Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Balled Eagle" "100-Mile" "Race Report"

Never before have I used so many quotation marks in the title of one of these things. That's because while this past weekend's little adventure could be called many things, none of the "official" names for it really do it justice. The closest I can come are the following pictures, videos, and words . . .

First, the background. The "Balled Eagle 100" (also known simply as the "Eagle 100," prior to race morning) was Dave Snipes's (aka "Sniper's") brainchild, as a way to give his friend Mark one more chance to run a 100-mile race before his wife had a baby and sidelined his ultramarathon expeditions for a while. Mark had done some races in the Massanutten Mountains, and Sniper is no stranger to the Massanuttens, having completed numerous ultras there, so this was an opportunity for Sniper to design a diabolical course, integrating the toughest parts of other mountain ultras in the area into one monster race.

As this was a "trial run," we would be sticking together for the entire race - we would either all finish, or all quit. At this point, I'd post the course map, but since it probably won't mean much to most people reading this, and, as it turned out, we didn't run the entire course anyway, it's perhaps a moot point. But if you'd like to see the map, feel free to e-harass me, and I'll be more than willing to share. So, on with the story of the race . . .

Mark, Jim, and Mike (aka "The New York Boys"), and Sniper and me, all had a "last meal" the night before this ordeal, at a little place in Front Royal called "The Royal Oak Tavern." Normally, I wouldn't talk about this, except for three amusing things that happened during dinner:

1. Sniper threatens to administer "a drug test" (as he purchased only one, to detect marijuana usage only, from the Dollar Tree)

2. Sniper gives us our "ultrarunner survival kits," mostly courtesy of the Dollar Tree

3. This guy plays solo acoustic covers of everything the whole time

At this point, we were down to just five people starting the race, as opposed to nine expected - four had backed out before we even met in the Signal Knob parking lot. So, with a minimum number of participants, we bravely met at a little before 5:30 a.m. on December 17th, and after a speech in which Sniper revealed the "real" name of the race (the "Balled Eagle," for reasons beyond a "PG" rating that shall not be discussed here) and encouraged us not to drop out when we reached the parking lot again at around 70 miles, we were off . . .

And onto our first horrible obstacle, Sherman's Gap. In the Old Dominion 100, this climb, a rocky, nasty, steep, awful thing that happens a little after 75 miles into the race, has ruined many a race. Some have even been known to call 911 from the top of the climb, but that's a funny story for another day . . .

Oh brother, here we go . . .

This trail is legendary enough to have this monument associated with it.

Although it was in the mid-20s, and still dark, by the time we power-hiked to the top, we were sweating profusely. Mike, who had been deathly ill the night before, and didn't look any better on race morning, was the palest, sweatiest, dead-eye-est of us all. He almost gave us a legitimate reason to call 911. But since there was no way for anybody to get up there, except on foot, we had no choice but to continue down the trail, and on to the first aid station. As the sun came up, and the temperatures climbed, running became a bit more comfortable, but because it remained cloudy, we never saw anything warmer than the mid-30s.

Other than Adam (a friend who would be running the first 27 miles with us) having a run-in with a sawbriar branch that got him both coming into the first aid station, and leaving the first aid station, as he cut himself on it again trying to throw it off to the side of the trail, and me getting my right foot and makeshift sock-gloves wet in a flooded section of trail, the trek to the first aid station, at Veach West, from the top of Sherman's Gap, was pretty uneventful. The aid station, on the other hand . . .

. . . was downright awesome.

Sniper had clearly spared no expense (and since these were all volunteers, "no expense" was definitely the operative phrase) in setting up top-notch aid stations, with awesome volunteers, plenty of sandwiches, and even a very official-looking table. Perhaps this was detrimental to our overall progress, as we spent 15-20 minutes at each aid station . . .

But eventually, we were off on our relatively short trek to the second aid station at Milford Gap. Mike was looking a lot better, for unknown reasons, especially since the trail had gotten no easier . . .

