Cloudsplitter 100 2019

On a whim, I signed up mid-September after careful recovery from this summer’s debacle. For those reading the first time, let me catch you up.

First off, Cloudsplitter 100 is a 100 mile race in the extreme South Western part of Virginia in Wise County (well either that or Scott County, but I think it uses both). Starts in Norton, VA and heads up and over several ridgelines and mountains to gain over 24,000 feet, and loses about the same over terribly rugged terrain of rocks and roots. It’s a smaller race, but has some amazing people show up. It was my first 100 miler one year ago and now I’m back.73129330_732719520531184_6400742392034492416_n

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After the Blue Ridge Double Marathon back in mid-April, I took some time off from longer distance running, cutting back to long runs of less than 13 miles, with the exception of 16 at Galena Sky Trail race. I did a few halves, one at the beginning of May and one at the end. Weekly mileage was pretty low, and I started lifting weights for cross training. I might have overdone it on my first few sessions, and suffered from ill effects during Galena that slowed me way down. The beginning of June, I took a flight out to participate in the Team BU event in Golden Colorado. During that flight, my legs swelled up really badly (an often common occurrence with me and planes). I tried running it off, but failed on hydration throughout my visit (trying to catch up was hard since I went into the flight dehydrated). The run following my legs started to feel very painful, and my left leg never got much better. I ended up running the FKT for Military Ridge State Trail the week after, and participated in soccer games weekly, then ended the month with a 50 miler…throughout this entire process since the Colorado trip I had countless doctor visits.

My insurance does not allow me to cut corners and see specialists right away so I had to go through the process of going through one by one. Finally, in early July I was able to see a sports medicine doctor and she ordered an MRI. July 8th, I was diagnosed with a fibula stress fracture, nearly completed in the middle of my leg (not near knee or ankle). I had cut back all running after the 50 miler at the end if June, and was just biking. I was shocked since I was able to run on it SO much and had my highest mileage running month ever…all on a stress fracture. I am still investigating the cause of swelling on planes (which also happens if I sit too long), but at this point my doctors have stopped really trying to figure it out. I am trying to still get a follow up with insurance on getting a gait analysis done, but not sure it’s going to be covered.

So began the long climb out of my first real training injury. Sure last year during CS100 I injured myself while barreling down a hill tearing my anterior tibialis tendon (which let me tell you folks, you NEED this to run downhill), but not something from overuse. I am still not convinced it was purely overuse since I had not been using it for a while prior to the incident. Who knows.

I had begun ramping up training in June to prepare to go sub 24 at Badger 100. And had I not been injured, I was on track to make a solid attempt at it. Instead I was on crutches, but volunteering at least. I swam my longest ever swim during this period, trying to keep my fitness, my doctor not allowing me to bike or do elliptical, I also included doing upper body weights 2-3 times a week and did core as my body allowed.

I was cleared to start running again towards the end of August. I was just finishing up my return to running program when I took my second trip out to Colorado for Rocky Mountain Trail Camp. This stung a lot because I was so afraid I was going to undo everything I recovered from. I was afraid the flight would again cause me to get another stress fracture. I drank like mad, and wore my medical compression socks a LOT. They hurt, let me tell you. I still lived in fear every moment. I couldn’t convince myself to go far, afraid one additional mile too far would send me over. I was depressed.

During this time I was seeing a therapist, but she really did me no good at all. So far in my life, I have not found seeking outside help has ever really helped me. I know people try to convince me that I just “haven’t found the right person”, but in reality, there probably isn’t. Every session with her felt like a waste of time. The only thing that was going to bring myself out of this slump was to get back out and exhaust myself…that feeling of accomplishment that you gave your body a good push. Only, I couldn’t.

This is the one time I stuck to myself and a plan. I started doing short runs, multiple times a day, 3-5 miles at a time. I biked every other day, and ran every other day. I ran when I didn’t want to, when the weather was bad, when I wasn’t feeling great. I was making great progress, and was able to gain enough confidence to do a few interval runs. Then it hit me like a piano falling from the sky…

I managed to escape it in the Spring, but here it was, a full blown sinus infection…the yearly plague of my existence. This one took me down hard too. I went to urgent care, and took care of it and was on antibiotics. Trouble was, this was the week I was truly going to test if I could run far without consequences, the 12th week post injury, when I knew no matter what, I was going to be ok. I was DOWN for the count, no exercise. Living became miserable. Even driving out to Virginia two weeks prior, I was still stuffed up and congested beyond reason. I wondered if I was going to shake it before race day.

As usual, I headed back home to Virginia ahead of time to squeeze in whatever elevation training I could get. I did some repeats of Sharp Top Mountain (rugged 3 mile round trip trail) and some Appalachian Trail stuff. I loved every minute of it, temperatures roasting my bottom up in the 90s. I savored every moment. Relished in every ounce of sunlight and every drop of sweat that trickled off my nose as I climbed hard as I could up those mountains. It was glorious and gave me a satisfaction you can’t get anywhere but on the beast coast…for me anyway. I’m weird. If nothing else went right, this was worthwhile. I came down from some of those runs and cried inside hard knowing nothing hurt. I managed to set a new record climbing up once.

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Sharp top trail

Everything in the bank I could penny-pinch was going to be in there no matter what I did. So taper crazies (even though there was no real taper in this training cycle), call it pre race jitters, got me on a new Santa Cruz bike. I rode up in the mountains the week prior to the race, testing out new bikes on trails I had never been on. What a blast. I can’t wait for winter to thaw already so I can rip up some trails on it.

Race day was going to be tricky in a lot of ways. I was underprepared, but injury free. I had no planned pace, but knew I wanted redemption on course. I put off everything about myself for this and tried to support everyone else…everyone from Team BU and Becoming Ultra season 7. I didn’t think about myself or my race in public. I didn’t want people to think I was being selfish by racing with the athletes. I was so excited for them.

But I figured out I needed this race for my own mental state. I hadn’t been able to do any late year goals now due to this injury and summer is my favorite season…I’d missed it all. If I played it smart, I could finish, I was ok with hiking and some running. Then I could go into the perpetual Wisconsin winter sort-of-happy (I’m never going to be ok with temps below 40, sorry, not sorry). I would give this race everything I had left to give…and more it turned out.

