'm glad I wore them instead
of a long-sleeved shirt because I couldn't ditch them until Cliffview at 16+ miles.
That was the only place for drop bags. (Crews can drive to two
additional road crossings.)
I positioned myself about 3/4 of the way toward the back. The
trail is essentially double-track (grass in the middle, as in
the picture below) until
the first road crossing about 1½+
miles into the race. I wanted to run to that road or beyond without
stopping or having to weave through a bunch of other runners. I
passed a few folks and a few passed me, but I was able to run a
steady pace for 20 minutes before taking my first short
walking break to drink Perpetuem, take a slug of espresso Hammergel, and wash it all down with water.
Outbound in first mile (this was taken on a
sunny afternoon, however, and not a foggy morning)
That's pretty much the drill I
maintained for the first 16 miles: run a steady pace
between one or two mile markers (love those mile markers!!),
walk to drink, and start running again. I was able to run at
least ten, if not fifteen or twenty, minutes at a time until
just past the halfway point. I carried a concentrated bottle of Perp in my single fanny pack and a bottle of water in a
hand-held UD carrier.
In each aid station I got my water
bottle refilled and took in no food. In my effort to get in and
out of aid stations as fast as possible, I neglected to drink
additional fluids there. I should have -- I had to conserve
water twice on the longest section out and back. That probably
contributed to my cramping. I can't imagine that it was a lack
of electrolytes because I was taking at least three Endurolyte
capsules every hour (total of 25 in seven hours!). I'll talk
about that in the next entry.
Foggy barn near Cliffview (photo from our
training run on 9-17)
I felt great during the early miles, unlike the sluggishness I
felt from the get-go at Hinson Lake. I was optimistic this would
be my day! The fog effect was very cool (literally and
figuratively -- I was dripping wet from it) until the sun burned
it off several miles into the course and we could fully enjoy
the New River and its beautiful shoals and shores. The downside
for me was the heat, which reached the low 70s by the time I
I was quite happy to cover the first 5.2 miles in 56
minutes to Fries Junction. It felt easy and effortless so I
wasn't worried that I was going too fast. I tried to remember
how long each section took between aid stations so I'd have an
idea how I was doing on the return but I quickly forgot most
of the numbers (I've become too low-key in recent years to use
the chrono features of my watch).
Fries Junction, as seen on our training
run. During the race
we ran past the aid station located to the
left of the kiosk three times.
Next we had to run 3/4 mile north on the NRT to a manned
turn-around point and back to the aid station at the junction.
Fortunately, we didn't have to cover this 1½-mile
section on the way back. Jim and I didn't run this little
part on our training run so it held some nice surprises. I loved
the colorful, rugged rock cliffs on one side of the trail and wished I had my
camera. (I kept my promise and didn't carry a camera during the
race! Photos here of the course were ones I took three weeks ago
before the leaves began to turn. By race day they were getting
colorful and there were more leaves on the course than before.)
I like courses that have out-and-back sections so I can see
other runners who are ahead of and behind me. It was good to see
our friends Bill Keane and Anita Finkle running well here and
after the turnaround at Cliffview. I counted fifteen runners
behind me on this section.
Our ultra friend Kevin Townsend was working the Fries Junction
aid station, which runners passed three times. Kevin was
very enthusiastic and helpful.
That guy knows how to take care of runners and fill bottles
fast! Thanks, Kevin. As you saw above, he would end up being my Trail Angel the
last two miles.
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS . . .
. . . to Jim's aid station we go!
Well, not quite yet.
First we had to cross the 1,089-foot bridge across the New
River (above), burrow through a mountain via a tunnel, pass the Gambetta road crossing,
say hi to the cows at the Triple C farm, acknowledge the old
railroad turntable landmark,
check in at the Chestnut Yard
aid station, admire the sculpture at the Cliffview campground, and THEN
hit Jim's aid
station at Cliffview -- the *other* southern terminus of the New
River Trail (the race course is an inverted Y with a very short
tail). It was a distance of about 9.6 miles total.
In this segment I began having some leg cramps. First it was my
left hamstring. Next was my left calf and foot. Then it migrated
to the right side (foot and calf only). I could manage the
numbness and cramping OK and continued to crank out 11- to 13-
minute miles. My average overall pace to Cliffview (officially 16.3
miles) was 12:12 minutes per mile, including two brief
stops at aid stations. I mostly ran from mile marker to mile
marker (except when I had to massage a cramp), slowing to a walk
each time I hit a marker for the length of time it took me to
down a mouthful of concentrated Perp, an electrolyte cap, some Hammergel, and water to wash it
down. Then I'd get cranking again.
Light at the end of the tunnel (it's very
I ran off and on with a few other folks, chatting about the
course and other races. A couple indicated they were wearing
wrist GPS devices. Their numbers where higher than the official
mileage numbers. So was Jim's when we did our training run. This
couldn't be good news for me, if it was true. It would be all I
could do to run the true 50K distance in seven hours. Any more
would be a serious problem. (Annette wants feedback from
everyone who measured the course. With my luck, it was probably
On the way to the race Jim mentioned he had a dream about it
during the night. He remembered clearly that I arrived at the
turnaround aid station at 11:19 AM, 3:19 hours into
the race. Since I had an extra 1½
miles to run in the first "half," I was aiming for about 3:15
hours to Cliffview. I'd already told Jim my plan. That pace would give me more time on the return
when I'd be more fatigued.
