Iron Mountain Trail Race 30 Miler

why I ran an ultra and how I got it done.

You know how you do something ridiculous and stupid, but instead of saying “wow! That was ridiculous and stupid! I’m sure glad I made it out alive, now Ill just play golf,” you go out and look for something even stupider and more ridiculous to do? That’s how I ended up in Damascus in the predawn hours of August 31, 2013 , about to begin the 30 mile IMTR.

Preamble: how I got into this mess

I am not an ultra runner. I am a triathlete. I think running for hours on end is for crazy people who have a phobia of possessing a full set of toenails. But the ultra Jeckyll to my Tri dork Hyde started to emerge this past May, at a little get-together known as Fear the Reaper, more affectionately known as 12 Hours of Stupid.

So, I, Kit Hayes, who constantly sings the praises of short course racing, and says long distance stuff is overrated, I’ll nevertheless do a marathon, bla bla bla, immediately started looking for another crazy event to fill my post-Reaper void. (I have since learned that the more I say I’m NEVER going to do something the more likely I am to do it in the near future. Silly human. )

So, on June 2, after waiting a full 24 hours after registration opened ( I didn’t want to seem desperate) , I entered the IMTR 30 mile option! OMG WTF!!!

Training for it (sort of)

I had no idea how to train for this, so I figured I’d just continue with my normal tri training and throw in a couple of 2-3 hour runs. I knew full well from past results that I’d be lucky if it took twice this time to finish the course, but I also know that I can’t handle gobs and gobs of running on a regular basis. It’s better to do something insane every few months undertrained than it is to risk the injury of overtraining. That’s my philosophy anyway.

So, two weeks before the race was my longest training run to date. More of a waddle/hike, I covered 17 miles in 3 hours, in high humidity and heat, with only one bottle of Heed (which, incidentally, tastes icky but works really well….when you have enough of it). While this workout trashed me, it also gave me the confidence that, barring an encounter with an unfriendly bear, rabid deer, or chupacabra, I would be able to make it to the cutoff at Skulls Gap.

Oh, the night before

By race’s eve, I was excited!!! I packed up my stuff and schlepped over to Bristol, to stay with my friends Kris and Rob Caudill. On the way, I stopped at Food City for a prerace meal of frozen macaroni and cheese, salad, and a Hoppyum IPA. Magical.

It got even better when Kris bestowed me with some delicious chicken. So, we ate, watched a tevo’d clip of Kris on the news (I was hoping for a juicy story involving a sinkhole, a bear, and a high-speed chase, but it was her interview for the Swim for Them she’s doing next weekend…. Just as good ). I went to bed about 10:30. Alarm set for 5:00 am.

Race morning is here!

Digital chicken noise! Digital chicken noise! Digital chicken noise! It’s time to get up. I slept well, and had no trouble waking up. I even had time to paint my toenails in the traditional prerace good luck glitter. I wanted blue, so I could be matchy-matchy, but could only find silver.

What's left of the glitter years.

In Damascus, there are weird signs

We left Kris’s house about 5:45 for the drive to Damascus. We arrived in town and parked in a small field by the river, where we were planning to camp that night. The first thing I noticed was a handwritten sign stuck to a rock: “No drug dealing.” Well, shit. That puts a wrench in things. I decided to run 30 miles instead.

Kris and Rob went on, and I took a few minutes to gather my chi, or something like that. I had forgotten to buy Bonk Breakers, my usual breakfast before these things, so instead ate 2 bananas. High tech. I also threw back a few Sports Legs, but forgot to bring more with me, an oversight I would later regret. Shoes on, sunscreen on, epipen and 3 goos in stow, and with my nifty hand held water bottle, I walked down the Creeper Trail toward the park and the race start.

When I arrived, I had to pee, but decided it was more important to check in as Kevin warned us to in his scary prerace email. (Okay, it wasn’t that scary, but he did say there weren’t enough volunteers, and I had fleeting visions of my cold dead body being out on the trail for a week before some unsuspecting carrion eater totally won the lottery.)

At the start line

I checked in, and headed toward the toilets, when I ran into Robin Mehler, my friend from Asheville whom I accidentally roped into doing the 30 miler too. We chatted about how we had no idea what we were doing, how undertrained we were, and how we just wanted to have fun and finish. She assured me that both of us could finish in about 6 hours, if we were having a good day. We do tend to run about the same pace, but I have done a lot more in the vicinity of 10K than 48K…. Still, I again assured her that we’d probably finish within 15 minutes of one another, and went on to take care of business.