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So enough intro… let’s get down to this.

74487750_401168217224852_6069139593586802688_n I watched the weather carefully, as always. And as always, I watched as the temperatures disintegrated from 80s to 40s. It was such like fate that I just laughed at my own misfortune that always seems to happen. More bothersome was a week out, rain entered the forecast. It was at that point I rolled my eyes back in my head at the fact it wouldn’t be Cloudsplitter without cold and rain. However, the area had been in a drought for some months now, and I wondered deeply how much water would truly be on course even with the rain.

Pre-race, my sister got us (the family) a massage. It was nice, we had lunch and headed down to Norton by car on I-81. I watched as the leaves on the trees browned as we went further southwest. The drought had made it so the leaves on the trees didn’t display bright colors. I was still ok with this, though did want to see more color. At least this year it wouldn’t seem like an overgrown jungle rainforest with a side of hurricane. It would mean more dead leaves on the trail…a risky situation with what would lie beneath.

We arrived, I picked up my packet and started to meet the members of Team BU I had not met. We had dinner at the local cidery, which was a little stressful if I am to be honest (the food was rather slow, as well as the service). I headed back to the hotel and got everything arranged on the bed. I had no idea what I was going to wear until that moment, checking the radar, and last weather forecast before committing. I decided on my Inknburn 6″ shorts, a new baselayer by Gore, an Inknburn Tech shirt on top, starting out with balega socks (knowing the first part of the course was going to be dry), and my Altra Olympus. Temps didn’t drop too badly overnight, which was rough as usual. I slept from around 12am through 6am, better than usual though. I woke up a few times…it was hot in the room. When I awoke for good, I found out the 2 hour marathon had been broken. 72385463_970019090019530_3000181672986542080_n

I woke up Rich (who arrived by car from Raleigh with my pacer Sonja) soon after browsing weather and facebook for a final time before I turned my phone on airplane mode for 2 days straight…imagine no social contact with the world! I know right? I saw the temps were supposed to drop through the day and the current temperature was 63°F. Not bad I said. I decided then to leave my vest and jacket behind. Solid choice. Still wore the baselayer.

Rich headed up to get breakfast, and then we headed out to the start. Internally I was a mess, and such a disorganized mess it didn’t make it outward. There was no plan for pace, there was no thought process of how this would go…I had nothing to go on. I was a bit later getting there than I wanted. A few pictures were taken, and I ate a peanut bar as my pre-race meal. This went well, let it be known. I mean, I was actually able to EAT all of it! I was quite out of it when I lined up somewhere in the middle of the large pack inside the farmer’s market building. There was a prayer and then a musket sounded off our start. I soon realized on main street heading out that I was near Ginger of team BU. 73049143_2379333315671144_3624505012555612160_n I hung with her until she outran me about a mile in. I told her to go on, and I needed to go a bit slower. The mountains were covered in a cloud, weighing heavily on them. The road quickly turned up and to the familiar Legion Park that would lead us all into the woods and up the first climb. The bridge was slick as ice. I released my poles from their confines, where they would never return to for two more days. The first climb was not as congested as it was last year…less people stopping or climbing slow. My paces through mile 14 were about the same or a little slower this year, probably the lack of training (had to stop comparing at mile 14 since my data is super messed up from last year after my fall around there and getting lost for 3 miles). The climb was moist at best, not too wet, but traction wasn’t great in places especially with the leaves and rocks. Last year was still worse so I didn’t think about it too much.

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I hung out with a few 50k’ers in the jungle looking first miles heading up, and kept asking if they wanted to pass me, but they said I was the pace leader and the tour guide since I told them a bit about last year. Good group of dudes. The trail was not as technical in these parts, but kept climbing at a pretty steep pace. 72877473_748736482627593_5671622005061844992_n My mind kept wandering that I’d rather be hiking this up than trying to ride my bike up it (they were good mountain bike trails). We hit some bike obstacles as well, including a long wooden ramp and a ton of berms. We passed by the giant sandstone boulders as big as houses under the cloudy skies, threatening with rain later in the day. Eventually, the steep portion came (like really steep, I was very familiar with). I felt much better physically on the climb than last year, although I’m sure that had to do something with the slightly slower pace. I knew this opened up to a road which we would run on. And there it was! But maybe the course has changed from last year, but I remember it being more road here. We headed almost immediately back onto trails on the other side of the road (near Flag Road Rec area). I didn’t remember this. I soon left the 50k’ers and caught up with a 100k girl that I hung out with until reaching High Knob Tower, the first aid station. We kept each other moving and chatted. This part of the course was pretty boring, but remember coming down this section the previous year when it was littered with deep tractor tracks in the impossible mud at night.

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Soon I reached High Knob Tower. My mom and sister waited with Sonja. Rich had passed long before, as I expected he would doing the 50k (his first). I grabbed some Sprite and headed back out. I didn’t refill my gel storage…this ended up being a mistake. Some mistakes are hard learned and I can’t seem to ingrain in my head that I need to put stuff in drop bags and not rely 100% on crew……..

I was grateful to see them, but wanted to keep moving. I felt good, and felt like what pace I was going was balanced. Up at the actual tower, we took the climb down.

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I remember well the climbs up and down from High Knob Tower, but this year I would have to do it SEVERAL times instead of just one up and down. This year, they had to remove an aid station in order to satisfy the average aid station distances in order to keep all UTMB points at max (6), which was High Knob Recreation Area, a small parking lot about 1-1.5 miles away from High Knob Tower. Last year the course went:

 

 

 

Start -> High Knob Tower (closed 1st pass) -> High Knob Rec Area (pass 1) -> Edith Gap (pass 1) -> Bark Camp Lake (pass 1) -> Little Stony -> Bark Camp Lake (pass 2) -> Edith Gap (pass 2) -> High Knob Rec Area (pass 2) -> Edith Gap (pass 3) -> Bark Camp Lake (pass 3) -> Edith Gap (pass 4) -> High Knob Rec Area (pass 3) -> High Knob Tower (2nd pass open)….

