Friday, October 22, 2021

Cloudsplitter 100 (Race Recap)

Norton VA
Saturday, October 16 - Sunday, October 17
Ultra Marathon #37
Weather - Rainy at the start, fairly mild

The best/worst decisions are made over beer. Ben and I were at Over Yonder in early March trying to plan out our racing season. I already knew I was running Bigfoot 200 and I had signed up for the West Line Winder 50K. At the time, we thought Vermont 100 was still happening. We were talking and somehow, Cloudsplitter 100 had come up. I had it on my radar because it looked incredibly beautiful. It also looked scary as shit, and was ranked as one of the most difficult and challenging east coast 100 milers. Ben actually bit the bullet before I did, but we both signed up the same afternoon. I figured I could just piggyback off whatever hill training I would be doing for Bigfoot and could just... coast through?

Race Day

Rabbit top, INKnBURN skirt

Once I had actually fallen asleep, I slept pretty well. I didn't get a ton of sleep, but any time I can get more than 4-5 hours the night before a race is a success. I had gotten most of my stuff ready the night before, but had realized as we were going to bed that we hadn't remembered to tape our ankles, so we had set our alarms even earlier - for about 5:40 am.

I rinsed off in the shower so that I could braid my hair while Ben got ready. Once that was done, I heated up my breakfast and then Ben taped my ankles first.  We got out the door right on time as planned, around 7:20 am. As we feared, it was POURING rain on the drive to the Expo Center. UGH!!! I knew it was a 90% chance of rain, but COME ON.

The lot we had parked in the night before wasn't full, so we found a spot pretty quickly. Neither of us was excited about going out in the rain, but I wanted to get rid of my drop bags, so we headed in. We saw Dave and said hi, and I used the bathroom. With about 15 minutes to go we went back outside to get our packs and poles. Another bathroom break before it was time to go. Ohmygod how is this time already here??
Me and Ben

Me, Ben and Dave
We saw Beth (who we met this summer at War Hammer) and said hi. With minutes to go, Ben moved up to the front of the line and I stayed in the very back where I like to be. My watch was taking FOREVER to load the course, so by the time the prayer was said and the gun was shot, I still wasn't ready. Finally I just went, my watch started and left the Expo Center dead last. For example, the picture below was taken five minutes into the race. Aside from the guy in the jacket and shorts near me, look how far gone everyone already is!
Ominous fog where we are headed, plus the continuous rain...
Since it was rainy, I assumed it would be cold and I started wearing my Houdini. Before we even left the road (so less than a mile in), I was already uncomfortably warm, so I walked and took off my pack and jacket before we entered the trail section.

I should be used to feeling inadequate by now, but it still catches me a bit by surprise at every race. HOW am I so slow? HOW is everyone SO far ahead of me? HOW am I struggling to keep up after such a short amount of time? HOW AM I GOING TO DO THIS??? I've gotten to the point in these long distance races where nearly every mile click of my watch becomes a quick calculation of how much time I've "banked" going into the harder sections of the course where I'll struggle to maintain the minimum overall pace to finish in time. This was no exception.

Once we first hit the trail I was immediately concerned. Mile 2 clicked at 23:42 - which was barely the pace I needed to maintain overall (24 minutes for a finish right at 40 hours). Looking at my stats, there was 770 feet of gain in that mile, but I'd really been working on hill climbing and that was definitely slower than I expected to be. When I could actually briefly look around, I was really struck with how PRETTY it was! The trees were almost a neon green, and the varying colors of fallen leaves really contrasted with all the mud (eyeroll). I didn't get to look around often as it was really raining pretty hard, and the trail was insanely technical and slick.
Taken between around 2 miles in - one of the only "smoother" sections I remember
Around mile 3

I'm glad I got this shot - the rocks were all over the course and were SO slick, whether they were covered in moss or not. This was one of the least technical areas, but it was really pretty.
At some point in the lower section on the way to the first aid station, I actually passed a woman, then later passed another runner before we got to the double track section going towards High Knob. Maybe all the climbing I had been doing in training was finally paying off, as I actually did pass a couple of runners in this lower section. One of those was a runner I was following on Instagram (I found him because of the race hashtag) and we actually have a mutual friend in common, so that was fun. I spent some time talking with a man named Luis from Panama! He actually complemented me on my hiking at one point when we were leapfrogging back and forth. I'd pass him on the climbs and he'd catch me on the rollers and downhills. He was an interesting guy, we talked about races we had done and that he had even gone to school in Colorado. Small world! I met up with a woman that I would run with for a bit until we got to the road that we'd be on for a short while for the aid station. 

