A Thunder Rock 100 Mile Trail Race Report
It was the kid’s first 100 mile race.
“this may sound cheesy, but ever since I started doing ultras, I’ve followed your race reports and adventures…,” he said as we made our way down the start of the seemingly lonely and long gravel road section.
But, to me, it wasn’t cheesy at all. I beamed with pride.
When I first started, I sought out the same kind of kindred souls, too. I read the writings and ramblings of lots of runners, and vowed that while my writing style would probably be a lot different, I too, would share my stoke with those who sought it; and with now over 80 race reports live on this website, I can offer a pretty deep look into the life, growth, drama, ups, downs, and complete chaos that is ultrarunning.
Mission accomplished, but I “ain’t” about to stop anytime soon.
By the way, the kid whooped my butt by over 3 hours.
The Randyland 100
I’m not sure if Joe Fejes made that name up, but when I saw his email the night before, with this as the subject line, and being the great friend he is, predicting my race failure an’ all, I busted out laughing.
Randy Whorton, the race director, is a longtime, seasoned ultrarunner, known for liking tough courses and participating in challenging runs. Joe and Randy are friends, and he had been warning me not to take this lightly. Regardless of how the race was written up, Joe expected it to be very challenging, and as usual, Joe was right.
But of course, I never listened, and walked around like the rest of my group expecting something rather tame.
Here’s a quickie race snapshot
- 100.2 miles (although I believe it to be at least 103 miles)
- The first 40 miles is full of insanely beautiful single-track
- Miles 41-70 was mostly agonizing, unforgiving gravel logging roads
- Miles 74-82 was super muddy, rocky dirt trails, but mostly descending
- Mile 82 offered us a waist-deep river crossing
- Miles 83-87 offered us the most ridiculous, late-race climb @ 2200 feet
- Miles 87-93 was more annoying logging roads, and a tiny bit of pavement
- Miles 93 – 100+ was very technical, beautiful rocky trail, that eventually brought us home
I’ve never been able to run a 100-miler in 24 hours. Partly because the courses I choose are pretty tough, but mostly because I’m just not good at 100-mile races. The longer the race, the worse I do. But, because of my delusional perception of this upcoming race, and my strong desire to do so, and despite my lack of specificity training, I shouted out that I was going for my 24-hour finish at Thunder Rock.
What a joke I am.
The Race is Only Part of the Adventure
I sometimes wonder what the rest of the ultrarunning community thinks of us.
We are loud, obnoxious, hyper, over-excited, talkative, ridiculous, and completely oblivious to everything around us, except us. “Li’l Weezy” is probably the most outrageous, and now that he’s addicted to the show ‘Justified,’ his redneck(ness) has skyrocketed to a whole new level.
I would like to publically apologize to the Blue Ridge Brewery, Serenity Hotel, as well as anyone within 100 yards of us during the first mile of the race. Whatever you heard, whatever shenanigans made you roll your eyes, or wonder who these obnoxious a-holes were, it was all in good fun, I promise.
Thunder Rock, Aid Station 1, Mile 5.45
From the word go, we found ourselves on incredibly beautiful, mildly-technical ridge trail, that gradually weaved around, up and down, for almost six miles. I love to pay attention to the “social” side of 100-milers, listening to overly-talkative people, or the trail-side advice-givers, or the opposite – those people who run for 10 miles with that “deer in headlights” look having just realized what they started.
So many stories playing out. So much training (or lack thereof) being put to an ultimate test.
You know some of these people will not even be in the game 8, 12, 15 hours from now …and you also know, you might be one of ‘em.
I rolled into mile 5.45 feeling strong, running well, and happy.
Deep Gap, Aid Station 2, Mile 14.87
“Crap, is that hail?” I thought to myself as I ran out of the first aid station.
Yup, it was hail, and it was coming down hard. Luckily, I ducked into the trailhead, and we had such a nice canopy of cover, it didn’t hammer me too badly. That would come later.