THIS year however, there was no High Knob Rec Area, and you would continue past this to High Knob Tower which was a heck of a climb up to it, narrow, rooty, and pitted with uprooted fallen trees down the mountain side. This slowed me down.

On the way out to Edith Gap, I met Randy and Don, two others doing the 100 miler.

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Randy and his sandals.

Randy is a well known runner for his running sandals and I didn’t think twice about it since I knew a guy who also ran in them in Arizona from Inknburn. True grit to be able to do it in my opinion, but you do what works for you. I can’t imagine running x number of miles in other shoes too with small compressed toe boxes! Behind him was Don, military guy who had just DNF’d the Barkley fall classic 50k because of passing a kidney stone of all things! Great guys and lots of good conversations that passed the time quickly. I ended up stick with Don for a very long while. Don had done the Cloudsplitter 50k last year so he was familiar with the stuff we were going over and we talked about the differences between the two years as if we were far into the race at all.

 

Eventually we reached the dreaded rock garden of my nightmares from last year. This year it seemed so different (but then ended up being just as bad anyway), the rocks were not a round as I remembered, but they shifted something bad in place…more pointy. They lasted JUST as long, a little short of a mile, and I made sure I paid special attention to see how long it lasted. It was in this section I passed Rich and gave him a hug calling out to him smiling the biggest smile. I was SO glad he was ok!! Right behind him was a equally smiling Chelsea doing her first 50k as well. I wasn’t paying any attention to who was where, but she was the leading female! It was so great to see them, and they had no idea they were that close to each other. Soon I caught up to Ginger, as she took her time on the awful rocks. I wish her luck and continued on with Don. Eventually we reached Edith Gap (and maybe it’s Edith’s Gap, I don’t know), my favorite aid station from last year. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.

 

Last year they had Christmas lights strung about, a fire, many chairs, all sorts of breakfast foods, and the best orange drink (like sunny D) and mats to lay on…probably more. Well it was fine, THEY HAD IT ALL AGAIN!! I was so happy. I passed the place I had tripped last year and came into the aid station with a 13 min/mi. No getting lost this time. Scott from Becoming Ultra (my coach last year) was also there, and Ileana from Team BU. What a great recharge. I walked up and asked for a sausage patty. I was given one! I took 3 glasses of orange drink and was off with Don…the shorter segment between aid stations, 4ish miles. The last section was nearly 8 miles (although I told myself 7 the entire race, this helped mentally). Let me tell you, I hated every one of those miles. Although they were flatter, it turned out they were all downhill that you couldn’t feel one way, and uphill the other way. This section also had some really deep creek beds that crawled up for several feet almost straight up 90°. These were horrible last year as they were wet.

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The path from Edith Gap to Bark Camp Lake was technical and had some steep climbs thrown in every now and then but had some really runnable terrain if you were careful. I’m guessing it was around this time the skies “opened up” according to those not doing the race. I barely felt the rain and never felt wet. Don and I continued to make our way as I described the course from there on out and we kept talking about what we were doing. Boring, but it kept us going. We reached Bark Camp lake after running through some nice pines and smaller hills (runnable) and mostly tolerable terrain, walking the slick wooden bridges which I forgot to count again. I was looking forward to changing out socks here for fear that the creek beds that lay ahead were not so dry.

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But it was not to be. No crew. I looked around. I grabbed some coke in a slight panic, and headed out sad. This was now mile 19.7, and I was out of gels. Remember that hard lesson I don’t learn? This has happened a few times now, and it’s on me that I should know better by now to not depend on crews.

Right on my toes was Don however. And I recalled briefly before being proven differently that the section between Bark Camp and Little Stony was pretty easy and runnable. Upon reaching the first stream crossing, I learned two things:
1. This area is in a BAD drought, the creeks were dry as a bone, no running water.

2. The large rocks that crowded the empty streams were slick as the wooden bridges and posed a real danger. One wrong move and you’d be down in a very bad place. Caution was exercised in excess for fear of falling.

I didn’t dwell on mileage in this race. I managed to break the course down by aid station. My goals were to make it between them. This made time and mile pass by super fast. Before I knew it, I was at mile 24 and arriving at Little Stony. I was a little disappointed that we did not have to make the trek up the hillside to fetch a page out of a book to prove we’d been there. The lady at the aid station looked familiar and asked if she had been there last year. She was, and talked about the book. I grabbed a gel and oranges here and a lot of soda to refill my missing nutrition. I tried to look at the positives, and knew this was one of my fastest sections last year and it was only 4 miles from Bark Camp Lake which I assumed my crew would have gotten there by now. I blamed myself for being 90 minutes ahead of my time predicted there.

But people remembered me from last year! I kept being reminded every time someone recognized me. It made me feel at home. No other way to describe it. Very warm feeling.

After being blessed with a floss pick (thank you aid station for having them with the oranges!!), I headed back towards Bark Camp Lake, which went slower than I planned. The ground was very rocky and especially rooty through this section (more roots than rocks). I kept moving knowing it was mostly flat. Don caught back up with me. It was nice to have someone along. Great guy that Don. It only dawned on me that DON was spelled D-O-N and not D-A-W-N. I had a laugh at myself.

Upon arriving back at Bark Camp, passing by the struggling running cedar (I couldn’t think of the plant’s name for the life of me the ENTIRE race) wanting much needed water, I did not see my crew again. I was going to break down. I knew this aid station was super important the second pass because it was going to get dark before I could make it the almost 13 miles back to High Knob Tower. I got in some coke, not nearly enough in my panic, and told Don what was going on. I ask the aid station workers too if my crew had been there. There was no cell reception at Bark Camp, and no way to reach anyone. I freaked out that something HAD happened to Rich. I knew coming back down to Norton on that mountain side was not the most safe, and feared the worst. I asked the aid station crew if they knew if he had finished via hand radio. I didn’t remember his number though! I felt stupid. I wanted to cry. I decided I was spending too much time there and I was burning my now precious daylight.

Don saw the situation and knew about it. We ran back into the woods together, me headlamp-less. He had only one headlamp. Ileana was also supposed to have been there to pace me. It was mile 28 now. Deep breath. Whatever, I can make this work somehow.

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I mean, yeah, that’s the trail in a LOT of places of how it looked.

