Friday, October 9, 2015

Cloudsplitter 100 Mile Race Report (2015)

Grindstone Cloudsplitter (2015) Race Report

The tweet went out less than 24 hours before we were scheduled to depart. With hurricane Joaquin off the coast and torrential rains moving in, the forest service had revoked all permits and Grindstone, my focus race for the fall, had been cancelled. An hour later, before the shock had a chance to set in, my friends had already scrambled to find alternative plans. Cloudsplitter was on the same weekend and appeared to have openings. Was I interested? Knowing nothing about the race, I looked it up. A hundred miles along a ridge on the Virginia-Kentucky border, with 25,900 feet of elevation gain (2700 ft more than Grindstone) and only one road crossing. It looked interesting. I was in.
            Lee and I (Mark and Gabe, who had also planned to run Grindstone, couldn’t make it) headed south from Cleveland on Friday morning, arriving in the evening. After a decent night’s sleep we arrived at the start in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, with a light rain falling and temperature around 50 F. As it turned out, the rain didn’t stop all day. It was sometimes heavy, sometimes light, but went on without pause until after dark. I wore a light short-sleeved shirt and carried an ultralight windbreaker in my waist pack, anticipating somewhat lower temperatures on the ridge. But the temperature stayed fairly steady through the day and night, mid-40s to lower 50s. I’m comfortable at these temperatures, even in the rain, and never did pull out the jacket.
            The course starts off with an ascent to the ridgeline, in what appears on the elevation profile to be the major climb of the race. But it’s a gentle ascent. Most of the elevation gain actually comes along the ridgeline, with a succession of short, steep ascents and descents. The cool rain was refreshing, and so far it hadn’t had much impact on the trails. I remember remarking to Lee during the initial ascent that I didn’t expect to see much mud on the course, despite the rain, knowing that the entire ridge was composed of quartz sandstone and conglomerate (I’d scoped out the geology before we left). And throughout the day, there wasn’t. One spot near an aid station (which I learned later had recently been logged) had deep, shoe-sucking mud. And there was mud in a gully that ran down the middle of long sections of trail – but the inward-sloping sides of the gully had decent traction and for the most part the sloppy stuff was avoidable. It didn’t slow us down very much on the outbound stretch.
            As we ascended to the ridge we turned onto single-track trails, and began moving through rhododendron thickets and tall trees. Occasionally we passed over bare rocky knobs with misty views of Kentucky and Virginia. Clouds hugged the valleys on either side of the ridge. It was beautiful. I lost my footing once or twice on slippery rocks, there were some calf-busting climbs, and we noticed that some sections of the trail were not very well marked. But overall the outbound traverse of the ridge was smooth sailing. We came into the Pound Gap aid station, at ~30 miles, in 8th and 9th place.
            From Pound Gap there are two iterations of a ~20 mile out-and-back stretch south along the ridge before heading back to the start in Elkhorn City. On the first outbound stretch we caught and passed a couple of runners, and at the far end of the first lap, just before turning to the aid station, Lee and I encountered two hikers carrying digging tools of some sort. One of them spoke in a pleading tone, “Can y’all help us, please?” Not breaking stride, Lee responded. “What do you need help with?” “Can y’all tell us how to get to Kentucky?” (I'd thought we were already in Kentucky…) “We’re not from here, follow us to the aid station and you can ask some locals.” We never did find out what these two wanderers were doing out there, miles from the nearest road. Lee thought they might be digging ginseng.
            We had to turn on our headlamps just before arriving back at Pound Gap, at the halfway point of the race. We were on pace for a finish of ~22:40, and in terms of effort this pace felt more or less sustainable. But with all of the foot traffic, the trails were beginning to become slicker, and muddier. And the night mist scattered the light from our headlamps, restricting visibility to a cone that extended not very far beyond our feet. It was clear we would not be able to be as aggressive on the downhills as we had been during daylight hours. Still, I felt good, and at this point a sub-24 hr finish seemed possible - even likely.
            Somewhere in the middle of the second outbound loop from Pound Gap Lee and I separated. I was a little reckless on the downhills, and she was holding back a bit to protect a sore heel. I passed a couple more runners, putting in a brief surge to gap one runner who was following me on the
My Cloudsplitter "tattoo"
downhills. Not long after, still pushing the pace a bit on a steep, rocky section, my foot clipped a rock and I took a pretty hard spill. Getting back up and retrieving a bottle that had skittered down the trail, I looked down. My left forearm had a bloody scrape, and my shins, which had borne the brunt of the impact, were on fire. But all parts seemed to be working, and I carried on.
            I returned to Pound Gap for the final time still on ~23-hour pace and feeling good. At this point I was in 3rd or 4th place overall. I power-hiked up a dirt road to the top of the ridge and was then back on single-track. The rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to clear. I caught an occasional glimpse of stars, and of the moon. But the trail conditions had deteriorated badly. Many sections were slick, soupy mud. I slid down one smooth hill almost like a skier. Fun! The uphills, on the other hand, were less fun. It was becoming clear that the final 30 miles might be quite a bit slower than the first 70 had been.
            A couple of miles after passing through The Doubles aid station, I caught a glimpse of a large animal as it crossed the trail ahead and crashed into the woods. Although I knew there were bears here, I thought I’d seen a flash of white. A few minutes later, another animal appeared in the trail just ahead – definitely a deer. Soon I found myself descending on a wide trail with good footing – gravel and bare rock, with no mud. The trail/road continued down, and although I didn’t particularly remember this section from the outbound leg, and hadn’t seen a trail marker in a while, I didn’t consider that I might be off course. I vaguely remembered that there were some wide sections of trail here, and that there were often substantial gaps between markings. And it felt so good to be going downhill on smooth trail with sure footing...  Down and down I went, and before long I saw a light on the right side of the trail. I must be at the aid station, slightly earlier than expected. I really was moving well!

