I've ran the Laurel Valley course seven times & raced it three. EVERY time its an adventure.
This time would be no different.
I was scared going into this race. I don't mean that in a superficial way either. I mean I was literally scared. You see Laurel Valley really only has one entry and exit between its 35+ mile stretch so you better be ready to run it.
After being sidelined for running during the past three weeks I was unsure of where my training would leave me. I dreamed of wild wolves circling around me in the dark wilderness two nights before. My mind was trying to back down. It knew the agony and torment that stood waiting out there.
I wouldn't listen so I packed up my bags and went to run. Actually I went to RACE. My philosophy was plain and simple. Go hard early & often. Rest briefly as I refilled water bottles, but other than that keep going hard all day long.
A little pre-race stuff first -
I met up with C$ and the Weez at Upper Whitewater Falls (The race finish) to leave my car on Friday evening. We jumped in Weezy's Mazda and met up with some other runners at The Rock Bar & Grill near Table Rock. I felt a strange bond with each runner as we shared stories over trout & steak. These folks love to run and obviously love to suffer too. It's strange I know, but that's just how it is. The greater the struggle, the greater the reward.
It was great to see the RD - Claude Sinclair show up on the scene as a lean & mean running machine. Seriously, the man has lost a LOT of weight and it back running again. That was encouraging to all of us. It's inspiring to see someone doing well for himself. Over sixty and sill fighting the fight!
We headed back to the hotel in Easley around 9:00 PM and I was in bed by 10:00. I slept good - no wolf dreams.
The three of us were up and rolling up to Laurel Valley in the Mazda around 4:45 AM Saturday morning. It takes about 40 minutes to drive from there for future reference. Oh, and we stayed at the Jameson Inn.
I was not nervous at all for this race. I think knowing that I have everything that I need on me for the run takes a lot of the anxiety away. I knew exactly what was waiting. I was ready to go get it!
Claude started us off promptly at 6:00 AM and I started near the back of the pack. The first 1-2 miles in is generally uphill and we all went at it briskly with our lights on.
It felt great to be back in the Valley! The sun began to rise around mile four and I knew it was time to start running harder. Weezy, Tom, Doom, Mark and a few others were just ahead of me. My plan was to keep them within hearing distance and slowly pick any weak ones off one by one. Kinda like a wolf, huh?
We ran the downhills to lake Jocassee fairly hard. I felt rested, but could tell that my ankles were not used to the tricky terrain that this trail was offering. I was planning to pick off at least one weak runner on a big climb after the lake called Heartbreak Ridge.
I actually ran by the group ahead of me as they were all filling up water bottles in a creek. I yelled "lets go" and before I knew it they were all hustling back in front of me as I had to stop and fill my bottles.
It was now time for Heatbreak ridge which is incredible. It throws about 7 flights of stairs at you that go straight up a mountain beside the lake. It is gorgeous and sickening at the same time. As I began to hit the steps I could see the rest of the runners about three flights ahead of me climbing over the first false summit. I was telling myself to stay steady and I would catch them. Never did.
I handled this climb better than I ever have before and felt pretty good at the top. You have to go down a nearly identical pitch on the other side which will get your quads burning in a hurry. I could hear the pack ahead as I worked my way down. They were all still moving well.
I reached down into my new waist pack to grab a gel and suddenly realized that all but a few were gone! The zipper had worked it's way open and I had lost 95% of my food for the rest of the run! With 25 miles to go in Laurel Valley, this is NOT what you want to have happen. You really can't panic because everything "is what it is" out there. There is not a road to bail out on, no cell phone service, and mommy can't come and help you.
I quickly developed a looter / beggar plan. IF I could catch enough runners and ask them for just a little food I would be OK. I still had a few gels and some chews, but not near enough food to fuel me as I was trying to race the remaining miles ahead.
Crazy thing happened right after all of this. I crossed over Toxaway River and there stands Scott H. He has a mini aid station laid out of the ground with gels, powerbars, gummies, etc. I asked him if I could take several items and he was happy for me to do so. Scott seriously saved my race and I'm grateful for him being there. Not sure how he got there, but he was there.
