Bring The Mountain to Jamie Hobbs

Posted on Updated on

Every winter we award scholarships to runners to tackle the race of their choosing. We support them financially, training, and with encouragement and energy. In return they wear our shirt, and write us a post race recap.

Jamie Hobbs was one of our winners and the first to tackle his scholarship race. Below is his recap! Enjoy.

I’ve been intimidated by the 100 mile distance since . . . well, since I was a kid. I had the fairly rare experience – particularly in the 80s – of being raised by a guy who ran 50 milers and had friends who ran 100s. As a middle schooler, I saw slide shows and heard stories that came back from trips to Western States and Angeles Crest. This did not have the effect of normalizing ultras for me. In particular, the 100 was presented to me as a completely nutty feat, to be attempted only by the toughest, lifelong runners and, still, at great risk to the rest of their running lives. I ran in school, but became more interested in climbing and mountaineering, and I never considered that I could run that far. Decades later, when I began to turn from other sports back to trail running, I learned that mortals of all shapes, sizes, and speeds ran 100s. But still, my fear and respect was ingrained, and it only grew as I saw capable and talented friends struggle with their own first attempts at 100. Some finished, some did not, but nobody – or nobody in my league – made it look easy.

I knew years ago that I wanted to run a 100, but I waited several years to work my way up, and I looked to run tough longer ultras to help bridge the gap between 50 and 100. I thought I would be ready in 2016, but plantar fasciitis broke up my training for too much of the year. So I began looking at two 2017 options: Massanutten (MMT) and Vermont. I was fortunate to be awarded a generous community sponsorship from #TrailsRoc to support me at whichever one I chose. As a public defender with two kids in daycare and law school loans, help with race fees and travel costs is a big deal. When I received the award, Amy Lopata, a TrailsRoc board member, gave me a bit of a nudge by letting me know that she and Dan would crew me if I picked MMT. She had crewed Dan there the previous two years in a row. . . . Monetary support and an experienced crew thrown in. Not a bad deal, TrailsRoc, not a bad deal. . . . A couple of additional factors drew me to MMT: it had more single track, it’s a mountain course, and although it’s not point-to-point or a true single-loop course, it is close. It is roughly a figure 8, with only two small bits of the course repeated: the cross-over between the two circles and a little tail at the beginning and end. I was a bit hesitant about choosing a tough, rocky course for my first, but I felt more inspired by the challenge of traversing a mountain range on technical single track and I knew that inspiration would matter. The MMT lottery went my way, and my decision was made.

My training was not ideal, but not terrible. I had squeezed an undertrained Hellgate 100k into December 2016, so I figured I’d take some time to recover through the holidays, and then start building in January. But come January, plantar fasciitis symptoms started to come back, so I quickly backed off for two weeks. Things felt okay when I came back, but I’d lost more fitness, and I was afraid to up the miles too quickly. One downside of an early May 100 miler is that it doesnt leave much room for a glitch in the training cycle. I have never been a high mileage trainer, but I had hoped to build up to several weeks in the 70s and low 80s. With a shorter window and a more conservative build up, I ended up topping out at 69.8, with no single run of more than 35. But I had quite a few quality long, tough runs over 20 miles, some decent back to backs, lots of elevation change, and more weeks between 50 and 70 than I had for previous ultras. I also had good specificity late in my training, getting in long trail runs with sustained climbs and descents.

In terms of goals, I was determined to finish, but more than that I wanted to run a smart, solid race, without unnecessary blow-ups. I felt that if I did that sub-24 was realistic. At times I thought that it might be possible to run a couple hours faster than that, but setting out with that more aggressive goal, on this course, in my first attempt, seemed like a great way to set myself up for disaster. As my training mileage fell short, I knew I should stay conservative. Using data on the race website, I had put together the range of aid station arrival times for 21 to 24 hour finishers over the past few years. And I decided I wanted to be in the back half of that range for the first two thirds of the race. While running, I never thought about that chart and I couldn’t remember any of the times on it. But I gave it to my crew to use as a check, to let me know if I was running too fast or falling off the back end.

The day before the race, my dad, myself and Ron headed down to Virginia. The Lopatas were already down there camping and hiking. Given their experience with the race, they would lead the crew, with my dad helping out and providing moral support. Ron was there to film for his Beastcoast series. I had no pacer, and no concerns about it. I like running alone, especially if I’m suffering. And there are only a handful of people I thought I’d feel comfortable asking or having out there with me. After Mike couldn’t make it, I decided I’d rather just run it alone.