As I moseyed over to the starting area, I started looking for everyone I knew who was running today. One reason I was so excited about IMTR was that a bunch of Reaper folks as well as buddies from my running past would be there. I love these smaller events that start to feel like a smelly family reunion, without the drama. I saw Laura Duffy from a distance, standing with John. Both looked really serious, so I opted to leave them be. I would later learn that Laura was sick as a dog, probably doubting the wisdom of starting, but still ended up finishing the 50 in a little over 10 hours. She is amazing.

As Robin and I were talking again, Von Reagan came up to say hey. He’s a Reaper buddy that is a ton of fun and always gives me a nice ego boost because he tells me I’m a beast. (Aww…. Thanks, Von! You are too ya know). I also looked for Doug Blackford, my ultra running idol. I used to run on Sundays with Doug and Martha when I lived in Boone. I also sold them lots of espresso. However, before I knew it, they said GO! I figured, when in Rome. And we were off.

The race begins: miles 0-5

Photo courtesy Connor Hall
Photo courtesy Connor Hall. That’s me in bright blue. Von is hiding behind the two guys in front.

Now, I knew that the first 5 miles of this would be on the Creeper Trail, and really easy to take too fast. So, I made extra sure that I was jogging slowly enough that I could carry on a fully animated conversation, but not so slowly that I ran with a funny gate. This seemed to work well for about a mile, until I got bored, at which time I decided to sprint up to Robin so I could make her my captive audience. I imagine the 10 or so people I passed thought I was nuts going so fast.

Robin and I waddled along, chatting about races past an future, life in West Asheville (I call it Washeville, but so far it’s not catching on. Oh well.) After a few more minutes we caught up to Von and Nathan, and the four of us had a nice chat for the remainder of the Creeper section. We all finished that at about a 9:45 pace. Perfect.

The real trail running part starts: miles 5-9

I topped off my bottle of Heed with water, and started up the single track. I remember being really excited to begin the “real” part of the race, and reminded myself that walking up was okay. But, even at a walk, I started to pull away from our foursome and passed a number of people. I knew I wasn’t going too fast, it’s just that I am way better at up hills than downhills, and I felt fantastic. This first section of trail was rooty, gradual uphill, that gave way to flat sections. This would turn out to be the smoothest trail all day. I ran most of this, but power walked when it made sense.

After awhile I decided it was time for a Gu, although I wasn’t feeling tired. I was trying hard to take my friend Nicole’s advice to eat and drink every 30-45 minutes throughout. Nicole was the 2nd masters female at the Mt. Mitchell challenge last year, and a total badass. It also turns out she knows what she’s talking about. So, I had my first ever Salted Caramel Gu. It was more than heavenly. I want to take a nap in a vat of that stuff. Mmmmmmm.

After an hour or so, I started seeing the speedy 16 milers coming back on the trail, so I figured I must be approaching the 9 mile aid station. I was feeling fantastic, loving it out there, and running with a goofy grin. One of the coolest things about trail runners is that they are all so nice, and even the super fast winner people say hey! when they pass you. Or maybe the goofy grin is just irresistible.

Stuff starts getting real: miles 9-16

Before I knew it, I was at the aid station. Ooh! Look at all that food! I wasn’t hungry, but a miniature Nicole was in my head saying, “eat up, Kit!” So I stopped to peruse the buffet to see what looked best. As soon as I locked eyes with the Cheezits, I was sold. Those sounded good, and tasted even better. Salty, carby, artificial cheese flavor is highly underrated. I also filled up my bottle with Gatorade and water, and headed up the next section of trail.

This was noticeably more technical, and started up a big hill. I ran, hiked, and frolicked up the hill, still feeling awesome, and realizing I was already about a third of the way done. It had taken my 1:40 ish to go 9 miles, nothing impressive, but a sensible pace for what I was out to do.

As I ran down the first big hill, about 10 miles in, my left quad cramped up. Crap. I have a lot of problems with downhill cramping in trail races. Never in training, only in races. If I cramp, every downhill is a slow, painful chore. And here I was facing 20 more miles of it. Amazingly, although I was conscious that this would likely slow me down and foil any chances of my surprising myself with a 5:xx finish, I was able to keep smiling, stop to force the spasm to end, and continue moving on. I was happy that it was so easy to stay positive, as in previous races, cramps have brought me to tears that my race was ruined. May have been the Cheezits, but it helped that a number of people who passed me as I stopped to nurse my cramp asked if I was okay.

One super nice 50 mile runner gave me a few salt tablets, which really blew me away. Here’s Mrs. Moron who forgot to bring her sports legs, and someone who is going to run 20 miles on top of what I was doing is giving me aid. Ultra runners are awesome. I’m glad she didn’t see the “no drug dealing” sign.

