photo courtesy of http://www.lwmtnultrarun.com/
Leatherwood Mountain Ultra Run 50 Miler
Place: 11th out of 63 finishers (77 starters)
If you were to look up the word "brutal" in the dictionary, this is what you would find:
Brutal - bru·tal
1. savage; cruel
2. crude; coarse
3. harsh; ferocious
4. taxing, demanding, or exhausting
5. irrational; unreasoning
I also think you could amend this on the end:
6. Leatherwood Mountain Ultra Run 50 Miler
Leatherwood was my last major long run before my first attempt at 100 miles, the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100. I was looking forward to Leatherwood. The race directors, Mark Connolly and Tim Worden, had kept all the runners updated on race and trail status' in the months and days leading up to the race, which really got me excited.
The inaugural edition of this race was billed as majority single track trails, with over 10,000 ft. of elevation gain. The elevation was also a benefit for me, given what I would be undertaking a month after this race. It consisted of three different loops, all of which the 50 milers would run. The loops were said to be 25, 15, and 10 miles in distance, finishing each loop at the Start/Finish area. In addition to the 50 mile race, there were also 50k and 10 mile races that utilized part of the aforementioned loops.
At 7am, with the sun beginning to rise with around 40 degree temps, we heard a great rendition of the national anthem, and were off on our way for an all day adventure. The first loop was 'yellow', and each runner was given a yellow wristband to remind us to follow the yellow markers. At times this would prove to be tricky as the rising sun and new foliage on the trees caused the markers to seem camouflaged.
We headed out the main resort road for a little over a mile and then followed a gravel road, where we went up, up, and up. Once we reached the summit, we hit some single track trail, and then headed down a steep descent. This would sort of be the theme for the day.
A substantial amount of rainfall fell on the race course Friday before race day. This would give the runners an added element to deal with, as many of the ascents and descents were drenched in thick, slick mud. We were sure to watch every step, sometimes sliding several feet before we were able to set our feet on ground that was stable. As muddy as the trail conditions were, I'd consider us lucky that at least it wasn't raining during the run. That would have made for a totally different race.
We had a ten mile stretch that proved to be the hardest part of the entire course. If we weren't going up, we were going down, and I will reiterate, these were very challenging steep hills. A little after eight miles in, we were following a road section, but a large group of runners in front of me missed the turn onto the trail. Luckily I was standing right at the marker, and avoided the 'extra mileage' from getting lost. This was another case of the sun and leaves causing the yellow markers to be difficult to see. After a long downhill, we came out of the woods and onto a road, that lead to the first fully stocked aid station, about 13 miles in to the race.
Once we left the aid station, we had a 2.5 mile stretch of paved road, and 1.5 miles of gravel road that were all gentle uphill. It was nice to have a break from the steep climbs and descents, but I was glad to finally get back on some trails after those miles. These road sections were also in direct sun, which was another positive for getting back on trail. A little over 17 miles in, we were greeted with three refreshing creek crossings, and briefly, I had some clean shoes.
As I headed into the final miles of the first loop, I was greeted with another long and steep climb that lasted almost three miles. Once I reached the summit, it was downhill back to the start/finish line, where I would be halfway through the race. I caught up with another runner and we ran together for this last bit. We began talking, and he informed me he was in third place, until he took a wrong turn. He was unable to find a marker, and went down a trail that wasn't part of the course, costing him valuable time. Once he realized this and made his way back to the correct trail, he had lost his position, and mentally, he was done. Ultrarunning is such a mental sport, and any miscalculations or wasted mental energy can really cost you later in the race, especially a race of 50 or more miles. I ended up seeing him at the end of the race and found out that he DNF'd due to some knee issues he encountered later in the race.
I arrived at the start/finish line completing the first loop in around 4h40m, swapped out my handheld for a new one and quickly consumed some calories before heading out for the second loop. It was getting to be midday so the sun was right overhead, but thankfully it wasn't too hot. The second loop started with a steep climb almost a mile long. This loop was holding true to the rest of the course I had already covered, in the fact that there were more hills to enjoy.
After the race, the director informed me that the second loop was the 'easiest' of the three. It sure didn't seem that way when I started it. Straight out of the aid station, we climbed up almost a full mile. Soon after though, I encountered a much needed runnable downhill section. It slowly became evident that this loop was in fact easier than the first loop. While there were still numerous uphills, they weren't as steep or long as they were on the first loop. One may even consider them runnable, but with half the race remaining, I chose not to.
This loop was unique in the fact that one part was a short out and back. As I came out of one section, I took a left and passed another runner going in the opposite direction. He passed me on the first loop, so I knew he was a few miles ahead of me. I only wondered how far this out and back would end up being. It was around this time I passed another runner only to soon start playing leapfrog with her the remainder of the race.
