Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Good Times At The Sufferfest

I ran the VHTRC Women's Trail Half Marathon for the first time in 2002. I knew absolutely no one. I drove up from Charlottesville in the dark, after having found information on the race just a few months earlier thanks to the pull-out (paper) Trail Runner Magazine race calendar. The course was actually over 13 miles and a bit harder in those days. I won my 35-39 age group in 2:12:46, and absolutely loved everything about it ---the low-key vibe (I was coming off triathlons...), the friendly shouts of support between the runners on out and back sections, the great aid stations, the fun awards ceremony, and most especially, the inflatable water wings that I was given at the last aid station to wear for a prize (a gift cert for Montrail trail shoes). I immediately went home to learn more about this crazy, fun-loving group of runners via the club website. I was hooked -- on trail running, and on the VHTRC.

Just a few of the Charlottesville and Crozet gang before the start

 Fast forward 13 years: Thanks to the support and friendships gleaned from the VHTRC, I've run a few ultras, and have a few more WHMs under my belt. I was very excited that this year, 17 women from our little running mecca of Charlottesville/Albemarle were coming up for the fun, most of whom were new to trail running. They were headed to the right race: the WHM was created by Chris Scott in 1998 with the support of the VHTRC to encourage more women to run trails. It has a welcoming atmosphere for women of all fitness levels and experiences who are eager to try a longer distance or different terrain without the intimidation factor that can come with larger, coed races. I've often been asked by some of my male friends why women-only races are necessary, and I tell them that the WHM and the Charlottesville Women's Four Miler are excellent examples of events that encourage women and girls of all fitness levels to run a race where the emphasis is on participation and support instead of hardcore racing and splits (but let's be clear, the WHM has its share of hardcore racers...I am one!). At a time when women  are still in the minority in trail and ultra races, an all-women's trail race in 2015 is still as important for encouraging new female trail runners as it was in 1998.

This year I came into the race feeling healthy, fit, and ready for the heat after a solid training block for the Bighorn 50, and more recently for the Mountain Masochist 50. In past years, the heat and humidity have had their way with me, and my times on the newer 12+ mile course have fluctuated between 1:56:45 in 2006 to 2:01:34 in 2012. I was hoping to break 2:00 this year, and was confident that the weeks of hill repeats and tempo runs, combined with long miles with the Dirty Mothers had set me up nicely for a faster time.

Crozet Running team mates and pals Michelle Andersen, Annie Stanley and Becca Weast before the start (pic by Aaron)

I even wore (ironically) the trucker hat that Gary Knipling had given me at Western States this past June. If the trucker couldn't get me swift times on this very Left Coast type of trail, then nothing would! We lined up for the start and traditional pre-race serenade of "Happy Trails to You" by the VHTRC Men's Chorus, a few tips from super RD Tracy Dahl (herself a road-to-trails convert after meeting hubby Keith Knipling), and then we were off for the "sufferfest," as I fondly call the race. Woop!

I asked photographer Aaron Schwartzbard if he thought I could break 2:00 from here. He said, "Ummm...yeah!"
 The trail is very fast and runnable, with a few short, steep climbs in the first 7 miles and longer grinding climbs in the last 4. Annie went ahead and Becca settled right behind me, and we made good time through the Do Loop with the rest of the top-10 women. I passed two women in the Do Loop ---channeling my weekly Man Maker hill repeats-- and then another in the last few miles. I came into the aid station at Fountainhead with about 1:00 elapsed and headed out for the last 4 miles on a mission. This section is where the runners can see one another on the out and back, and it also has Team Gaylord's fabulous aid station with a Mexican theme (and special Mexican Fun 'Punch"). Despite getting heckled for not stopping to taste the punch, I made good time back to the finish and hoped a sub-2:00 was in the bag by the last mile to go. It was only in the final 100 yards when I realized I would also get a PR, and when I saw the clock at the finish, I was ecstatic to see a time of 1:55:34!

It was a great day for everyone. Annie finished her first WHM on the podium with a third place 1:50, and Becca was right behind me for a PR of 1:57. Michelle ran a 20-minute PR of 2:06, and we had a blast cheering on all the other ladies as they finished. Heather Clark, a road runner and relative newcomer to the trails from Crozet, summed up the day perfectly with her Facebook post of the top-10 things she loved about the WHM (yep...laughing about #8!):

1. Packet pickup was a manner of minutes
2. Potty line - ummm none
3. Pre-race serenade
4. Shaded course with beautiful views
5. Hiking with purpose is encouraged
6. Cheers from everyone on the course
7. Sharing fuel / water with runners struggling
8. Hanging out with Elite Runners - Annie, Sophie and Michelle
9. Being with an incredible group of "Dirty" women
10. Smoothies - enough said

Are women's-only races still relevant? After reading this and talking to our friends after the race, I offer a resounding YES. Nothing beats being able to shed our other roles of wife, partner, and/or mother for a run in the woods with like-minded women and friends cheering us on from both sides of the trail, and to experience that feeling of satisfaction upon completing a goal that months ago seemed out of reach. Of course coed races offer a similar experience, but the vibe is different. And, if a women's-only race increases the numbers of women running on trails and roads, that's enough for me!