The trail only got rockier, and had a ton of downhill, which didn’t bode well for my crampy quad. Yet amazingly, I stayed on the sunny side, feeling like every flattish or uphill section was a free gift from the Iron Mountain Fairy. I threw back another Gu (lemon sublime, my 2nd favorite flavor) and ran on. Eventually the first place 30 mile guy passed me on his way back. This gave me a new spring in my step, because at this point in the race I figured that meant about 30 minutes to the 16 mile aid station, which was also the 30 mile race turn around.

The rocky single track briefly opened up into a rolling meadow, before turning into a long, steep, rutted out down hill with several quagmire crossings. It’s was especially challenging, as some evil being had thrown every cabbage-patch-kid-head-sized rock willy nilly along this hill. Each pesky rock seemed to have a personal vendetta against my toes, and my poor quad had to stop and walk every 5 minutes. Don’t get me wrong, I was still having a blast! Amazed that I was feeling so good and just eating up the whole experience.

About 3/4 the way down this hill, the first place 30 mile woman was on her way back up. I shouted “nice work!” And was so impressed. At the same time, I wondered how far back I was, and whether there was a snowball’s chance I’d catch her. Pfft. That was a pipe dream, but those of you who know me know that I am a wee bit competitive. I had to consider the possibility. Soon after her, I saw the next 4 women come back up the hill. Wow. They were flying. I also thought I had a good chance of catching one of them, if the quad quit cramping (it didn’t).

But that wasn’t my priority, not in this race. The trail opened up into a blissfully gravelly FLAT section, and my legs did a happy dance! And before I knew it, I was at the turnaround aid station at Skulls Gap! This time, I went straight for the potatoes. And the salt. They tried to sell me the watermelon, but I informed them that watermelon+Kit Hayes+running=vomit, so ate a few grapes instead. And a cup of coke. (Not the illegal kind. No drug dealing, remember?)

Nowhere to go but home, and nice jugs! miles 16-22

Wasting no time, I turned back from whence I came. I was happy knowing I had a good deal of uphill where hopefully my left quad would ease up. I also kept myself entertained by looking for Robin and Von coming down the trail. But before that happened, I saw a guy running down with a camelback on, with two bottles attached to the front, on his chest. From afar, it looked funny, and a little dirty. So, I thought to myself, “Nice Jugs!!” and prepared to say this out loud to said runner. But I chickened out 😦

Sure enough, Robin appeared about 10 minutes behind me. I knew she had to be close, and was really happy to see her looking great and smiling! Von was about 30 minutes behind me, and looking strong, although I swear he gave me the mental finger for talking him into this as he topped the hill.

As I reached the long, rocky Cabbage Patch Kid part of the trail, I passed a guy, in his 50’s, who would turn out to be my running buddy the rest of the race. We exchanged “is this your first time here’s?” and he noted how much rockier this was than he expected. Truthfully, I expected it, but lamented on how the downhills were my nemesis.

I moved on, and spent a good hour or so running alone, as the trail flattened out a bit, but remained quite rocky. I reflected on how I must be nearing 20 miles by now, and felt really grateful that I was out here, feeling good despite increasingly sore and tired legs. I also started to hear thunder. It was all mysterious and shit, like being in the Fire Swamp, as a fog encapsulated stretches of trail. So awesome (and the smile-o-meter was still set to high :).

As the trail pitched downward, old crampy came back to visit, and about 6 people passed me. They must have been close behind, but the quiet of running alone gave the illusion that no one was around for miles. One of the passers was a gal named Chelsea, whom I’d passed earlier. She was supposed to do the 50 but had hurt her ankle, so dropped back to the 30. I thought about her a lot as I traversed the rocky course. This could not have helped an injury, but here she was toodling down the hill like she owned it. Another badass.

It was now that tall in his 50s guy caught back up, and we began our uphill downhill game of cat and mouse (I like to think I was the cat). As we ran further on, I started to recognize the surroundings, an knew the 22 mile aid station was near. Thank goodness, because I had run out of water about 20 minutes ago. My legs, knees, and hip flexors were also hurting in earnest by now, but not my head! I stayed focused, and just moved on πŸ™‚

I really heart Cheezits by now: miles 22-28

I arrived at the aid station, where a nice volunteer actually touched my icky water bottle hand strap without flinching, and hooked me up with some Gatorade. I hope she didn’t come down with the plague after that. I ate more wonderful, beautiful Cheezits, a fig newton, and ran on! This was an amazing milestone because I knew the toughest section of trail, save the last mile (which we might as well call downHell ) was over.

