Sometimes starting at the end helps you remember how much the journey was really worth. As I sit to gather my thoughts about one of my favorite annual trail events, Fire on the Mountain 50k, I remind myself of that feeling as the last hill was climbed and the end was in sight. The feeling that all I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other and then there was that field that held my third FOTM finish line.
About 9 hours earlier, I had stood on my front porch in the dark to document the beginning of my journey to that finish line. My departure time ended up being a bit later than I had wanted it to be. I had spend the day before feeling as though I had a stomach bug that was growing stronger as the evening progressed. As I drove towards that finish line I realized I might have to stop along the way since my "stomach bug" had not quite left me yet. Thankfully a text from Alyssa who was also running saying she was already there allowed me to make a couple stops and still arrive in time to pin on my bib. I kept my tummy issues to myself since I thought I was going to ignore my previously posted "goals" and just run for fun with Alyssa who had just finished a 20 miler the day before.
We road the bus to the start line. I like the chance to chat with other runners like Orla; a DM friend who always down plays his amazing running abilities, and a relay runner who was running the first half of the race even though she may have been out partying a bit too much the night before.
Once we got to the start line everyone headed for a last minute nature call and a few photos from the gorgeous overlook. The RD introduced Jamie another DM friend who just finished a run across America in 100 days for WW. FOTM would be his official first race since he epic adventure. With introductions over the final instructions were red trail, green trail, logging roads, purple trail and we were off.
First Aid station
Please feel free to read my previous FOTM 2010 FOTM 2011 reports but in all honesty you simply have to run this course to understand it. And every single time I've run it has been a different experience.
The race begins with a 1.2 mile run to the trail head over logging roads. This can be bad if you like me don't pace well or it can be good to help work out those race day nerves since the temptation to go too fast is short lived. With a quick left turn we were on the single track trail. The forest floor was heavily carpeted with a beautiful blanket of colored leaves. That blanket was thicker than in previous years and made each step a part of a fully choreographed dance in which a wrong step could result in painful consequences. Luckily I avoided any missteps the entire red trail. Alyssa and I ran, climbed and nearly repelled our way up, along and down the most technical portion of the race.
Shortly before the aid station I ran into a hometown runner, Darla. I had just come down another technical decent and had pulled away from Alyssa a little bit. Darla and I ran for a while catching up. Darla suggested that I continue on and she would stay with Alyssa since Darla was only out to finish within the time limit and Alyssa had run 20 miles the day before. We all three ran together for a while before I gradually pulled away and hit the aid station with no one in sight.
I waited a few minutes at the aid station before heading out thinking that they would catch up with me through the low lying Green trail. This year I ran the entire green trail solo. I never heard another foot step amongst the leaves. I completely breathed int the fall air and stopped to watch the leaves spinning as they fell from the trees. Every creek crossing was mine alone. I filled my mind with thoughts of all the reasons I run. The thoughts that carry me when it hurts to go on and reminded myself that the pain of stopping is far, far greater.
another soggy spot on the green trail
Throughout the green trail it was the solitude that carried me and the ever present thought of all those people I draw upon when I am running. I lifted prayers aloud for the many people I know who face real challenges. Life and death challenges. The kind of challenge that makes running 32 miles on a upset stomach look like a walk in the park. Maybe I spent a bit too much time focusing on them because the green trail would hold one of my only three falls on the day. Luckily it was into wet soft ground so a bloody cut on my lower leg was the only damage done.
Happy to be headed to the oasis soon
I was still able to force a smile as I left the 13 mile aid station. The 13 mile aid station (#3) was in a shambles when I got there. I was not in need of any water with my hydration pack still nearly full but I worried that inexperienced trail runners might not be so lucky. So I will say to all those reading who are thinking about entering an ultra trail event. Do your research. If the website says it has an unmanned aid station, that should be read as "don't count on aid here." If you are looking for an event that has a string of hot buffets with a little running in between each one, Fire on the Mountain is probably not the ultra event for you. But if you are looking for a real challenge, a real trail ultra then FOTM is the best one there is.
