Patrick's Volunteering and Race Recap from War Hammer Endurance Run
To preface, I’ve had a very up and down year when it comes to running. 2022 has offered many obstacles for me, ranging from covid to several small injuries to a DNF at Endurance Hunter 100 to some unexpected work stress. I had some lofty goals coming into the year, but given the nature of how it has gone thus far, those goals are nearly unachievable at this point (at least within the fiscal year). This has affected my mental health, but I’ve battled that enough over the years and put many positive practices and habits in place to persevere as peacefully as possible.
After my DNF in early April, I decided to drop down in distance for my June 100, to the 50k instead, and planned to pace my girlfriend to a hopeful PR in that distance for her. On May 4th, I suffered an avulsion fracture on my right ankle (basically a sprain) during a night trail run with some friends. After a few days off, I started rehab immediately. I’ve had many strains and sprains on my right ankle throughout my life so there was no need to see a PT. I have the tools at home so I got to work. I took nearly 4 weeks off running and relied heavily on my rehab exercises, dialed in my vegan nutrition, and upped the ante with my daily meditation practice.
The race was scheduled for June 11th, but I had also offered the race directors assistance in helping mark the course the weekend prior. At the beginning of June, I did a couple “hike-runs” on local trails to test the right ankle. Between all the rehab and my newly acquired trekking poles, I was surprised at how good I was feeling. Not 100%, but close enough to give me the extra vote of confidence that I would still be able to do the course marking. So on June 5th and 6th, I drove to Laurel River Lake, just outside of London, KY, and got to work with Michael and Brandy, the Next Opportunity Events Race Directors. Two days and nearly 23 miles of trail running and hiking later, and the course was marked and ready to go.
On June 10th, we manned the Cumberland Falls Aid Station for the 100 mile runners. Each runner would visit us twice at this location, at roughly mile 22 and 27. I was fortunate to have a great crew of friends there with me and we had a spectacular time helping runners for 8 hours next to the Falls. And Cumberland Falls is magnificent spectacle by the way, so put it on your “must see” list.
Volunteering at ultras has become one of my favorite things to do. You get to assist people doing some incredibly difficult, and truly epic shit. You see some at their highest, while others at their lowest. You see people running away from demons and some running towards them. You see folks running with best friends by their side and others raising money for others, or charitable organizations. You get to see the true grit and tenacity of the human species, up close and personal, and it is an incredible thing to witness. They’re all there for the same reason: to go as far as they possibly can before time runs out. Sounds a little like life if you ask me…
Around 7pm, the final runners came through our aid station for the last time, so we packed up all the gear and began to shift our focus to Ashley’s 50k, now just a little over 12 hours away. We dropped everything off at the start/finish area, grabbed our bibs, and headed back to our hotel. We quickly checked in and didn’t take long to settle for the night. Fortunately, we tend to sleep pretty well the night before our races.
We woke the next morning at 4:15, made coffee, journaled, ate breakfast, and headed to the race. We got there early enough to watch the 50 milers to begin at 7am. We had quite a few friends running each distance, so we chatted and laughed, took pictures and videos, and enjoyed the pre-race jitters with all.
At 8am, Mike Whisman, the speaking RD at the race, sent about 60 50k runners off into the woods for undetermined amounts of time. Ashley and I fell into the back half of the pack with intention. The goal was to run easy and mindful and have plenty of steam in the tank for the back half of the race. I was there solely for Ashley, to help push and motivate her, and keep her mind out of the darkness that sometimes accompanies the ultra runner’s brain. During the first 6 miles, we ran with friends; Kristi, Sam, Edwin, Bradley, and Ellie to name a few. We had the opportunity of meeting and running with Jonathan Wish, the current FKT record holder for an unsupported traversing of the entire Sheltowee Trace Trail, the rugged trail of which the War Hammer Endurance Runs (and many other NextOp races) take place. We ran with a woman from Chattanooga, named Stephanie, whose husband convinced her to run the 50k as he ran the 50 mile race, on his conquest to complete an ultra marathon in all 50 states (this would be his 29th upon completion). At mile 6, we came to our first aid station and our friends, Avery and Jason, were volunteering there. We’ve come to know each other through volunteering and have become some of each other’s biggest cheerleaders. It was nice to see them, though we didn’t stay long.