The nearly 13 mile trek back to High Knob Tower began. The skies began to break up, reveling sunshine and my spirits lifted a little. I made the most out of my running, and knew I would eventually hit a HARD wall, but I was not there yet. I had no gels, no nutrition, leaning heavily on drinking hammer endurolite. We agree to run as fast as we possibly could to make the most out of the sun that was left. Randomly we ran into Ileana, who had backtracked from Edith Gap to find me. I was utterly surprised but didn’t question it. I updated her on what was going on with the headlamp situation. She had a poor headlamp and a handheld light. Somehow we would make it through with these items. At Edith Gap, I drowned myself in liquid as fast as I could and picked up two sausages, one to eat along the way. Night time was breathing down my neck.

 

Along the way up and out of Edith Gap, the first place female was heading backwards with her arms over her ribs. I immediately went up and asked if she was ok (she was with her husband) and if there was anything I could do. She said she thought she had cracked a rib. I remembered not too long after Edith Gap the Rock garden existed…I wondered if that was what got her as I thought she was consistently about 2 miles ahead of me, which made sense. I began to hate the rock garden even more now. I felt so bad for her, but her husband said they would be ok getting back to the aid station which wasn’t too far away now. It hit me after she left that I was now in first. A new fire was lit that wasn’t there before. I knew 3rd female was about 2 miles behind me at Little Stony.

My math on our pace suggested we would make it to about the parking lot at best with the light remaining, but not all the way to High Knob Tower. The rock garden slowed us all down…per usual. It was getting darker and harder to avoid the obstacles in the trail. Upon reaching a lake on the left (me knowing we were very close to the parking lot), we shuffled around some light and turned what we had on and made our way through the now darkness. We arrived safely at the Parking lot of High Knob Rec area around when I thought we would, and there Rich and Sonja was with the headlamp. I didn’t have time to talk or be upset, I couldn’t let my emotions get the best of me.

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Love playing “where’s the trail”.

Ileana had thankfully managed to update me on how Team BU was doing. Chelsea had won the 50k, first woman, and Heather of Team BU right behind her I believe coming in 2nd! Rich had finished in 6th or something in a little over 7 hours. Kathryn was doing the 100k and still out there. Trevor, also of Team BU, the young 20 year old also doing the 100, was out there somewhere as well, ahead of me, as he’d been the whole race.

 

I was overjoyed for all of them. I tried to keep these things in mind as my anger was suppressed.

I headed back up the dreadful climb of which is High Knob, the highest point on course. I arrived and got what I needed to resupply. I took some time here before heading back out on the final out and back along the branch I had just come from…a nightmare in the dark. I still felt ok physically but slower and now chilling. I switched into something warmer and pants. Mile 40 now.

72138291_3718769388148601_5498405003351556096_nIt was Sonja’s turn to pace and I thanked Ileana and headed back out for the last 24ish miles of my nightmare. Last year by this time I was really feeling the effects of being injured, this year, feeling the lack of training by this point. My ankles could have really used a long run, and my feet were starting to suffer a bit. No blisters, but just pain. Ugh, this is just too soon, I was pretty dumb for signing up for this.

I tried my best to keep moving the best I could. Sonja could run more than I could, but I was so afraid of getting hurt, that in itself slowed me down. I can’t tell you if that helped my race or not even now. As she pulled me along, we eventually ran into someone who was laying on the side of the trail. Brows furrowed, I asked if he was ok.

It was Trevor. Didn’t look like he was in good shape, and I did tell him before the race if I passed him, I would drag him with me. And that’s exactly what happened. This was truly a low for Trevor. We tried to get him to feed and take some pain meds. A few miles later and he was up and at it again. We reached Edith Gap, where I had a quick sit, and refreshed and moved onto Bark Camp the final time.

We got Trevor to his family at Bark Camp. Rich was waiting at the lake, and was sleeping. I took a quick break here and refilled on stuff. I ate some little bites and they went down well. Well, heck, I should have brought more. The more you learn!

At this point, I started eating brownies. I was able to actually eat them so I didn’t complain. If you have never read about me and ultras, I have a VERY hard time chewing. I’m never hungry, and I gag at a lot of foods. So if I can eat something, it will stay down, but that’s IF I can eat. I had a grilled cheese early on too. Maybe it’s just the way they fix them at this race?

I headed back out, Trevor convinced he couldn’t run anymore. I said, “we’ll see”. The long way back was uphill, so if it was runnable we should at least try. I hated this section more than anything, and even more at night. I just wanted to be off of it. It was pretty miserable out there. Too long of a wait meant getting chilled, and that was the last thing I wanted to do. I spend a lot of time dragging Trevor with me and Sonja (Sonja also taking a huge role in helping that end of things). I debate in my mind if I should have gone ahead, but the night was too dark and it darkened my mood. This whole section. My wits were about me, as Trevor screamed behind me. As we went along, I couldn’t wait much more and plodded ahead after the rock garden. I spent some time alone.

It was great to finally reach the pavement of the parking lot coming back to High Knob Rec Area. One last climb. I slowed. I was fatigued and tired. My feet hurt and I wanted a change. I remember even my feet were this bad last year and it was DRY this year. I eventually made it back up, sat in the warm car, as my body temp dropped fast in the middle of the night. I fixed my feet, switching shoes, socks (XOSkin compression I wore last year preparing for water in Devil’s Fork loop), adding blister pads under the now-starting-to-macerate balls of my feet. I soaked them in some alcohol briefly to dry them out. Reapplied some 2Toms. I was sick of Hammer, and switched purely to water from that point on. My predicted time into High Knob Tower was supposed to be between 5:35am to 8:46am. It was still dark so I knew I was on the lower end of that since sunrise wasn’t until 7:36am. Sonja wanted me to stay, I wanted to go…I was cold. Trevor was somewhere. Rich didn’t want me to do that section alone, I did NOT want Rich to go with me after his 50k. There was a lot more arguing at this aid station…mile 64. I was tired and just wanted to go by the plan. The next 4 miles were mostly downhill, and then MORE downhill after that even down into the bowels of the Devil’s Fork Loop.