I knew that every second was going to matter in this race, so I wanted to be in and out of every aid station as quick as possible. The first aid station at High Knob Tower was wrapped in a tarp because it was so cold and windy! I don't think I'd ever seen that before, but it was really smart. I didn't need my drop bag and just filled up my water and grabbed food of some kind before getting out. Less than two minutes later I was on my way, and Kiran and I headed out together. We stuck together a bit, although we clearly had an unspoken agreement that we didn't need to stick together. It was still raining pretty heavily, but the temperatures were relatively mild and although I was wet, I wasn't cold at all.
About 3 hours in, 11-12 miles?
At one point on the way to the Edith Gap aid station, I got briefly off course when I missed a trail connection.  Thankfully, I had the route loaded into my watch, and I only got about a minute away before I realized I had messed up and saw a couple guys crossing the fire road to trail continuation. This really reminded me of what happened at Black Hills 100 a few years ago, and I still don't understand why people that mark courses don't put confidence ribbons at junctions. Truly baffling.
Maybe around 12-13 miles in?

I think this was right before I got to Edith Gap?
The first two aid stations were the furthest apart, with it being nearly 8 miles between High Knob Tower and Edith Gap. Edith Gap would end up being my favorite aid station later in the race. This time through I grabbed some warm breakfast food that was out - and good thing, because it would be gone later in the race. In and out of Edith Gap really quickly as well, then on to Bark Camp at nearly 20 miles in. The trails between here was so technical, and there were so many water crossings. I had initially thought that I might want to change my shoes at Bark Camp at some point, but figured this would be too early to bother with that, plus it was still raining. At some point, Melina (one of my pacers from Bigfoot) passed me - I had no idea she was even running! Bark Camp was the only aid station that had a permanent bathroom, so I used it while I was there, grabbed some food, then headed to Little Stoney. 

This section was definitely more flat than some other sections, but it was still very technical with lots of water crossings. This was the out and back section where I saw Ben for the first time - he was a lot further ahead of me than I expected, maybe 6 miles? I also saw Dave and Beth, and they both looked great! I ran for a bit with a younger guy from North Carolina who was attempting his first 100K. He had rolled his ankle in this section and he was taking it easy. Like the other aid stations, I was in and out quickly, although I stayed a tad longer because I saw "Moon Pies" and had never heard of them and the volunteers convinced me they were amazing, so I tried one. It was just ok.

Heading back towards Bark Camp. The guy I'd been running with didn't catch up to me for a bit as he took a little longer at the aid station, but when he did, the time passed pretty quickly talking about running and gear and all sorts of other things.
Edith Gap aid station
There were sections here and there that were a little less technical, and I heeded to Steph's advice and jogged where I could. While I got to Edith Gap aid before it got dark, I knew that there was no way that I would be able to get to High Knob Tower before it got dark. I threw on a long sleeve shirt and pulled out my headlamp since I wasn't sure how quick it would get dark.

Somewhere around the 9 hour mark I had put in music. I'll do a quick plug for the Jaybird Vista headphones - they are AWESOME. I like that I can wear just one earbud at a time and still hear everything that is going on around me. (Especially since there was a MOUNTAIN LION seen on the course a few days before race day, AND, I later found out that Steph actually saw a BEAR). Anyway, I was moving right along, but even though I had done this section before, I could not remember ANYTHING. 

I was heading back up to High Knob Tower and people coming down were warning me how cold it was and to put on a jacket before I got up there. I ran into Ben and had him hold my pack while I pulled my jacket out and put it on. Ironically, seeing him there was the low point of my race. I was really irritated with the water crossings and technical trail and was doubting my ability to finish the race - and this was REALLY early. 