Grunting up the trail from Veach West

Without particular incident, we made it to the second aid station, at Milford Gap, and spent some time tanking up, since the next section would be around 13 miles, including a climb up to Kennedy Peak. Some highlights from this section:

Sniper finds a coin on a carin; or "Sniper, no swiping!"

God blesses our otherwise cursed run.

We climb some more, while Mike (in the rear) gamely hangs on.

A powerline cut that we don't have to run magically appears just before we reach Camp Roosevelt (Aid Station 3); note that the colorful "ants" on the ridge are the other runners . . .

We reached Aid Station 3 without sign of our allegedly beloved Seth, one of the friends of the "New York Boys" who was supposed to have been at Aid Station 2. In between watching YouTube videos on my iPhone of old commercials (in particular, the commercial for "Pizza Party"), and almost accidentally stabbing Mike in the face with a tree I ripped out of the ground, after Snipes goaded me into illustrating my "Gerta" strength (see: Halloweeny 50K, where I dressed up as a decidedly manly-looking girl), and, because I had been distracted by said YouTube video, was paying absolutely no attention to where anybody else was standing (prompting jokes about the East German nearly stabbing the Jew), I had been sending distressed emails to Seth, at the behest of the other runners, asking him where he was, telling him to bring money in unmarked, non-sequential bills, and so on. He had responded once, so he was probably still alive, but that didn't stop me from carrying on with a round of "Sethy Boy" as we trudged up the Duncan Hollow Trail.

It was also in this section of the course that:

We found this dog (he eventually ran down the trail to his owner)

Skunk incident occurred (Mark's video, so I'm linking this.)

After the above trials and tribulations, we made it to Aid Station 4, Gap Creek, and found Seth, who, with his girlfriend, had allegedly driven some 70 miles in the wrong direction, causing him to miss us at Aid Station 3. It later turned out that he thought that he was supposed to show up for Crew Shift 2, not Aid Station 2, hence the late arrival. At any rate, Seth took a bunch of probably embarassing pictures of us, since we were all a little beaten up at this point, and then we continued onward to Aid Station 5, as nightfall drew near.

This is mainly just a cool picture of Jim, thanks to the lighting, and also proves that the trail isn't always completely ragged and unrunnable.

On our way to our next Aid Station, at Crisman Hollow Road, the sky got darker, the temperatures dropped, and things generally got a lot creepier.

First this . . .

Then this.

I bombed down the comfortable, runnable trail to Waterfall Mountain, then grunted with everybody else as we climbed about 900 feet in 0.6 miles. About 20 minutes later, we were at the top, it was almost totally dark, and we still had about 0.4 miles to go to reach the aid station. At this point, the cold and the stoppage time at the aid stations were beginning to take their toll on me. While we were running, I was feeling okay. When we stopped, I quickly started to get cold, and the darkness was making this more uncomfortable. Mark hadn't been eating much, Jim was having trouble with his knees on the steep, rocky downhills, and Mike was hanging on by a thread.

And then came Kerns Mountain.

The trail along the Kerns Mountain ridge, on paper, does not seem too awful. What the paper doesn't show is that the trail actually crosses over the ridge a number of times, meaning that you are subjected to a number of steep, rocky climbs and descents . . . so many that apparently, it took us 2.5 hours to "run" the next 5.5 mile section along Kerns Mountain. Our conversation got goofier at this point, mainly as a means of masking the sheer torture. As we were moving as a group, we could only move as fast as the slowest person, which meant that one person's stumble was everybody's stumble. But we eventually pushed through, and, now at about 15.5 hours into this ordeal, we had "run" about 45.5 miles, which was not at all putting us on pace to finish within Sniper's conservative estimate of 36 (LONG) hours.

