Sunday, August 9, 2009

Laurel Valley White Water Run

"Buy the Ticket take the Ride"
Saturday August 8th 2009 was the toughest physical challenge of my 34 years on earth.
I stumbled across this race on director's Claude Sinclair's about six months ago. Just seeing the photos and bios of other runners from previous years was enough to make me question my ability to even apply. Legend after legend appeared down the finishers list for many years.

After reading the descriptions & requirements of the run I figured that I may be ready for it with at least 3 more years of ultra running under my belt. Claude warns anyone interested that this is a self-supported 35-40 mile run through some of the foothill's most rugged mountains & valleys. There is no bail out along the trail. Once you are in there are two ways out. Finish at the end or turn around and go back to the start. After running only three ultras I noticed that Laurel Valley always seemed to come up in conversations regarding tough local races.

To make a long story short my new ultra friend Mike Riggins said that he was running it & if I was running a 100 miler in 2010 I should run it with him. I quickly got excited & motivated. I begged Claude for a entrance for about six weeks and after running a decent 50k at the Landsford Canal he decided to let me run it about two weeks ago. I was super pumped, excited, and wanted to vomit all at the same time!

All first timers in this race are "sweeps" for the day. Sweeps are not allowed to pass other runners & responsible for helping others who run into trouble along the way. Basically a safety net to make sure everyone gets off the trail safely. There were about 10 of us and we started at 5 AM which was one hour before the official 6 AM start.

2009 Sweeps/5 AM Starters
Since the start was early I opted to tent camp at the Laurel Valley parking area which was the starting line. Just before bed I realized that I forgot the bladder to my Camelbak hydration pack! At the time this really stressed me out, but it ended up fine. I carried two Gatorade bottles & they worked.
I was surprised how easy it was too find in such a remote area. I arrived right and dark and was drifting off to sleep by 9:30. Wide awake and ready to run at 4 AM I packed up camp and got ready.This was my first shot at night running and I enjoyed the hour or so that we put in. It was cool with a slight breeze and you could catch a glimpse of the full moon through the thick mountain cover. Spirits were high and you could hear roars of laughter echoing up and down the trail. I was practically floating while running with Andy Wright, Buddy Nash, Doug Dawkins, Will Brown & many others!

Big thanks to my new running buddy Wayne Downey for taking these photos. I was so freaked out from my Camelbak mistake that I decided to leave the camera in the car. Wayne became a friend quickly. He is one of those people that you meet and instantly know that you have met a life-long pal. Not to mention that he kept me cracking up all the way down the trail.
Around the 2 hour mark we hit beautiful Laurel Falls.
I am feeling so good at this point. Lots of energy & cool mountain air. There is a steep climb during this stretch, but you are so fresh it really doesn't bother you at all. From the overlook at the falls you have a brilliant downhill section that just begs you to run as hard as you can. This section pushes you into the 6 mile area where the real fun & games begin.
I'm guessing around mile 10 Laurel Valley formally introduces herself to you:
I come out of the nice long downhill section and hit a section that runs beside Lake Jocassee. I think that may be Indian code which translates to your quads will soon be torn to shreds! After strolling by Lake Jocassee you are staring up at the picture to the left. I know what you are thinking. It's not that far up though. Well when you get up it - it just keeps on going. Then when you get to the top you go down the same roller coaster. One key I learned in Laurel Valley. The water is your friend. I will guesstimate that I never went longer than four miles on the entire run without having some type of water available. Since we are speaking of water it is very important to treat the stuff you plan to drink so you don't get horrible parasites and stuff in your system. I decided not to do that. Weird, stupid? Not sure which, maybe both, but I plan on following the rules next time. I was so ticked off from leaving my hydration bladder at home that I didn't really care.

14 Miles In & the steps take a break and give you some nice watering holes. This area is called Cane Break Access. I am having a laugh with Lynn Difiore here about the steps we just did:
Diggin' through my pack for something to eat at Bear Creek Camp:
So I'm now at the 14-15 mile point. Closing in on the half way point. (Maybe? Who knows for sure?) Wayne and I are having a grand time joking and sharing recent war stories. The Cane break area is pretty much flat & runnable with great scenery.

I could not resist shaking the suspension bridge at Toxaway when we went over it. I felt like Donkey Kong trying to shake Mario off the course! Lynn was just getting on the bridge in the middle of my fiasco and she let me know that she was getting motion sick from my nonsense :]

Another shot of the river looking left off of the bridge:
Miles 15-25 Journey to Horsepastuer River
There was a brutal climb out of Cane Brake Access to the top of a mountain ridge. Lots of stairs going up, up, and up. It may sound insane, but I would rather have the stairs straight up the mountain than switchbacks going up for two extra miles. At this point Wayne & I realize that we are way ahead of the 5 AM sweep crew. We talk to a few of the veteran runners and get mixed reactions as to what we should do. Several say just keep running - Claude won't mind. Others say we should stop and let the sweep captain & other runners catch up. We were both feeling so strong here it was hard to stop, but we decided it was for the better. I will throw out a thought here about Glide. It is good stuff, but I don't recommend putting the Glide with Heat Fx on your crotch area for chaffing! That is all that I am saying!

Taking a 30 minute break on the trail near Bear Gap with Wayne:

So Wayne & I both agree that we should stop and wait for other runners to catch up. We were laughing and carrying on like a bunch of crazy hyenas at this point. "Laurel Valley isn't so bad...." then "Laurel Valley - I don't see what is so hard about it..." We were feeling so strong. I was even wanting to beat on my chest a little for being ahead of other runners. (I bet you can see where this is going!) We sit around here for about 30 minutes getting ate up by bugs and finally agree to press on to the next river/bridge.

