Named “The Battle at Bristol Mountain,” Fleet Feet Rochester and Yellow Jacket Racing teamed up July 30, 2016 to offer runners just that, a battle. With distances ranging from 1k (straight up the mountain) to 50k (several thousand feet of elevation change), there was a battle for everyone.
Setting my sights on my first-ever ultra marathon, I signed up for the 50k and began training for this event 3 months prior to race day. Running mileage increased as the weeks went on, hill workouts and training runs on the mountain itself would quickly become the norm. Every weekend for the last six weeks leading up to race day included a 5 to 10 mile loop on that mountain. Not fast. Not pretty. Not enjoyable. But I was ready. I had a plan of attack and I was going to win this battle and join the Ultra Marathon club.
Race day came like most others. The race was about 40 minutes from home meaning a 5:30am wakeup call would leave me plenty of time to get ready, get to the course and mentally prepare for the 31+ miles and many hours of running I would soon face. A total of 49 people had registered for the 50k distance, but just 34 of us would line up in the starting coral, ready to “battle.”
The course began with a trip up “gravel grind,” somewhere between 1.5-2 miles that took you from the bottom of the mountain to the top – albeit for the first time. All said and done, the course featured nearly 12,000 feet of elevation gain (and loss) at up to a 40% grade. To put that in perspective 12,000 feet is the equivalent to over 11 Eiffel Towers, 10 Empire State buildings or 79 Statue of Liberty’s. Over 2.25 miles up – and 2.25 miles down we would go.
I had done previews of the course, including gravel grind, several times during my training and come to the conclusion that this “run” would not be completely a run. My plan of attack was to walk anything that went up and run everything that went down. Keeping this in mind, I began the first accent, trekking poles in hand, walking. I carried my hydration pack, plenty of fuel, food, aspirin, allergy medicine and even duct tape in case I encountered blistering. I thought of everything, even an extra battery should my cell phone start dying before completing the course. Nothing was coming between me and completing my first Ultra Marathon.
Around 5 miles in, having made it up and down the mountain a couple of times, it was something I hadn’t planned for which would provide the days first unforeseen obstacle; rain. Though it started off as a welcome cooling down, the rain was, in retrospect, the beginning of the end for my quest to become an Ultra Marathoner.
The constant pounding of my toes into the front of my shoes became more and more painful the more saturated my socks and shoes became. The grassy downhill running became tougher as things got wet and sometimes slick, and that welcome cool down became a nuisance once everything, including me was soaking wet.
As I continued towards the 10-mile completion of my first loop, I was sure that both feet must be completely covered in blisters. The pain was something I had never encountered, but I knew if I could tough things out a little longer I could address things at the bottom of the mountain.
Finally completing that first lap, I was met by members of Fleet Feet working the aid station who provided both refueling of the body and mind with some great words of encouragement. After taking off my shoes and drying my feet I decided to take advantage of the duct tape I had packed and tape both feet to prevent blistering which had somehow not happened to this point.
I took my time leaving this aid station as I would begin my second climb of gravel grind. Almost immediately, I began to encounter my second unplanned and previously un-experienced obstacle, cramping. This wasn’t the run of the mill tight calves that I’ve encountered in longer distance running, and was far worse than anything I felt even after completing my first marathon just months earlier. This was both calves and both quads screaming how much they hated this “battle,” and how badly they wanted me to raise the white flag.
As I continued up gravel grind that second time, my calves and quads began to pulsate on their own. Being a stubborn SOB that doesn’t give up, I made it to the top of the mountain unsure of how I would proceed. Whether it was the look on my face, or the “gimping” I called running at that point, it must have been evident that I was in some major discomfort as “Mike” and a few of his buddies stopped and offered up salt packets to help ease the cramping.
I was able to make it down the mountain and back up again before hitting the aid station at the top of the mountain around 12 miles in. At this point, I was fairly certain that I would not be finishing this race, but Laura who was volunteering, did a fabulous job in talking me into believing that I could, and off I went.
Down the mountain and back up again I went as I continued to push forward. I hit mile 13, 14, and 15. The miles seemed to get longer as my pace continued to worsen. The pulsating quads and calves seemed to get more painful with each step. Whether I could keep pushing physically or not, I was now faced with the reality that I would not be able to complete my second lap within the allotted time cut-off. Reaching the bottom of the mountain at around 17 miles I made the decision not to head back up the mountain and headed towards the timing tent. And just like that, my day was over. My race was over. My quest for Ultra Marathon status was over. And I had my first and only DNF on my racing resume. I had lost the Battle at Bristol.
In the days following the race, my running friends would congratulate me on a solid effort on the mountain that day. My non-running friends would tell me how insane I was for attempting something so crazy as they were totally in awe of the 17 miles I logged that day in July. While I could step back and be both proud of the effort I gave that day and acknowledge the “accomplishment,” I now have 365 days to train and to plan my attack for next year’s “Battle at Bristol Mountain.”