Race morning. First thing, Rob walks over to the hotel window, peers outside, and laughs. Uh-oh.
Sure enough, there’s at least two inches of snow on the cars and the hotel flags are horizontal in the wind. Which among other things probably means the rest of the forecast will be right – highs around 30 all day with winds gusting 15 to 25 mph. Ugh. More cold weather racing. Where is spring?!?
Snow…recovering from a respiratory infection… This is definitely a play day.
What to Wear, What to Wear?
Choice of clothing can make or break a cold weather race, especially when you’re already worn out from being sick. On one hand, sweating under too many layers is miserable. On the other hand, you can’t add a layer you don’t have while you’re miles out on the trail. I settle on wool shirt, Patagonia Cool Weather top, wool tights, Smartwool socks, and wool gloves.
(Yes, if you haven’t guessed, I love wool. It’s more breathable than synthetics, feels soft and comfy, and is unbeatable in wet conditions.)
The woolly ensemble gets accessorized with the race Buff, handwarmers, and matching wool hat. Gaiters (I forgot to glue the velcro connection to my shoes) and Yaktrax (the runners ahead will clear the snow from the trail) stay in the car.
It may be one layer too many, but I add a Marmot rainproof (and more importantly windproof) jacket. It looks brutal out there.
It’s a proud moment. My hat matches my Buff, matches my top. I’m ready to roll!
At breakfast in the hotel lobby, we meet some other runners heading to the race. Rob assures them with unusual certainty that there are no creek crossings (remember this…) and we all troop outside to commence scraping cars. Rob and I are the first to creep slowly up the hill. I’m not used to driving in snow, especially on a road slanted out into oblivion, and the snow grows deeper the further up we drive. By the time we reach the race parking lot at Horine Reservation I feel like I’ve run an ultra.
The parking czar directs Rob down a dubious looking row, well mashed by the already-parked cars. His car bottoms out in the deep, black slush, splashing it on nearby cars. No way. I opt for the drier left side. Rob immediately revolts and splashes over to re-park near me. It will be a nice luxury to be able to wrestle the cars free of what will surely be ice by the time we’re done.
That accomplished, it’s down to business. This is a 15-mile and 50k. The 50k course is three distinct lollipop loops, all in different parts of the reservation but all connecting at the parking lot, which means we get to see the cars each segment. Everyone runs the same course until the 15-milers peel off on the third lollipop.
First Lollipop – All Fun and New
Since it’s still snowing, the camera is banished to the car. Standing around, waiting for the start, I feel cool but not freezing to death, a sure sign I’m overdressed and in denial.
Cynthia Heady, the RD, gives the assembled crowd a briefing and without further ado, starts the race. The pack sprints down the gravel road toward the trailhead.
As always, I attempt to settle into a healthy stride but this time the surface is all snow. I try what’s packed and what’s loose. It all makes toe-off meaningless, but is easier running than the slushy stuff we ran in last weekend at home. Footing decoded, the main distraction quickly becomes ducking and dodging the overladen branches and cedar trees draping our path.
Maybe because of the weather, there seem to be fewer runners this year, and the pack thins out fast. An early set of creek crossings (yes, you read that right, there are indeed creek crossings) and mucky spots space us out even more as runners balk and hesitate, trying to find dry ways across. While this doesn’t look like a good day for feet, no one in our vicinity seems to mind because they’re too busy laughing at it the goofy choreography it takes to get across.
The added breathing room gives me a chance to look around and the woods are truly stunning. It must have snowed an extra couple inches up here – snow coats each branch and twig as high as it can pile without falling off. Trees, trail, rocks and mud – every surface is swathed in a blanket of pristine white batting, like a giant Christmas store window display gone awry. I should be looking at the trail but can’t help staring around in awe.
We get our sea legs about the time the first lollipop brings us back to the cars, and it’s none too soon. The jacket today is as breathable as a Ziploc bag and I want the camera. It’s too cold to linger long. The wind is enjoying free reign across this treeless meadow at the top of the hill. We take care of business as fast as possible and get moving.
Second Lollipop – Getting Serious
Lollipop Two starts down the road we drove in on, then turns off onto a trail for the loop portion. It’s a quiet road made extra quiet by the snow. Exception for the metallic roaring of a salt truck closing in from behind. It’s so loud I step off the road into ankle deep snow to let it pass. It passes, flinging salt nuggets that crunch underfoot the rest of the way to the trailhead.
Dan Wells from Rattlesnake 50k is standing patiently in the cold at the trailhead to direct runners onto the loop with an enthusiastic smile. We talk for a few moments about that sweaty, July day that’s a universe away from today.
The loop however, is not in a social mood and immediately demands our attention with a tight-rope width walk across a sheer, smooth rock drop-off that’s intimidating on a good day, sweaty palms today. I test the footing and my shoe doesn’t slip. It’s not as icy as it looks (thank goodness), but setting foot on the other side is still a relief.
About the time we relax again, we catch up with with Suzelle, from the hotel lobby. She and her crew got lost on the way to the start but she’s happy to be here and shares her fascinating (not to mention warm) tale about founding a business based in the Carribean. It’s a great story but odd to be imagining. Palm trees, this day is not.
Even so, I wouldn’t trade it. This is a one in a million day and it’s impossible to get enough. Every view is a postcard and every half mile one of us exclaims “wow, look at that!” and means it. The day stays cold and cloudy so the snow stays thick and perfect. Once in a while, a gust blows snow dust off the trees, turning the trail ahead into a white, sparkly cloud. We laugh, and Rob jokes that, “someone’s shaking the snow globe.”