I was getting a little tired at this point and planned to use my Beach Body caffeine drink before it got too much later. I grabbed some food and headed right back out. It WAS really chilly and windy at the aid station, but as soon as I got down below it into the trees it warmed up again. Having literally just left this section I was already in a better mood because I knew what I was up against. I would have to go back through Edith Gap to Bark Camp and then back again. It was definitely going to be a long 24ish miles.

Nothing truly remarkable happened in this section. I wasn't cold, I wasn't really tired. I rarely ran because it was so dark. Edith Gap was still my favorite aid station, and I liked that they decorated with Christmas lights - the only aid you could really see from a distance.

Onto Bark Camp! Saw Ben again, he seemed to have slowed down a bit. Saw Dave and Beth. Nothing truly interesting, still. In and out at Bark Camp, just stayed long enough to use the bathroom and have a grilled cheese and tomato soup. I had been playing leapfrog with two guys in this section and they both decided to drop! I spent a few minutes trying to convince them to keep going (for selfish reasons, I didn't want to be alone on the trail), but they were done. I grabbed one more Beach Body drink, ate some chocolate covered espresso beans and headed back.

So here I went, heading out for 12 miles completely alone. One older guy had left right before me and I made it my mission to try to keep up with him. Like Luis earlier in the race, he would drop me on the flats, but I was able to keep him in sight on the climbs. It was getting a little chillier, but not too bad. Biggest issue was that I had to pee so many times!

I finally passed the older guy for good when he stopped to puke on the side of the trail. After he insisted he was fine I kept going and didn't see him again. The section to Edith Gap scared the crap out of me because I didn't see ANY flags. I hadn't noticed earlier when it was light, but at night I didn't see ANY. Thankfully, Kiran had told me that the course followed the yellow diamonds that were tacked to trees, so I was able to follow those, but it was really unsettling. 

I didn't stay long at Edith Gap and then back to High Knob Tower. I had pulled out my puffy coat to add a layer since I assumed it would be even colder than when I had been there previously and put it on over my pack. I was right! It was definitely cold, and still windy. I sat in the aid station for a minute with Kiran, who had already dropped to the 100K and done the Devil's Fork loop. She warned me that it was pretty brutal, but noted that I would be doing it during the day so it might not be as bad. My eyes were a little tired, so I set my alarm for 5 minutes, but didn't even make it that long before I decided I better head out. I ate some soup, drank some coffee, and then was going to leave. I didn't see any flagging and the volunteer told me to follow the road until it ended and then I would go left onto the trail. There was no one ahead of me or behind me, so I was a bit surprised when I saw a sign directing me to the right?

But I kept going because I saw glow sticks on the ground. I was confused by what Kiran had said - it would be 3 miles of really rocky and then a lot of climbing. What I was on was mostly flat. I did some running here and there (and it was COLD by the way, I was still wearing my puffy), but I pulled out my strava, only to find out the route had closed. Shit. Looked at my watch and it said I was on course. But was I? If this was a loop then why were the people I was seeing coming towards me?? I tried looking at Gaia to see if there was another trail I should be on? Could I maybe see headlamps somewhere else? I seriously spent probably an hour thinking that I was going to arrive at some unknown aid station and be disqualified because I went the wrong way. 

The sun finally came up and I warmed up a bit. I saw the aid station, and as soon as I gave them my bib number they told me that Ben was sleeping in the hammock waiting for me! I told him that I thought I came in the wrong way, but "thankfully," I had been on course all along. This aid station didn't really have food, but I was hungry and had yet another peanut butter and jelly sandwich. 

The Devil's Fork loop was 7.7 miles long. And we would have to do it twice. I had already heard this sections described as "grim," along with a bunch of "think this is bad? Just wait." We were lulled into a false sense of security early on. The single track was fairly tame, with a few short and steep climbs. Then the real fun started. More downed trees. Huge chunky and moss-covered rocks mixed in the downed leaves. Sharp turns and even more water crossings. We knew the low point was the Devil's Bathtub, but not being from the area we didn't know what we were looking for. We came across a long crossing that even had a ROPE to get up out of the basin. WTF was this?! And why were there so many people out recreationally walking here? Why would you subject yourself to this??!