Mile 10. The sky is black. Thunder booming, lightning crashing, and here we are running on a high ridge, next to a powerline cut, and there’s is only one thing that could make it sketchier – more hail.
So, of course, it hailed. Again.
Running with Matt Davis at that point, we came into the 15-mile aid station feeling pretty good, albeit drenched.
This would become a reoccuring theme throughout the entire race.
Reliance, Aid Station 3, Mile 25.34
Again, what more can I say about the beauty of this course? I was enjoying the terrain so much, I was convincing myself that this race was going to be different. I was NOT going to suffer like I have in so many other 100-mile races. No sir. No way. I was ready, and this terrain was pretty easy.
Someday, I will learn humility.
Weezy caught up to us, and the three of us moved nicely for miles and miles of muddy river trail. If you’ve ever run Laurel Valley, this section felt much like that – damp, muddy, and jurassic-like, with the awesome sounds of rushing water and birds, and the huffin’ and puffin’ of a few ultrarunners gettin’ it done.
Weezy and I rolled into mile 25, with me jumping in puddles directly aimed at him, doing my best to soak his annoying ass.
Still having fun.
Powerhouse, Aid Station 4, Mile 32.54
This was the John Muir trail section. It’s no exaggeration when I say this might be the most enjoyable time I have ever had running trails. The combination of the calm river section, with the late afternoon sun, running on top of postcard-looking trail, in cool temps – man… it was really nice. I’d like to go back and run that again – or any race that happens to utilize that trail.
At the trailhead, while I stopped to make like a bear in the woods, Li’l Weezy handed me some wet wipes, went on ahead, and I never saw him again.
And there would be no catching him, either.
I rolled into Powerhouse, alone, but still feeling good, with now 50K (32 miles) packed tightly in the bank.
by the way, you two “cheaters” that I saw on the road, and you know who you are, who cut the entire section of trail, should have gone back to where you missed the turn, and completed the course correctly. When I saw you behind me later in the race, I was going to educate you of such, but you never caught me. Guilty conscious, perhaps? I don’t know you, or I’d call you out right here, but if you finished, you really didn’t, and I hope that annoys you to death.
Sorry for the bit o’ negativity, but this acceptance of course-cutting is driving me crazy, and bad for the sport.
I promise you if DeWayne Satterfield, or Dink Taylor, or Rob Youngren, or Sally Brooking, or Janice Anderson, or Rich Schick, or just about any of the ultra legends I’ve come up with, and respect deeply, ever found themselves in a situation of missing a turn, they’d go back, retrace, and get back on course, and complete the race with integrity. And, if they caught someone course cutting, they’d speak up loudly.
I believe the new school should carry the same level of integrity. K, ’nuff of that…
Coker Falls, Aid Station 5, Mile 39.27
Coker was a long section of trail (felt long, anyway), with quite a bit of climbing, technical trail, and loads of rocks; but, like the section before it, stupid-gorgeous with Western States-like rocky ridges, expansive views into the valleys, and towards the end of the section, crazy-loud water falls with a thundering river.
I knew that all this beautiful single-track was about to come to an end, and I was sad. I can’t stand gravel logging roads, and I knew I was about to get served with about 35 miles of it.
Manning Cabin, Aid Station 7, Mile 45.87
This is about where things started to come unglued for me.
I was sick of the constant roller coaster of logging roads. Long ups, and long downs, over and over, in the dark, and aside from my little conversation with Benj that I opened this report with, I was mostly alone.
An idle mind is a bad place in the middle of a hundo.
The best thing about this section was the Aloha aid station at the end of it. They had bacon, and I proudly made a pig of myself.
All I wanted to do was get to mile 50, pick up my pacer Ryan Holler, and have a friend to complain to…
Servilla, Aid Station 8, Mile 50 (yay!)
Getting to this checkpoint was an adventure.
Halfway through the section I hear, “hey boy, what ‘chu up to out here?”
I never even saw the dude coming up beside me, nor do I have any idea where he came from, but he was not friendly, and he had a gun. It was holstered, but he had his right hand on it, and he was making it very clear that he had it.