As we made our way up this mountain, we came to several openings where there would be this random small grassy field. For some reason, when I saw this, I had the urge to just lay down and stare at the sky. Had I not had anything else to do the rest of they day, I probably would have. As we arrived at another of these grassy patches, there was a plate stapled to a stake on the opposite side. My leapfrog runner had already made the turn and as we passed by one another, I gave her one of these "Are you serious?" comments. The plate had written on it "Turn around and go back the way you came". This is the one of the many things I love about this sport, and the second time I had encountered it. The first was at UROC, my first 100k. It's all about the honor system. Sure they could have a volunteer out here in the middle of nowhere checking off bib numbers making sure everyone actually came to this turnaround point. But sometimes there's no point. If one knew all that was there was a plate with written instructions telling you to turn around, it could be tempting to cheat. But in this sport, you'd only be cheating yourself. Similar to golf, it's about integrity.
After completing the turnaround, we headed back to the Raw Hide aid station where I had some Coke, potato chips, and gummy bears. After leaving Raw Hide, it was a couple of miles, mostly downhill, back to the start/finish area to complete the second loop. The downhills were very steep to end this loop, and I noticed in addition to the pink markers for loop two, there were also orange markers, signifying this would be the trail we would run for loop three. I guess you could say what goes down must come back up.
I arrived at the start/finish area, refilled my bottles, grabbed some food quickly, and headed back out. Only 10 miles to go. It was early evening, and I was pretty sure I would finish long before dark, but I grabbed my headlamp anyway, just to be safe. As I headed down the road back to the trail I just came off, a girl asked if she could run with me. I told her yes but I didn't know how much I'd be running. Turns out she was planning to run the 50 miler, but an injury kept her out. She was still nice enough to volunteer for the day and wanted to run the final 10 mile loop. It was nice to have some company as I had ran alone most of the day, just like I always do in training. I told her about the course, but eventually my enthusiasm to talk about the day wore off and I was silent again. We soon caught up with my leapfrog friend and she actually started running with her and I was back by myself again, just me and the trail.
After over two miles of climbing, I began running one of the final downhills of the day. Some of these final climbs and descents were fairly steep, but I'm sure the RD's wanted us to leave Leatherwood remembering exactly what it was like. I was in no hurry whatsoever, so I walked a good bit. I knew I would finish under 12 hours, which was a huge accomplishment for me, even though I had no goals coming into this races aside from having a good long training run for MMT100.
Eventually I came back in to the Raw Hide aid station one final time. Another runner came in shortly after myself, and we set out together for the last few miles to the finish. We talked about the day, the race, and the course. He had a friend who ran and he said his quads were shot halfway through the race. That was one thing that never even came into play for me and I'm very thankful for that. My legs felt great. Aside from the normal fatigue, I had no major soreness or anything.
He sped off ahead of me, and again, I was alone. Another reason I enjoyed my solitude on the trails was because it made me pay attention. When you're following a group of people, you don't necessarily pay attention to course markings, and this can sometimes get you in trouble. I was making sure I was seeing orange markers, and making the correct turns on the correct trails. There were two spots where the 50 mile runners went one way, and the 50k runners went another. Don't pay attention, and you could go the wrong way. But luckily for me, I made it the entire day without making a single wrong turn.
I eventually came off the trails, and was on the road section leading back to the start/finish area for the final time. Not only was I going sub-12 hours on this race, I was also flirting with sub-11. I was unsure how much road there was, and I didn't want to go all out and run as fast as I could to end the day and risk injuring myself, so I just took it easy. That is, until I got to familiar territory and knew that I was close to the finish. I turned the last mile into a progression run. By the time I was arriving at the finish area, I was running about a sub 8 minute pace. I felt great. The crowd cheering for me was awesome, but only made me miss my wife and daughter even more.
I crossed the finish line finishing in 10:52:11, which was good enough for 11th place overall out of 63 finishers. Afterwards, I stayed around for a little while and watched others come in with the crowd cheering. I ended up seeing my 'leapfrog' friend and the guy I started the last section with both come in after me. I assume they made a wrong turn somewhere along the way, like many others did throughout the day.
After finishing, I got to talk to Charlie Engle. While Charlie 'lived' in West Virginia for a while, we shared letters with each other talking about life, family, and of course, running. Charlie was a real inspiration for me as I was first learning about this thing called 'Ultrarunning'. I saw his movie, "Running the Sahara" and that just lit the fire even more. I look forward to the next time he and I get to share some trail with each other, although I'll be far behind him I'm sure.
Charlie and I after the race
It was a great day. I made some new friends, ran some awesome trails, and finished in time to head home and see my daughter, Gemma, before she went to bed. Thanks again to the race directors for putting on a great event!