For the next few miles I thought about Ravens. Ravens are friends of the wolf. As a matter of fact they are often seen flying around the their territory. A wolf will never eat a raven because they have feathers and sometimes they will play together. Wolves will often look for food below a raven and a raven will often feed on a animal that a wolf has killed.
It was kinda cool to picture myself as the wolf and Scott as a raven.
So now I have some food and some seriously nasty trail ahead for the next 23 miles. I totally lost sight of the group ahead, but did pass a few runners here and there.
I was running hard and in fear. I was afraid that my lack of training over the past weeks would lead to a 100% collapse of endurance. What if I suddenly just went down and couldn't even walk? What if I had to walk the rest of the course and was out here all night? I decided to put the MP3 player to work and it helped to silence the doubters in my head.
Fast forward 10 more miles and many many more climbs and descents. The run is catching up to me in a big way now. My legs feel blasted. I've developed a weird rash under my left arm. The new waist pack has begun chafing my side and I just took a nasty plunge into a tree. I heard a crack, but I'm convince it was the tree and not my ribs.
There they are at the bottom of the ridge! At least two of them maybe more. This was a race for me and I had every intention of passing as many runners a possible. More importantly I wanted to shatter my best race time on this course of 10:51.
I didn't want to run anymore, but I forced myself to push down the hills and stay steady on the flats. The uphills reduced me to nearly a crawl as my quads were burning on fire.
I caught Tom and we went back and forth for miles. Tom is a tough guy. He was having a "off" day but refused to throw in the towel and walk. I fed off of his tenacity. The more we ran, the quicker we could rest. Just try to keep running.
My food was starting to run very low again around the 28 mile mark. I started to ration what I have out for the end of the run, but I knew that I would crash & burn without enough calories to support running.
Wolves protect themselves in packs. This is when I met up with Susan D. She was having a solid run and seemed to be full of energy. At this point I was just not in the mood for much conversation so I let her do the talking and I tried to contribute the best I could. She offered me two GU gels and they definitely helped put some life back into my legs.
Susan was looking out for runners. I would always hear her ask anyone we passed if they were doing OK, not just casually, but she really wanted to know. It meant a lot to know that someone out in this maddening jungle cared.
I made my way down to Thompson River which marked mile 28 of the run. About a 10K to go after that. At this point I was thinking that I may have to walk the rest of the way in. I had two small sips of gel left and that just would not get me to the finish if I was going to push hard.
What do you know? There sits J-Stien out on the rocks! He has a can of Mountain Dew and I yelled ahead to Tom. He came back the the three of us shared the can together. It was great! What made it even better? He pulled out of second can! The three of us slammed it down quickly and I could instantly feel the sugar and caffeine kick in. My trudge turned into a brisk hike, which then turned back into some running.
We ran hard down to the final stretch - Whitewater River. The final three miles are just ridiculously technical with about 1,400 feet of elevation gain. I was feeling better and had every intention of charging this final stretch. As we made our way up the river, the rain began to fall. The temps must have dropped at least 15 degrees as the bottom fell out. It was raining so hard that I was drinking the rain water. Delicious.
I was gonna catch Weezy on the final half mile climb! I could see him several switchbacks above me as I hurried up in pursuit. I gave it every ounce of energy that I had. I was red lining and right on the verge of a monster cramp in my lower body. I would only back off just enough to keep from locking up.
I pushed and pushed up higher and higher. Passing three runners on this stretch, but still no Weezy.
I was so happy to see the top of the trail head that I didn't care about catching him or not. I glanced down at my watch and saw that I four minutes to make it in under 9:15! Unreal!
The last runner I caught was Mark C. at the very top of the observation deck before the last 200 yards of pavement leading to the finish line. We smiled as we ran into the finish together. Both hurting, but that was masked by the joy of finishing.
Weezy was waiting for me with Christian at the finish. He had beat me in by about a minute and a half. The hunt was over, the race was over. It was time to celebrate a new personal record of finishing the 35 mile Laurel Valley course in 9:13! That would be an hour and 34 minutes faster than my prior best race.
Weezy also PR'd with a 9:11!
I would also like to throw a shout out to Jon Allen who won the race in a staggering 6:05! Simply unreal for your first Laurel Valley race.
This is a race that I hope to run for years to come and will always have a special place with me. If you ever want to see ultra running in it's purest form, come up and be a part of this one.