Finally, we got through and saw signs directing us to the lower aid station. We had to cross a big water crossing, one that got me wet to my knees because I was no longer confident in jumping across rocks. Up a big hill, only to go down about 25 stairs to get to the aid station. We are about 77 miles in. We grab caffeine and I take a ham and cheese sandwich and eat while walking out of the aid station. Somehow, I missed the fact that the climb out of this was about 1,000' of climbing in just over a mile. It was STEEP. The only good thing is that it was not technical? Ben was really struggling at this point. I knew that if we were going to finish this thing that we needed to keep moving. That meant not taking of packs and not screwing around because all those little time sucks add up to big time being wasted.

Ben was seriously considering dropping to the 100K, although he'd still have to do the last 12 miles, meaning he'd be over 90 miles in with that finish. I had done the math, and if we could maintain 30 minute miles for the rest of the race we would finish. Of course that meant doing this awful loop a second time. He was resting on the trail and I said I would rather finish than take the easy way out and I took off. That lit a fire under him, and although it took him a while, he caught up to me, and we agreed to work our asses off and get a FINISH.

There was a very conscious effort to be efficient and keep moving, and we definitely did the second loop quicker than the second. We came into the aid station again (after getting completely soaked in the water crossing when I slipped on a big rock crossing and ended up on my ass) and saw Steph! She was ready to pace us to High Knob - warning us that she would be fine on the climbs, but that her quads were toast from doing the 50K the day before and that downhills were a no go.
We did not spend a lot of time at the aid station, grabbed food and headed out. On that soul-sucking 1,000' climb we leapfrogged a bit with another couple, but they eventually got out of sight. Steph told us that would definitely be the worst of the course, and that while we still had climbing to go, it wouldn't be nearly as bad. We still had a few miles of climbing past where we had turned off for the loop. It certainly didn't seem familiar, nor had it seemed that steep going down! (All photos in this next section are from Steph - thank you!!)

I had been dreaming all race about new aid station food - dare I even hope for pizza? ALL MY DREAMS CAME TRUE WHEN WE CAME INTO THE AID STATION AND THERE WERE FIVE PIZZAS. OMG!!! 
Dear Pizza, I love you
Slammed a cup of coke, then we headed out towards High Knob. We had less than a half marathon to go at this point. OMG ARE WE ACTUALLY GOING TO DO THIS?? The road (where I thought I was off course) also seemed way more steep than I recall, but it was way easier to do than that horrible hill out of the Devil's Fork loop. It was getting a little chilly at this point, so we put on our jackets before it got too cold. 

SOMEHOW, we managed to get to High Knob Tower before it got dark. We just wanted to get this shit done, so we pulled out our headlamps, filled up bottles, said goodbye to Steph (and her husband and mom) so we could get as much done in the daylight as possible. We were told the first 3 miles out of the aid station were pretty runnable, so we should run as much of it as possible.
By this time, we were getting warm, and we knew it would get warmer as we dropped, so we stopped to briefly take off our coats before we did the last 7-8 miles. By now, my pneumonia (or whatever I had developed) was getting pretty bad. I was coughing pretty regularly and spitting out some truly disgusting stuff. I led the way in terms of pace, and we did some run/walk intervals. 

This section was the leaf-covered double track that I barely remembered from the start of the race. By the time we turned onto the actual trail part, it was dark and the time of running was gone. We were always surprised every time we would turn a corner and we would have more climbing. Like how? How are we not going down yet? We were twisting and turning through the woods and seeing if we could remember landmarks that might indicate if and when we would ever be done with this race.

When we finally did get to some descents it seemed WAY steeper than I remember (although like I said earlier, mile 2 we did climb nearly 800 feet, so it makes sense). 