I ended up agreeing Sonja would continue pacing, but I would drop her if I was too fast. All three of us ended up heading out and me and Trevor took the lead down the now gravel fire road at a good clip.

Soon after about 1.5 miles, Trevor dropped off somewhere to pee in the woods. It was still dark out. I was on my own again. I was on my own until I got down to Devil’s Fork Gate, a new aid station manned by the Boy Scouts troop. It was still mostly dark but light was coming. As I was heading down I would stop and look back, and saw no lights. I was ok with this. I refilled on some soda and a small ham and cheese sandwich at the aid station but the lack of grilled made it mostly unappealing. I tried some chicken broth but it did nothing for me but burn me. Frustrated with nutrition, I sat in the chair for a bit afraid to go into the loop without light. Soon, Sonja showed up…but no Trevor. I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t think he passed me, and the aid station guys didn’t say he checked in. I asked about the water levels in the loop. They said dry as they’d ever seen it before. As sad as it was to hear for environmental purposes, it was good news for my feet and speed. I decided to head out with Sonja.

It was slow going. I saw the sun start to rise over the mountains I had never seen before through the trees to my left. There was so much cloud cover last year, and it truly was stunning to see it rise. The sun will rise…it has to. I kept that in mind, and I’m not sure why. I guess I thought renewed energy would come. But it didn’t.

I remember how painful this section was to me. I thought how this wasn’t too steeply graded downhill (OH HOW I WAS WRONG), and why I couldn’t run it last year due to injury. I was in a low physically, but not so bad mentally. I was drained. The grass went on forever, and I power hiked most of this. I should have ran it. I SHOULD have ran it.

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Mile 72 came and went. Uneventful for the most part. Then we arrived at the loop. It was my perception that this was the same loop I did in April. Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t, but one thing is for certain: counterclockwise was the harder direction hands down. I might go back there and do it that way. I wondered if Mr. Karl Speedygoat got lost here or how he handled it. Soon after starting the loop, I ran into two other 100 milers. A guy with red hair who was pretty upset having done a mile in the wrong direction. I told him with complete confidence that counter clockwise was the right way. I don’t think he believed me, but what else was there to do?

The long slog through devil’s fork loop was…awful. It never has been a highlight, but this year seemed worse, maybe I was worse off physically (sans injury). Everything seemed impossible, but I keep moving forward. Sonja waned. The downed trees were so tall to get over for these short legs, they were SO TALL, why did they have to fall ON THE TRAIL?! How did someone make a trail out here, why did they make a trail out here. It was so precarious in SEVERAL places for lengths of time. I kept thinking about how dry it was. Why did it all seem so uphill when it was net downhill to the devil’s bathtub later in the loop?! Everything was so much steeper. But honestly it was as steep as I remember, but better traction this round. Each mile ticked by at roughly 2mph. A crawl, quite literally. Navigation wasn’t too bad though.

Nearing the end, we found the bathtub…it had barely a trickle of water going into it. A truly heartbreaking sight, that had been so lush back in April. I couldn’t get my phone out since it was trapped in a pair of tights. I was already wasting enough time piddling around the loop at my pace. Eventually I came to a stop at a large LARGE boulder field that used to be a creek. Scott was standing on the other side (me, confused where to go for the first time in a long while). He caught up to us and asked where Trevor was and what way to go. At the time, nothing made a lot of sense, so I said, “I can’t wait here, I have to get going”. As soon as I left, I was oddly enough able to press the pace a bit and run. I felt good actually.

72769256_2757992770898539_3745217391986999296_nI ran into the Devil’s Fork Aid Station, mile 77 just about. Mom was there along with the family that ran the place. My sister was ready to pace but I was highly freaked out about it not being the loop we did. I was so afraid she would get hurt. I panicked and asked Rich to pace me the loop…JUST the loop. I couldn’t go through that again alone. They didn’t have my supplies from the car, but that was going to have to be how it was. I recalled I was still in first and so badly wanted a quilt prize. I knew Rich could climb quickly up the hill out of Devil’s Fork. I knew what was coming. I did not fear it.

We started the rough 1+ mile climb up the broken down fire road (can you really call it a road though?). 73125917_583748768829836_2182633153544323072_n The only non-technical (technically) part of the loop. There were still a ton of larger rocks to navigate but hey you take what you can get. I settled in and made the grind up. It didn’t take as long as I thought, as I made it up in about 25 minutes, I thought, a PR from last year! It turned out it was on of the best strava times once I uploaded my data and got a trophy. The loop was not pleasant the second time either, and I tried to go faster. I tried to convince myself I was going faster. It was awful. Again. I just don’t remember it being that bad I guess, or had this expectation since it was dry it would be better.

No, the rocks were slick in places with the dried creek, there were ropes you had to take hand hold of as you  made you way along a narrow bank, super steep drop offs (do NOT fall off the mountain side, Andrea told me so), climbs that made my calves feel like they were physically separating from the bone… the side of my right foot pinged with pain. I couldn’t tell what pain it was anymore. Both my ankles seemed to take turns aching terribly, screaming when a rock would tilt the wrong way when stepped on wrong. The terrain was tearing me apart. Breaking my legs down. One thing I KNEW I had were my quads…and they did not fail me one time. I knew the wall would come, and I then realized the wall had been hit long ago in the night.

When I upped my water intake, I ached less. Que the water. Something I noticed as I went along, I would have ups and downs not only physically when running or whatnot, but also each pain seemed to take turns announcing they were there and in charge. I knew this came from undertraining, and it was my fault for that. I took on something I very well should not be doing for my own “pleasure” and amusement, so I could go into winter knowing I had something under my belt.

72294432_2909551352604050_6043731091049676800_nThe pain had been building for quite some time. Not sure if muscular or bone. All I knew it would come and go in waves. I didn’t seem to have any real mental lows where I wanted out, but at the end of the 2nd loop of Devil’s Fork, I then realized why there were so many people who just plain quit after mile 90 despite feeling ok with nothing apparently wrong with them.