After that stop, the crowd on the trail thinned, and for the most part, it was just Ashley and I together until the mile 11 Aid Station. We were very relaxed, chatting some, and enjoying the remnants of the cooler-than-normal June morning. When we got to the aid station, Mike, the RD, was there. We chatted and I cursed the people who marked the course (jokingly cuz it was us…) and before too long, we were headed out to the turn around point, nearly 4 miles away. In my opinion, this was the toughest section due to two main reasons: it has the most sun-exposed sections in our course and it was the longest trek between Aid stations. The turn around point was not an aid station, but merely a bucket with marbles in it just off the trail. Traverse the 4 miles, pick up your marble, go back 4 miles, and show the aid station your marble as proof that you made the entire journey. 8 miles in the afternoon heat in the most exposed portion of race course had us drinking extra fluids, nearly all of what we had by the time we got back. But we returned to the aid station, now at mile 19, filled our bottles, ate some aid station fare, and moved on fairly quickly.
At some point between mile 19 and 24 Aid stations, Ashley started feeling the effects of the day on her body. Her legs were doing okay, but her tummy was slightly turned upside down and she was having some near-dizzy spells. This slowed our overall pace, but we kept moving and I kept making terrible jokes and a smile on my face to encourage Ashley as much as I could. We ran off and on, playing leapfrog with a strand of runners for about a mile leading into the final Aid Station, which also seemed to be particularly helpful in lifting her spirits and keeping her mind off the negative bodily responses to heat and exhaustion. At mile 24, we had Avery and Jason waiting on us once again, as well as another friend, Bob. Standing and talking and laughing and hanging out with them and the other runners at this Aid Station was a very positive lift. We’ve grown to enjoy these folks a lot in our volunteering adventures and races and seeing them at this point was exactly what Ashley needed in my opinion. After about 5 minutes, we said farewell and set off to finish the last portion of the race.
The last 6 miles back to the finish have some of the most technical spots on the course, which slowed our pace a bit. But that was okay because it was mostly a fast hike at this point anyway. I stayed behind Ashley, pushing her ever forward with motivational words, breathing techniques, and my wickedly badass humor 🙃🙃🙃. Up and down, through creeks, over bridges, traversing the rocky, rooty, single track all the way back as quickly as we could. We began hearing vehicles and knew the finish line was very close. We came out of the trail, up onto the road, turned in the driveway of the campground, and down chute to the finish line. We crossed it in 8 hours and 30 minutes which was a PR by well over an hour in this distance for Ashley. And with the exception of a few down moments here and there, she ran all day, and finished strong, with a smile on her face. And I couldn’t have been any more proud of her for hanging in and finishing in the manner she did. She crushed it.
After we finished, we changed and ate some food, then pulled up camping chairs a few feet from the finish line. We chatted with friends that were finished with their races, trading War stories and exploring the depths of what would be next. We clapped and cheered and screamed when runners came through the finish. We gave high fives and hugs. Upon finishing, some were smiling, some were crying, while others screamed with glorious defeat of the course. That’s the beauty of ultra running. It gives a little of the best and worst of life in a cliffs notes type of way. But we all experience growth from it. Even those that don’t cross the finish line learn lessons; about their bodies and minds, the course itself, Mother Nature, camaraderie, and so many other things. Ultra Running is as honest as it gets. And I love it.
Many thanks to Next Opportunity. Michael and Brandy Whisman do an amazing job hosting these races. Thank you to ALL VOLUNTEERS, for all of the distances. Aid stations are a vital part of ultras, but not always the easiest for race directors to staff, so volunteers make these races go round. Thank you.
Peace, Love, and Veggie Grease