Dam Yeti 55K – Race Report

This year was my third time running Dam Yeti. For this year’s race, the shorter distance was a 55K (34 miles) instead of a 50K (31 miles). An extra 5K means more miles, more smiles! As the race approached, I considered two main options for my race plan: One, I could put my hard training to work and go for it; or Two, I could use it as a dress rehearsal for Yeti 100. I talked to my coach, Janice, at the start of the week and we decided on option one: go for it! I would aim for a 50K PR, which would mean I’d have to split 50K in under 6:30. I spent the rest of the week trying to wrap my brain around this and get my mindset ready.

I also spent the week stalking the weather forecast, which was looking really good for Saturday. Cool in the morning and not too hot, as far as June goes, in the afternoon. I got to Damascus on Friday afternoon and met up with Charlotte and Christine. It felt so good to be back in a town I love and back together with good friends for another race weekend. I had my typical Subway pre-race dinner around 4:30 and then we headed over to Abingdon for packet pickup.

Damascus wall art

At packet pickup, we got our race bibs and swag, and caught up with a few friends. We also got our pre-race photos taken. After that, it was time to head back to Damascus to chill before race day.

I was up at 3:45 AM on Saturday morning and had my usual oatmeal and coffee. We left Damascus at 5 AM to catch the race shuttle in Abingdon. I was worried about getting carsick on the 50ish minute drive up to Whitetop, since the roads are really curvy. Fortunately, my Dramamine did its job and I also ended up with a front passenger seat in the shuttle. My shuttle arrived in Whitetop around 6:45 AM and I took a quick bathroom break in the woods before heading to the start. It was in the low 50’s and I was freezing, but that was perfect for race day. I met up with Charlotte and Christine, who were on a different shuttle up to Whitetop, and we exchanged hugs and some final words of encouragement. I was feeling SO nervous. This was it.

Race sign I walked past on the way to the shuttle. The next time I saw this sign, I’d be less than a mile from the finish!

I made my way closer to the start as I listened to race director Jason Green’s funny pre-race speech: “Don’t get lost today! Trains don’t make right or left turns and neither should you. Every Saturday, 12 year old girl scouts get on bicycles and make it to Abingdon. Don’t be that person!” Immediately after his speech, at 7 AM, we were off and running. It was go time!

Usually in ultras, I struggle mentally at the start and end up starting out slow. As I settle in and get into a groove, I tend to pick it up and get stronger by the second half. But to PR, I was going to have to be aggressive from the start and take advantage of the gradual downhill for the first 18ish miles. I also don’t usually start ultras with music, but I had made a playlist for the race and started listening to it right away.

It’s very much “down” for the first 18 miles

We were bunched up for the first mile and my split was slower than I wanted by about 18 seconds. I was using an 8 minute run / 2 minute walk interval and tried to focus on finding some space so I could run the run segments comfortably hard, as planned. After that first mile we did spread out some and I was able to run at the pace I wanted. I had made a pace chart for myself using a website called UltraPacer. The website uses a GPX file for the course. You can input an overall finish time, and it will give you splits that are adjusted for the incline, aid station delays, etc.

I’ve never attacked an ultra like this and it was scary to put it all out there from the start. But I knew I had to capitalize early. Aside from that first mile, I managed to keep my mile splits in the low to mid-11 minute pace, for the most part, for the first 10 miles. I was coming in under the projected split on every mile. I was also staying really focused on the trail so I wouldn’t trip and fall and derail everything. The Creeper Trail is a rail trail, but it’s pretty rough especially up near Whitetop.

The always gorgeous Taylor’s Valley

I came into the first aid station in Taylor’s Valley a little before mile 11. Based on my plan, I needed to arrive here around 2:05 and I hit the aid station in 2:03. A little ahead of schedule, which was good since the aid station was busy and I lost a bit of time here. My friend Jason was volunteering and it was awesome to see a familiar face. He helped me get both of my flasks refilled with water. I started the race with one Tailwind and one water, and at this aid station I added more Tailwind to one flask. I also got half a cup of Coke to go as I headed out. I think I lost about 2 minutes and 30 seconds at this stop.