            But, no. This was a house. Hmm, I didn’t remember any houses on this section. I looked around – more houses. This was definitely not right. I must have run halfway down the mountain! I briefly considered knocking on the door of the house with lights on, but then looked at my watch – 2 a.m. – and at one of the upstairs windows, from which a large confederate flag hung. This Yankee in a kilt had better just turn around and hike back up the trail.
            And so I did – climbing steadily for 25 minutes. Approaching the ridge, I noticed a bright yellow-green marker on the left and thought I must be back at the trail, but coming closer I saw that it was a gas pipeline marker. Maybe that is what threw me off course to begin with. A few minutes later, on the ridge, I reached a clearing with a gas pipeline coming up out of the ground, but saw no course markers, and wasn’t sure where to go. Eventually I was able to make out a trail to the right, and following this for a short distance came to a cross-trail with course markings. Off I went, until I saw a headlamp approaching from the other direction. I was on the trail, but heading in the wrong direction. Grrr. I turned around - not happy to have lost 40-45 minutes and gained a couple of miles due to my own negligence, but feeling good physically and not too dispirited. I felt certain that Lee was now ahead of me and pressed ahead to try to catch up and have company again for the first time in hours.
            I was back on muddy trails now, which had gone from bad to evil. The downslopes were steep, canted, and sometimes rocky. I was slipping all over the place, and fell more times than I can count. Twice my fleet slid out from under me and I slammed flat on my back, the impact knocking my headlamp off into the mud. None of the falls hurt, but they were frustrating - and I was becoming a real mess. My gloves, my bottles – everything was caked with mud. 
And the uphills. The uphills were even worse. Steep grades – 25% and up in places – thick with mud. I panted up them, losing almost as many inches as I gained. At the crest I had to walk to catch my breath before sliding off on another harrowing descent. Even the trees had mud on them, in the shape of handprints. Progress had become painfully slow. But still, I was catching people – losing time, but regaining places I’d lost going off course. By the time I reached my drop bag at Birch Knob, 15 miles from the finish, I’d passed three 100-mile runners. But still no sign of Lee – and when I asked at the aid station I was told she hadn’t yet come through. 
I remember only a few things about the last 15 miles. The Turnip Patch Gap aid station, 12 miles from the finish, was out of almost everything – no water, no drinks of any kind, no gels. This wasn’t an issue for me because it was cool and I wasn’t relying on aid stations much at this point in the race. On a warm day, though, it could be a problem. Many of the aid stations on the course appear to be accessible only by foot or on horseback. Under these circumstances I thought the race director and local volunteers did an admirable job putting on the race. For those running it in the future, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that you can’t necessarily expect the more remote aid stations to have everything you need. Plan accordingly.
Arriving at the Goldfish Pond aid station (somewhat appropriately named, as it occupied a depression with foot-deep, orange-yellow mud) I asked how far it was to the finish. Eight miles. This was a disappointment. Given the time, I’d convinced myself that I must have missed an aid station, and that I was only 5 miles from the finish. I drank a cup of ginger ale and carried on.
The rising sun revealed beautiful views of the river valleys on either side of the ridge, which had been covered by clouds the previous morning. I reached the Elkhorn City Overlook aid station, 5.3 miles from the finish, at 8:30. From here, it was mostly a gentle downhill. The trails were sandy, and almost mud-free. I told myself I would run all of the downhills the rest of the way, and as many of the uphills as I could. My energy was good, my quads were sore but not shot, and I ran this last stretch in under an hour, arriving at the finish line with a time of 25:26:36, 4th overall and 3rd place male. Lee arrived a couple of hours later, 2nd place female. She had dozed on the side of the trail in the middle of the night, which explained why she hadn’t passed me when I’d gone off course.
Some final thoughts on the course. Overall, it is comparable in difficulty to Massanutten, which similarly runs along a ridge. Whereas Cloudsplitter is built on a gently folded sandstone unit in the hanging wall of the westernmost thrust of the Appalachians, Massanutten is built on tightly folded quartzite from a considerably deeper part of the former mountain belt’s core. The Massanutten ridgeline is more technical - rockier and off-camber - while Cloudsplitter has more ups and downs. Massanutten (in May) is likely to be considerably warmer than Cloudsplitter (in early October); certainly that was the case this year. I think if Cloudsplitter had been dry (and I had managed to stay on course…) I could have run it a little faster than I ran Massanutten in the heat. All that mud cost me close to an hour, I’d guess, over the last 30 miles. 
I expect my next big race – the HURT 100 in Hawaii this January – to combine the most challenging elements of Massanutten and Cloudsplitter. Elevation gain similar to Cloudsplitter, heat/humidity and technicality similar to Massanutten. Time to start training…