So we made a slight course correction from Aid Station 6, Moreland Gap. Rather than take the orange trail up to Short Mountain, along the ridge, and back down, we simply ran down the gravel road (Edinburg Road) to the next aid station, as we would have during the Old Dominion 100. This route was about 2.5 miles shorter, and probably at least an hour faster, than the original route, given our current pace. The run-walking in this section, which was much more vigorous than the stumble-hiking in the previous section, was keeping me awake . . . but so was an unexpected wetness in my rear end, which turned out to be the bladder in my pack leaking water. The hose had frozen hours ago, so not only was the bladder useless, it was making me wet and cold. For practical reasons, and out of frustration, I opened the pack, unscrewed the cap, and dumped the entire bladder. That didn't make my pants any dryer, but it sure made things a lot lighter and easier all the way to the aid station.

We reached Aid Station 7, Edinburg Gap, at about 16 hours, 45 minutes into the race, a little longer than my fastest 100-mile race time, and here was where things really fell apart. Mark, who hadn't been eating much, was shivering uncontrollably at this point - in temperatures this cold, most of what you eat goes to warming your body, and if you're not eating, you're not going to be able to warm yourself. Mark got into a heated van to try to warm up, but he wasn't getting any warmer. Since we were just standing around the aid station doing nothing, and that's how you freeze in this sort of weather, I got in the van too, and then Mike got in. So now a majority of runners were in the heated van, and Mark, who Sniper was doing the race for, was in no condition to continue. Eventually, Sniper got in the van and talked to Mark, and when it became clear that it was not safe for Mark to continue, we decided to stop the run, at about 52 miles. In Sniper's opinion, only he and I would have made it the rest of the way (assuming I could have gotten over my wet butt, which, if we had kept moving at a brisk pace, probably would have happened), and it was silly to keep all of those volunteers out all night for just two runners, while the other three runners went back to the hotel and then back home without saying a proper goodbye. So we all went back to the Signal Knob parking lot, then spent another night at the Hampton Inn, in its blissfully soft beds, and then said our proper goodbyes at a decent hour on Sunday morning, after a hearty breakfast.


Since my legs were in decent shape, and I had some time, and I had driven almost three hours to get to the race, I thought it might be "fun" to go out and run up the last devilish climb that Sniper had thrown into the race, a powerline cut less than a mile from the finish, in Woodstock Tower. The powerline cut looks like this:

After a 5-minute warmup jog, I ran/power-hiked the climb, pausing briefly to take pictures of parts of it. The "worst" part (in my opinion) looked something like this:

It took me almost exactly 10 minutes to reach the top. As I took in this view:

. . . my cell phone re-connected to the network, and I received a text message with a link to this video:


And as I sat at the top, quads burning, heart pounding, gasping for breath, I laughed hysterically, especally at the part where "Santa" falls and bangs his head on the rear bumper of a parked car.

And I wouldn't include this detail, except that it reminds me of something that Dakota Jones posted after finishing second in the North Face 50-Mile Championship Run in San Francisco a few weeks ago. He said that, at the end of the day, we're not superhumans - we're just guys that like to run. But we like other things, too. And while we all could have hung our heads in shame because we failed to finish the "Balled Eagle" course, we also had a lot of awesome experiences in the process, none of which would have been possible if we weren't out there exploring and pushing ourselves to our limits.

Plus, 52 miles rounds up to 100, which was good enough for all of us to receive ridiculous "finisher" buckles:

In its original wrapping, shown pretty close to actual size (except sideways, because stupid blogger wanted it that way . . .)

So as I close out the write-up for the last of my running-related adventures for 2011, mostly what comes to mind is how thankful I am for the many people I've met, run with, influenced, inspired, or otherwise impacted with my running this past year. I don't primarily do this for my health (although good health is a positive byproduct of this endeavor), and I definitely wouldn't do it at this level if I didn't feel like it was somehow making a difference in other people's lives. So thanks for being there, thanks for reading, and I'm looking forward to raising the bar in 2012. :)


  1. Awesome post. As 2011 ends, you should be proud of the fact that you do inspire.

  2. Dave, great running with you and I want revenge on that course. I hope next year is even better for you than this year and you keep kicking ass.