While the scenery stays beautiful, the footing varies. Occasional muck fests are easy to spot and unfortunately not a novelty, but most of the loop is snowy, which isn’t my norm. Thankfully, the rule is easy to learn – go by color. Brown trail in view means leaves or dirt make it runnable; white means runner’s steps have packed the snow and polished it to a smooth, icy finish. White is treacherous.
While waiting at the bottom of one of these toboggan runs for Rob, my unoccupied thoughts conjure up a quick vision – slipping on one step, falling on hard ice, breaking a bone, losing the spring season, missing Massanutten…bing-bing-bing, it could be that fast, it could happen, it could… Whoa. Deep breath. It’s happened before but that’s no reason to spend the day steeping in paranoia. We have plenty of time and it’s a gorgeous day that will never come again. Relax and enjoy!
The few nearby runners slowly drift back and we find ourselves running the loop alone. Snow muffles the noise making it seem like we’re outside the dimension of time. All we hear is the wind in the branches and our footsteps in the ice, leaves and mud, crunch-crunch, shssh-shssh, squitch-squitch.
One muddy squitch changes to “splash” as I underestimate a creek crossing and sink a entire foot into the water. The ensuing numbness slowly spreads up my calf and doesn’t thaw the rest of the day. It’s like running with a brick foot.
Third Lollipop – Scott’s Gap Loopathon
Leaving the parking lot for the third and final lollipop, a smiling volunteer directing us says “you have a long way to go!” Is this supposed to be encouraging? Eh, he’s well-meaning and probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I remember this lollipop being about the same length as the last one, so I smile and quip something funny back to him.
A minute or two down the trail and the 15-mile runners split off on their own. Our course winds downhill past a frozen reservoir and along road (horrors!) to an aid station near an impossibly picturesque visitor’s center.
A mile (and hill) or two later, we almost literally run into Eric Grossman (men’s winner and the creator of this race) on his way back along the lollipop leg to the finish. He stops to talk to Rob. Second and third place runners are much further back and we pass a few other runners heading to the finish when to my delight, Mike Ford (second place at my CT 50k) and I recognize each other as he passes by. Everyone is so bundled up, it’s hard to identify anyone. We stop for a brief moment to talk before turning to head our own directions. He’s smiling and running well, so I don’t want to slow him down. It’s also a good sign – Rob and I can’t be that far behind.
So on we run, gawking at the scenery, when Rob whispers “look!” I catch my breath as a bushy-tailed coyote gallops up the snowy slope ahead to our left, every sinew and muscle working so flawlessly together I swear I can feel it, and it a moment, she’s gone. Now that is running. My body feels like a frozen brick in comparison.
Still wowing with delight about the coyote, we roll into the Scott’s Gap aid station in great shape for the return. I’m smelling the barn and reminding myself to take plenty of photos on the way back when the aid worker says “three miles on Scott’s Gap Loop, seven back.” “Three mile loop?” “Three miles?” “You’re kidding…” I look at Rob, who reluctantly backs the guy up. The barn evaporates. Sigh… Well, that’s the course so let’s go.
I spend the loop promising myself to pay more attention to the courses we’re running. We didn’t do this loop last year and I try to think where we cut last year’s course short and why we need three extra miles, but can’t. Rob can’t either. Well, anyway, it will probably be easy and quick. We still can’t be that far behind Mike and the others.
Now that the race is over, I can safely say three key things about this loop:
- It’s very scenic.
- There are definitely “some” creek crossings on it (try a bazillion).
- It takes eons longer than three miles should.
Not only that, but after gracefully navigating all the icy stuff to this point, I slip twice into the cold, wet mud, even getting the goop down the back of my shirt and immersing my new camera. I swear I can even taste it.
I finish the loop feeling bedraggled and we finally head toward the finish. The nagging little worry about daylight that wasn’t worth mentioning before, now is. Rob insists we’re okay and will finish well before 6 pm. I don’t believe him but won’t say it (he’s only finished 560 ultras and could easily get this one wrong). I dragging from being sick (and probably being a little dehydrated) so we work at it and eventually roll in at (ta-da!) a PW (personal worst) of 9:30 (yes, that’s hours; yes, it’s only 31 miles).
And it’s still as pretty as the moment we started.
Post Race Soup
Cynthia has at least a dozen hot soups waiting in the warm lodge, with plenty left for us and even (heart be still!) some vegan options. The red lentil Indian-spiced soup is out of this world. I stuff myself shamelessly on it and the spicy sweet potato soup and black bean soup while we chat with Cynthia and Brenda Gutmann, one of the runners and a former RD of this race. This is better than a restaurant. Rob will have to roll me home.
Eventually, though, the sky outside finishes turning dark and it’s time to leave. We brace ourselves and dive out into the frigid night for the cars on the complete other side of the meadow.
At the edge of the almost-empty parking lot, there’s a woman yelling for someone along the wood side, probably a dog. She starts yelling louder and more insistent and it turns out to be one of two women who’d been behind us all day, yelling at her companion to hurry up. She runs up to me to ask directions to the finish line. My feet are too numb to run them there so I point her toward the lodge, stay outside long enough watch her head the right way, then dive in the car to warm up.
Thank goodness for heated seats. The car says it’s 25 degrees outside. As cold as that is, it seems colder. I can’t wait to get out of my frozen, mud-caked shoes.
Today was certainly a personal worst in terms of time. It was 3 hours slower, to the minute, than my time here last year. This 50k (31 miles) took me half an hour longer than it took me to run 40 miles at Pine Mountain last month and only an hour less than it has taken me to run Mt. Masochist 50 miler. Even figuring for the snow and my lackluster health, the mileage is a bit suspect. But honestly, it doesn’t matter. I’m happy to have been able to spend all that time in such a beautiful, one of a kind day.