From the aid station, I headed down the trail still feeling strong. I could feel the effects of the Coke and I split mile 12 in 10:57, which would be my fastest mile of the day. I’ve had some issues with my right hamstring over the past couple of months and I was having a lot of sharp twinges in it during these early miles. Luckily, it never did more than that throughout the race.

I stuck to my 8/2 interval and just kept cranking down the mountain. I’m pretty sure that’s the fastest I’ve ever run down it. At mile 13.1, I passed Straight Branch and split the half marathon in 2:31:53, about 3 minutes ahead of pace. I told myself “Keep going. Four miles to Damascus.”

This year the Sasquatch on the trail had tighty-whities and a karate headband.

It was starting to feel a bit warmer in the sunny sections on the trail, but nothing bad at that point. Around mile 16, I stepped on a banked part of the trail and rolled my left ankle. It rolled to the outside, but it wasn’t serious. For some reason, it actually made the inside part of my ankle hurt for a few miles. As I came into Damascus, my quads were really feeling the effects of running downhill hard. They hurt! I hoped I hadn’t gone out too hard, but I tried to immediately push those thoughts out of my mind. I told myself that anything that happened in the earlier miles didn’t matter. All that mattered was the mile I was in and executing my plan.

My mile splits were still coming in under 11:30 pace, which was good. I got into aid station #2 in Damascus around mile 18. The aid station had a Little Debbie theme, complete with costumes, which made me smile. I needed to get there in 3:30 to stay on track, and I arrived in 3:27. Still good. At this aid station, I switched from Tailwind to Liquid IV. I refilled both flasks with water again and also got a popsicle and half a cup of Coke. The popsicle was so good with the weather heating up.

As I left this aid station, I switched to a 4 minute run / 1.5 minute walk interval. It gets hotter through this section, and mentally I felt like I would do better on this interval. My quads also felt like they were already shot. I had hammered the first 18 miles, and now it was time to hang on for dear life if I wanted that PR.

Yeti potty! Much appreciated, but I actually never needed a potty break the whole race.

I hit mile 20 in 3:54 and started trying to remember what my marathon PR was. I was pretty sure I was going to be close to it. Crazy. It’s between 6 to 7 miles from Damascus to Alvarado. This is always a tough section, mentally, for me. Luckily, there were some little kids handing out popsicles and stickers a couple of miles down the trail from Damascus. So I got another popsicle and a rainbow sticker that I tucked into my pack for good luck.

Magical Pepsi machine on the way to Alvarado

I knew I had put in some good work early on in the race. I was still looking at my pace chart each mile, and it felt awesome to be on the third column of the mile splits. I told myself “Last third of the race to get that 50K PR.” The miles seemed to tick by a bit slower on the way to Alvarado, and my main focus was just keep the miles at 12:30 or faster and you’ve got this. I did that all the way to Alvarado, splitting each mile between 11:30 and 12:31. I was starting to believe I was really going to do this.

As I rolled into aid station #3 in Alvarado between miles 24 and 25, Etta James’ “Fire” was playing in my ear bud and I was just in a good place. I needed to get here in 5 hours and I arrived in 4:55. A wonderful lady in a unicorn costume refilled my flasks. She told me I looked really good and I said I still felt strong. I had been hydrating really well and sticking to my fuel plan, eating Huma gels or Honey Stinger chews every 30 minutes. I was hoping for another popsicle here, but they didn’t have any. So I settled for a cup of Coke and headed out. As I headed out of the aid station, I saw my friend Dan. It was nice to see another familiar face.

Leaving Alvarado after saying hi to Dan. Photo: Kayla Billadeau
Sign leaving Alvarado. A bit crass, but it was exactly the plan for the day.

It was 4.7 miles to the next aid station in Watauga and I continued to work hard during my run intervals even though my quads hurt so much. I went across the “big ass bridge” around mile 26 and split the marathon in 5:12:44 – just two minutes off of my marathon PR. That’s pretty cool. I also saw Amy Hamilton, the eventual overall winner of the 50 miler, on her way back to Alvarado. We cheered for each other and she also gave me a high five on her way by. Amy is an awesome human and a super strong runner, and now I had “Amy power” for the final push to get that PR!

