Here is a big post. A fellow runner Greg, who ran this did a video. He gave a better description of the course better than me.
With couple (decently hard) ultras under my belt, Rock ‘N the Knob was not an impossible race, though this one literally knocked the air out of me. I think I say this for all my races. It was hard hard, yet it was only 26.2 miles. It felt like I was running 30 or 40 miles.
I came into the race humbled by last year experience of doing a Half Marathon there under 4 hours (report). Note normally I could run a Half under two hours. I also became familarized with the race organization since last year (I ran their Camp Anderson 8 hr event). These people are involved in some hardest trail races in the Atlantic region (e.g., Black Forest, Eastern States, and World Ends), none of those races are within my ability to do at this time, except for this one.
There was no doubt I would finish it. The question was more like when and how soon. We had 9 hours to run the full marathon. I did not really set a goal how fast I would do it beforehand but while out on the course I was kind of aiming to finish under 8 hours after talking to a few people. It was a soft goal. I really believed I could do 4 miles an hour, so 8 hours were not that strange. Spoiler, I finished at 8:25.
Last year I started way too fast and then choke around mile 3 with cramps and all. I was gentle with myself this time and I did not try to keep up or pass anyone. It really came with the experience of able to lock into your own pace and ignored everyone else. We had a strong field too because most people were gone by the time I get going!
I actually started way back of the crowd like the last 5 or so people and did not push on the quarter-mile of the road portion. I remember in other races the road usually is where I would push hard because you want to get into the woods with a sufficient lead over the slower people since most people slow down a lot on the trail.
We entered into the trail portion at a speed I liked. Of course everyone slowed down too, but not too slow. I knew I was at the right pace. We were kind of walking for another quarter mile before the line thinned out even more. We trail runners would roll our eyes at those walking on this portion so early on since it means they were not properly trained for trail racing. I was a patience guy though and used this time to chat with the couple runners ahead of me.
The guy in front of me remembered me from the Laurel Highlands Race I did in June – but unfortunately, I didn’t remember him. For me, I usually only recall people by what they wear and the hydration pack they carry. We ran for a mile or so as the crowd continued to thin out more. I used the chance to pass him, since he was pacing his friend and the pace seemed like unbearably slow. Normally I don’t pass people this early in the race. I called myself the course unofficial sweeper because usually I am the last couple guys on the course and you kind of know who would finish and who would not especially in a trail race.
Miles flew by under me. By mile 6, we reached our first big climb. The race had a name for each ascend and descend — as a way sometimes to demoralize/tease runners rather than for identification purposes. I don’t recall the name of that particular climb but it was a long climb like going up on the side of a cliff. Many of the big climbs were like that. They were not impossible but nearly there. I talking about getting down on hands and knees if not careful. I doubt unless you are the top 10, everyone would walk up these climbs. For me, even walking up on them were tough. On some of them, we had to crawl.
Unlike in my previous race, this time the hill really got me dizzily out of breath. No matter how many ultras I had run before this, it was a challenging section. I was no longer able to keep up with the group pace. I was not necessary in a group, but the people I were with ran on, Greg and Dina I think, whom I kind of stayed with for an extended time. By the way, if you want his perspection, check out his video recount.
This was when I also caught up with Jenn at the top of the climb as we pulled into an aid station (Raven’s Nest, I think).
Initially Jenn was just a random runner. I wanted to pass her quickly and leave her behind. No more waiting for people – I told myself.
I did not really stayed to chat or what not with anyone at the Aid Station but left for the next section as soon as I could. This was mostly downhill for next few miles. We reached our second long climb. Jenn caught up to me. I was kind of surprised. We leapfrogged each other couple of times afterward. Jenn was one of the nice runners (everyone were nice, but she was especially so) because she offered me her food, not that I needed any, since I packed my own as well. We did chat a bit by then. I don’t remember what, but I showed her my granola bars. We got to the third climb – I called it the waterfall but the real name was Beaver’s Dam or “I’ll neetle do this again” as the director called it.
