|Posted by Breanna Cornell on May 19, 2015 at 2:05 PM|
Thunder Rock 100
May 15, 2015
101 miles –16,100 feet of climbing
My 4th 100-mile finish.
It feels so good to just be. This whole race was a fantastic meditation.
With a noon start on Friday, I drove the 3 hours from home in Northern Alabama to the Chattanooga-Smoky Mountain area of Tennessee. After a quick runner check in, I drove to the campground that would host the start and pitched my tent. After socializing with a racer’s family, I (surprisingly) found I had reception and decided to see if I couldn’t get any work emails answered (a poor and frustrating decision on my part). A phone call with my parents helped to flush the pre-race jitters and work anxiety from my mind before I hit the sack.
Morning of the start.
The disadvantage of being a morning runner and getting to work at 6:30 AM meant that I could not sleep in past 6:30 AM. With just over 5 hours until the start, I lounged in my tent and indulged in a large breakfast of bananas, ensure electrolyte shake, and chocolate. I finally packed up and drove to the finish at Raft One (a short 20 minutes from the start). There, I dropped off my drop-bags at the morning runner check in and socialized with some of the other racers and crew. At 11:20, we all loaded up into Raft One’s white water rafting buses and were hauled to the start.
All the while, I was looking out the windows, absorbing the misty mild-mannered mountain air. The Smokies, once as tall as the Rockies, their sharp peaks weathered to rounded hats, stand like hunched old men, fighting the effects of gravity and time; eroded but dignified. The humid air amplified the colors, the Ocoee reflecting the beauty.
Sometimes, I feel the need to justify my decision to move to Alabama. This was but a short 3.5 hour drive from home. How lucky was I to have this essentially in my back yard? My excitement mounted for playing on the trails.
The start. Off the buses, onto the grass, smile for the cameras, and GO!
We sprung into the woods, and it wasn’t long until the trail began to wind up, up, up. The hill never seemed steep, but would appear to level off ahead only to find that it went up more. There was no peak in sight, so the lengths of the climbs were deceiving.
But the views!
When a break in the dense green foliage allowed us to glimpse our elevation, the Smokies rewarded us with a sea of blue rolling peaks, mist rising from their troughs.
I quickly fell into a comfortable pace with a pack of runners which included a couple who raced together – a husband and wife team who had completed the Badwater 135 in 2013 together as well. We spoke about racing, where we were from, about life. And then the trail went down…
Down, down, down!
The single-track trail was hardly even half of that on the two mile decent to the river. I wanted to look up, to stop and absorb the vistas, and the one time I did I stubbed my toe and almost went tumbling down the rest of the mountain. Focused, I emerged at the bottom to the river crossing, where a herd of volunteers and supporters passed us the rope to cross and cheered us on.
This event sincerely had some of the most excited crews, volunteers, and onlookers that I’ve ever seen at an event. It was beautiful.
The river (about mile 17) was refreshing in the afternoon heat. Not a half mile out of the water, we began to ascend once more. Winding up to the peaks on trails varying from overgrown grass paths and two tracks forest service roads, it began to rain. We were honestly lucky because the forecast had scheduled thunderstorms throughout the day and into the night. The rain, however, lasted only for a couple of hours. Between the river crossing and the rain, however, my feet were raisins. I could already feel hot spots give rise.
As the day meandered on into the evening, I had wonderful conversations with many runners. We observed how many ultra-runners tend to have engineering degrees, be doctors, professors or teachers (i.e., at one point I (engineer) was running with a teacher and a dentist). I love how the trail introduces conversations that ebb and flow between comical (bodily functions, singing songs in voices that are out of breath), intellectual (environmental conservation, new technology, etc…), and introspective (learnings from racing, life). I loved it. I loved everyone on the trail, every step with them.
10 hours and 15 minutes.
Night hit and I slowed. I slowed with the distance and the dark. The trail became technical, with a six mile stretch that almost brought me to a crawl. Two runners caught up behind me. The trail narrowed, dug into the side of a ravine. I stepped on the edge of the trail. All of a sudden, there was nothing beneath me but a 30 foot drop to the river below.
