The snowstorm brought us an unexpected Halloween treat with more than 6 inches of snow falling on us from the time we started at 8am until we finished the run. I cannot ever remember being so cold in my life, or in a place on top of the mountain so beautiful with the first snowfall of the year. The day certainly brought a more than expected adventure through some tough conditions that would bring quite a challenge my "toughness," and probably more so mentally than physically.
BEFORE all the snow sets in.
Costumes were note mandatory but "highly encouraged" so I thought I'd make out well with my $2.80 five year old costume I found a goodwill and cut up to fit over my body. It ended up being an orange tutu fringed with black pompoms and an orange, red and black sequence halter tube top, under which I wore black underarmor cold gear and lightweight Salomon running capris. Also had the 12 cent Halloween themed bandana to match, which I would soon wish was fleece lined. Mike was wearing a candycorn costume (gotta love Goodwill). We started warming up a bit after starting up, and soon I found myself wanted to ditch the extra weight of the heavy fleece I was wearing overtop, which was drawing in water, and also the weight of my handheld, which was preventing me from pulling my cold fingers into my sleeve. There was a steady shower of snow/freezing rain but the trail were not covered with snow. Yet. The leaves covering the trail, including the rocks and the tree roots, were wet and slippery though, so we had to be pretty cautious over the technical stuff, especially the switchbacks before reaching the canal. By aid station 1, I ditched my wet fleece and Mike and I both ditched our water bottles, as neither of us had consumed any fluids for the first several miles, and I could not foresee myself drinking enough to be worth it today.
And the snow continues...
When we took a right turn onto the canal after emerging from the woods, we were immediately blasted by icy snow, rain and wind. Being out beside the open water without and trees to shield us from the wind, we probably found ourselves the coldest. I realized that I definitely could have been better prepared for this run, with at least a baseball cap, not to mention a Buff or Ali -baba mask to protect my stinging face from this bitter coldness. My tutu, now fringed with icicles, was actually holding up pretty well, the warmest part of my body probably being my butt. But things weren't too bad, as we soon turned up the Maryland Heights trail to ascend the mountain loop. Things got a little less cold as soon as we got off the canal and onto the trail to start our ascent. The ascent was long and gradual, but most was runnable, the worst part probably being that my feet kept loosing traction under the wet leaves and rocks now thoroughly covered with a few inches of snow and causing little slips and a higher level of work and effort. Not much longer after we entered this winter wonderland, we heard a loud CRACK followed a few seconds later by a CRASHH as a large tree branch smashed to the ground beside us. Seconds later we heard the same loud crack followed by a crash from somewhere up ahead. Steve, who we had met up with on the trail, claimed that these tree branches snapping under the weight of the newly fallen ice and snow were the so-called "widow-makers." There are very few moments in my life when I have literally felt like I was running for my life, but this certainly turned out to be one of them. We trekked onwards and upwards, but each CRACK made us all jump, look around and attempt to point out the location or the source. We had a couple of close calls, including one branch that fell directly behind Mike and I, and which caused Steve who was right behind us to scurry back down the mountain to avoid it. Another time came when we heard a particularly loud crack just ahead of us and an entire tree trunk snapped in half and fell into the path just barely escaped running through.
Last picture before Mike's camera battery froze and left at Aid station 1.
Reaching the top of the mountain made the ascent all worth it though. We climbed up and over two stone walls (and saw a snowman!) and started our journey back down the mountain. Descending from the peak of the mountain was treacherous, and we took things pretty cautiously. We soon reached more runnable parts though, and the feeling of printing my tracks into the smooth freshly powdered snow on top of the mountain never felt so good. We really were in the middle of a winter wonderland in October!
From the mountain, we got back on the canal, hit Aid station 3, and set out for Harpers Ferry. This was probably the worst stretch. The canal was bitter cold, and I found myself shivering even while running, which is something I cannot ever remember doing, especially so late into the run, and I usually find myself getting warmer while running than most others. I had had to practically drag myself out from the shelter at the third aid station to go on, and a few miles later when we crossed the bridge and hit the town of Harpers Ferry, I found myself huddled shivering under the hot air hand dryer in the public restroom after losing a glove on the bridge. I was the first warm thing I had felt in hours. I have never been so grateful for a hand dryer in my life and I probably stayed under there for 15 minutes (and drawing more than a few stares from some other women who came into the bathroom).