The morning before the race the mountains had received a big downpour, but the sky had cleared by the time we arrived. Spring was weeks ahead down there, and the mountains were a vibrant green against the crisp blue sky. Along the road up through Edinburg Gap, streams were rushing, and the forests seemed to be filled with fresh new, life. It was invigorating, and I was excited to get out there.

I fell asleep without too much trouble and managed few solid hours before my 2 a.m. alarm. We got pulled over on the way to the race start (my dad didn’t dim the high beams). We didn’t get a ticket, which was nice, but the officer –noticing my kit and bib – wanted to make small talk about the race, the route, and his post-race dining recommendations. We sat there politely, but I was worrying about time ticking away. We made it to the start with a few minutes to spare. Phew.

Miles 1-4.1 (Moreland Gap Rd)  The course starts with four miles of pavement and gravel country road, climbing gradually up to the trailhead at Moreland Gap. But first we had to cross a soaked field with standing water to get to that road. Then there were the actual streams crossing the road. Clearly there were not going to be any dry feet on this run. I ran comfortably up the road, letting the front runners go. I had expected to feel some relief to be under way, but I was anxious to get to the trail.

Miles 4.1-12.1 (Moreland Gap to Edinburg Gap)Leaving the road, the world shrunk to a headlamp-lit circle of singletrack, and my focus went to the rocks at my feet. My mood changed immediately. There was about a mile of flat semi-technical running, and then the climb up Short Mountain began. I found myself behind a small group. I might normally have passed them, but with all that lay ahead, I was content to use them as an external governor. The climb never seemed bad and it was over sooner than I had expected.

Up top, it was a rolling, rocky ridge, surrounded by flowering rhododendrons – probably the wild azalea featured on the MMT buckle. It looked and smelled beautiful up here as morning light phased in, and I enjoyed the morning call of the whippoorwill. The first half of this ridge was highly technical – not unrunnable, but constantly rocky – and the trail twists and turns onto and then down off of little rock outcroppings. There’s a lot of ridge running like this along the course. At 100 mile pace, the footing is not a huge problem, but it adds to the work and requires attention. In the second half, the trail seemed to open a bit and become a bit less technical. After a nice view looking out over Edinburg Gap, the trail switchbacked, and we began a fun, runnable descent down to the first real aid station and crew.

Coming in, I peeked at my watch for the first time: 6:15 am, right about where I had planned to be. I chatted quickly with Dan about what was coming, then swapped bottles for a pack, grabbed some watermelon, and headed out. It was over 20 miles to the next crewed aid station, and I immediately forgot most of what Dan had told me. Oh well.

Miles 12.1-20.3 (Edinburg to Woodstock Tower) I hiked and jogged the initial climb. Like the one before it, the climb never felt too steep, and it passed quickly. Near the top there were gorgeous views across Fort Valley to the south and east. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking at, but I knew that I would be running over there later in the day and I marveled at the distance to go. Around this point, I also caught up to two guys. On the descent and the flatter ridge running that followed, these guys were setting a comfortable pace, so I again decided to let them be my governor for a while. They were chatting about various races I’d never run, and I followed along listening for bad ideas. (Tip: Eastern States sounds hard.) I was glad to be running conservative, but after a few miles I worried that I wasn’t taking enough advantage of this runnable section of the course. I pushed ahead, only to find we were about to come into the next aid station. I hit a dramatic view over the Shenandoah valley to the West, and from there it was a short jog into the aid station. The three of us regrouped there.

Miles 20.3 -25.8 (Woodstock Tower to Powell’s Fort)  I topped off my fluids, grabbed some PB&J to go, and got out ahead of them. But after a pit stop, I was right behind again, and had to make a third push to pass. I had forgotten the course profile in this section, and thought it might stay flat the whole way. So, after about 4 miles, I was surprised to be cruising down a long descent off the east side of the ridge. The woods and the trail got wetter and wetter as I went down. At the AS, I checked my watch again: a bit under 5 hours for a bit over 25 miles. I didn’t remember my split chart, but that pace seemed about right, accounting for slow down. I got some info on what the course did next, I grabbed some bacon and folded it into a big fat slab of French toast (best AS food of the day), and I headed out.