You've probably already guessed how
long it took me to get to the turnaround: 3:18
hours, a minute before Jim's
guess! He greeted me with, "Right on time!"
The timing was good, but I was
already feeling fried in the sun and would have loved to drop
out right then and there. But I knew I had a good chance of
finishing the race so I didn't seriously entertain any thoughts
of quitting, even when I was reduced to a walk at the end.
Our friend Anita coming into Cliffview at the turnaround. The aid station was to the right.
Cody was tied up to the split rail
fencing away from the aid station, happy to hear my voice. I
went over to pet him for a few seconds while Jim ran across the street to the van
to get my sunglasses and The Stick, a nifty little device to
massage my legs. I swapped bottles of Perp
and flasks of Hammergel, got a dry neckerchief for sweaty eyes,
briefly pummeled my sore leg muscles with The Stick, and was on my way
in about three minutes. That was my longest aid station stop.
HOLDING ON BY A THREAD
The return 9.6 miles to
Fries Junction truly tested my mettle. I was hot and my legs
were toast. I had energy but the calf cramps got increasingly worse.
I had 3:38 hours to get back to the finish in time. I
wasn't able to do the exact math in my head, but I knew I needed
to maintain a pace of about 14 minutes a mile to reach my
goal of sub-7 hours. That was if the distance was really 14.8
miles. If it was longer I would have
to run faster.
One of several bridges over Chestnut Creek
in this section.
There's a close-up of the falls in the
last entry. Photo from 9-17-08 training run.
I struggled to maintain some sort
of steady pace but ended up being able to run only a minute or
two at a time until the cramping started, walking until the cramps
subsided or I could massage them out, running a minute or two
again, ad infinitum. I was focused on getting from Point A to
Point B and don't remember much of this section going back.
man and two
women passed me. I played cat and mouse most of the way with
George Songer, who remembered me from my days of running at
Stone Mountain, near Atlanta. He was maintaining a very slow, steady run. I'd pass
him running, then he'd catch up when I walked. It would have been
almost comical if I wasn't so frustrated. But I maintained a 14:10
pace and got back to Fries Junction 20 minutes before the 2 PM
cut-off at that aid station. That gave me 1:20 to finish
the 5.2-mile section that took me only 56 minutes
If only . . .
Calm scene along the New River about three
miles from the start / finish (photo taken 9-17)
My margin of error was still pretty
slim. I had to maintain a 15-minute pace or better to finish in
time. I could have done it IF my adductors hadn't started
cramping. As already mentioned in graphic detail above (some
would say "whining"), I had to walk the rest of the way to my
ignominious finish. George passed me about a mile from the end.
I thought he'd make the seven-hour cut-off because he was still
running slowly, but he missed it by
JIM'S DAY AT CLIFFVIEW
Jim and Annette had been in contact by e-mail several times
before the race to
work our details for the turnaround aid station. Everything went
pretty much according to plan. The park rangers took care of the
tent, tables, cones, and signage, leaving Jim to oversee the
whole setup and manage his five
volunteers. Most were experienced in working races so his job was
pretty easy in that regard. He let them choose the tasks they
wanted to do
and they all did a fine job. Jim helped Roy record runners'
numbers as they came in and generally kept things flowing
smoothly, filling in where needed.
Cody had a great time playing with the rangers, volunteers,
crews, and lots of kids. He was well-behaved and happy on his
20-foot cord in the shady grass, well away from the aid station. There were a
few other dogs around but no problems with any of them as far
as Jim could tell. We're glad the park allows well-behaved,
After all the runners came through Jim, the other volunteers, and the park rangers packed
up the aid station. Roy graciously offered to take the drop bags and most of the
supplies back to the finish area in the back of his truck. He
had a lot more room than we did in our Odyssey van. Jim
retrieved all our water containers and other personal equipment
(knives, cutting board, etc.). Park personnel took care of the
tent, tables, and cones.
Jim was back at the finish area by about 1 PM and got to watch
most of the runners come in.
Annette cheers an incoming runner at the
(photo cropped from a larger one Jim took)
Annette offered the volunteers a choice of nice gifts. Jim
chose some of the blackberry jam Annette made this summer, and
was surprised to receive TWO jars of it. We had some on English
muffins for breakfast yesterday and we can vouch that she makes
tasty jam! She also gave out pasta sauce that she made.
Thank you, Annette, for those very personal touches.
GET YOUR 2009 DIBS IN EARLY
This new race filled quickly and will
probably end up requiring a lottery before long to gain entrance
unless the park service allows more runners to participate in
subsequent years. Annette and George Bednosky had their ducks in
a row. Almost everything we could see went smoothly before,
during, and after the event. It's obvious there was a lot of
hard work and great cooperation / communication with the park
staff to pull it off so well.
Annette was also very enthusiastic, encouraging the runners
before, during, and after the race. I saw her at Chestnut Yard
on the outbound, cheering for us as we came into the aid
station. At the finish line Jim saw her run out to bring in the last
three women who finished officially with just a few seconds to
spare. The finish rate (94%) was very high, even for a 50K:
96 of 102 starters finished under seven hours (and four
more, including me, are listed as finishers over seven hours). That has
to be very satisfying to Annette and George, as well as to the
runners themselves. Several of them were ultra newbies.
If you think you might want to run this race next year, get
your dibs in early! It will fill up even faster than this year.
Jim predicts the necessity for a lottery before long.
Next entry: my crisis of confidence
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and
Tater (in spirit)
© 2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil