TLDR – I finished the IMTR 50 mile race in 12:23:00 unofficially. As to why or how read on. (or to read my last year race, IMTR (40) for comparison)
Part I: why I did this race
The exact finish time was not recorded because the race closed exactly at 12 hours. I came in 20 mins after. I had no regret that I did not reach my goal to finish it under the official closing time.
I felt I used every tricks I had to get this “fast” time. I was happy that it was not too late in the day but was light enough for me to continue on all the way to the actual finish. They were going to pull me off the trail.
My mom came along to accompany me on this trip. 12 hours was way too long for her to wait at the finish line, so she waited at the hotel for me.
The next day, I took her up to see part of the trails I ran on and to see some of the views I saw. Unless one walks on it, it is hard to convey the joy in me. We hiked a baby section, maybe a quarter or even an eighth of a mile around Skull Gap, which was a significant point in the race.
My point was not to impress her or anyone how difficult the trail was, but to show how much fun it was for me to it. At the end of the last blog, I mentioned about the sharing my glory. Walking on the trail I did, is like walking on a piece of history. Similarly, at the end of the race, I got to experience a friend’s making history (more on this below).
I think readers have similar questions as to why I did it in the first place, especially knowing likely I wouldn’t finish it. It was for the fun. Running is fun.
It is hard to justify my hobby as fun. To most people it seems like suffering.
The question usually comes why waste the time, money, risking my health for this sport. My mom thinks each time I run, my knees get worse, and my health declines, as well as many other dangers and that I shorten my lifespan. She likes to ask: for what? There are definitely some dangers and risks and it is not an easy thing to do (say to run a 50 mile), but I believe the risks are low enough and rewards are worth it.
Rewards for me are not a medal or even being counted as a finish. Those are good, but I prefer the friends I made, and the time I spent and experiences related to this trip. There might be one or two unexpected lessons along the way.
Sorry, I am preachy. For this trip, I like the challenge of doing something impossible. I like the aspect of planning it and then executing it. I did not quite get what I wanted, but I am pleased with my performance overall. They were within my expectation. It was a nice try. This is the report of what happened.
Timewise, for me, as I looked back at couple 50 mile races I did last year, my previous finishes were around this time of 12:20-ish, but they were either easier or shorter than this one (Grayson Highlands was I believe to be 5 miles short, and I think Stone Mill was much easier). So I felt I am quite good this time to run a full and hard 50 mile race, meaning I am either on par or better than before (by my own standard).
A few posts back, I mentioned I only was able to run a 50 miler under 12 hours once and that was at the JFK in 2019, three years ago (ancient history now). I knew going in, it would be hard to achieve this feat again. Plus lately, I realized I am a much slower runner for reasons still unexplained maybe other than aging.
I had to run it to know my true fitness level and as well how I am measuring up to my peers. Based on last year 40-mile pace, I should come in around 12:06, granted that I wouldn’t slow down the last 10 miles. Pace usually gets slower as the distance increases.
All my training runs leading up to the race, gave an estimated finishing time of over 14 hours.
My first and third training run on a 20 mile loop from Skull Gap out (don’t worry if the place doesn’t mean anything) took over 6 hours.
My second training run on the 30 mile loop, from Damascus to Skull Gap and back, was 8 hours long. Combining both runs would give the entire race course.
However, I hope usually on race day, I could find some super human effort or a miracle to push me to run faster, farther and help me to last longer. I usually do.
I secretly was hoping to get near 12:15:00 finish time, with maybe even get it under 12 hours, but everything had to be more than perfect to reach it. It is the unknown that drove me to sign up. Likely, this will motivate me to run it again.
Part II: The Race Plan
For me, there were only about four cut offs I needed to care about, Skull Gap, Hurricane Gap (two here) and FS90.
Skull Gap is geographically in the middle. Listing the cut offs/AS in order would be FS90, Skull Gap, and Huricane Gap, and for coming back I would encounter them in reverse.
There is the start/finish and Rowland Creek Trail at either end, but we don’t have to worry about that since no one could drop at those places. They didn’t want anyone to drop at all, since most of the stations are remote. This race basically you decided how far you want to go before turning around and make it back to the start in a reasonable time. We can turn around at any of those stations. The lesson is go only as far as you are able to.
My plan was to base my pace on the AS (Aid Station) cutoffs. This race was helpful by providing a very reasonable pace for each of the cut offs. The overall pace was 14:20 min per mile. I knew I needed to run faster in the beginning to bank on time at the end or else hold off the body from slowing down, by having plenty of calories. My strategy was built around keeping my body from slowing down by running an evenly pace.
Part III: The Race execution
I reached all those cut offs but the last one on the way back. However, I was able to continue running back to the finish even after missing the cut off.
The first half of the out-and-back trail is longer, which is about 15-16 miles (one way) and thus requires about 7 hours for the round trip. The second half is a 20 mile loop, and is estimated to take about 5 hours. For me, I did the second loop in the 5:05:00, almost perfect (with only 5 min over). Also the first half of the first loop, I did well. It took me 3:35:00, also almost perfect as well (with 5 mins over). The only part I did not do so well was the way back on the last 15 miles. I did it in 3:40:00 (a 10 min slow down). I lost about 20 mins from running as far as know. There were a few remaining mins unaccounted for, and they were probably due to aid station transitioning, likely at the last aid station.
In total, I was 22-23 minutes too slow. I need to improve my pace about 30 seconds faster per mile if I want to run it under the time next time (14:20 instead of 14:50).
This might sound boring to some because of a lot of numbers being thrown about, however, it is necessary for me for a next year attempt. I consider them as a note to self.
What the numbers tell me is I was probably very good at keeping a steady pace. What I need next time is to run a bit faster and work on better at running uphills (my report will show this).
IV. The race
Now onto the race, I felt great the morning of the race. Unlike on my training runs, I felt light on my feet. As the race started, I ran an easy pace on the Virginia Creeper Trail. It was a five mile stretch. This year unlike the previous year, I was not jostling for position with other runners. Maybe because there were less runners. We don’t really fight for position but you know, a lot of time I am competitive to keep pace with someone to the detriment of being out of breath and ruin my race.
I was wiser this year to run at my own pace. Pretty soon, many people left me. There were maybe 20 of us in the tail end bunch. I was not worried. Everyone had to focus on their own race. I knew I got this. Win/lose does not determined by this early segment.
We, the 50 mile runners started with the 40 mile runners. So it is not always obvious without checking the bib to know who is the 40 miler or 50 miler. I think there were 70-80 runners between the two groups.
The 50 mile runners could drop down to a shorter distance during the race such as 40 mile, 30 mile or 16 mile event. My point is, unlike in other races, you couldn’t rely on the runners around to judge if you are going too fast (or too slow) or use them to get the psychological push to run faster. This could be a problem for me who like to stay with someone because I might follow the wrong crowd who might end up going for the shorter distance. I had to run by feel regardless if those around me were running fast or slow.
Note I told myself to go light, by not carrying too much water. On training, I carried the full 2L and I drank it all within the first 9 miles. I only filled 1 L and I drank probably a quarter of that even before the start of the race. I wanted it to last me until FS90, 9 miles in. This strategy was working well to allow myself to run faster in the beginning. Note, I could have gone even lighter still. And note, I shouldn’t have refilled water at every single station.
After the 5 miles, we reached first aid station before Straight Branch climb. I stopped at the Aid Station for some liquid (sodas) and I took a gel as well, and ate a candy bar. The strategy was to get calories in me for the long climb.
This is a mile of serious climb of 1000+ ft. Last year, I did not feel good after the climb. This year, I made sure I had pretty of energy in me before the ascent and to go at a slower pace. The trail was clear before me, totally unlike last year, where runners were blocking my way and I was frustrated with the slower runners. I ate again (a candy bar).
I believed I made it up the hill in a short time. We reached the Iron Mountain trail. I passed couple ladies in front of me. They were strong while climbing up but now exhausted. I previously resolved myself not to pass anyone until halfway (mile 22) or at least till FS 90 (mile 9). The two ladies (also doing the 50 miler) were walking and I had to pass them. A 40 miler (her bib was 4010, Rene), caught up to me. She was going at a good pace and I tried to keep up. We passed a guy together. I was betting she would finish under 10 hours and she did (later I checked). I wanted to kept at her pace to get to Hurricane Gap, knowing that would put me in a good chance to finish on time. I chased after her.
She and I arrived at FS 90, I don’t remember my time but I felt great. This was the first full service aid station with food and all. I told myself I had no time to lose, meaning I had to priorize the tasks, water, snacks and things I needed under a short time. No waiting around doing nothing. I filled my water bag. Took a cup of Gatorade/soda and grabbed some fruits and sandwiches and headed back out. It had to be boom boom boom. Usually many runners waited around checking to see what food they like or not. I learn, if I don’t know what to get, grab something and go. Don’t stand and stare and be asked what do I need. As good as I was in going through the station this time, I know I still need to work on getting my time down to less than a minute.
I had to keep moving. Rene was still pretty fast and I did not catch up to her again until Skull Gap.
The next Aid Station, Skull Gap, was about 5 miles away. I had to get there by 10:30 AM (I told myself, and I think the soft cut off was also 10:30). I was a bit slower than my “plan” pace, but I reached it by 10:35. I told myself too I had to be quick. This aid station had our drop bags.
My plan was to grab my drop bag and took my snacks prepared in advance in a ziplock (with a bottle of milk). It was supposed to be a grab and go. I then went to the food and drink table. I filled my water bag. I did the same like the last Aid Station, got some fruits, sandwiches, soda. All in all, this only took 2 minutes. I headed out at 10:37. In my mind it was already kind of late (7 mins late that I have to make up for). Note, I should have checked what I grabbed, and not go to the Aid table.
I saw Rene in the distance up on a hill, and she was soon out of view.
I tried to check on my snack bag I brought. Oh to my surprise, it was not food but an extra pair of socks I put in a ziplock. I cursed myself for not checking of what I grabbed out of bag at the Aid Station. A mistake is a mistake, I had to continue on without my snack bag. Later on, this pair of sock turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Lesson to-self also, Keep a pair of socks on you.
In this race, every minute counts and I seemed to be losing them. I wanted to run back and swap out for the correct bag, but decided against it. I couldn’t lose more time.
Up next, we had another mile of climb but this time on a service road. I knew I should eat something, but I could not find the appetite. I stuffed myself with couple sandwich “quads” I took earlier at the station. I pretty much had enough of it. My stomach was about to turn. I drank some gatorade to hold it down.
Calorie-wise, I should be fine. as for my subway sandwich, I told myself, I had to get rid of it if I don’t eat it by the next station at Hurricane Gap. Looking back, I should have tossed my sandwich out earlier at Skull Gap. It was just an extra weight.
So far, everything was still kind of on track as I planned. Plan: Eat and Drink before a big climb. Get the energy to do it quicky. I did just that. The plan though was also to finish a footlong Subway I had in my runner vest but I just couldn’t make myself eat it. Maybe it was a day old and/or it did not have veggies and dressings, so it was hard to me to swallow. It was also more salty than what I like. I managed only eat a small piece. Normally, I love having a hoggie on the trail, which had been my signature – the guy with the footlong. Not this time.
After the mile service road climb, we got back onto the trail at the old 84. I was able to find energy to sprint down this trail (as planned). It was about 5 miles. I caught up to 4-5 40 milers, including Rene, and it was my last time seeing them. They all finished, later I checked the time sheet. They let me passed them. I caught up to a 50 miler, bib 521. He was the first 50 miler I caught up. However, he was walking. He seemed to be done. Indeed, later he dropped from the race, but I salute him for attempting. I am sure he has his story.
If I wanted, I could drop to the 40 mile distance, and be an official finisher. This would be my decision at the next aid station at Hurricane Gap. My hope was get to the station by 12:20 before the cut off.
I reached Hurricane Gap at 11:57, with 20 mins to spare. It was close but I knew whole race would be like that. Last year, I believe I was here around this time.
I told myself to be quick. Since I am ahead of the cut off, I decided to continue on and not drop down to the shorter distance.
There were sand in my right shoe. Sand seemed to be inside the sock. I had another decision to make, to replace the sock or kept it as is in order to save time. I decided to replace the sock since the next section had a long 7 miles on mostly running on a service road and sand would would destroy the feet. Changing one sock (just one, right foot) to get the sand out of that foot was a smart move. I had saved the other dry sock for later (and guess what for the same foot). I was not even had this plan in mind, and it was just lucky I did what I did. *Note, for future reference, no need to change both socks or shoes at the same time to save time. Treat them independently.
All in all, my time in the station even with a sock change was only 3 minutes. I was out by 12:00. I am proud of this – since being too long at the aid station was my downfall in a previous race (MMT). I learned to hustle.
There at the station also I met Eileen, a runner who marked the course the week before, and in this race she was unofficially my pacer for the rest of the race from here on. She is fast, and has my respect. I did not expect to catch up to her at all. She is at least couple minutes faster per mile pace than me. I had expected her to finish this race in 10 hours or so, but here she was. She had some kind of hip and knee pain issue. I don’t think she would give up, she seemed to determine to go on. Out we went together. I said I would pace her for now.
We caught up to a runner not long from the station. As usual, people we passed, were struggling. We left the person. I did not take time to note the bib, but I felt like we likely the last ones in this race (I called myself the unofficial sweeper position). We had to go fast to catch up with the bulk of runners, or else. I dare not think.
The plan here was to run as fast as possible down the service road. It was about a mile when we reached Barton Gap Trail. We had a nice pace going. We took the turn and that followed by a mile long climb and maybe a mile descend. It was slow going. I don’t know if I were by myself would I be able to do it any faster. I eased my pace a bit for Eileen. She was not slow per se, but was going at a gentler pace. I let her lead for a time until I felt she was too slow for me.
We had 5 more miles mile of downhill after Barton Gap. I know we had to run our heart out to Rowland Creek. I would not blame Eileen for holding me back here. As far as I know, I was moving faster with her than I did by myself during training. She also thanked me for helping her move at that pace. I know if she had been in 100% perfect condition, she would have left me in the dust. It was not a break neck pace this time, but was fast.
We got to Rowland Creek by 1:30. Note, I need to run this section even faster next time. This was half hour faster than on my training run. I believed I moved through the station fast, maybe again 2 minutes off the clock, just enough time to refill water and grab some food and a sport drink. Eileen took a popsicle.
I needed to reach back at Hurricane Gap by 2:45 pm. This 3 mile section was to me the hardest section in the entire race. If I am going pinpoint where my race plan fell apart, it was here. It is supposingly a 3 mile climb back up to the top at Hurricane Gap. A quick climb really. And this took me an hour when it should have been 40 mins or 45 mins, which though I think was faster than on my training, but still I used up too much time. To tell the truth I bonked badly here (being low in energy).
Eileen was leading. I am sorry for Eileen, if I had slowed her down and costed her the race here as well, since I promised to get her through to the end within the 12 hour (I was too bold). I believe, it might have been not enough calories in me and also not adaquately prepared for the long hill climb.
I had my subway footlong still in my pack but I was unable to bring myself to eat it like before. I don’t remember, but I might have eaten a snack bar here. I carried some from the start. I tried all ways to get calories in me to overcome my slowness.
Eileen started recovering well and she was moving well up this trail with ease, unlike earlier in the day. I was happy to have her accompany me – but looking back, I should have told her to leave me.
We reached Hurricane Gap by 2:30 PM, which is still a good news to me since we held off from losing more time, but it was less than ideal. I needed to bank on my time and I did not do so here. I knew the race would only get harder. I pushed the negative thoughts out my mind.
I finally trashed my subway sandwich. It was no longer useful to me. I hate to waste food but it had become a deadweight. I changed sock again for the same right foot. I believed I went through the station fast, maybe using up only 3 minutes.