Thank you Chris Scott, the leadership of the VHTRC, and all the previous WHM race directors for your vision and for nurturing this event for the past 23 years, and especially to RD Tracy Dahl and this year's amazing volunteers for making the WHM a classic VHTRC event. Club members of all generations and genders were marking trail, manning aid stations, taking photos, recording results, making smoothies and cheering runners: the very best of what makes the VHTRC so special.

Super RD Tracy Dahl awards Michelle Andersen her age group prize: homemade granola

 Long live the VHTRC Women's Trail Half Marathon!

 2015 Results, Photos and more are here .

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Dirty Mothers and Sisters

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the
     open road,
Healthy, free, the world before me,
The long brown path before me leading
     wherever I choose.              --Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

The idea for our Dirty Mothers adventure run was hatched -- where else? -- on a trail run in December, 2013. Martha Wright, Annie Stanley, Jenny Nichols and I were scouting the course for the upcoming Thomas Jefferson 100K. As is the custom on our trail runs, we were yakking away, sharing stories of our lives as mothers, wives, and grandparents. After lamenting the lack of quality time we had for nurturing our female friendships and our ongoing desire for adventure, someone suggested we should take a "girl's weekend ultra-running style." But instead of going to Vegas, or the beach, or other places women go for girls weekends, we would hit the trail and explore areas familiar as well as unknown, and we would do it as a multi-day run, with no kids, no husbands or partners, just us gals. Bingo! After a flurry of emails to women we knew (and women we wanted to know better), we had ourselves a group of five, who happened to be all mothers. "Dirty Mothers" was born.

Over Labor Day weekend 2014, our group of DMs -- plus Stephanie Wilson-- ran the length of the Shenandoah National Park on the AT, starting from Front Royal and ending at Rockfish Gap, for a total of 100 miles (schedule conflicts required we end a little short of the total length of 111 miles, but no matter).

Annie made a fun video of the adventure:

For 2015, we decided to head further south on the AT starting at Rockfish Gap with a finish at Apple Orchard Falls, for a total of 92 miles over three days. Jenny and Steph had family obligations, but newcomers Michelle Andersen, Jo Thompson, and Becca Weast joined the fun. Becca is not a mom (yet!) so it was nice to realize our initial vision of an adventure run weekend for women, not just moms.

On Day 1, Annie and Becca headed south on the AT with our pal Bob Clouston, who would also serve as crew. They ran through our familiar stomping grounds of Humpback Rocks, Reeds Gap, and Three Ridges Wilderness for a 28-mile day ending at the Tye River and a cool soak on tired, battered bones (both Becca and Bob took a tumble on this rocky section).

Becca, Annie and Bob at the Tye River bridge

Annie and Becca cooling off post-28 miles in the Tye River

We were fortunate to have Annie's family cabin, complete with a view of Three Ridges, as our base camp for the weekend. I hauled up a few dozen steamed blue crabs, others brought refreshing beverages, and we celebrated with Annie's husband Jimmy as the sun went down. Honestly, is there anything better than steamed crabs in Old Bay and a beer with friends after a long run? I think not.

Day 2 dawned humid, cloudy and threatening for thunderstorms. At O'dark thirty we shuttled my sturdy DRTCHK crew vehicle to our finishing spot along Rte 60 at Long Mountain Wayside, the halfway mark for the Mountain Masochist 50. Jimmy was a hero (in fact, all our husbands were incredibly helpful and supportive of our weekend plan) and he drove us back to our start at the base of the Priest where we met the rest of our party. We had 35 miles and about 9,000 feet of climb awaiting us! Woop!

Jo, Annie, me, and Michelle ready to roll up the Priest

The Priest ascends almost 3100 feet in 4 miles, and we enjoyed warming up with the long climb and lots of chatter. This would be Jo's first ultra distance run, and Michelle would be attempting her first back-to-back long runs over the next two days, so we talked pacing, nutrition, and what to expect in terms of terrain. Annie then asked if we had been following Heather Anderson's self-supported FKT attempt on the AT, and we started talking about where she might be along the trail. Heather (or "Anish" as she is known on the trail) is attempting to break Matt Kirk's record of 58 days of hiking the AT without a crew meeting her at checkpoints. Instead, as she indicated on the FKT website, she mailed supplies ahead to various post offices near the AT, and she will walk off the trail and back to retrieve them. She won't get into a car at any point, and she will only accept "trail magic" from people who offer it spontaneously.

After the debacle that was Scott Jurek's supported FKT attempt to break Jennifer Pharr Davis' record this past summer, it is refreshing that Anish is attempting a low-key push without huge sponsor logos on her clothes and large crowds meeting her along the trail. When Anish set the self-supported FKT on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, she attracted attention of other hikers with her frequent updates on social media; for this AT attempt, she is carrying a GPS tracker set to "private" until she finishes, and she is delaying her social media posts by a few days in an effort to hike alone and stay under-the-radar but still be accountable.