Aid Station #3
Another thing I realized is that I wasn't really fueling...at all. While my "stomach" had not required me to answer a nature call, that was probably because I wasn't eating anything. I thought I could correct this issue at the oasis aid station and still keep my energy up.
The oasis aid station
I need to pause here and recognize many people. Every year I return to this race. In fact I may have been the first person registered every year. That is just how much I love it. Not because I do so well but because this race, this course, the people involved are, to me, a direct definition of ultra trail running. The trails are amazing. DCNR does an excellent job keeping the trails and roads in excellent shape. Too many people overlook these natural resources in the backyards. The RD and a handful of volunteers put on this event, the training runs, the promotion, fund raising, aid stations, volunteer coordination. The actual work of clearing, marking and cleaning up the trail for the race is all done by a far too limited few. Of course my thanks must include Sheetz as well. Their contribution has definitely helped this event grow over the past 3 years. And this year a warm cup of Sheetz coffee hit the spot after a wet day in the woods. Saying thank you falls far short of expressing my gratitude.
BACK TO THE RACE
I ran into the oasis aid station at 16.5 miles with a female relay runner at 3:42. Well behind any "race" effort I had every given on this course. Along the green trail it had started to rain so while at the oasis I rearranged things like my phone which I was stopping to take way too many photos with. The great volunteers at the aid station immediately offered to help and took my pack to top it off with water. There was an array of foods at the aid station but I failed to take anything more than some salt and half of a banana. I waited and cheered a few runners into the aid station thinking that Alyssa and Darla would soon be there. But finally I started up the logging road.
Still loving it on the logging road
The Logging Road
One of the few training runs I was able to attend included the logging road. I thought I had a fairly good idea of just how "long" the section felt so I did what any over trained, under rested sick ultra runner would do. I ran like crazy. That resulted in me catching up with another runner who was runner his first trail ultra thanks to a friend. We ran the latter miles of the logging road together. Amazingly the majority of the conversation that I recall is how many times I said something like, it's not much farther.
So happy to be headed into the bonfire finish
The Purple Trail
First let me apologize to the purple trail. In the past I may have said I didn't like it much. However on race day I couldn't have been happier to see it! I quickly ended up running alone and realized that I was slowing down. My vison suddenly was blurry, I was shivering uncontrollably and my head started to spin. I fell down. I got up. I walked. This was not the race day I had wanted. I stopped for a while and finally ate about 10 gummies and drank from my pack. Then I simply started running and walking as much as I could to simply keep moving forward. I knew the next aid station was coming soon.
Thanks to Sheetz for the support...and hot coffee
Since I wasn't feeling steady on my feet I don't have photos from the purple trail but on a good day it holds some wonderful trail and beautiful scenery. I paused atop a steep little rise that drops into a encircled area which mountain bikers must love riding through. I knew I was close to "Champs" aid station. He was only there the very first year but every time I run this section I think of him. Remembering how lifted I was when I came along the trail to see a kind faced man rising from his chair to offer me help, pulled me through the desire to just stop. But stop is what I did when I came to final aid station. The volunteers there repeatedly asked me if I was okay. Maybe I looked a little gray or still a bit dizzy headed because they looked a bit concerned. I lingered and slowly ate half a banana and drank some water. Finally I took two cookies and started walking down the trail again. I should have eaten those sooner because as soon as the sugar hit my stomach I felt my energy return.
I caught up with another runner as we entered a section on the purple trail that was within a gully. The rocks were bigger and covered with piles of leaves. We talked a bit as we slowly made our way through the section. That is when Alyssa caught back up with me. She was going strong and I am certain she could have finished faster but she hung back as we made our way through the rocks and to a more runnable section.
First 50k ran sick but done
And then came that final hill, I knew that we had just a little bit more running and we would leave the trees for the final time. I could hear the cheers of those already finished as that beautiful clearing came into sight. I tossed my pack as I was handed a piece of fire wood to carry as we ran the final push around the field. No longer did I care about what the watch on my wrist was going to have to say about the race I had run. I had pushed through the challenge and used the day God had given me to do something amazing.
So proud of this one