The next part was to get back to Skull Gap by 3:45 PM. We had maybe 3 miles of service road. Eileen did better than me in the first couple miles. She decided not to hold herself back because of me. I don’t blame her. I told her, the goal is get to the station before the cut and I wanted her to succeed. I really didn’t know if I could make it.
I think I had some kind of stomach bug. I couldn’t eat, and felt like wanted to poop. I was still bonking and couldn’t run. Eileen was doing small steps, she looked like she was bonking too but she could at least bring herself to “run” (fake running). I was just walking. Pretty soon, she was out of sight. She actually said good bye to me before going. I understood, not to delay her.
I carried a Gatorade bottle on me that I refilled at the station, I drank the whole bottle. Maybe 15 minutes later, my strength returned. I sprinted downhill and caught up to Eileen. We made the turn together onto Iron Mountain Trail. It was two miles to Rt 600 Skull Gap. Eileen exploded away. Note, if I do this race again, I should run fast here like Eileen. It was exactly like on our training run. This trail was her stomping ground and she was in her element. We were so close now to it (“a pyschological finish” at Skull Gap). I did the best to keep her in sight but to no avail.
I stopped to pee. Through out these two miles I was by myself. I arrived at Skull Gap at 3:40. Five minutes left before the cut off. I went to my drop bag again, this time, I reached for the correct snack bag I packed, because it was only thing that was left there. Since I don’t need anything except for water, I was able to be out of the station in two minutes. Still it was not enough. We were playing with fire with the next cut off, I just knew.
The next cut off was 5:15 pm at FS90. We had 5 miles to go like in the last section except this time, we had two big hills to climb and all 5 miles were on trail and not like a nice downhill service road as our last segment, and we had to do this in the same amount of time as before. An hour and half to cover 5 miles, normally should be enough time, but I knew I was not able to do it. It was tough to ask my body to run.
These five miles were hard fought. I went through repeated cramps, my quads were hurting, and I had a stomach upset, and I pooped in my pants a bit (diarrhea), just like in my training run. Yet the race was still on, we had to try to reach the Aid Station before the cutoff. No matter what mess I was in, I had to get there. I held myself together. There were times when I could run, and I ran, but most of the time, I was walking. My pace was slow.
Eileen and I leap-frogged each other. I stopped talking to her and focused on my run. She was same. She was getting stronger by the minute. When 5:12 came around, she passed me one last time. I told her to hurrying up, even if I couldn’t make it to the station before the cut, but if she runs down the hill (I believed the station was just at the bottom of the hill) she might reach it within three minutes and not be cut. Ran indeed. She flew down to the Aid Station. Little did I know the Station was a mile away. I arrived at 5:33. I was cut.
Eileen was still there. There were some misunderstandings between her and the station captain. We both knew the Station Captain (who is the RD wife), who were at the training runs also, so there shouldn’t come to a point where we would be “grounded” so to speak and be banned from the race. We were told to call for our rides back to town. Both Eileen and I wanted to continue on and refused. Ann, the Station Captain said something that regardless, we were both dropped from the race. I pulled my bib off and handed it to her to show I understood her (as required in most races to hand in the bib to the station’s captain to indicate dropping from the race), but we wanted to continue on the trail instead of getting a ride back. The aid station’s captain relented.
There was another runner there, I think he was dropped as well. I did not interact with him, but busy myself prepping to go back out. He was handed a cell phone to make a phone call. Eileen and I left the station. I believed I might use up 3 mins at the station, I didn’t check or remember. They stocked me up with food and water (Eileen didn’t get anything, she was waiting for me). I took a bag of grapes since likely we were the last ones arriving there, and all the food would be tossed out. (I was surprised the sweepers had not caught up to us yet — later we learned the sweeper was carrying a cat found on the trail, and carried it for 10 miles, and she didn’t arrive to the finish until 8 PM).