By the time I came out, I had made up my mind to call it a day. We were about 18 miles in, it was a good day of running, but now I was absolutely freezing cold and I could not imagine my cold wet self going back out to face the wind and snow again to run another half marathon distance. I told Mike my decision outside, and even though he said that he was fine with it, the disappointed look on his face let me know he wanted to go on.
Annnndddddd so I told myself I would suck it up and just run to the top of Jefferson rock, so I could at least see the view from the top before heading back to the aid station on the canal for a ride back. Aaaannnnndddddd after our short steep climb up to Jefferson rock, I agreed that we were practically halfway around this Harpers Ferry loop in the course so we might as well just finish it. Annnnnndddddd when we finally finished up the loop of Harpers Ferry and found ourselves back at the intersection of the canal, I was not nearly as cold as I was when I had started out of the bathroom, and I decided to just suck it up and just crank out 10 more miles to finish this damn thing.
So there I was, back on the App trail again with Mike, ascending back up the switchbacks now covered in snow, on our way back to Gapland gap. I must say, if there is one "good thing" about being that cold and uncomfortable for so many hours is that I really did not even feel the miles. Over 20 miles in, the only discomfort I felt was the coldness and wetness, cold bitter singing snow on my face and cold completely soaked feet, but nothing really in my legs, although I am sure they were somewhat fatigued. I actually enjoyed the App trail run back. The technicality of the course now covered in a nice layer of snow to hide the rocks and other trail obstructions prevented us from picking up too much speed, but most everything was still runnable. I even felt good enough to agree to add on the little Weaverton Cliff out-and-back that Mike and I had missed in the course on the way out to get in the full 50K distance. Still, when we guessed we had to be close to the finish at Gapland, the miles seemed to go on forever. I had yet to look at my watch today. I didn't even want to at this point.
A couple of miles out from the finish, we heard someone up ahead yell "Hurry!" My parents had apparently decided to take a hike through the woods while waiting for us at Gapland. It was good to see them and even better to know that the end was near! We finally came down the final descent into Gapland, cheering with glee (or at least I was!) The blazing fire that was mentioned at the start had been on my mind since mile 1 and I was very much looking forward to getting to it.
Dad looking for us before finally going out to find us.
I had started the time on my stopwatch when we initially started the run, but otherwise had not taken a single look at my watch all day long. My hands were buried in my sleeves the entire time. Not that I am ever that obsessed over my times and splits, but this is something I have never really done before. But I kind of liked not having any sense of time on this run. Plus I knew our time had to be pretty slow, considering the extreme weather conditions coupled with the technical terrain and stopping for several minutes at a time each aid station to find some respite. I had been taking my longest aid station stops ever on this run because it just felt so good every time we reached shelter!
It still took me hours to warm up after finishing, even after changing into dry clothes. By this time the roads were so bad that my dad drove us all home in the 4-wheel-drive pick-up, almost hitting a stop sign on the way out of the parkinglot! And, after dreaming to a steamy hot shower for over 7 hours, the power was out when we got home :-( Thank goodness for my dad and generators!
I would receive an email a few days later from the RD informing me that I was the ONLY woman to complete the run. Of the 150+ runners signed up for the event, there were 49 starters, and only 15 finishers..myself among the men:-) http://www.vhtrc.org/news/node/679. The write up has my "official" run time as a 6:36, out doing even UBER rock(4:59), making this by far the slowest 50K time I have ever run. But I am ok with that. Because the Halloweeny run, for me, turned out to be one of those training runs where pace and overall time really didn't matter anymore. The run was about testing my toughness and challenging my true mental fortitude to continue on when things got tough and uncomfortable. Of course I would be able to run a 31 mile distance. I was trained and so the distance in itself would be something I could easily complete with full confidence. But when the less-than-ideal weather conditions threw a wrench in my plans, I was challenged. There was a time when I thought I truly wanted to quit more than anything. But I stuck it out and was able to push through the conditions for a few more hours, and actually had a lot of fun doing it. Being able to deal with unexpected disasters and overcome a mental desire to quit in states of physical discomfort is essentially what ultrarunning is all about. My confidence for JFK race day 2011 has been lifted yet higher...and in alllll weather conditions, not to mention an awesome tutu:-) Bring on the snow and the rain!!!
Literally couldn't move my lips to smile better for this picture. They were frozen. Costumes held up for 30+ miles though!