So, as we were nearing the final steep pitch of the Priest climb, we came upon a hiker wearing a dress and carrying a huge pack. "Hmmm....Heather Anderson hikes in a dress," I thought to myself.

"Hi there!" I called ahead to the hiker, as is our custom when approaching from behind. The hiker stepped aside but kept looking ahead. A little unusual, given that many typically stop, turn, and greet us as we approach.

As I walked past the hiker, I looked her right in the eye and immediately recognized her face. "We had JUST been talking about you!" I gushed. "You're Anish!"

Anish smiled, and replied, "I am."

"May we take your picture?" I gushed again, now in full girl-crush mode.

"When we get to the top of the climb," she said graciously, so we moved quickly ahead,  power hiking with the help of the huge adrenaline rush we had just experienced.

 "Oh My God!" someone said. "I can't believe we saw her!" "Girls Rock!" I felt like I was at a Taylor Swift concert and we were just given backstage passes. We arrived at the top of the Priest moments later, prepared to wait, but Anish was just behind us, matching our quick pace up the mountain.

"We are friends of David Horton" I called out, and she immediately relaxed, smiled, and dropped her pack. (In an interesting twist of fate, David, a former AT record-holder, first met Jenn Davis on the Priest when she was thru-hiking the AT for the first time). After introductions, Annie offered Anish trail magic, which she quickly accepted. It turned out that we came upon her at the perfect time-- she had erroneously mailed only three days of food for this section, which would actually take her 4 days to complete before the next mail drop. So she quickly consumed the Picky Bars covered in Justin's Hazelnut Butter, and gladly accepted more.

Annie, me, and Michelle with Anish
After a few minutes of chatting and eating, we parted ways. We knew that she would be keeping pace with us over the next two days, and it was going to be fun to see if she would catch us, or vice versa. As we started running down the AT, I couldn't help but smile at the symbolic serendipity of it all -- four women, seeking adventure and quiet from our busy lives as wives and mothers, happen upon a young woman who once attempted a conventional lifestyle, but redefined living "happily ever after" here.

The rest of the day was spent exploring the AT section that runs parallel to the Mountain Masochist 50 course...

Typical green AT ferns

Cruising down Cold Mountain

 We finished the 25 mile section at route 60, where Michelle and Annie hopped off the train and began crewing duties. It was about 2:00pm and getting hotter, so their smiling faces (and cold drinks!) were welcome sights for me and Jo at miles 28 and 31, where Jo's family picked her up. Annie then jumped back in and we ground out the last 4 mile section to Punchbowl Gap, which climbed 1200 feet in 2 miles --- a beautiful but tough slog in the waning daylight. Michelle met us there, and after cleaning up we headed back to the cabin for dinner, a cookout with husbands, and an early bedtime!

Day 3 was a 28 mile day near the Hellgate 100K and Promise land 50K courses. It was also sunny and hot, and this section had minimal water sources or crew access. Michelle and I departed from Punchbowl Gap at 8:20 am with full packs and handhelds, prepared to run 10 miles before getting aid. Annie was taking on crewing duties and would run back to meet us at each checkpoint.

Michelle and I with trusty DRTCHK at Punchbowl Gap

 We descended to the lowest elevation of the weekend at the James River at 700 feet and then ascended to the highest point at Apple Orchard Mountain at 4225 feet in about 17 miles. Along the way, we saw beautiful overlooks and rock formations, as well as quiet forests and refreshing streams.

The infamous "Guillotine" rock formation on Apple Orchard Mtn
Annie and Michelle looking down at the James River and our next climb up Petites Gap

Looking east towards the Masochist course and where we came from
 Annie would drive ahead to the next available crew access points (which ended up being at 10, 10, and 8 miles) and then run back on the trail to greet us. Each time, she would share news of Anish, who had camped at Punchbowl Shelter the night before but had departed about an hour ahead of us. Over the course of the day, we were able to get within 20 minutes of her before our run -- and weekend adventure-- was over at Apple Orchard Falls. I must admit to a little jealousy that Anish remained on the trail, with no obligations, just moving forward in her (seemingly) effortless way, all the way to Springer Mountain, Georgia.

The end of our Dirty Mothers 2015 journey at Apple Orchard Falls

Proudly wearing my DMs charms, lovingly made by hand by Jenny Nichols

All cleaned up and ready to eat burgers and fries at The Palm in Lexington
What a gift to be able to share the trail with such strong and inspiring women! As we wrapped up the weekend, I found myself planning next year's journey in my head. Shall we go north or south? Familiar places or brand new? Run with crew, or get out of our comfort zones and fastpack? There are so many miles of Appalachian Trail left to explore!

What will Dirty Mothers 2016 have in store? My wish is for more spontaneous and serendipitous moments to share with my adventure-loving friends on a beautiful mountain trail, and to be "healthy, free...the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose."

Just like Anish.