- What? Devil Dog Ultras
- When? December 7-8, 2019
- How far? 100.9 miles
- Where? Prince William Forest Park, Triangle, Virginia
- Website: devildogultras.com
- Strava activity: here Watch died at 80 miles, but the loops were still the same.
- Finish time: 28:40:08
|A||Finish the race||Yes|
|B||Finish before the sun comes up (<24 hours)||No|
This is the race I’ve been training for all year. After I finished the Erie Marathon in September, I focused on the Devil Dog Ultras because it was a 100 miler close to my house, and because my running friends were familiar with it. One of my running buddies ran it a couple of years ago and came in second overall, so I was pretty sure I could beat that guy! (dripping with sarcasm). After finishing Erie with a BQ time, I wanted a bigger challenge. Something different than running 26.2 miles again but faster. I was on track for running a 100K in December, but after I trained for and caught my goal of a BQ, a 100K all of the sudden seemed to short. So I skipped the 100K and went to a 100 miler, but knew it was going to be challenging.
In fact, I thought it was going to be so challenging, this was the one race I really didn’t talk about at my Run Club. Those people are like family, but this felt different. When I mentioned in September that I was considering running a 100-mile race in the next year, a good running friend, who knows me well, cut me off and said “Well if you do attempt a 100 miler, you should wait until next year, like really late next year.” At that point I stopped telling most other people my goal. These are the most supportive people I know, but human nature is what it is, and in my experience, people who see you doing what they think is impossible for them, will tell you it’s impossible for you. I didn’t want the negativity. The very few people I told after that were mature runners (echelons above my own running capabilities) whose reaction was similar: “Great. What’s your plan?” That’s the kind of positivity I need in my life.Training
I logged over 2,300 miles in 2019, over 400 hours of running on roads, trail, races, rain, dark and wherever else I could.
Finishing Erie, I estimated I was at week 23 of this 100-Miler Training Plan for Beginners that I found on a random website. I had no coach, and I had minimal advice, but I have the type of personality that craves checklists and processes. I followed the plan pretty closely and ended up running about 30 miles over the prescribed training mileage for the whole 25 weeks.
Looking back, I should have run on more trails. I should have run more at night and in the cold (especially the cold). I also should have figured out my shoe situation earlier. Other than that, I felt the most prepared I could be for race day.Race Strategy
The 100-miler advice that stuck out to me the most was: Start out slow, and then if you think you’re running slow enough, go slower. Seemed like good advice at the time.
I really wanted to get the first lap over with and get into a groove, so my intent was to find a few people I could draft off of and go slow, making mental notes of the surroundings, and how I could find my way in the dark later. I’m notoriously bad at following the trail / directions.
I had reasoned at the beginning if I could put down three, consistent laps, I would give myself ample opportunity to be able to slow down the final two laps. I wasn’t making this out of thin air as I had studied the times of previous year’s finishers, and broke down my goals into a spreadsheet (rough copy here) with four columns. “Best Case” 22-hour finish (it was a stretch, but it’s nice to have goals). “Goal Pace” 24-hours. “Running Behind Pace” 28:43:35 and finally my “Sucking Bad” pace of 31:45. All three columns apart from Goal Pace were actual times from actual participants that assumed at some point I would mirror. I assumed I would fall in between Goal Pace and Behind Pace, but Sucking Bad pace would be reserved if I had an injury, or went blind (again).Pre-race
That Saturday was my middle son’s 15th birthday – I was going to miss the entire day. I promised to have his annual birthday dinner at whatever pasta restaurant he wanted on Friday night, which means I didn’t get to bed until later than I would have liked. I was up at 3:45 and the start line is over an hour away and I of course had to had to be there a little early. So that was all just awesome, but timing could have been worse.
The race advertised three manned aid stations (as well as 3 unmanned stops) on the course. Camp Remi (the start), Camp Gunny (inaccessible to crew) and Camp Toofy which is where your crew is encouraged to stay. We agreed that my wife should camp out near Camp Toofy and wait for me to pass her 5 times, then head to the finish. We got a local hotel room Saturday night that was 2 miles from the main crew station, Camp Toofy, because I thought she should sleep when she could. She had multiple ways of tracking me, and she knows my pace. This plan seemed solid for support because in addition to the 3 manned aid stations, there are another 3 unmanned aid stations with water jugs about half way between each real aid station. I really didn’t feel like I was going to have a need to stop more often than that.Lap 1 (22.75 miles / 2,250 feet of elevation gain)
The starting loop is a bit longer and a bit more elevation gain than the rest of the laps to get everyone on the same page. Your crew is expressly discouraged (/not allowed?) to be there for the start. Runners can get dropped off or use the shuttle. It was a minor morale hit not to have my wife/crew see me off, but we agreed she should drop me off and move on. I had what I needed. There was nothing more to do at that point. I’d figure it out on my own. I didn’t anticipate having to store my goodie bag in the open, but I probably should have. That was a rookie mistake.