I was rattled a little, but pointed to one of the Rock Creek race flags that designated the course, and said, “I’m doing a race.”
He did not seem like he was buying it, and I started to get nervous. I mean, I kind of get it. It was pitch-black. I’m all alone. It’s almost midnight. And there is nothing stirring but a few stray dogs. I mean, I’m a big, strong boy, but I’m also a complete mess at the moment – tired, in the dark, stiff – and really just not in the headspace for any kind of altercation, AND certainly not one with a redneck with a revolver.
Luckily, I remember that a dude had come into the aid station behind me a few miles ago, so he likely would be coming up shortly, so I told the guy, “if you don’t believe me, there is a guy coming up behind me who will also look like this, and also have a headlamp, and also be running in this race.”
He grumbled some stuff I didn’t understand, said he’d “remember my face,” and then just disappeared into the darkness.
Five minutes later, dude behind me catches up, and I tell him about it, and we both just chalked it up to a over-eager wanna-be playing Sheriff, and continued to move on.
Iron Gap, Aid Station 9, Mile 53.99
Few words for this short section. Good news, I now had my pacer. Bad news, it was a long, very long, 3.1 mile climb, straight up gravel.
Ryan and I just power-hiked the crap out of it while discussing the merits of Jesus.
Bullet Creek, Aid Station 10, Mile 59.09
More of the same.
Up and down gravel. I found myself longing to run single-track, like the first 40 miles. All I could really do was power-hike these gravel roads, and occasionally attempt a very pathetic shuffle when Ryan would make me run.
I don’t know anything about race directing, but why, with all this beautiful single-track around, did we have to run on these Mountain Masochist style gravel roads?
I was getting cranky. And slow.
Star Mountain, Aid Station 11, Mile 64.79
Yup, you guessed it, more gravel.
Look at the elevation chart. Just a solid series of ups and downs that hit my race like body blows to a boxer. A methodical beatdown that was breaking me exponentially.
Iron Gap, Aid Station 12, Mile 74.33
By the time we got back this aid station, I was starting to become concerned with my pace, my race attitude, and my feet – all of which were heading south at a rapid pace.
The sun was now up on the second day, and sleep deprivation had me physically spent, mentally scrambled, and emotionally numb.
But I still, even in all this pain and blah, never once contemplated dropping out.
I was determined to fight the demons. I was determined to get that damn buckle.
Hiwassee River, Aid Station 13 & 14, Mile 82-83
I always find miles 75-100 to be the most emotionally trying. It’s close enough to know that you will most likely finish, but it’s also some of the most brutal miles to endure because you are so banged up and you have a marathon to go – and you know just how far a marathon really is. Plus, notice I said “most likely” finish. I’ve been pulled at mile 80 before (Western States, 2010) by the medical team, and that was NO FUN AT ALL.
Getting to this aid station, and thus the river crossing, was easily the worst section for me. Ryan knew it, and pretty much left me alone. Just a beat up pudgy dude, covered with tats, all pony-tailed and crawling around the trails of the Hiwassee with grumpy face.
However, once I got to the river crossing, I perked up quite a bit, because:
- The river-crossing, while cold, was an interesting change
- I saw my friend Adam yelling my name from the other side
- The aid station had gobs of bacon and grilled cheese
And once I got across the river with the help of some ropes, my drop bag was waiting for me with nice, comfortable Hoka Stinsons, in which I planned to finish the race.
Getting a moment, even if just a very brief 5 minutes, to see some of my friends, and sit down, and collect myself, was really helpful for my mood and overall race disposition.
This is good, because I was about to need it more than ever.
Oswald Dome, Aid Station 15, Mile 87.51
Dude. Seriously? Who does this?
The next section was a 4-mile climb, straight up, 2,200 feet, with a series of 15 switch-backs that felt like they’d never end. And true to east coast trail running, false summits appeared everywhere, only to find ourselves climbing again, and again.