Miles 25.8-33.3 (Powell’s Fort to Elizabeth Furnace)  This section starts off uninspiring, but ends with some great mountain running. There’s a couple miles of gradually climbing dirt road, which was made drearier by the beginning of a steady rain. The road also featured a couple stream crossings, running mid-calf deep and too wide to jump. Next there’s a bit of flatish singletrack around a reservoir. On the north side of that reservoir, you run into a small trailhead with a few options. I had one of my only moments of being unsure about which way to go. I soon found a confidence marker to tell me that I had made the right choice. After a few more foot-soaking crossings, the trail headed up a long, rocky climb. Maybe it was leg fatigue setting in, or the wind and rain, or maybe this climb is actually steeper and harder, but this was the first time I felt like I was climbing a real mountain. I enjoyed it. The descent off the other side was an absolute joy. It is well graded and only mildly technical – just enough to keep you focused. I caught up to another runner, tucked in behind him, and enjoyed some easy speed all the way into the aid station.

Miles 33.3 to 38 (Elizabeth Furnace to Shawl Gap) – I came in around 6:20 for 33.3 miles, somewhere between 19 and 20 hour pace if the course is 103 miles as advertised. I felt that was a good place to be, but I knew I could easily use up that 4 to 5 hour cushion in the next two thirds of the race. I was glad to see crew again, but it was raining enough here that it wasn’t all that pleasant to linger. I’d see them again in less than 5 miles so I ditched my pack and took a handheld. I declined a second handheld, and within a mile of the aid station I took my only fall of the day, cutting up the palm of my unprotected hand. I don’t recall much more of this section, except that it has a rocky singletrack climb, followed by a wet grassy trail descent. Completing this section was nice mentally, because it meant I had hit the northernmost point of the course and crossed over to the east side of the mountain range to begin the return trip south.

 

Miles 38 to 41.1 (Shawl Gap to Veach Gap) – From Shawl it’s about 16 miles to the next crewed aid station. Two short road sections sandwiching a longer trail section. I swapped out my bottle for a pack. With the road sections and the ridge running in between, I figured now was one of the few times that a change into dry socks and shoes wouldn’t be futile. It was probably worth it, but it cost me some time. As I was about ready to head out, a couple of MMT veterans caught me, Keith Knipling (who has 18 prior finishes) and Kathleen Cusick, who I knew was last years MMT (and Twisted Branch) winner. I figured these were good people to be running near. I caught them both on the road and passed. But we would yo-yo back and forth for much of the next 30 to 40 miles, with me running a little faster but them moving through aid stations more efficiently.

Somewhere in here, I began to break down my 24 hour goal and focus on more immediate time goals. Since Dan hadn’t blown any alarms at the crewed aid stations, I figured I was still somewhere on my split chart. But it would be a while before I saw him again, and it wouldn’t be too hard to slip off target. I didn’t know what the chart said, but I decided I’d better get to 50 miles in 10 hours, so that I’d still have 4 hours to play with in the second half.

Miles 41 to 50 (Veach Gap to Indian Grave) – This section follows the pattern of several to come: a long steady climb up the mountain, some technical but relatively flat running along the mountain top, then a long descent back to an aid station. Kathleen had moved through Veach AS faster than me, and I reeled her back in along the climb and got ahead of her somewhere along the ridge. The average pace along the climb and the technical ridge on the top had me a little concerned about whether I was going to hit that 10 hour goal, but those slow miles up were soon offset by faster miles down. Indian Grave aid station is right about at 50, and I came in in 9:56. I was happy enough with that that I sat briefly to take in some calories. I began to fixate on my next self-imposed target: hit the 100k mark by 13 hours.

 

Miles 50 to 54 (Indian Grave to Habron Gap) – I jogged 9 and 10 minute miles along this fairly flat gravel section. Not fast, but well below the average pace I would need to maintain. The rain had stopped and it was nice to pull up to a cheering crowd at the aid station, especially to see crew again. I gave back most or all of the time I had just banked by taking a long pit stop to treat a painful blister between two toes. I was losing my taste for gels, so with another 9 mile trail section coming up, I grabbed a little to go bag of something savory … pierogis or bean burritos? I don’t remember. I tucked them into a shorts pocket and headed out.

Miles 54 – 63 (Habron Gap to Camp Roosevelt)  I was stiff after the long break, but the hike back up to the mountain top gave me a chance to loosen up. I thought this was another climb up, run the ridge, descend to aid station section. And it is for the first 6 or 7 miles, except that the aid station doesn’t come at the bottom. Instead there’s another 2 to 3 miles of rolling singletrack down in the valley. That’s a nice runnable bit of trail in the end, but I was mentally ready for the aid station long before it came.