It would all be over. This didn’t really occur for me mentally, but I understood everything. An epiphany you could say. All of a sudden, at mile 83, I got the why. To be sitting, showering, warm, relaxing, everything would be over. And all you would be left with is the utter regret that you could have kept going. People who have done the 100k have long mentioned that race runs like a 100 miler (granted the 100k is almost 70 miles). So what does that make the 100 miler run like? Things I thought about in my daydream like state around the end of Devil’s Fork. Rich didn’t talk much, though I wished he would, it’s just not him. I was in no mood to chit-chat about anything. I was highly focused on not dying off the side of a cliff and hitting rock at just the right angle to prevent my ankle from lopping sideways every 5 seconds. This course definitely takes the wedding cake of all cakes of your mental capacity. I think I’m trained enough to endure any sort of length of focus, but buyer beware, this course will give you enough to think about every step of the way. Looking up was hard to see the beauty around us.

The last mile of Devil’s Fork came not swiftly (although I would pray it would, it just doesn’t, I don’t think, for anyone). I was not able to run it, although I tried my best try. I accepted the low point and kept moving the best way I knew how…forward.

Back at the aid station at Devil’s Fork, my family waited, and I need to use the restroom. It was locked up. I was upset at this, and I tried to keep my emotions under control, a mighty task at this point. The sun was shining and it wasn’t cold anymore. It was afternoon, and I had 16ish miles left in this stupid race. I knew I would make it at this point no matter what happened and that released a giant burden off my…well, chest and everything else…except the feet…they stayed sucky.

I got my bathroom break and a sandwich in me. I sat a little while longer. I decided I had enough time to make it to High Knob before it got dark. That lightened the mood as well, I didn’t have to take my headlamp quite yet. I wanted a singlet, but no one knew where my clothes were. My back had started chaffing pretty early on wearing the new baselayer out of box, off the tags. The thin back and my bra were not best friends. I had tapped it up but still felt it ping occasionally. It was warm enough I could have rid myself of it, but not today, not tonight. I gladly accepted a whole grilled cheese and soda. I packed up and went out…with Rich…despite my better judgement.

I desperately did not want him to continue on, but I knew climbing was still easy for him. Rich did NOT need the extra miles. But I assumed he would stop at the top of this long climb (none too steep anywhere, just a solid grind). Sonja was tired and needed rest. The new plan was to let my sister pace me from High Knob down to the finish now. She deserved the finish spot patiently waiting for me this whole time. 72842461_1362195983930694_4469551939851386880_n

I was going to make the turn to head up and out, I ran into the other girl. I’m sure she had been running with her husband as well (I asked her what happened after the race was over), but he was not to be found. I asked if she had her headlamp going into the night. She did. We had a good very short convo about the loop and how slow it is. I asked her what loop she was on, and she had one loop to go. I wished her luck.

I knew this meant she was about 8 miles behind me at this point and she still had an aid station to check back into. I felt safe, so I relaxed a bit and made sure not to pressure my heart rate up the heart rate breaker hill. Up up and up. Me and Rich talked as I took my time climbing, drinking more and more. But this time seemed different…longer. Was it really my slightly slower pace that made this climb last what felt like a whole mile longer than last time?! I was sad. I felt like we should have reached the sign, maybe I missed it. I had been seeing faces in the leaves for some hours now. I don’t think it was hallucinations, but more so just starring at things that have holes in them for too long and being bored. Like that cloud looks like a dragon sort of thing. This leave looks like it has a face based on the holes in it. This one is smiling…oh nevermind.

75054768_615078372358054_5643828906617208832_n The LONGEST CLIMB OF MY LIFE. Last year it was more “exciting” in the respect that I had to be careful with EVERY single step because the climb past the loop sign (1.5 mile up past the aid station) turned into just steady climbing with double track that had been used to pull the aid station there last year out of danger from all the torrential rain. The tire tracks were huge and my feet were small. My knees slide out from under me it seemed every step of the way. Now the steps didn’t seem as exciting, but there were a ton of dead leaves, so I guess that was ok. But not so mentally engaging to make time passage a thing at all.

Really, when did it stop? I’ll make this blog go by faster and spare you my complaints. It eventually turned into a grassy road that met up with the aid station at the top (short answer was 3 miles of this climb). I tried to preserve a bit of energy for the gravel climb. But no, I don’t remember this stupid grassy road being this steep coming down?? Ugh. Roll eyes cue here.

Made it to the Gate Aid station again, nearly mile 88, and 4 miles to the top of the actual climb. Yes this climb was over 7 miles in length, and the first 1.5 miles being stupid and steep and stuff. I could see someone like the speedgoat being able to run this sort of (the not as steep parts), but for that long? I want a live feed next time. I grabbed some soda and pretty much was in and out. I just wanted to get to the last aid station, mile 92.

But first I needed chapstick. ANYTHING in the world to coat my lips that were pulsing with my heart rate in them. The only thing they had was neosporn, and I took it. It wasn’t good, but it kept the badness at bay. And thus the climb started….well continued. The beginning of the end.

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WHY DOES IT KEEP GOING UP?!

I pressed on a pace a little bit, think big toe on the gas pedal. I would grind a bit and back off. I had to pee at some point, so I sat off to the side and told Rich to wait and watch for cars. After, a few cars met us. It was a narrow gravel road, but vehicles could access it. I was so tired I did not want to move too far off the side of the road, the oncoming car got pretty close, and I said, “well if this is how I go, this is how I go. This must be how it ends, and if it ends, I won’t be in pain anymore.” I was joking but in my tone of voice it must have sounded pretty depressing. I think it freaked Rich out a bit. One more car came by and asked, “What is going on here?” Rich tried to explain, but it didn’t come across very coherent to the average citizen I don’t think and he drove off mostly unsatisfied I think. I wasn’t going to stop moving.

 

Then a car was approaching with Virginia tags and a personalized plate. I thought maybe at first it was family, but it was friends. It was Ginger! She was heading down to the Gate to pick up Trevor to pace, along with Chelsea. He was making it along. So he was behind me. I was told that he was in front of me this whole time since I first got to the gate after I had lost him. This made me very confused since I had never seen him since I left him on the gravel road we were now heading up. She asked if there was anything I needed.

And just like the spongebob meme, I NEED IT, scene, I asked for chapstick. This lovely dear lady had an extra and graced her possession on my poor soul. I thanked her with my life and laughingly considered DNFing due to chapped lips.