Shortly thereafter, I ran across another really cool bridge on the trail. It was so hot through here, but there was a bit of a breeze which helped. The suffering was in full effect. The muscles in the fronts of both of my shins were threatening to cramp, and my left hamstring felt like it was locking up or about to cramp during every run interval. But I thought “Oh, hell no. I am 3 miles from my goal and I did not come this close to blow up now.” I chugged a bunch of my Liquid IV and hoped the salt would fend off the cramps. I also shortened my stride during my run segments, which seemed to help my hamstring some. But I was not willing to back off on my effort. I was so close to my goal. I was starting to realize that not only could I get under 6:30 for 50K, I would likely get under 6:20 if I kept it up!

I rolled into aid station #4 in Watauga between miles 29 and 30, which I believe had a duck theme. I needed to get there in 6:05 and I arrived in 5:59. My friend Jason was there again and he said “I hear you’re going to PR today!” At this point, I had just under two miles to go and I told Jason “yes, I’m going to do it!” Jason helped me refill my flasks quickly so I could get back out there. They didn’t have any popsicles here, either, so I got another cup of Coke and headed out.

Coming into Watauga. Had the lid off of my flask ready to refill. Photo: Jennifer Hess Foster
There were so many ducks along the trail heading into Watauga and on the way out.

I hit mile 30 in 6:04 and I couldn’t believe I was going to do it. The muscles in my legs were screaming, but I stayed focused on each 4 minute run interval. My watch finally hit 31 miles and at 31.06, I saw 6:17:00! Wow. I couldn’t believe I had done it. I snapped a quick picture and texted it to my husband, Barry.

YESSSS

After that, it felt like all of the pressure was off. I still had 5K left to go to get to the finish. When I talked to my coach about my race plan, the focus was solely on that 50K PR. She said whatever happened in the final 5K happened. But the crazy thing is, shortly after hitting 50K a switch flipped in my head. I realized I could probably finish under 7 hours if I kept it up. I hadn’t even considered that before the race.

So it was back to work, focusing on putting in a strong effort during those 4 minute run intervals and mentally resetting during the 1.5 minute walk intervals. My legs were practically in full revolt at this point and I felt so fatigued. The temperature had climbed into the high 70’s and I was feeling it for sure.

I finally made it to the trailhead in Abingdon and made a couple of turns to get onto A Street for the final push to the finish at the brewery. A Street runs parallel to the train tracks, and you have to cross the tracks to get to the finish. As I turned onto the street, a train started going by. Sub-7 really mattered to me now, but it was going to be close. If I had to wait for a long train to go by, my sub-7 might slip away. But all I could do was run hard the last half mile down the road and hope for the best.

Made it back to this sign, hours later.

Thankfully, it was a shorter train and it finished going by about a minute before I crossed the tracks and made the turn to the finish. I ran mile 34 in 12:06 and crossed the finish line in 6:56:30. As per Yeti Trail Runners tradition, I got a big finish line hug from Jason Green and from “Mr. Inspiration.” I felt so proud of my hard work and was grateful it had paid off with the results I was hoping for. What a day. I have never approached an ultra that way, and I feel like I’ll take a lot away from that experience.

After finishing, I recovered a bit and hung out in the finisher area while waiting for Christine and Charlotte. I met up with some friends and made some new ones, and also enjoyed a delicious sno-cone and a bratwurst. Probably the best combination of finish line food I’ve ever had.

Christine came in, and totally kicked butt at her first in person Yeti race. Charlotte had a tough day, but dug deep and hung in there to get her finish. Once we had all recovered a bit in the finish area, we piled back into the car and headed back to our place in Damascus. We all got showers and had some delicious cheeseburgers from a local joint. Is there anything better than a cheeseburger after a race? I think not.

Dam Yeti 55K Finishers!

The place we were staying at was an apartment above a garage, with a long string of steps to get up there. My quads were totally shot from the race, and the next morning I had to go down the steps sideways. Before hitting the road, I had a delicious breakfast at Damascus Diner. Yum! I actually thought I could finish this meal, but I didn’t quite manage it. So it ended up being Sunday’s breakfast and lunch.