My made-up time goals were looming like cutoffs in my mind. Not that I was going to stop or be pulled if I missed my made-up goal, but I felt that if I missed them 24 hours would slip away. I ran much of the race with sense of anxiety about hitting them. After the long break at Habron, I was worried by the slow pace climbing and along the ridge, but again I made the time up on the descent and along the runnable miles at the end. Per GPS, I came through 100k just ahead of my 13 hour goal.

I believe it was here at Camp Roosevelt that Amy had made pierogis for me. They hit the spot. And she got my watch hooked up to a charger, so that I could keep it going throughout. Meanwhile Dan reminded me how miserable the next section was going to be.

19427728_10213940135364021_1950434262_n

Miles 63-69.6 (Camp Roosevelt to Gap Creek I)  I had been looking forward to getting through this section because it would mean I had closed the larger, northern loop of the course, and that I just had the roughly 50-55k southern loop and tail to go. My watch would be in my pack for this section, so I couldn’t track the time, but I figured that if I could arrive at Gap Creek before 15 hours, that would leave me 9 hours to close out the race.

Dan had warned that this section was wet, and that it had some of the worst, nastiest footing on the way down. He probably understated it. Maybe it was the fresh rain, but for the majority of the ascent, the trail was simply a running stream. The grade would have been mostly runnable, even at this point, but the extra weight and resistance of the water made it a tough slog, and I was walking a lot more than I would have liked. There were also several knee high crossings in here. Mercifully, the trail finally turned away from the water, but only so that it could climb more steeply up to a notch below Duncan Knob. The descent off the other side was as nasty. Not just technical, but loose rock. The fatigue in my legs wasn’t helping. I recall greeting crew and volunteers with my unvarnished opinion: “Well, that sucked.” That got a laugh, and I was smiling again. I was happy to be there at about 14:35, ahead of target, and ready to see what the last 30+ miles held. But I had to take another long stop for another blister between my toes. I grabbed a headlamp, Dan’s trekking poles, a snack bag, and an extra shirt.

Miles 69.6 to 78.1 (Gap Creek I to Visitor Center, aka Kerns Mtn)  For the first time I left the aid station feeling not only stiff, but cold and shivering. Evening was approaching. It was getting cooler, and exhaustion was setting in. Soon enough I was on the climb up Kerns Mountain, and warm again. This tough, steep climb marks the crossover point in the figure-8, and it is one of the only bits of the course that would get repeated. Using the poles, I made good time up the climb, catching and passing Kathleen, who must have gotten ahead of me at an AS. Along the rocky, and beautiful ridge top, I struggled with the poles a bit. The trail was too tight, with rhodies and rocks on either side. I couldn’t figure out an efficient way to use them, and I didn’t know whether to put them away or not. Kathleen and I began to yoyo back and forth along the ridge.

One of my goals in this section was to hit “Q’s view” – a major viewpoint near the southern end of the ridge — before sunset. We had been in clouds for many of the views during the race, but it had cleared now and I was looking forward to a sunset view. We hit on time, but Kathleen announced that she would be taking a bathroom break there. I took the announcement as a request for privacy, and even if it wasn’t, I would have felt a little odd lingering for the view. I guess I’ll have to go back.

The trail from there was gorgeous runnable singletrack, and I was happy to try to cover a little bit more of it before needing the headlamp. This trail ends at Crisman Hollow road, which then winds down to the next AS. I was enjoying a good pace cruising down the road, as darkness set in. I became convinced that the road was going on longer than what I had been told, and I began to look for a ribbon. No ribbons, no ribbons, come on … Worried that I missed a turn and that I was going to have to climb back up, I slowed to a walk. But after a few minutes, I saw Kathleen’s headlamp behind me, and suddenly a ribbon ahead of me. I picked it up and headed down to the aid station, with Kathleen right behind me again.

This was my first night aid station, and I enjoyed the lights and soaked in that feeling that unique feeling of a night aid station. I had passed my previous furthest distance run, and I was happy to find that my legs had not yet exploded. I was more than fatigued and looking forward to being able to get off my feet for good, but I could still hike and run.

