2010-07-10 - Skyline Challenge 50k

~31 miles @ ~17 min/mi

http://zhurnaly.com/images/running/Skyline_Challenge_2010.jpg"Bear!" whispers Kate Abbott, as she stops on the trail in front of me. We're climbing a mountainside at mile 24 of the toughest 50k I've experienced, the 2010 Skyline Challenge. Less than 100 feet ahead an adult black bear is foraging in the brush. I peek over Kate's shoulder and contemplate fleeing. The bear lifts its head, sees us, and hustles away up the hill. Whew! Half a mile later a six foot long black snake sunning itself in the middle of the path is an anticlimax.

It's the second year of the Skyline Challenge, the first time on a new course. Since the race starts ultra-early on a Saturday morning Kate's husband Victor kindly gives me a lift to their home Friday afternoon. I enjoy a dinner of carry-out Chinese food and friendly conversation with Kate & Victor's lovely sons. At 2am I rise and make coffee. Kate and I set off at 3:15am and arrive at the start/finish—a campground near Gore Virginia—a little after 5am in spite of torrential downpours on I-81. We miss the turn from US-50 onto Gore Rd but hook back and soon locate it. This is a small race, about 150 runners, so sign-in under the canopy proceeds quickly. Rain turns to drizzle. We retreat to Kate's minivan and await the 6am start.

As we stand at the back of the massed runners Kate and I hear an announcement: "Runner #1—the lights are on in your car!" Kate has bib #1 (as usual "Abbott" comes first; I'm last or almost so) and she's pretty sure it's just a map light that I failed to turn off. But as the pack roars away we decide to divert to make sure. (It is.) We're in no hurry today, which turns out to be a Very Good Thing. A quarter mile down the road, solidly in last place, we see a crowd of runners dashing toward us. They all took a wrong turn; the course is only intermittently marked, and the posted map is puzzling. Kate and I step aside for them to sprint by us, then resume our leisurely pace. A few other slow runners join us. I find a shiny new apple on the road, pick it up, and carry it to the next aid station.

The race zig-zags along dirt roads and footpaths that today are mud wallows and small ponds. We climb, descend, climb again. Kate slips and falls, bloodying a knee. Shortly thereafter I lose my footing and coat an arm with mud. It's warm, near 100% humidity, so we're totally sweat-soaked. We're briefly heartened when we see faster runners coming back to meet us from taking wrong turns, which happens frequently. But eventually even the schadenfreude fades. We're walking more than we're running, and the day is young.

At Aid Station #1, mile ~5, I send Kate ahead while I pause to apply grease to already-chafing nether zones. When I rush out of the latrine I overlook the course ribbons and head down a campground road. At the next T-intersection I veer left, see no markings or footprints, reverse course, and still find nothing. After a few minutes of befuddlement I retreat in shame to the aid station where volunteers soon put me back on track. I press hard up increasingly steep hills (see elevation profile below) and eventually—hooray!—see Kate picking her way carefully up a dizzying slope. At the top, where the race joins the blue-blazed Tuscarora Trail, we pause to catch breath. We're exhausted and now in both a figurative and literal fog: a cloud has settled on the ridge line. Through woods and over rocks we go. The next aid station is half a mile off to one side, along a power line right-of-way that traverses a deep valley.

Kate and I have run hundreds of miles together and can say absolutely anything to each other. Kate is braver than me, however, so she breaks the silence first: we're not having much fun. In fact, Bad Words are an appropriate description of our state at this point. We agree to contemplate dropping or cutting the distance short. We could skip the middle segment and make it a 20 mile training run, for instance. I note that there's rumored to be a significant country-road out-and-back for miles 12-22. It may be easier on us than the hills and mud. We confer and agree to reserve judgment until the next aid station.

More runners pass us now, some who went off course, others who started late. After a steep descent over mossy wet-leaf-clad rocks, on which I slip and bruise my hip, we arrive at Aid Station #3 and get confirmation that the next ~10 miles are on-road. Kate and I feel better now and unanimously decide to go onward. Trotting the level and downhill parts of the paved streets we make up some time. We're well ahead of the 12 hour cutoff, and Kate hypothesizes that we might finish in under 9. I remain skeptical.

The faster runners, returning now, meet us as we proceed. Kate peers at one approaching: "He's carrying a kitten!" she exclaims. Yes, in his hand is a little heap of bedraggled fur. A litter of baby cats was abandoned on the roadside, apparently, and racers are taking them back to the aid station. They're cute; Kate is tempted to adopt one over Victor's certain objection. (Fortunately for her marriage, however, they've all found homes by the time we get back.)

Thus far except for my five-minute solo confusion at AS#1 Kate and I have stayed on the right path. We're in West Virginia now, on Mt Airy Rd. Damp insulators on the high-tension power lines buzz overhead. Mobile homes and small cabins border the street. Kate and I pat ourselves on the back for our navigational prowess now, as we chat about life, physics, family, fellow runners, and the wide range of topics that come to mind in the middle miles of an ultramarathon. Trail talk with a good friend is frank and fun—so much fun, in fact, that for half a mile we don't notice the absence of blue blazes or orange ribbons. Arggghhhhh!

Markers have been infrequent enough that we don't panic; maybe the aid station is just beyond the next hill? No ... perhaps it's around the next corner? Hope dwindles, and finally we turn back. Up hill and down dale we go, cursing our hubris and watching for course signage. Finally, blown halfway around a fencepost and obscured by brush, a streamer appears, and a blue blaze. The route to the mid-course aid station follows a dirt road that branches off.

Our dilemma now: trek the extra mile or more to the official waypoint, or declare ourselves enough over-distance to make it a moral 50k if not an official one? Kate is irked at our mistake and favors cutting our losses, but after a brief debate (and some gentle chiding about her use of salty language) we decide to try the side path. The verdict is swayed by our dwindling total water supply; I have extra and am happy to share, but Kate is running quite low. Up another big hill we slog. At the top we find two cheerful volunteers who are about to close the aid station. We thank them, and though they say it's unnecessary I insist that we run around the woodpile that marks the turnaround. On the way back down to Mt Airy Rd we meet a few other laggard runners and applaud their determination.

From here on our pace slows significantly. We coo over rescued kittens at the next aid station. We climb the hill, less muddy now in the afternoon sun. My energy level recovers after our adrenaline-charged encounter with the bear. Kate is cheerful and pulls me along the ridge. The fog has lifted and we enjoy views of West Virginia and the George Washington National Forest. The course is asymmetric and the return segment omits the uglier initial muddy roads, branching more directly down to the campground. When we can hear the announcer at the finish line we commence running, and arrive in 9:24, not quite DFL.http://zhurnaly.com/images/running/Skyline_Challenge_2010_elevation.png

(see Skyline Challenge 2010 for Kate Abbott's race report) - ^z - 2010-07-22