Biscuits, gravy, grits, hash brown casserole, and eggs.

At this point, the next race on my schedule is the Yeti 100 at the end of September. I’ve got a couple of weeks of recovery coming up, and then I’ll forge ahead with Yeti training. It’s going to be quite the summer, y’all.

Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K – Race Report

This past Saturday I ran the Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K, which was my fifth and final race of the RNUTS series (of a possible seven). I will be at the anchor event, Conquer the Cove 25K and Marathon, at the end of May manning the final water stop. But this one wrapped up my RNUTS series racing for 2022. And we finally had some gorgeous weather, with sunshine and temperatures in the 40’s!

Barry and I arrived at the race about 45 minutes before the start, got our packets and prepared to run. I also met up with Lauren, and I laughed when I saw we had dressed the same.

At this race, the staging area is about half a mile from the actual start. After a couple of trips to the porta johns, Lauren, Barry, and I decided to make our way up to Fishburn Parkway for the 9 AM start.

The race started just after 9 AM and we were off and running, making our way up Fishburn Parkway. This is also the road that you climb Mill Mountain on during the Blue Ridge Marathon races. For this race, we spent the first mile going up Fishburn, with a little over 300 feet of gain. I ran the first three tenths of the race and then alternated 50 steps walking, 100 steps running until I got through the first mile.

At mile 1, we turned onto the Monument Trail. This trail is more runnable in terms of elevation, but I always forget about the really rocky sections. Overall, I’d estimate that this race is about 75% trail and most of that trail is pretty rocky.

Mile 2 clicked by and around mile 2.5 we turned onto the old road up Mill Mountain. This road climb is shorter than the first, but it is steeper. I again alternated running and walking, generally sticking to 30 steps walking and 50 steps running.

Through the old toll booth
Pretty view on the way up

Around mile 3, we got off of the road and onto Big Sunny Trail. A little while later, we passed by the one water stop on the course. I drank some scratch before continuing on my way up the Ridgeline Trail. From here, we continued climbing past the Mill Mountain Zoo and up to the Mill Mountain Star at the top.

Lots of up in this one
Headed towards the downhill. Photo credit: Jay Proffitt

After the Star, it’s essentially all downhill on the Star Trail. But the trick with this race is that most of Star Trail is super rocky on the way down, so you don’t get to bomb down the trail (unless you’re the 10 year old that blew past me – but Lauren pointed out that kids have a lower center of gravity).

Rocks on rocks

My quads felt tired from having to brake to control my speed and navigate the rocks while running a sharp downhill. Just before mile 6, we went down some steps, crossed back over Fishburn Parkway, and then got back onto the trail towards the finish. From here, the trail is smoother and I was able to pick it up a bit.

Headed to the finish. Photo credit: Barry

I finished the race in 1:31 and change. This was the third time I have run the race. My first time, I finished in 1:44 and in 2019 when I was in good trail shape I finished in 1:24. So I was really happy with landing right in the middle of those two times on Saturday.

My next race on the schedule is the Dam Yeti 55K in early June. Between now and then I’m looking forward to lots of training, a few Trail Sisters events with our local Blue Ridge group, and some race volunteering.

Montvale 8.4 Miler – Race Report

The crazy weather continued at the Montvale trail races, the fourth race in the RNUTS series. For the first time ever, there was snow at this race. My running buddy, Kim, and I traveled to the race together and when we arrived it was a “balmy” 30 degrees with 20 mph winds and snow.

A beautiful day in Montvale

We picked up our race bibs and shirts and prepared to run. Before we knew it, it was time to head over for the pre-race meeting. At 9 AM we were off and running. Kim and I started the race together and ended up running the whole thing with each other.

The race started out on a grassy path that wrapped around the ball fields and eventually led to the creek crossing a little before mile 1. As expected, the water was frigid and not pleasant to wade through. We walked through the “shallow” side, which was almost knee deep in some spots. At least I didn’t fall in this one.

After the creek, we hit some muddy trail that became significantly muddier as we climbed up towards the little ridge area. The mud was very slick and was similar to trying to run in peanut butter. I was glad when we got through this section and found that other parts of the course were drier.

