Ready or Not - Page 2
From Sherando Lake, racers climbed back up to the Blue Ridge Parkway on four-plus miles of rocky but runable tree-lined singletrack to the Bald Mountain Overlook aid station. A swirling, surreal fog enveloped the pack, soaking the runners in a fast-moving cloud.
“The fog was weird because one minute you could see the guys around you and what they were doing, then the next you’d be in your own world, wondering whether they were making a move,” said Sharman.
The next 10 miles were constantly varied: singletrack to gravel roads to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“I’d like to trade places with you guys,” Roes told us on the Parkway (at about race mile 26) as he appeared briefly out of the fog . “It looks like you’re having a lot more fun than I am.”
Near mile 31, coming off the two-mile Spy Run Gap gravel-road section, Mackey had a two-minute-or-so lead over Wardian, with Gall now running third. Mackey looked comfortable, but he wasn’t. “I’m trying to go to my ‘happy place,’” he said, sarcastically, as he ran by and disappeared.
At mile 33, runners reached the Whetstone Ridge aid station, from which they would run out and back on a 4.1-mile singletrack section lined with hardwoods, some showing the first tinges of fall color. By Whetstone, Wardian had closed the gap to about 30 seconds on Mackey, while the wheels had started coming off some runners.
Dave James had dropped at mile 26, due to apparent plantar fasciitis. “I’ve had an injury ever since the 100-Mile Trail Championships, and have been trying to hide it,” he said. “I couldn’t hide it anymore.” Other DNFs at this point included the young Owen and, battling a back injury, Jason Bryant, 39, of Elkin, North Carolina, who had 2010 wins in Tennessee’s StumpJump 50-miler and North Carolina’s Mount Mitchell Challenge 40-miler.
Front runners in the rec field filed into the aid station, while crews and spectators awaited the elites’ return.
“This isn’t a Starbucks,” coached aid-station volunteer Neal Gorman, a recent Charlottesville transplant and top-end ultrarunner, as one runner from the rec class stuffed his cheeks with M&Ms like a chipmunk. “Get moving!”
Then, as photographer David Clifford and I worked a hundred yards up the rising singletrack trail, we saw Mackey returning—walking downhill!
“I was feeling great, then I hit a wall and had nothing in my reserves,” he said, saying he had only run about a mile beyond this point and sat down on a rock. “I knew I had to stop. … You guys have any beer?”
Then, a flash through the trees. “Gels, water! Gels, water! Gels, water!” shouted Wardian, his voice echoing through the forest as he hauled down the trail, hailing his crew, which included his wife, two young sons and parents, at the aid station. Wardian was in and out in 10 seconds, tossing empty bottles aside, grabbing fresh ones from his crew, glancing at his Garmin GPS and bounding ahead. The longer he ran, it seemed, the faster he got.
Next was Roes, who appeared completely rejuvenated. “I feel like I know how to run again,” he said. After moving from fifth to second place, he had one objective: to chase down Wardian for the win.
He was followed by a staggered-out pack of Flaherty, Basham, Sharman, Allen and Grossman. Gall had now bonked on the out-and-back, and dropped at Whetstone.
In the women’s race, Crosby-Helms and Petrie were close at Whetstone, with Riddle-Lunblad several minutes back. (Experiencing an asthma attack, Felton had dropped around Sherando Lake.) Shortly after leaving Whetstone together, Petrie pulled away from Crosby-Helms, and built a lead from there.
While DNFs are common in ultarunning, did UROC’s cash incentive and championship potential entice runners who would not have started otherwise? Perhaps. Many runners were coming off long, brutal seasons. Sharman, for example, had already raced over 900 miles this year. Crosby-Helms was coming off a DNF at the 100K World Championships just two weeks before. Mackey had been sick. Roes had taken a break after a DNF at Europe’s Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (see page 12 for a report) and only trained for a couple of weeks before UROC.
Wrote Bryon Powell (a long-time ultrarunner and a contributing editor for Trail Runner) on his website, irunfar.com: “The money could lead folks to: 1) toe the line when they’re less certain they’re fully prepared for a race; and 2) go out closer to the edge of their capabilities early in a race and just see whether or not they have it that day.”
“I felt tired but UROC seemed like an interesting event that I wanted to see first-hand,” says Sharman. “The prize money wasn’t enough to entice me, but the chance to race the quality field in this format did.”
Indeed, curiosity and the chance to take home a little cash may have combined to lure a decent first-year field. Next year should be a different story, as by the time UROC was announced this year, many runners had already committed to their season schedules, while others took a wait-and-see attitude.
Ian Sharman and Dave James on a singletrack section early in the race. Photo by David Clifford.
A WRONG TURN
Leaving Whetstone, Wardian looked focused, intense, and at Bald Mountain Overlook (mile 49), held a 15-minute lead over Roes. Most of the remaining miles were road, Wardian’s specialty, and the consensus of many was that he had it in the bag. At about mile 52, a handful of spectators and photographers gathered at Slacks Overlook, a small parking lot shrouded by magnificent tall trees and fog, right off the Blue Ridge Parkway, where runners would climb up singletrack, cross the road and drop down to more singletrack on the other side.
“This a great photo op—of the DNFers!” quipped Jones-Wilkins, referring to Mackey, James and Bryant, who had hitched rides with other followers to watch the race’s final miles unfold.
“It’s better to DNF than DNS,” jabbed Roes’ long-time friend Andy Swistak of Charlotte, North Carolina, who was helping crew Roes, to Jones-Wilkins.
“Yeah, your name is listed higher on the results,” added the photographer Joel Wolpert of Belington, West Virginia.
But minutes ticked by, and the levity evaporated. Had Wardian taken a wrong turn?
“He should definitely be here by now,” said James. “I wonder if he went left down there.”
Powell hiked down to the junction just below, and waited. Minutes later, Roes appeared and Powell was there to direct him the right way. “It was marked correctly,” said Powell. “But I could see where you could go the wrong way.”
Everyone hopped in cars and blasted down to the White Rock Gap aid station (mile 54).
At White Rock Gap, a course volunteer who had been pulling flagging on the early part of the course said she had seen Wardian, heading the wrong way, toward Sherando Lake. “He was not happy, but I sent him back up the trail,” she said. It would turn out that Wardian had actually beaten us to the parking lot on the Parkway, making the correct turn at the trail junction, but exiting the wrong way from the parking lot (i.e. not crossing the road). The trail took him downhill, and he had to climb back up, adding an estimated tough three to four miles to his race.
On cue, Roes appeared on the singletrack at White Rock Gap aid station (mile 53.6), swapped water bottles with his parents Sharon and Don, learned of his now-first-place position and melted into the fog on the Parkway, for the final nine miles, all road. Next arrived Flaherty, followed by Wardian, Sharman and then Allen.
As spectators encouraged him to “Stick with it,” an agitated Wardian said, “Oh, I’ll finish!” He grabbed fresh bottles and some gels from his team, and was off.
“Geoff will probably slow down now that he knows he’s in the lead [and, in a show of sportsmanship, let Wardian catch up] or wait for him before the finish,” said Mackey, nursing a Stella Artois, as crews packed up to catch the frontrunners at the finish. “I wouldn’t do it, but Geoff’s a nice guy.” He was only half joking.