I was a bit of a mess at the start. I didn’t pull up to the camp until after 5:35 for the 6:00 start. I made a quick trip to grab my bib, then find a place to store my goodie bag, and go for a potty break. This ate up more time than I realized. I came out of the potty with the anthem playing. It stopped, people lined up and I still hadn’t put in an ear phone (my intent), turned on my Garmin, GPS tracker… etc. Then the gun went off and I was in the very back of the pack. I wanted to start out slow, but there were people walking. I felt nervous that I was too far back. I knew I wouldn’t finish first, but I was hoping for a 24-hour finish and realized I started pretty far back for that as I was constantly in line of people on single-tracks doing the conga. This also had a domino effect as I started to speed up where I could and pass people, that used a lot of energy, probably more than I could afford to spend. At mile four I fell. I’m not normally graceful on my feet, but I tripped and went straight down. I scratched my right knee pretty good, but it congealed quickly (thank you cold start?) and it wasn’t hurting. Not yet. The first trail takes you on an extended loop to balance out the distance for the remaining laps. That section just sucked and I was happy not to go back. Mostly because at 4.8 miles I tripped again, harder this time. I gouged my left hand through my glove and that remaining skin had torn away by the next mile. I also tweaked my other knee at the time. So not quite 5 miles into the 100 mile and I had two falls and a lot of trips/stumbles. At that time, I was wearing a pair of Altra Timp 1.5 shoes, and I gladly traded those out when I met up with my crew at the aid station at mile 23. Not saying it was the shoes, but they were tainted in my eyes.
The course leveled out a bit after that, and I found a few miles of fire roads after mile 16. Those would be amazing on the last lap. I tripped and stumbled a few more times, but all together I managed to find a groove. I got to the crew station at mile 23 and felt great. I took off the long pants, grabbed some food, refilled drinks, got a pat on the butt from my wife and started out on the last section of loop 1. That last segment sucked. Lots of uphill, LOTS of rocks/roots, one turn that I did not see 5 out of 5 times, and one giant rock that was so much easier to crawl up than try to scale on two feet. I finished the first loop at 4:37:35 with almost 23 miles down. I was feeling great – and still very confident despite what I thought was a much slower start than I was happy with.Lap 2 (19.5 miles / 2,000 feet of elevation gain – same for next three loops)
Lap 2 was mostly on my own. I fell in line with a lot of 100Kers at the start, and I could tell we had different paces, so I’d start a chat, but ultimately move on past them. I liked the solace, so I was pretty happy. Nothing remarkable happened. I was able to pick up my pace and lay down some faster miles, but by this point my Goal Pace had generally slipped away.
My funny story of the race happened on lap 2: I ran into a couple of guys that I met through Instagram, they spotted my beard and hair and we chatted for a short few minutes. They told me “Hey the GOAT is here!” and casually mentioned that Karl Meltzer was in the race. I acknowledged the name, but couldn’t place it right away. After I left the brothers, I fell with another guy and we chatted for a short bit too, mostly about shoes. He asked me if I had heard who was running the race. So based off my previous conversation, I said yeah – that Meltzer guy, but I can’t really place him. The guy I was running with nodded to the new shoes I was wearing for that lap and said casually “He’s the guy who your shoes are named after (Speedgoat 3s). To which I of course immediately said “well there goes my chance for first place!”
Those shoes though – I developed some blisters that I didn’t like, and in general, I wasn’t thrilled with the way they fit of the way I felt running in them. I tripped more and fell once. Not terrible, but it was what it was. I would trade the shoes out again at the next aid station.
I finished lap 2, 21 minutes off Goal Pace and 3 minutes under Running Behind pace. Overall this was good.Lap 3
Things started getting more challenging here. My thought process was if I can just finish the third lap with a cushion, I could dial it back a bit for laps 4 and 5. I looked for a friend who was supposed to be at the aid station to pace someone else, but I later figured out that I missed her by minutes. Seeing people you know out there is a boost that I can’t even express, but something ultra-runners have to be able to relate to.
The rest of lap three was uneventful. I felt confident about most of the turns and running them by myself. There was still that one turn on the final section that I am going to blame being poorly marked and not just the potential that I’m that stupid I can’t see the marker 5 out of 5 passes. It was still light outside. My pace was confident. When I checked in to the aid station on the third lap, my time was 12:12:55. That was a solid 47 minutes off Goal Pace, and within 100 seconds of my “Running Behind” pace. I was seeing a pattern here.