We had 8 miles to go and 1.5 hours to do it. I knew the race was over for me. I wanted my 50 miles in regardless it being considered as a finish. I went easier now. The pressure was off. Eileen after a quick goodbye was gone. She said her ride was waiting for her back in town and they didn’t know what was going on if she didn’t show up. She had a reason to get there fast. Her pace was too fast for me to keep up. She was running up the hill. This section though is mostly on downhills for rest of the way. I went with a walk run pace that I was comfortable in.
By 6:15 PM I reached the split at Beech Grove Trail (or something), meaning it took me 45 mins to cover the last four miles, which was really good. There were only 4 miles remained. They (race org) left water and Gatorade at the intersection for us. I helped myself with some Gatorade. I probably lost couple minutes by drinking (not that I needed to drink). There was no doubt, I would be in town while it was still light. The setting sun ray shown through the trees. Beautiful. Cloud was gone. I no longer felt sorry for myself.
I continued to go at a pace I could manage. I had some more cramps in different places. but I walked it off each time. I saw on my watch when 7 PM arrived, and I was still in the woods. But soon I reached town. There were passerby cheering me as I crossed the road into town. A hero welcome! Cars stopped for me to cross the road. I had a mile left. I never felt happier. I made the turn onto the Virginia Creeper Trail. I knew there was maybe half mile to the end now. There wouldn’t be any finish line, but I hoped to run up the lawn in the Damascus City Park as my finish where the actual finish line had been.
Eileen’s two sons made a finish line for me by each standing on each side and with their hands out for me to run through. It was a thrilling finish. Note, I didn’t know Eileen or her family before this race, and hadn’t expect for her to wait for me. We ran together a week before but that was it. I collapsed (sat down) onto the steps of the town picnic area Gazebo. The race director called out my name and some of runners gathered in. I met them before in this race, they were cheering for me. Greg, my friend who ran this race 6 times, who probably finished at 4 pm was waiting for me to finish. He came up and as well as a few others to say some good words. Adrian too, a guy I met a month ago during training, he and I have similar running goals/projectory, he stayed with me for a long time and we talked, catching up on stuff.
Eileen told me she made it back under 12 hours (unofficially).
She just wanted to prove she could run 8 miles under 90 minutes, and finish it under 12 hours, when others said it was not possible. She did it, even after putting in a 42 miles earlier. She deserves all my praises, and it is the reason mentioning her in my blog. As for me, it was totally a “fun” run. I do not mind the “not finishing”. A run is a win in my book. I got my training time in. Note, I was sore for the whole next week.
Some had said, why this race does not open longer than 12 hours like other 50 milers. This is one of their requirements/conditions, we had to finish under 12. Naturally, some (and many) wouldn’t make it. When we signed up to run, and we had to abide by its rules (and/or quirks). My only choice is train to run faster. Actually, 12 hours are not fast, 10 hours is. I knew people who could do it in 10. I had no regrets nor complaints for a race being the way it was.
Timewise, my personal time was not bad when compares to previous 50 events. I made it in at 12:22, I rounded up to 12:23:00 and used that as my completion time for this race. I am happy. I might not be as fast as others in this IMTR, but when looking at my past races, it was not bad. To me, making it under 12 hours would be a dream comes true, but not doing it, was not a big lost. I felt lucky, and a miracle, to finish it way under 14 hours (a time my training runs seemed to indicate) and with that I felt very pleased.
So in conclusion, I did it as a challenge to myself to run faster. I believe I reached my challenge (not exactly under 12 hours), but who’s counting? In a handwaving way, I did it. It was fun. I had expected to be alone on the trail, but having a companion with me for most of the course was rare. It was like having a pacer. I couldn’t ask for more. Finally, toward the end, it was like being with celebrities, to witness Eileen put on a show, by sprinting to the finish. I did not get to accompany her to the finish, but I was only 20 mins (maybe 2 mile away), which is close enough. I can say I was there and shared the joy of her fast run. Probably only I in the whole field knew/experienced how hard for Eileen to accomplish that. I think she recognized that and waited for me in return. (This was parallel to my last year, IMTR finish, when I waited for my runner).