Back in June 2013, I ran my first race in the mountains of West Virginia, the Highland Sky 40 Mile Trail Run. The first 19.7 miles were mostly uphill and the vistas that followed were truly amazing. Combine that and a phenomenal running community/club in the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners and I was sold…that couldn’t be my last trek south into West Virginia. Nowhere around NE Ohio or anywhere in reach do places like that exist. Enter the West Virginia Trilogy…
The West Virginia Trilogy is held within the Monongahela National Forest on the eastern side of WV and a bit south. Seneca Rocks then Elkins would be the closest towns. The event itself consists of Friday’s 50K, Saturday’s 50 miler, and Sunday’s half marathon. Finish them all to be a Trilogy finisher. I’ve never even heard of such an event, much less attempted one but after my experience at Highland Sky, I solicited the support of my wife and signed up. We left NE Ohio for the 6hr drive south this past Thursday.
Upon getting within an hour of The Mountain Institute (TMI), race headquarters, we first lost all cell reception then were on gravel roads as we climbed in. I discovered today that if I had simply followed the race director’s guidance, all of that gravel road was unnecessary but instead, I made up a Google Map and followed those. Lesson learned! The funny part was at one point, a bunch of black cows blocked the road…just staring at us. Not until we honked the horn did they scoot out of the way and we finished our drive in.
Arriving at TMI, it’s truly in the middle of nowhere…but amongst incredible beauty. Untouched West Virginia Back Country is everywhere and “yurts”…circular buildings make up TMI plus a bathhouse with men’s and women’s restrooms. We set up our tent (our first camping experience in nearly 21 years of marriage) in the misty rain then headed up to the main yurt to check in. As soon as I walked in, Adam Casseday stood there saying “Welcome Nick!” I had never met Adam before and only recently became “Facebook friends” so yea, that was a great way to be greeted to the Trilogy. Dan Lehman, the 2nd of 3 race directors was nearby and I said hello to him…he is the race director of Highland Sky. I heard about the fantastic meals prepared at TMI and at no point this weekend did they disappoint. All fresh, all homemade, and nut-free. Yep, they asked everyone to please keep nuts and peanut butter away! (Don’t they know that just to sign up for the Trilogy, you gotta be some kind of nut?!) The pre-race meeting at 7pm and volunteer meeting thereafter for my wife were knocked out and back to the tent we went…heads uphill as we made the rookie mistake of staking our tent on a slight downhill section.
Trilogy 50K (over 4500' of elevation gain)
I had not the knowledge of what the day would hold. I have no issue climbing the “hills” of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park in NE Ohio. Those aren’t in the mountains, though. The time limit is set at a very liberal 10 ½ hours in the attempt to encourage runners to take it easy since 50 miles followed the next day. I did that but eventually, I would be moving slow because I was beat. My goal was simply to run smart, not get hurt, and save my quads. With big climbs, there are going to be fast, rocky downhills that can wreak havoc on my quads that is unrecoverable in one overnight sleep. I distinctly recall 3 slaps in the face: upon saying goodbye to my wife who was working aid station #2, we hit a long, long steep climb. That same thing happened at the next two aid stations as well. Good grief! That’s where the true mountain hill climbers shined (e.g. not me!). I was amazed at how some of them climbed and made it look effortless. A good, safe pace turned into a crawl at times, for sure.
As for technicality, there are rocks and lots and lots of them. With Fall in full force, leaves..wet leaves covered everything so fast downhills were tricky. There were also lots of water crossings and one even went above my knees (which meant I got to wash all of the mud off and soak for a minute in the ice water.) With the ongoing mist and rain, there were also plenty of shoe-sucking mud baths to run through. What made it all ok was the beautiful splendor that surrounded me. Absolutely stunning.
I also remember well arriving at mile 27.7, the final aid station of the day and where my wife was waiting. One thing had been wearing on me mentally for miles leading to her….that being my pace and the cutoffs on Saturday during the 50 miler. I expressed that as soon as I saw her but true to form, she assured me I could do it and to keep charging on…only 3.5 miles to the 50K finish. One more hill waited, dubbed “cardiac hill” before a run around the cow pasture and down a nice grassy hill to the finish line where Adam and Dan were waiting. 7hrs, 55min, 6sec. The hardest 50K I’d ever run…period…and my 25th ultra marathon finish.