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UP UP UP UP UP UP UP UP UP UP UP

As we were nearing the last 2 miles of the climb, Rich got a text that the girl behind me was past the Gate aid station we had JUST been at. I panicked, had I been taking it too easy? I was having a much better time at this pace and was enjoying my time out there. Now I am freaked out. How? How did she move that fast through the loop?? It’s not totally unreasonable considering she had dropped her husband (who, to be fair, looked not great when I passed them at mile 40 on the out and back). I shuffled faster uphill. I hurt more.

Rich sent word ahead of me what I needed to get in and out of the aid station.

73324875_764330327329491_8880702941636329472_nI ticked down each quarter mile as we went up. My mom had come down a little ways to meet us (sun still up) and give me the dirt. I wanted my sister to pace me, but I knew what pace I had to attempt in order to get downhill fast. Past High Knob Tower is was mostly steep downhill to the finish in the last 8 miles. I arrived at High Knob Tower, mile 92.7 in a hurry. I forgot to check in, and got someone to go tell them and headed straight for the aid station car they drove. I took some acetaminophen and washed it with as much Sprite as I could manage down. I grabbed the headlamp and tied my jacket around my waste if pace came to worst case at some point. I kept walking away. We agreed that Rich was the only one fast enough to keep up with what I planned to do. It STILL didn’t make sense that she had caught up, but there was no way of confirming or knowing.

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Goodbye everybody, I’ve GOT to go, gonna leave you all behind and face the truth.

And off I went. It was a slow run at first, the grease in the joints needed to get a move on. My feet cried out, oversensitive to every touch, every blade of grass and touch of a leaf. I cried out as I moved quickly down the short paved section and back onto the trail. I arrived at the most non-technical grassy section of the course which was moderately downhill and had a few rocky sections. I recalled how nightmarish this section was last year as the winds picked up at night, the rain spat at my face, the mud shifting my body in direction it wanted unpredictably, and leaves hitting me from every direction…questioning where I was every 2 minutes (which I’m sure Sonja didn’t enjoy much of). Now I was racing it, and secondarily racing the sunset. It was 6pm, and sunset was in 56 minutes. I knew I had a bit of cushion after sunset with the clear skies, but not much. I wanted to make the most of what time I had.

 

More crying out, every time my foot hit any rock hidden beneath the leaves. I flew by two guys who just starred and was basically like “yeah, get it!”. Rich stayed behind me as I hit mile one from the aid station at 10:55 minutes, my fastest mile split the whole race. I maintained close to that for as long as possible, my eyes tearing up. But my quads were still ok. Every now and then my calves would splinter in spasms in various areas and I would limp, giving way to the pain. I barreled down as the sun quickly set. I made it to about 2 miles to the finish before needing the headlamp where all chaos broke loose.

I believe I lost about 15-20 minutes doing one of two things: messing with the headlamp (would not turn on other than one flash once), or getting lost. I turned around a few times trying to find the markers in the suffocating new darkness. I told Rich he will no longer give me directions. We went silent. I was mad. I lost so much time. I couldn’t let Rich go without light, but I needed it too to go faster. This is not something either of us could compensate for.

Rich had not really run on trails in the dark, if at all in his life. I had, but I was so tired and things were failing. I was still slower than Rich at times, and losing light did not help things. I had so much packed into my front pockets, I dropped so many things, picked them up, wasted more time. I wanted to cry. I had bought so much time and the fear of the unknown crushed me. Eventually I gave Rich my Kogalla light which I desperately wanted to put on bright but forgot how. I took Sonja’s headlamp and just used whatever light it produced. We made do. This whole night running at cloudsplitter hasn’t gone great now I think about it. The steep section eventually came as we found our way and I knew my way from there no questions asked. I knew I was two miles away now. One hard mile, one easy pavement mile and I would fly down that with all I had left.

I had expended everything I had left long ago. This wasn’t even fumes anymore. I have honestly no idea where it came from. But I knew the moment I stopped, it would be over for me, my body would be done and spent beyond its limits. My tendons were depleted of strength, yet I could still give a little power when I needed it. I thoroughly expected to be the most sore I had ever been coming soon to a couch near you.

The trail heading down was now but powdered dirt that lingers in the headlamp glow. I rushed as fast as I could manage down the 17%+ decline, sliding down some of it like there was skree and rocks. But the end was a little too rocky for me to manage and my ankle fell to the side. I pushed off and on anyway. I could hear Rich tripping over nearly everything and I felt incredibly bad. I could hear his breathing as he tried to keep up with his deteriorating condition. This was way too many miles for him and now I was pushing both our limits. I hit Legion Park and even ran across the slick bridge against my better judgement. It was almost all downhill from here and we could see now. No truck waited for me this year. I guess the advantage of getting down the mountain fast.

I cried out as my leg ached and begged me to stop. They threatened to peel apart right then and there. But my quads held me as I hit the last mile with everything I had in me. I passed the intersection in town to turn left, tried to time it so I wouldn’t have to wait for traffic. I ran as fast as I could to cross the street before the truck came. I didn’t care.

I got to the last “hill”, the overpass leading into town and ran it. I did not stop. I ran past the hotel. I ran straight down the sidewalk, ignoring another car wanting to pull out of a parking lot. I realized then it was still around dinner time and normal people were still awake. Passing mile 100 at a sub 11 min/mi pace now. I was in disbelief but still carried as hard as I could. I was going to come in under 36 hours. I was going to beat it…my original goal last year that would be really nice to have. I turned the final corner to get to the farmer’s market where I had begun and a sharp pain shot through my left foot from the bottom through my entire body making it want to collapse. I had felt this before!

The macerations that were on edge so long ago had quite enough with my shenanigans of going this hard and burst on me in an instant, just a few feet away from the finish. Every rock was like glass, every step hurt. I put my head down and ran it in. I was done.