By then I might have a bit of heat exhaustion. I could not keep up with Jenn, not that she was going fast but I was definitely not feeling great and slipping in my pace. I did not want her to wait for me or anything. And she didn’t. It was everyone their own race. We just passed a runner who was sitting in the creek. He certainly did not look good. Later he told me he threw up 4 times.
We continued the ascend. Not long after that Jenn was way ahead and was out of sight. I felt like I was about to faint by then so I quickly looked around for a place to sit, maybe that would help. This was from my experience of previously fainting on the trail when I had Lyme Disease. You kind of know all sudden that you don’t have any strength left and you feel as if you were walking on air.
I sat on a tree stump or a limp of a fallen tree. Then immediately I started throwing up all I had eaten and drunk that morning. It wouldn’t stop, like a fire hydrant, stuff kept gushing out in torrent. The poor runner behind me arrived and told me it had happened to him too – he was the guy we passed at the creek and he asked if I were OK or needed anything like salt tablet. I did not have strength to reply. I did not feel ok. I wanted to quit the race right then because I had no more strength to move or do anything. I was done. He told me to sit for a while and I should be ok as he had sat at the creek. I listened because not like I had a choice. I was too weak to move.
Throwing up was good because I was no longer fainting. But now one of my ears was ringing. It was as if it got stuffed or maybe like swimmer ear. I didn’t pay attention at the time but later on it was very distracting to me when I started to run. I felt I had vertigo.
After a few minutes, I was no longer throwing up, I felt I could stand up again. I made it to the top of the climb, which was not that much since we had climbed a lot already. I was at mile 16 by now. I slowly walked to the next Aid Station – I think it was the Heaven Hairpin at mile 18. The section was not hard after the climb. I remebered running it last year and was probably one of the few runnable sections in the race, but this time, I was walking because that was all I could muster. Once I arrived, I plopped down on a chair a volunteer offered up. Volunteers served me with water and sodas and chips. I might had the look of a seriously ill runner because the way they treated me. My friend Aaron was there. He was sweeping the course for the half marathon event. They had an earlier cut off time but they ran almost an identical course, just without a six mile side track nor the six mile extra loop at the end of our course. I was about 20 minutes from my cutoff. Time was not a concern to me at all, though the aid station captain was kind of concern about me she might have to cut me. I might have rested way too long at the station. The next Aid Station was at mile 20 about 2.4 miles away. I knew at least I got to make it there. The time then was about 2:20 pm. I felt much better physically when I left the station. Aaron asked if I wanted to run with him as he would sweep the rest of the race. Hell no. Any day would be fine but not today. It was kind of a joke at the beginning of the race we made – I said I would see him out on the course and we know probably not likely since sweeper means being the last person, and we know I wouldn’t be that slow to able to meet up – but we did anyhow.
The next section had one of the steepest climbs and descends. We climbed to the top of a ski slope, ran to the bottom and climbed back up and ran to bottom again and guess what, climbed back up the third time all within the two miles. I believe we might have done half of the course 6000 ft of elevation within the two miles. So it was mostly walking for me and very slow walking. Time flew by.
I had part way with Jenn for maybe couple hours earlier or even 3 hours since the Beaver’s Dam but on the way up on the final climb after “I need a sherpa”, Jenn showed up at the foot of the hill. I caught my breath and waited while she caught up. Of course I was suprised to see her again because she should have been miles away by now. She explained that she and a friend (Carrie/Careen) had wandered off the trail the last mile and only finally found the course again. She was dispirited (and frustrated) and wanted to quit and was going to if we get to the next Aid Station aptly named the “quitter row.” She surely can run, so it was mostly a mental thing.