We started to hit some more hills through here and I tried to push myself and limit my walk breaks. I really enjoyed that Kim and I ended up sticking together. Sometimes it’s easier to push yourself when someone is right there doing it with you.

The temperature dropped steadily throughout the race, but I didn’t notice it getting colder as long as we were out of the wind. The sun even came out at one point and melted a lot of the snow that was previously covering the ground. Kind of funny how we started the race in winter, but it looked more like spring by the finish. It definitely still felt like winter, though!

Looks like Narnia

As we made our way through miles 3, 4, and 5 we hit the parts of the course that have lots of twists and turns. I always describe the trails in this race as being akin to one of those “crazy mouse” roller coasters. It’s fun to see people all over the place, but have no clue if they’re in front of you or behind you.

Exhibit A: GPS map of the course

We hit a surprise creek crossing somewhere on our way through miles 6 and 7. And then around mile 7 we retraced the muddiest part of the course. Once again we were slipping and sliding and doing our best to stay upright. It was really windy through here, too, and my face felt like it was frozen.

Snow gone
Some of the mud. Not a great representation of it.

I was glad to get down to the bottom part where it was still muddy but not as slick. We crossed back through the creek and then made our way over to the finish line, finishing in 1:54 and change. I was happy to finish in under 2 hours!

Afterward, we enjoyed some delicious post-race food. I had peppers and hummus, some infamous Mountain Junkies pumpkin bread, and a couple of Dru’s lemon cookies. I also tried some granola, which I’ve always skipped in the past. It was so good! I’ve been missing out.

After that we headed back to the car and prepared to head home. It felt so good to get some dry socks and shoes on. The next race up is the Mill Mountain Mayhem 10K – a race that has been voted both the most loved and the most hated race of the RNUTS series. Is it too much to ask for the temperature to be above freezing!?

Explore Your Limits 10K – Race Report

The Explore Your Limits (EYL) 10K was the third trail race in the Mountain Junkies RNUTS series that Barry and I are both participating in this spring. Thankfully, the weather was warmer and more favorable than the first two races, Frozen Toe and Forever trail race. We had a lot of rain in the days leading up to the race, but luckily the trails at Explore Park, where the race is held, were in pretty good condition. It was partly cloudy and in the upper 30’s on race morning.

Barry and I arrived at Explore Park about 30 minutes before the start of the race. We parked, hit the porta johns, and picked up our race bibs and swag. We dropped our swag off at the car and pinned on our bibs and headed back over to the race area for the pre-race meeting. At 9 AM we were off and running!

The first half mile of the race started out along the road and down a gravel trail. It was mostly flat and downhill, which makes it easy to turn in a quick first mile. From the gravel trail, we continued downhill on a singletrack dirt trail.

We crossed a low point before climbing up and looping around a trail section. Then the trail dropped us back down onto a gravel road section next to the river. The leaders of the 5K race, which started 10 minutes after us, caught me as we turned to make the short, steep climb up to the “old mill” area around mile 2.

The gravel trail looped around and came out in the Journey’s End area of the park. After passing through the parking lot, we hit what has lovingly been nicknamed “vomit hill” about 2.5 miles in.

I hiked all the way up this hill, and then turned on the road towards the finish line. At this race, the 5K and 10K courses are identical for the first 3 miles. The 5K splits off for the finish 3 miles in, and the 10K continues straight to do a lollipop loop. It used to mess with my head to run by the finish line and only be halfway through my race, but it doesn’t bother me anymore.

As I headed downhill past mile 3, there was a lot of two way traffic as the leaders of the 10K came back up the trail towards the finish. It wasn’t too hard to navigate and I just yielded to them.

Photo credit: Jay Proffitt

After about a mile, I hit the loop part of our out and back. It got quieter through this section and there were times that I couldn’t see anyone directly in front of me or behind me. I really enjoy those moments of solitude during a race where I know others are out there doing the same thing as me, but I also feel like I have the trail to myself.

We hit some sloppy sections through here that made the downhill slower going. And after all of that downhill, we had to climb back up to the top of the loop. There’s always more climbing than I remember through this section. Once I got back to the top of the loop, I hit some more downhill before crossing a bridge and making the final climb to the finish.