The evening was a night eating right, hydrating as best I could, and taking two servings of Hammer’s Recoverite to help me recover as best I could after the 50K beat down. My left foot definitely felt a bit raw. In all of my races, I have never had a foot issue or a blister. However, I had to re-tie my left shoe 7 times and took it off to re-lube it twice because I felt the heat that precedes a blister. Luckily, I didn’t see a bubble forming those two times or I would’ve been in trouble. Dinner was awesome and the 50 mile pre-race meeting took place, especially for those registered only for the 50 miler. Afterwards, they had a giveaway where my wife scored a $149 Patagonia backpack and then we watched a new documentary about Anton Krupicka called “In the High Country” by filmmaker Joel Wolpert who is good friends with Adam and Dan. Bedtime…
I remember walking back to the tent from the bathhouse on Friday night saying “I’ve never been so afraid of failing.” The way I felt beat up and Adam’s comment to me at the 50K finish after I mentioned the hills “You haven’t seen anything yet” certainly was wearing on me. Raised to pursue perfection is some kind of stigma that has never left me. I don’t embrace it and honestly, I often struggle to just “let things go.” But, that pursuit to always achieve, never give up, love on those entrusted me to the death is always there…and I always believe that isn’t quite good enough. So, staring down the 6am start on Saturday morning…well, if we’re all being honest here, I was a bit scared. Still, though, I would give it 100% and run my race…”there is no other way.”
Trilogy 50 Miler (over 8000' of elevation gain)
Alarm at 4:15am and I made my way after lubing up and getting 50-mile-ready up to the bathhouse to brew my espresso again with my travel espresso pot. I didn’t want to change a thing. A hearty breakfast followed and I woke up my wife at 5:45am to let her know it was time. The mist continued to fall and I was hopeful I might see the sun for the first time today. Headlamps on, we walked 100 yards to the start/finish area where the sight was nothing but headlamps in the foggy mist. Seconds before the start, Adam said a quick prayer (so appreciated!), I gave a kiss to my bride, and we were off and running.
About 2 miles in, we were already climbing up to the ridge where we’d run until the first aid station about 6 miles in. I heard that in past years, the sunrise was second to none up here but on this date…fog. This run along the ridge was asphalt that was a first for the Trilogy thus far. Dropping my headlamp at AS1, I entered the trail and the rocks began…just like Highland Sky which is like boulder running. I felt great, honestly, and ran smart and steady as advised by others who had run the course before. Aid stations on the 50 mile day are far apart. The next AS, in fact, was 9.2 miles off and the rest varied in the 8 mile range…a long way. Along that stretch on a gentle decline, single track, and a steep drop off to my right, I must have taken a step wrong on a few slippery leaves above some mud because before I knew it, my feet swung right and I landed off the trail, on that slope and landed on my right hip while the back right of my skull created a nice “thud” sound against a boulder…and my right calf cramped up on impact…which hurt more than anything! To say my calf looked like a baseball would not be an understatement. I’d feel the effect of that cramp for miles, too. A fellow runner was passing by and gave me a hand up the slope and I was off and running and very thankful my head hit flat against that rock and not on a jagged edge or corner.