COURSE. NEVER. ENDS. We came across a guy and his pacer moving pretty slowly and we passed them, commenting that if we ever got to the bridge that we'd really be close! Finally, we got to a road section, but then we dropped back into the woods for a fairly long section neither of us remembered. FINALLY WE GOT TO THE ROAD. Initially I had said that I didn't plan on running, but I could have sworn I heard people behind us and I didn't want to get passed in the last mile.

So we did more run/walk intervals. After what seemed like an eternity, we made it to the main street. Woo hoo!!! Turned off my headlamp because it was light enough in town to not need it. We ran the last few blocks into the Expo Center and go to finish hand in hand again.

Oh my god we did it.

Steph had stuck around to congratulate us! 

Steph still had a long drive to where they were staying for the night so they headed out, and we realized that there was no real food at the finish and it was 9:00 pm. On a Sunday. In a small town. Ben spent a good 10 minutes calling all the local places, only to find out nothing was open. Applebee's down the road saved the day as the only thing that was open. 
We had a celebratory drink and some food before heading back to the hotel where we passed out almost immediately.

Official Time - 37:04:06
Official Place - 48/59 (there were 97 registered, 23 dropped to 100K and 15 DNF)
Gender Place - 12/12
Garmin Distance - 100.65 miles
Garmin Time - 37:03:46
Elevation Gain - 18,087'

  • Well in terms of difficulty, this did NOT disappoint. Holy crap was this hard. Ben thinks that the only way to train for this (in Colorado) is just repeatedly hit your feet with a sledgehammer. As an aside, I only had two bad ankle rolls! Not bad!
  • I wore my Topo Athletic Ultraventure 2's for the first time longer than a few hours. I've been a Hoka Speedgoat gal for years. Initially I figured I would change my shoes, but I actually never did, and my feet actually felt fine until the tail end. Never changed socks, either. Crazy I didn't end up with a single blister!! Not even the ones I usually get on the sides of my heels.
  • Of course the volunteers were amazing! Especially the Scouts at Devil's Fork Loop Gate. Amazing. Anyone that spent any time out in that cold rain is a saint, in my opinion.
  • I LOVE THAT EVERYTHING HAS THE DATE. The medal. The buckle. The shirt. All year specific. I love it!!
  • Only real two complaints are the aid station food was pretty bleak.  A handful of more warm food options would have been great. It was "ok" but not great, and it really got hard to choke down the same two things. The other complaint is the incredibly high price of the official race photographer. There were a handful of pictures of me, none of them particularly wonderful, and the price tag for a digital picture is $35! Per picture! With no "package" or "discount" for multiple prints. I'll have to think long and hard about buying any. With that said, the faster people got a lot of free pics from "Explore Norton VA" that were posted in real time on Facebook - which is super neat!
Gear I found essential:
  • Zensah high neck bra
  • Rabbit EZ tee, perf in short sleeve
  • Rabbit EZ long sleeve
  • INKnBURN skirt
  • Salomon Lightning Pro jacket
  • REI Rainwall pants (seriously, how have I ever raced without these?)
  • Zensah mini-crew socks (one pair lasted whole race!)
  • Topo Athletic Ultraventure 2 shoes
  • Dirty Girl Gaiters
  • Ultraspire Zygos 4.0 pack
  • Leki's Micro Vario Carbon poles
  • Kogalla. I used one Batpak 3 that lasted the whole night, plus a few hours the second night.
  • Petzl headlamp as backup, which I used a few hours until I got to my Kogalla that was in  a drop bag.
  • Bula fleece-lined hat
  • Smartwool liner gloves - didn't need anything warmer this time around!
  • Dry bags - pro tip I learned before Bigfoot. Smaller dry bags in my pack depending on what I needed have been a huge time saver looking for things. Also, these helped a ton for drop bags since it was raining.
With all that said, no, I would not run this again. Definitely a one and done event. Keep in mind this place is in the middle of nowhere, and the closest airports are hours away. The town of Norton is small, but has everything you might need, and everyone was ridiculously nice. I recommend this, but no, you won't see me there again.

Thank goodness for a finish, finally.

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