I scream and flailed. With cat-like reflexes, the runner behind me caught my hand. For a moment, he was the only thing stopping me from an injury-inducing fall. He pulled me up to safety (my hero!), and I stood there, shaken for a moment. But for a couple of scratches and bruises, and some shaken nerves, I was OK. I ran as far from the edge from there on out.
I just had to make it to mile 62.
There, I would meet up with the rolodex of North Alabama: Steven. Steven and his wife, Denise, had offered to come crew/pace me. Due to the noon start, they had been able to drive up after work on Friday and promised to meet me at mile 62. Jogging into the aid station, around 2 AM, I began calling “Steven! Steven Davis!”
Finding my team – who was already prepared for my arrival with a chair and my goodie bag – I plopped down to change my still wet socks and shoes. The blisters had begun and my shoe change was too late to stop the process. At least my feet would be more comfortable in a shoe that allowed for some swelling (and a shoe that was not wet).
Morning while running with Steven through tall grass.
Waving to Denise, Steven and I took the trails by storm (ok, maybe a bit slower than that). The following hours passed with jokes, stories, and dawn. Sooner than I knew it, we were at mile 82. Denise met us here, and Steven took off with her to rest a bit and catch up with me in another 10 miles. The next 10 miles I plugged out by myself, plugging in to my iPod for the first time during the race. Never have I not listened to music or audio books for so long during a run. In the past, I have used them as a tool to space out and just go. But I was so consumed with the people, the conversations, the beauty of the course, and my head was in such a good space that I didn’t need them. Heck, I didn’t want them. I was in a groove!
The music, however, aided me in keeping the slow-jog pace up until I next met Steven. Upon joining me, he urged me to move it, hustle, let’s get to the finish. By this point, my blisters were very painful. Each step was thought out, where to place my foot so I don’t slide into my toes. Areas of slanted and uneven ground became points of frustration. I lost the ability to control my responses to the roots and rocks and cried and yelled at the trail a bit.
It’s funny, being two hours from the finish line, knowing that you’re going to finish, and thinking “why can’t we just be there?”
Passing through aid stations, I was informed that I was the 3rd female (no way!). Every little noise behind us became the 4th place women racing around the corner. Steven had to keep reaffirming that there was no one behind us, that, no, those weren’t voices. Pumping my arms in a fashion that Steven dubbed “granny arms,” I’d pick up the pace at each sound that could be a top three finish slipping away.
And then we could hear it.
Not behind us, but ahead of us.
A 200 foot hill to summit, and then descend, we rounded the bend and there it was.
23rd / 51 overall
3rd / 12 finishers (14 DNF) female
2nd / 6 (10 DNF) age group
With 124 people registered, only about 100 (?) started, and about half of the field dropped. It is my slowest 100-mile finish to date, but it’s on a tough course and I feel good about how I raced it. I ran every evenly for the first half of the race, and while I may have slowed down drastically by mile 60, my pace from 60 to the finish did not slow or vary much.
The course was challenging and beautiful. The aid stations were amazing, offering a savory variety of foods, including bacon wrapped pickles, hummus and olive wraps, avocados and tomatoes, soup, gels, trail mix, heed, pop, egg wraps, paleo pumpkin pancakes, and much more. The volunteers staffing the aid stations were even better – a huge thanks to all of the volunteers! This was also one of the most organized races I have ever run; the runner and crew guide sent out before the race was extremely comprehensive and detailed. There were points in the course that were not clearly marked, however, and I did loop back to certain points to make sure I was going the right way. The finisher’s buckle isn’t anything extravagant, but I love it all the same – a subtle way to commemorate a wonderful day on the trails.
Toe already turning purple from stubbing it.
After being awake for over 33 hours, Steven, Denise, and I went out to eat (how lovely a full meal is after snacking for a whole day!) and clean up in the hotel (after returning to the finish because I forgot to grab my pack and shoes… ops!). Steven and Denise were an amazing crew and I cannot thank them enough!
This is my last race until the Badwater 135. I have never felt so ready for anything, and Thunder Rock has for sure gotten me to the mental space where I need to be and abolished many fears that come with facing a great distance ahead.
I cannot wait for the next challenge!
Do what you love,
Love what you do!