Arriving at AS2, mile 16.1, Judy Springs, I felt pretty good but hadn’t really hit a climb yet…not like yesterday, at least. I fueled up, had a quesadilla piece, and headed to Horton’s Trail. Ahead, the few deep water crossings awaited and then a climb UP Horton. We came down it yesterday. It’s a very narrow, rocky, muddy, rooty trail. This is the point where reality hit me. I felt like I hadn’t rested a bit from the 50K’s climbs. I wasn’t even 20 yards into it and my wishes for fresh hill legs were not heard. I bet I was passed by 6 runners on that segment. At the top, we take a 90 degree right turn and head to Whites Run aid station…mile 24.9…an out-n-back section about 5 ½ miles each way. This section is far less technical but is downhill after downhill after downhill. This is when I first looked at the clock, knowing that this aid station had a cutoff of 12:50pm. I was not concerned with the cutoff at all…I was good. However, I knew how the hills were killing me and with every downhill I went down, I grew more worried. At the turn at 24.9, I had 35min ahead of the cutoff. I quickly grabbed a few bites and began the climb, grabbing a few branches I made into walking sticks to help with the steep hills. I still moved slow and things just started hurting more and eating anything, including the Hammer Gels I had been taking sounded horrible…even drinking anything but water made me nauseous. Again…passed by more runners and I knew at that point, I was at the back of the remainder of the 50 mile pack. There was maybe one runner left. Getting to the top of Whites Run, I looked at my clock and it was 3pm. The next cut was at 3:30pm…about 2 ½ miles away…down a slippery-loose-rocky descent. I moved as expeditiously as I could in this section and about a mile out, fall #2 took place. Legs flew out to the right again and I landed right across the trail. One rock was stabbing my left hip while a pointed one (I can still picture that mutha!) jabbed my right elbow. To make it a complete trifecta, my left quad cramped. Given my little-known condition of vasovagal syncope, that was enough to turn my lights out momentarily. Yep, passed out across Horton’s Trail. I woke up and was looking up at a fern then sat up but immediately felt nauseous (the common side effect after waking up) so I laid back down just for a moment to let the episode subside. As I got up, one solo runner was hauling down the hill trying his hardest to make it to the cut. I encouraged him on and told him to go for it and then the trail “sweeper” got me. He’s the one who cuts down streamers and collects trail markings after the last runner has passed. That would be the first time a sweeper has gotten me! Thanks to his walkie-talkie, I was fully aware when the 3:30pm cut took place as I heard it back behind me from the next aid station. I kept running and arrived at 3:43…13 minutes late. Race over. Trilogy failed. I had some soup broth that hit THE spot and bummed a ride back. On the way, we stopped at aid station 6 (3.8 miles to the finish) where my wife was working to let her know what happened and not to be looking for me. BIG ‘ol hug for sure…all I could think to say was “I’m sorry. I gave it everything and left it all out there.” Then the nurse part of her started triaging me for hmmm…..the two falls, hitting my head, passing out, etc., etc., etc. J
After a shower and waiting for her to get back, we had dinner, met some new friends, congratulated many, and headed back to our “home” away from home. I felt awful…not just mentally but physically. It all hurt. Until I could find a spot to lay that wouldn’t make me feel nauseous, I couldn’t fall asleep. Somewhere around 10:30pm, we both woke up and took a dark, misty walk to the bathrooms and got some water then called it a night.
Today, Sunday, was the morning of the half marathon. All along, we were slated to run it together as she is a big lover of half marathon and it would complete my trilogy. Given my drop at mile 33.6 the day prior, it didn’t matter to me if we did it or not but I was 100% in for her. Waking up this morning, we deliberated over it for nearly an hour and jointly decided we just pack up and head home a bit early. I wouldn’t say I’m sad or happy about that decision. It just “is”. Watching them take off and all of the orange wristbands (trilogy runners were wearing them) head back to the trail definitely was a punch in the gut. However, looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I ran textbook, in my opinion. I had a plan and executed it. Simply put,
THE TRAIL WON THIS TIME.
I’d really like to pay respects to those who came up with this event. Adam, Dan, and Kat…you guys are the best! My wife who volunteered the first two days couldn’t stop talking about the community of runners and organizers and how much fun she had. This raw, human, take-care-of-each-other kind of event is diminishing these days in the world of ultra-running so it’s a breath of fresh air to be a part of your events. It was because of the same experience at Highland Sky that I chose the Trilogy and I’m so glad I did. The location was one-of-a-kind, too.
It truly is West Virginia’s “Back Country” and beyond beautiful. It is such the perfect location that matches the surroundings with the event and its underpinnings so well.
THANK YOU…from the both of us.
Some photos of our weekend. Feel free to click on any photo to load the high resolution version and save to your computer. Enjoy!
|The view of the start/finish and tent setup when we arrived (TMI far right)|
|Pre-Race Meeting (Kat, Dan, Adam...left to right)|
|Our breakfast each day|
|Recent camp site...and CHAIRS!|
|I could've stayed here all day long. So peaceful and beautiful.|
|50K finish. Stage 1 complete and my 25th ultra.|
|2 of my 3 pairs of Brooks worn...|
|AS2 of the 50K with my wife|