It was now that I knew I had a real shot at breaking 6 hours. Tall 50s dude said that was his goal, and determined that if we ran the last 10k in 1:15 we’d make it. I knew it would all come down to my ability to run the last downhill, which was looking less and less likely as my legs were starting to really hurt, and the quad was pulsating with pain.

But, a challenge is a challenge, so I went about trying for that sub 6 the only way I knew how: pick up the pace on anything flat or uphill, and hope for the best on the downs. What is truly amazing is that I had enough in me to pick up the freaking pace! Here we are, 24 miles into a tough as nails race, and I don’t run marathons, remember? Gotta love those Cheezits.

The trail kept on, and I had my first and only fall of the day. I was lucky enough to fall on a smooth, spongy bit of trail, because a rock grabbed my toe in a way that made it impossible to roll out of the fall. Phew!

Then, the most bewildering event of the race occurred. I heard a rumble, and three idiots on motocross bikes come tearing up the trail! WTF?!?!?! Okay, dudes, have you not seen about 50 other really tired looking people with freaking NUMBERS on their shirts before me and thought “hmm, maybe this isn’t the best day to be out doing this”? Apparently not, because they played chicken with me, and finally stopped and mumbled “sorry bro.”

DownHell: mile 28

After motochicken, I finally came upon the dreaded downhill. I looked at my watch, and saw I now had just under 30 minutes left to make it home in under 6. Unfortunately, my legs had now reached a level of pain that made me want to barf. For the first time all day, negative thoughts started to seep through the cracks. But they didn’t deserve to be there, so I kept saying out loud, “come on, Kit! It’s supposed to feel like this. You got this!”

I did have to walk down most of the awful hill, and tall 50s guy and another guy passed me and wished me encouragement. (I must learn to run downhill.) I did the same and hoped they’d make it in under 6. That train had sailed for me, so I decided 6:10 wasn’t such a bad time either. About then, I saw the most beautiful thing in the whole wide world. A paved road. I’d made it through downHell!!!!!

Kiss my sweet, sweet asphalt: mile 28-finish

I let out an audible woo hoo as I started running like a normal tired person. This first section of pavement was down a steep hill, and was murder on the toes, but I saw 3 cats on a front porch rail, which made up for that. I also passed Jackie Price, who said hey and yay, and that gave me a boost.

Oh yeah, it was pouring rain by now, and my next mission was to make it back to the finish line without getting lost. The whole course had been marked really well until now. I kind of knew the direction to go, but frantically looked around for a pink ribbon. Phew, there it was, and I turned left. Right about now, Kris and Rob, who’d done the 16, came driving by and shouted at me! Stuck my tongue out at them, and smiled.

To finish the race, we crossed back over the bridges. The thunder and lightening were all around, and it was very safe running under giant metal tressles in the middle of an electrical storm.

Finally, I made it to the park, and ran to the finish line!!!! Time, 6:07:30. I was expecting to do push-ups and sit-ups, and had even done push-ups after every training run since I signed up, but nobody said anything about those, and honestly I wasn’t going to do anything about it myself.

My friends are the bomb shniggedy

I stood at the finish, just soaking it all in (literally too, as it was raining torrents). Then I huddled in the gazebo, where Kris handed me a dry towel and an oatmeal porter, gestures of a true friend.

We chatted as we watched a few more people finish, looking for Robin. Sure enough, she crosses the line in 6:19, only 11.5 minutes behind me. Both our predictions had come true: about 6 hour finishes, within 15 minutes of each other. Cool!

Speaking of cool, I started getting cold, so I ate an ice cream sandwich and a hot dog. I hobbled back to the car with Robin, to get my clothes and shower at her rental cabin. (Thanks, robin!) The “no drug dealing” sign was still there, so none of that went down.

After showering, I headed back to the finish line to wait for Von. He crossed the line right as I drove up, looking like he had just jogged around the block, and even did the pushups. I got out of the car and hung out with him, Kevin, and Jackie for a bit. The first 50 milers finished right about now, most of them looking fresh as daisies. Incredible. As was my entire IMTR experience. But I never did see Doug.

3 thoughts on “Iron Mountain Trail Race 30 Miler

  1. Excellent report, Kit! I barely missed 6 hours too. Running next year? I’m planning on it, but this time will run some trails to prepare. Your 2013 schedule is great! My year will wrap up with Six Gap Century, NY Marathon, and Paris Mountain Road Race. Swim/Ride/Run Strong, Tall 50s Guy (Dave Wright)

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