The descent to Horsepatuer River
I think we covered about two miles from Bear Gap to the river. We decided to run nearly all of this section. At this point it was about 80 degrees and we were under heavy mountain shade. The wind was gently blowing and the river could be heard in the valley below. I was about six hours into the run of my life and never have felt so strong. I knew the cold river water would be adding to my joy soon enough.

As soon as we get down to the bridge we see Eric in the river looking bad. We also meet up with Mark Elson here who is a sweep as well. He had been hanging out with Eric for a while and warns us that he is in bad shape with cramps and the general "funk". I didn't waste anytime getting in the river. Off with the pack and right into the drink I go beside Eric. He looked horrible. I could see his quad muscles constricting back in forth under the water and he was screaming in pain. He said that he had ate, drank and taken salt tabs. What more could us sweeps do?

Eric looking rough in Horsepasuer river:
This is the first sight that Wayne & I saw when we scrambled down the rocks from the bridge to the river. Mark had already been working on Eric. He was filtering water and taking care of him in every way that he could. I noticed a pontoon boat about 1/2 mile down the river and offered to try and hike down to it and see if they would be willing to carry Eric to a Marina. Eric agreed to this and I took off. I got about 100 feet away and Mark started yelling that Eric wanted to continue on the run! What the heck!?

Can you see the boat in the distance? From the bridge at Horsepastuer. Beautiful!

Mark helping us out with his filter. My only clean water of the day!

You can see Eric still cooling it "Laurel Valley style" in the river. At this point I thought he was done. Mark kept filtering water for all of us and we spent some more time frolicking in the river. The water felt so good. I wanted to spend about two more hours just floating around, but we all knew we had to get moving soon. To my amazement I watched Eric man up, get out of the river and head out on the trail. I was totally amazed. We stayed at the river for about thirty more minutes and then decided to get back to it.

At this point I had no idea what was in front of us. About 10 miles from the finish. Mark, Wayne, Will (Sweep Captain), and I all hit the trail for the climb away from the river. It was great to spend time running with Mark and talking with him. We shared stories and lessons learned while running the flat/downhills and walking the ups. Wayne and Mark did most of the talking while I listened in. I could tell that I was starting to enter the place I call "ultra dream land". Things start getting a little spacey and thoughts don't form like they normally do. Once again the trail served us up a generous portion of steps that seemed to continue up to the sun.

We caught up with Eric about 5 miles up the trail near the Thompson River. He looked great! He was not running, but maintaining a very strong power hike up & down the hills. As a matter of fact the three of us had to run several time just to keep up with his walk! What a comeback!
After Thompson River Laurel Valley started punching me. I mean head shots, body blows, drop kicks - the whole nine yards! I was about 5-6 miles from the finish at Thompson river with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain to go. I began to feed off of Wayne & Mark. I drifted in and out of their conversations and contributed a few words when I could. Really just trying to keep my head in the game.
By the time we made the turn by the famous 1.7 mile sign to finish (Which is really like 3.5) I was in the funk. Wayne was in front of me and it was a struggle to put one foot in front of the other. At one point he took his hydration pack off and was carrying it because it was hurting his back. I remember looking at him holding it thinking that we were at the fair and he won the pack at a carnival game. I nearly slapped myself to snap out of it and keep pushing forward. For the final climb we had to scramble some house size boulders in white water river and climb those LV stairs to reach the finish.
A shot from the observation deck 1/2 mile from the finish:

This is your final 1/4 mile run to the finish. I loved seeing this place!

Party Shot Of The Finish!
New buddies Wayne & Mark

It was awesome to finish up with Wayne, Mark & Eric! All four of us running as hard as we could down to the finish. I am still blown away at Eric's strong comeback!

This was my longest distance at about 36 miles & longest time on feet at 11:54 to date. A big thanks to Claude Sinclair for putting this one on. I really enjoyed it & hope to be back running at 6 AM next year. I'm proud of my new running buds - looking foward to a lot of great runs down the road...


  1. Wow, Jason! That is so awesome. Pics are beautiful. Congrats on your race. Fun to read about it!!

  2. nice dude - sorry I didn't have much to say when I rolled up on you dudes - I was pretty focused thinking I had a sub-8 shot.

    So much for thinking ...8:11

    Nice work - I'm proud and stoked for you and li'l Wayne. I knew Mark was good for it, but I didn't quite know what might happen to the down-diggity-downey.


  3. I'm reading your LV report and looking at those beautiful pictures, and the only thought that comes to my mind is "I want to do that race!" Congratulations on a great run while being a most excellent sweep! See you at Lynch's Woods.

    Take care and happy running!

  4. Good report! That's the kind of stuff I'm looking for to help me plan an attempt next year. Congrats on longest run yet. That's big stuff.

  5. Now that was a great LV race report!!
    I really felt like I was there? Wait I was there ... Glad you didn't bring up me and the "Where my Hydro Pack at "
    It was a life changing run for me!!
    Don't think I could have cover it without your support! Next year we give it all we got' Captian!!!

  6. Here's a question. I noticed on the results that some folks finished an hour and a half after y'all. The sweepers didn't have to stay with those last place people?

  7. Great job Jason! I forgive you for trying to shake me off the Horsepasture bridge (the Donkey Kong analogy is great!), but I still will never forget that you actually said you like stairs.....See ya next year!