72786347_2552781651629555_4401268105943187456_n35 hours and 54 minutes later. Beating my time last year by about 3 and a half hours, my average pace in the last 8 miles was 14 min/mi. I had no idea how to react. I had gotten first female by some combination of a miracle between one DNF and low attendance and sheer grit to finish strong this time despite my hurdles. I was presented the quilt I had so badly wanted. I did not want to ruin it, it was so pretty and precious to me now, I said I could not hold it, I was so dirty. I didn’t want to come off as ungrateful, but may have seemed that way. I was happy and angry and everything all at the same time (have I said everything enough this article??). I was upset I went that fast at the end, I was mad I didn’t get my pacers in the right order, unsure where the other girl was behind me, I was so glad I survived, and though I did well for myself but I suck at being prideful.

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You did it lil one!!

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YES I WANT IT, I WANT THE QUILT BADLY BUT I AM NOT CLEAN/WORTHY RIGHT NOW!!

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Me contemplating life and what pace really means in the grand scheme of things.

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That face when you think you did something you shouldn’t have or maybe didn’t think you could do?

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GIRL, save that garmin data!!!

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GIRL, save that garmin data!! PLEASE!

I probably missed a lot of pictures I should have taken with people cause I was so overwhelmed by so much going on. Then my mind turned to a shower. I sat there and decompressed for a bit. I got the nice handicap room at the hotel and headed back to get clean, wanting that more than most stuff you could offer me in the entire world.

 

72682000_2627168190659911_2239520794243760128_n.jpgI can definitely say my feet were the main issue here, very underprepared with time on feet and not getting the stimulus of longer miles or hard terrain. I did what I could. I headed back to watch others finished. The warm and welcoming farmer’s market. Plenty of chairs and a reason to hang out with others. I talked with Rob Apple and cheered others waiting on word from Trevor. Trevor eventually came in after 39 hours, a little past when I had come in the previous year. I let Trevor’s mom and sister know what to do with him since Trevor had been mostly out of it since mile 40ish when we found him.

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All smiles, see, just give me a hot minute!

Don finished along with Randy after I did. Randy made the comment that this course is just takes more out of you than other 100s he has done. I trust his judgement. Glad I got to hang with such great athletes out there. I was so proud of our Team BU at this event too. What comradere! It was also amazing to meet the guy who was directly behind me when I tripped and fell last year hurting myself, hearing that he knew I finished. People really remembered me.

It didn’t go as planned, and I wasn’t as fast as I could have been, but I did what I could with what cards I dealt myself. Maybe a shorter distance calls out to me next year. Who knows. This race always feels like home. There are never any surprises, but it will be interesting to do a race that’s not there of that length. I am signed up for the Badger 100 again this year, so we shall see. I also have Georgia Death Race with Ginger next March.

I am on day 4 of recovery. I can walk mostly ok, my feet were the battle. My back has hurt the most for external pain from the chafing. My arms and quads came out completely unscathed somehow. My calves feel like they have deeper damage, unknown what that means or really feels like (I haven’t pushed it). My bones ache in my feet, but my knees are vastly improved from last year and didn’t hurt at all. I can only say this might have been from the lack of mud. My ankle swelled up pretty good along with my feet. I fought very hard to keep them from turning into complete balloons. My feet grew about 1.5 sizes last year, and this year only 0.5 size post race, so I did better in that regard. The swelling is subsiding finally as of today in my feet, but I feel a lot of fluid like pressure underneath still. I am generally confused how I got away with all that, but I know there could be deeper issue that would start to matter if I try to return too quickly, so for now, I am taking my time and going to do some biking and walking.

Cloudsplitter will always hold a special place in my heart. It was my first and second 100 finish, both very different. The course is extremely challenging boasting almost 25,000 feet of gain and equal loss over 101 miles. The constant up and down and extended climbs make it both hard and easy. Hard in that it’s just a physical grind, and easy in that it keeps you from going too hard over time. The terrain is a killer, I have yet to meet someone who has done the 100 who hasn’t had swelling and complications after. The nerves in my feet are far from happy and probably the most problematic issue I had (have).

The course is a good one, it does require you to be physically well on the devil’s fork loop, and I question why that part of the course is so far into the race (seemingly dangerous at times). The only thing I absolutely hate is the multiple out and backs. With that many trails in the area, I am sure they could branch somewhere else at some point to find the extra 24 miles needed to prevent the extra out and back. It’s just really daunting and boring and takes away from the quality of the course in my opinion, as well as making understanding the flow of the course confusing since you don’t go all the way out to Little Stony a 2nd time. There is a lot of appeal to courses that are long and don’t have repeating sections. I know there are probably issues concerning UTMB points, so I get not wanting to change it. But the course IS in the Jefferson National Forest and there is plenty of opportunity to get gain on the other trails. If this is changed, I would consider doing it again, but I just have no interesting in going back and forth all night long.

I would like to thank my mom and sister for helping crew, I know it was hard, especially trying to crew Rich for the 50k at the same time (and he crushed it even when he got lost for miles on end). I know my sister was supposed to pace, but I guess now she will have to come to the next edition of what crazy thing Steph does next. It was hard to figure out where the other girl was behind me and I couldn’t risk losing getting first female in probably my only race. Thanks to Sonja for coming all the way out and helping pace and be patient with my journey…get to Kona!! Rich, oh Rich, against my better judgement you paced me for miles and miles, and most of those miles did not have smiles. You are the very best and I know you overextended yourself for me. I know it was your choice, but let’s get you trained for that next time so I feel better about letting you do crazy pacing things when you have a race. Thanks to the City of Norton, I think it was the head honcho who is always taking pictures…you sir are quite awesome and a good guy for the whole community. Thanks to all the volunteers, the ones who remembered my poor soul out there last year, and all the work they do…they care so much, especially the family out in Devil’s Fork parking lot. Thanks to the RD, who I am sorry I ignored in my mass fuzzle brain of finishing…thanks for bringing this race together from so far away. Thanks to all my friends brand new from the race, to the old ones who have supported me…you know who you all are, many hugs. Thanks for not calling me out on doing this ridiculous feat and instead just being there for me. We might all be crazy. Thanks to my new pacer Ileana who is the biggest sweetheart in the world. Ginger for the chapstick OH MY GOODNESS THE CHAPSTICK YOU HAVE NO IDEA!! It saved my life. All of Team BU who was there especially for Trevor who I tried to help as much as I could while maintaining my own race. Thanks for picking him up after we carried him through the night. This is TEAM!