Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Nantahala Fria 100

About three weeks ago Sarah Lowell, the Arctic Queen, the only female finisher of the Arrowhead 135, emailed me with her idea for an Arctic Grand Slam. She is planning on running two Arctic 100s in February and then another in March (the Arrowhead, one in Alaska and one in the Yukon). In order to do a grand slam, you have to do four 100s in four months, so she needed one more to run. Travelling to races is pricey, and especially so for us public school teachers, so Sarah created her own winter 100 here in the mountains of Western North Carolina and invited me to run it.

The run was scheduled for last Friday, but Mother Nature cooperated with Sarah's "arctic" plans and dropped some snow and record low temperatures on Wednesday. So Sarah did her run early while the temperatures were around zero at night and in the low 20s during the day. She ran solo with no aid, except for what she brought in her vehicle (which was accessible once every 25 mile loop) and finished under 30 hours!

I, however, am not a big fan of the arctic, so I waited until Friday afternoon when the nighttime temperatures were supposed to at least be in the teens. Tony drove me to Standing Indian in the Nantahala National Forest, where we met Sarah, who had finished her run the day before and Alan Buckner, who was going to run with me.

Sarah's course is probably 80% single track. It starts out on a rocky, rooty side trail that takes you up to the AT. Once on the AT, you head towards Albert Mountain on a gradual uphill, then you get on forest roads for a few miles until you hook back up with the AT. The next several miles is pretty runnable, but there were a lot of springs seeping into the trail that were frozen and a couple of creek crossings that were tricky in the winter. (One included balancing on a snow-covered log that eventually became ice-covered after subsequent laps. Once you became a little light-headed, the log also appeared to be moving.) You got off the AT onto a side trail for a few miles, which took you to a forest road. That forest road, which was very runnable, took you back to the start (after you did an interesting balancing act on rhododendron limbs trying to get over a creek crossing). We did that loop 3 times (Sarah measured it as over 25 miles) and then a shorter one to finish at 100.

The first loop went well. A lot of the trail seemed very runnable and we made good time despite me carrying a heavier-than-normal pack. It was a big decision about what to carry. I get cold easily and knew that I would only have access to aid every 25 miles, so I packed more than I thought I would need. I also carried a full Camelback of water since I didn't know if there would be water available or just ice. We started at 3:15 p.m. and stopped to don headlamps and more layers at around 5:30. Most of the trail was snow-covered and the temperature was in the teens. I had put hex-headed screws in my Cascadias to help with traction and that seemed to work well, although the frozen springs were tricky. We finished the first loop in a little under 6 hours, but then spent a lot of time at the vehicle. Tony brought hamburgers and then we had to decide what to pack for the middle of the night with no aid available. We took off again and once we hit Albert Mountain, the wind began to pick up. I put another layer on and was fine for the rest of the night. Alan, who had only slept a few hours in the past few days, became nauseated and light-headed and by the time we were close to the end of the loop, he was violently ill.

We had to make a decision at that point. Alan did not feel like he could do another entire loop and I didn't want to head out into the night again solo. We stayed at the vehicle for awhile while Alan regrouped and tried to get some food in. We headed out again, with Alan going with me to Albert Mountain, where the sun began to come up. He headed back down and I continued on solo.

Every loop was different. There was a lot of snow on loops one and two, and the ground was frozen hard where there was no snow, but after the sun came up, the temperature warmed up quickly. By the fourth loop, there was little snow left and more mud to contend with. After loop three, I had a nice aid station waiting for me. Sarah came back out and cooked me breakfast and Larry and Alan were there for support. The last loop started off as the hardest. I had a two-hour period where I didn't think I was going to finish. But after a few adjustments, I got my energy back and ran the next five hours hard. It was the first time since my injury that I just ran all out and felt great. Sarah met me at the bottom of the last side trail and I walked in with her to the finish line, at around 28 hours. I was very glad to see Tony, who had been gone most of the time working.

Although I felt good during the run for the most part, when I got home I was sicker than usual. I had the usual stomach complaints, but I also had a fever and alternated between burning up and freezing. Once I slept, however, everything leveled out. I had been awake for over 40 hours, and as of today (a week later), I am still sleepy! On a positive note, I have very little muscle soreness and am planning on running a "fun run" trail marathon tomorrow. I think the change in my running style since my injury and the cushioning of the snow may have contributed to that.