One of the more important things about this race that really started becoming apparent on this lap, was the support of the aid stations and the volunteers at those aid stations. I’ve run a few ultras, a decent number of marathons, and ton of shorter races, but nothing I have ever seen anywhere compares to the aid stations on this race. I never filled up my bottles once. There was always someone to take my bottles from me, fill them with whatever I needed, and bring them back, tucking them in to my pack if needed. My crew is obviously the best ever, but when she wasn’t there, there was always, every single time, someone there who had never seen me before ready to help – I never had to ask for a thing. I kind of wish I could go back and kiss each and every one of those volunteers.Lap 4
On the previous lap a strapped on a pair of Altra Olympus 3.5 to my feet. They felt so much better than the Timps or the Speedgoat 3s. Running that first lap in them, I stubbed my feet a LOT less and didn’t record a single fall. If you can fall in love on a 100-mile ultra, I was doing it. I liked the feel of the sole. It was a tiny bit stiff, but I was able to clear all obstacles. The first 2/3 of the ring was uneventful.
When I pulled into the loop’s last aid station on lap 4 it was 12:18 am, dark and the temperature kept dropping, so I knew that things were about to take a turn downwards. At the crew’s aid station, I lingered a few minutes longer with my crew that I normally did. I saw another runner from Run Club (the one who took second place a few years ago) and that was a boost too. I was still wearing shorts in the aid station (it’s kind of my thing) but after 8 steps from the aid station I realized that was a horrible mistake and asked my wife for my pants from the kit. That was better, but I was still cold, and being a previous cold-weather injury, I felt it not good to take chances. I had pulled into the crew aid station with a time of 18:18:25. That was almost two hours after Goal Pace and 32 minutes behind my “Running Behind” pace. Luckily, I did not know this at the time, and looking back on this – I had no clue what time of the night it was. My Garmin died just short of mile 80 (It was a 935, that thing does NOT last the 24 hours of GPS as promised – not even close).
This is when morale started shrinking. I left the aid station finally but I was cold. The weather just got to me.Lap 5
Entered the aid station to start the final loop at 2:56 am. Before pulling out of the main Camp, I was cold and getting colder. It was getting bad for me. I sat on a bench while the aid station people ran around me, filling my bottles, bringing me soup, but I was hurting. I grabbed a plate of pancakes and sat by the fire (I will dream of that awesome fire for months). A few guys I had run behind on the earlier lap were talking about staying together, and after sitting there way too long, the wonderful people at the aid station suggested it was time to start moving. It was tough love, but I got the message. I started moving. I met up with a nice young man from NYC who I ran/walked with for most of the next 6 miles to the next aid station.
I nearly collapsed at that next aid station, Camp Gunny. I asked if I could sit at their heater, and they were kind enough to give me their seats in front of the heater. I had the shakes bad at this point, and when they put soup in my hands, it shook so violently I couldn’t hold it steady or drink from it. Two of the volunteers must have noticed. They gave me hand warmers, made about 1 million other offers of support, and pretty much tried to anything that can help. I’m not sure how long I sat there, but it was a long time. I was getting colder not warmer, and for the first time, I seriously considered what would happen if I dropped. I had a pity party, and I was the star. It was 4:51 in the morning, and my beard had collected water droplets from sweat/snot/dew and whatever else could stick to me. I wasn’t in the pain cave, but I was in a dark place.
(This is where the story gets corny) This is where I started thinking of my wife. She would be sitting there waiting for me in 8 miles, and I knew she hadn’t gotten much sleep. I also knew right then, at that moment, she probably believed I was going to finish a lot more than I did.
So I stood up, and I started to move. My new buddy told me to go ahead and he’d catch up to me. My only thought at this point was that I was coming up on nearly two miles of fire roads. I am mediocre at trails, but I can fly on the roads when given the chance. I also get hot when running, so all I remember coming out of the aid station is that I needed to run to get warm. So I ran.
I didn’t just run – I Forrest Gump’d it as fast I could. The next two miles I think I got to ten-minute miles, and a little slower on the third. But after 87 miles, I felt like I was laying down miles like… well, The Speedgoat.
I got to the last aid station on the last lap before the finish, the crew station where my wife was waiting, at 25:56:00. It was 7:56 in the morning and the sun had risen for the second time during this race. My Goal Pace was long since a pipe dream, but I had pulled back to my Running Behind Pace, and in fact had pulled 3 minutes ahead of my new target pace. Of course, I had no idea of knowing this then, but when I put together my race strategy, it appears that I picked the right people to model.