This was her second marathon and I don’t blame her for quitting. I was thinking of the same too. Though physically I think she was doing fine. She was just in an emotionally turmoil. Running or not running at this point in time did not matter to me. I felt I did my best. We were 5 minutes from the cut-off by then (I didn’t know at the time but Jenn did and might have felt pressured by the deadline). My body had recovered enough to run by now and I was able to keep up with Jenn’s quicker pace. I did not try to convince Jenn to go on or to quit. I felt I should give her room to sort it out at the Aid Station. It was her decision either way. Ultra/trail races can be dangerous and if the runner doesn’t want to be out there it is many times more so. I didn’t want her to get stuck out there and be miserable.
Even without Jenn I believed I could make the last 6 miles in two hours to finish the race. Jenn seeing me prepping when we arrived at the Aid Station and asked if I was going back out. Sure I said. She decided not to quit as well and rushed me through the Quitter Row.
What so tempting to quit at the Quitter Row is that was conveniently located next to the start and finish line.
Our friends though wouldn’t let us quit. We too wouldn’t quit. The final 6 miles were just one long descend of maybe a mile or two to the bottom and then a last scary ascend. It was a section I truly enjoyed in this race because I finally felt like I was in my element again. We were greeted with the last and final aid station at the bottom. There was no time cutoff at this station. Then we had couple almost impossible climbs back up.
This was the Cadillac Alley because a Cadillac was found here a week before the race on a narrow trail where it was impossible for car to get there since we are miles away from any roads. The Cadillac was still stuck there on race day. There is a lore passed down of what actually happened.
I was pretty strong at this point in time in my opinion but my legs were cramping occasionally if I was not careful at the way I bended them when crawling. We literally crawled our way up on our hands and knees up. Several times I slided back down as I climbed and it was frustrating. I just couldn’t get good traction.
Jenn started showing signs of fatigue too. She felt at mile 5 earlier in the day (I wasn’t present at the time) and her knees were hurting she said. She took several breaks during this final climb (I felt I didn’t need to stop) – and she apologized to me repeatedly for her delays. I did not rush her nor leave her behind this time. Her boyfriend charged me to get her through this section at the Quitter Row and I felt a bit responsible because of that, also by now I was pretty sure we would finish the race, and there was no rush to finish quickly or beat the cutoff (I might have saved 5-10 mins if I went on ahead without her but so what). In my mind we had to go slower than half a mile an hour to not make the 5 pm closing. Jenn and I were pretty much hitting a 4-mile an hour pace (This is fast for ultra). However, I think time was mostly on Jenn’s mind as every so often (like every half mile) she would update me on the mileage and time, which I didn’t ask her to do it. Her watch was still working. For me, my watch died at mile 18 so I was no longer fixated on the time or distance (because I forgot to charge my watch the night before), but in general I was kind of aware the pace and distance – it just comes instinctively having done so many races even without someone telling me.
The last mile was flat. I was already basically in my celebratory mood. I was strong and was getting stronger with every passing mile. I ran and led the way here. We caught up to a few people. I told Jenn we are not taking prisoners – basically we are to pass them as quicky as possible. We finished strong at 8 hrs and 25 mins. I think the guy who encouraged me to rest did not make the cutoff as Jenn later told me we only had 5 minutes to make it to the Quitter Row and he was like 10 minutes behind us. I did not see him again even at the finish.
I think a dozen or so dropped from the race. (90 ish people signed up, about 60 or so finished). I don’t think the friend from Laurel Highland finished either. This was kind of sad. I saw the last person came in.
This was one of few races my friends were there and we relaxed and enjoyed the food. They exchanged stories and jokes. I had a great time winding down – like did you know a game trail runners play called hashing? It was a game to get a bunch of friends into the woods. Someone would leave behind signs using chalk/flour and the group would follow and leave new signs. Basically I think you get lost in the woods together. We talked about stuff like that. I felt so good to be in the company of runners.
It was a good hard race. I always love a tough one. My friend compared it to a mini 100 miler of the Eastern States. I can see why. It had many climbs and technical challenges. Jenn too was a good trail buddy and I was glad to met up in the final portion. We finished it together.