Perhaps this would have been more entertaining with fresh legs, but with 82 miles wearing o-so-heavy, I wanted to cry – but I didn’t – I just put my head down and quietly marched up the damn mountain …in the pouring rain, as was par for the course that day.
As frustrated as I got with the climb, there was no denying the beauty of the early morning lighting, coupled with a bright green, thick and lush forest. It was very primal.
Top the section off with getting mooned by a female runner trying to pee, and I’ll pretty much call that section a win!
McCarny Lake, Aid Station 16, Mile 93.29
Once we left Oswald, we were presented with another heapin’ helpin’ of gravel road; but this time, I was not necessarily opposed because I was whooped from the single-track climbing, and I knew it would be faster. Faster terrain = faster to the finish.
Nothing of any great circumstance happened other than my pacer running circles around me, up and down the mountain, like I was standing still.
Just please get me to the last aid station…
Crawling to the Finish, 100.2 miles
Getting to the last aid station in any race is always a huge relief for me. It’s pretty much a guarantee that you are going to finish the race; but in this particular circumstance, I NEVER thought I’d get through this last section.
Aid station volunteers told us 5.8 miles to the finish.
We believed them.
We hammered to try to break 28 hours. I thought I could easily roll in at 27:35 or so, so we ran hard. Harder than I had run over the last 50 miles.
And no finish.
Miles kept clicking off. The watch beeped. Another mile. No finish.
Finally, I had to back-off. I shot myself out over 5 miles of running with all I had left, and I was nowhere near the finish.
I’ve heard a number of stories now, all very different, about why this happened like this during the final section of the race, but we honestly ran for three more miles before we finally heard the generators and the cheers for runners just a few feet ahead of us. That last section was 8 miles at the very least, and perhaps longer by some measurements.
I was frustrated then, but once I was in a warm car, with a cool buckle in my hand, I no longer cared.
I was no longer frustrated with the long finish, nor the long climb at mile 82 …nor the winding trail that seemed to NEVER deliver me to the water crossing …nor the miles and miles of gravel road.
Nope, once I had that buckle, like all the others, it became the greatest race of all time, and I couldn’t wait to talk about with my friends, and share the stories here for those who like to read about such ridiculousness.
I finished the Thunder Rock 100 inaugural race, and dammit, I’m most likely coming back next year.
What Did I Learn?
I always like to come away with some lessons. Here is what I feel like I learned at TR100:
- Sleep deprivation is still my #1 enemy
- I can survive on aid station food alone. I was never hungry
- Two bottles was plenty hydration with 16 aid stations (one might’a worked)
- Pay attention! Getting lost blows
- There are some really cool personalities in our sport
- There are some people with the personality of a tree trunk in our sport
- Randy and Kris put a TON of work into this course planning
- They also know how to find kick-ass volunteers
- Weezy is getting stoopid fast, and light, and with that comes a more mouthy weezle.
- Lastly, I can finish a challenging 100-miler without specificity training – just nowhere near front pack
Yes. I’d like to make some.
NO MORE FREAKING GRAVEL ROADS, PLEASE.
(and maybe a li’l meatier buckle, jus’ sayin…)
That’s all. That’s my only suggestion(s). I believe this race would have been the most incredible race ever created had the first 40 miles been the terrain we ran for the entire hundo. IMHO, make the race like that, and there would be nothing even close that would compare in terms of rugged beauty, varying terrain and runner stoke.
I can’t say enough about the BMT and John Miur trails. Sometimes, I’d just look around and think to myself, “dude, get over your struggles with God, cuz brother, you cruising right smack dab through his backyard.”
Thank you, Whortons, for a fine event and for offering us some challenging terrain.
Thank you volunteers for your selflessness, so we could be selfish.
Lastly, thank you Ryan Holler, for being my “safety runner,” and Adam J. for simply being Adam J. – if you know him, you get it …if you don’t, well, there is not enough Internet to explain this dude.
…and Weezy, bro, I still don’t know how you ran that course that fast. As annoying as you are, I humbly bow to your performance. In our little group of friends, you outshined us all. Mad props to the weezle.