I stripped down at that aid station. I give my wife everything but my GPS tracker, and a single water bottle. I had six miles to go, and unfortunately, they were the six miles that kicked my ass, every single loop. I spent a lot of time at that aid station. I never expressed a desire to quit, but clearly, I desired to quit. My desire for that stupid belt buckle, that I absolutely paid for in blood, sweat, tears and cash, was a lot bigger. I stood up, got a pat on the butt, and started off on the last segment.
I don’t know that I found that magical enlightenment that I was looking for, but if I had a come-to-Jesus moment on the trail, it was on this segment. When the end was practically in-sight, and the finish line was simultaneously so close and so impossibly far away. I run/walked for nearly two miles. Then I walked. Then I dragged my feet. Then I sat. I sat a few times. I sat at that damn turn that I had missed the last four loops until 2 folks came up behind me and showed me exactly where it was. I sat when I got to the rocks where I had previously crawled up back when I was less tired. I sat on anything that didn’t look like it would make my butt wet.
I was in pain, but I refused to quit. I shuffled a lot and started tripping again because I kept fragging my feet, but I just kept moving forward. I read later there was one gentleman who dropped at the last aid station, 95 miles into the run. He arrived at Camp Toofy at 9:52 am, and that was over an hour and a half before the posted cut off time. I don’t know him or his story, but feel like I knew what he was thinking and what he was feeling. I feel like he sat at that aid station and thought to himself, everything hurts, I hurt, and I don’t want to climb those damn hills again. So to the man named Joe who DNF’d at mile 94 – I get it. I absolutely get it.
Three miles to go there was an un-manned aid station. By this point I was trying to count every landmark as a victory. The last time I see that cooler. The last time I cross that road. The last time I see that tree stump that looks like a bear! The next two miles were a blur. Then one mile out a guy was running towards me, yells out “Good Job” and then – Holy Crap! It was another buddy from Run Club! He was out for a nice slow run with a friend since they were hanging around the finish line. I took it as omen. He had no idea I was this close to the end and I certainly didn’t expect to see him randomly running up and down Prince William Forest.
Then I saw the bridge. It was the last crossing before the finish. I remember saying to no one in particular – “There you fucking are!” I stepped onto the bridge, calves absolutely throbbing, right shin in pain, just a bit bloody at the knees, but with that emotional high swelling up that I was finished… almost.
Short trail section, a left, then up one last hill. I crossed the line and saw my wife at the end and a volunteer, also from my run club, right there cheering me on. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel that swell of emotion that I thought would engulf me (and that I might have faced earlier in the race) and I didn’t even get a sense of relief. But it was an incalculable sense of satisfaction. I did it. I trained, I ran, and I beat the damn course.
I wanted to do something memorable at the finish line, like push ups or a few burpees (it was a military-themed race after all), but in the end, I just bent slightly over as if I was taking a bow. My recorded time coming across the line was 28:40:08. My “Running Behind” pace I had calculated at 28:43:35. I don’t see how it gets closer than that.Post-Race
The minute I crossed the finish line, the head race honchos, Toni and Bob were right there, and after yelling at me to cross the mat or my time wouldn’t count – they told me to take a seat. First, I was presented with the buckle, and it was totally sweet. Then they gave me a prize for having finished my first 100-mile event, which was a very practical silicone cup that is officially my new favorite ice cream cup. And then they have me another award, an embossed hat, for finishing 1st in the category of Retired Military. I almost choked up on that one, and asked Toni if it still counted that I had just retired 2 months ago. She enthusiastically shouted “It sure as hell does!” Then she pointed me to my wife and my run club friend who was volunteering and said They know what to do next – now get out of here!
The food throughout the race was great, but the breakfast tacos they were serving post-pace were especially delicious. I hear the guy they had cooking was semi-famous, but every single person was just so friendly and accommodating. When I was eating chocolate-covered espresso beans soaked in Mountain Dew, not a single person batted an eye.
I was shuttled to our car, I climbed in the front seat, may or may not have had a beer, and promptly fell asleep. We got home, I took a nice hot bath and then slept for 14 hours. Luckily, I haven’t found my post-military retirement job yet, so this Monday has been the laziest day of the last 5 years for me. And it’s glorious!
And lastly, even as I type this, a day and a half removed from the event, my allergies still kick in when I think about how incredible people were at every single aid station. I cannot overstate how important the aid station volunteers were. The course was fine, the location was great and the swag was neat, but I have never experienced treatment like that from strangers.
Good game.What’s next?
I think I have a hint of shin splints on that right leg, so I’m going to take a week off, and see how I feel. On the calendar is the Houston Marathon in January, Boston in April and Chicago in October, but that’s it. I told my wife on the way home that I probably won’t be as quick to sign up for another 100-miler anytime soon, to which she was quite pleased with… and then today, less than 48 hours later, some run club friends are talking about a group trip to do the Yeti 100 next year in September. Here we go again.