Barry was waiting for me towards the top of the hill and he cheered me on as I hiked and ran to the top. Finally, I made it to the top of the hill and hung a sharp right to cross the finish line in 1:19 and change.

Overall, I felt pretty good during this race and had a fun time. Montvale, which is next up on my schedule in a couple of weeks, is still my favorite but I think the EYL 10K is a close second.

Forever 5 Miler – Race Report

The Forever 5 & 10 Miler is a race that joined the RNUTS series last year. It is so named because it takes place on a part of the Hellgate 100K course called the “Forever Trail.” This trail is a notoriously challenging section of Hellgate, a 66.6 mile race, and I was intimidated to participate in a 5 mile race on it. When they added the race last year, I didn’t think I would ever sign up for it. But you know how things go. I’m doing the RNUTS series this year and I needed this race to get my 5 out of 7 races for the series.

We have had some harsh and nasty weather over the past couple of weeks, with three or four snow storms and frigid temperatures. The course received about 3 inches of fresh snow the night before the race, and the temperatures plummeted to 20 degrees with a windchill in the single digits on race morning. Have I mentioned I can’t wait for January to be over?

Barry and I made it to the race safely, dealing with a few slick snow and ice-covered roads. We got parked, checked in and got our race bibs, and then hunkered down in the truck until go time. Barry was running the 10 miler and he ran in shorts (!!) while I had on two pairs of pants and three layers up top. The 10 milers started first at 9 AM and then the 5 milers were off and running at 9:10 AM.

Off to the races. Photo Credit: Jay Proffitt

I had decided to put sheet metal screws in the bottom of my shoes the day before the race. It’s something I’ve heard of for a long time, but I had never tried it until now. As we headed down the first section of snowy trail, I was pleased to find the screws did help a lot with traction. I also heard a turkey gobbling in the woods as we headed down the trail (Go Hokies!).

The first mile was primarily uphill, and I alternated running and hiking. We also hit a few creek crossings through here. They were mentioned in the pre-race email, but I didn’t consider that there would be several of them for whatever reason. I wasn’t about to have a repeat of Terrapin, when I fell completely into the water when it was 20 degrees outside, so I just walked through the water instead of trying to rock hop and risk slipping. It did not feel good to have soaking wet feet, and with the out and back format I think we crossed water about 8 times.

One of several creek crossings

After mile 1, we hit some downhill. I was cautious at first before I realized that I really did have great traction going downhill and I wasn’t slipping at all. Part of what makes the “Forever Trail” so challenging is how technical it is. I think we actually lucked out with the snow, in a way, because it was covering the rocks in most places.

Around mile 2, the trail started climbing up to the turnaround point. It was very steep at times. Since the race was an out and back course, and I was towards the back of the field, there were a lot of runners coming back down. So on my way up the trail, I kept having to step into the deep snow on the side of the trail to let oncoming runners pass by.

Once I made it up to the tippy top of the hill, I said hi to Gina and collected my rubber band (to prove I made it to the halfway point) and turned around to head back down. I was able to make quick work of the downhill and enjoyed some pretty views along the way.

As I made my way past mile 3, the lead 10 mile runners started passing me. I hit some more uphill towards mile 4 and started wondering to myself how this race could be uphill both ways! Finally, I reached the top and enjoyed cruising primarily downhill to the finish.

Photo credit: Jay Proffitt

I finished the race in 1:42:06, which was actually a bit quicker than I anticipated. I didn’t have a lot of energy that day and tackling the snowy trails was a challenge. I did manage to dress correctly for the temperatures, which was good. I went with capris and pants on the bottom and a long sleeve, quarter zip thermal, and wind breaker on top.

After finishing, I mingled in the finish area briefly before grabbing some water and the infamous Mountain Junkies pumpkin bread. Then I headed for the truck to put on some warm clothes and get out of my wet socks and shoes. Barry finished shortly thereafter and after he enjoyed some post race food we headed for home.

I’m back to following a training schedule now and it feels good to have some structure again. It’s about a month until our next race, the Explore Your Limits 10K. I hope the weather is better! (Did I just jinx us?)

"I've opted for fun in this lifetime." -Jerry Garcia