Miles 78.1 to 81.6 (Visitor Center to Bird Knob) – Again I lingered at the AS too long. Even with a blanket over me, I was thoroughly chilled by the time I got up to go. I wouldn’t get warm again until the climb up Bird Knob started in earnest. This was a stiff climb, but again the poles helped me crank up it. I must have been moving well because when I caught Kathleen, she remarked: “Someone’s feeling good. I passed her for the last time there. There’s a nice view point at the top, and I peeked out at the distant lights, but there was too much wind to linger. (New goal: When I come back for Q’s view, I’ll just have to speed up a bit to make it here before sunset.) The section ends with some runnable double track into the AS, which seemed to come sooner than expected. I had told myself I wouldn’t sit here. But they had homemade mac & cheese that looked amazing, and a cranking space heater, so I sat just long enough to inhale a bowl. I eyed the bottle of bourbon on the table, and thought about the warmth it could bring to my core, but I was riding the edge of exhaustion with too much night running left to do. I got out of there.

Miles 81.6 to 87.9 (Bird Knob to Picnic Area) – I recall running along a forest road for a fraction of a mile and then hanging a left on singletrack and heading up. But after that I have basically no memory of the rest of this section other than arriving at the aid station. From looking at the course profile, I can tell you that it goes up and down a couple of times before descending steeply to the aid station, but I don’t recall a step of it. I think that I may have spent much of the section attempting to do pacing math, over and over with different results. At some point, I settled on one thing: that I really wanted to be back at Gap Creek, the last aid station, by 22 hours. So that I would have a full 2 hours to cover the last 6 mile section. I figured I could do it in less, but I knew that I was slowing on the technical climbs and descents, and I wanted the cushion.  I do recall coming into Picnic Area AS. I got to see crew here again, and I was also waited on by an attentive volunteer. Maybe it was just his way of dealing with addled runners, but I got the sense that he was examining me closely to see if I still had it together. Probably had reason to, given my memory. If so, I must have satisfied him, because he soon began to push me to get out of the aid station. It was good advice, but it was still too late to avoid another case of the chills.

Miles 87.9 to 96.8 (Picnic Area to Gap Creek II)  I left stiff and shivering, and unfortunately this section starts with some technical downhill. So I was trying to pick my way down rocks, shivering, and propped up by Dan’s poles. It soon became more runnable and I warmed up. Then the trail began to climb. There’s nearly 4 miles of climbing here. Either I can recall this much better than the prior section, or my imagination has filled it in. The trail climbs up to a road crossing, then along some grassy double track, then into the woods, all gradually at first, but eventually more steeply up the Big Run trail. I was warned that I would be climbing a creek bed with running water, but I climbed on and on and on up dry trail. I began get upset that I wasn’t stumbling around in the creek, because I knew the climb wouldn’t end until I did. When I finally found it, it was no big deal compared to the miles of stream hiking out of Camp Roosevelt.  Near the top, I had my only near-bonk experience. I felt my energy dipping to its lowest point of the race. I had two gels that I had carried almost 50 miles for a moment just like this. I sat on a rock and looked at them, they looked back at me. Ending the standoff, I forced them down. A few minutes later I was feeling better. I used the poles to make my way down the descent and along some rocky trail out to a dirt road.

This section ends with a bit less than 2 miles of dirt road. I hit that road with about 20 minutes to spare on my 22 hour goal. I jogged, poles ticking along, at a pace that felt about right. I pulled into the AS at exactly 22 hours, with a bit of disbelief that I hit the target on the nose. But mostly it was relief and excitement. Just one section to go, and barringmajor misstep, I was going to get it done.

 

Miles 96.8 to 103 (Gap Creek II to Finish)  During the prior section, I had the sense for the first time in a while that there were people behind me, but I didn’t see them until the road just before the aid station. Three guys came in within the few minutes that I was there, and there were also people coming in from the other direction, just hitting Gap Creek I at mile 69. I had been running alone and encountering only the same couple people for so much of the day. It felt strange to find myself in the middle of so much activity.

I climbed up Kerns again, but this time with headlamps ahead and behind. This climb wasn’t easy the first time, and it didn’t get easier with 7 hours of additional wisdom and experience. At this stage of exhaustion, the technical descent off the other side was even worse. I figured a broken skull was one of the ways I could blow this thing. So I just stepped aside and let two runners go ahead. Place did not matter, only the ticking clock did. The trail seemed to go on longer than it should, and I had a momentary relapse of anxiety. But eventually I hit the road a touch under 23 hours, and the anxiety lifted. I could cover 3.5 mostly downhill road miles in an hour.

I set out between 9 and 10 min pace, which physically felt decent, but with the anxiety gone, I struggled to keep up the effort. I saw no point in pushing, even when another runner passed me here. I allowed myself several short walk breaks, but kept returning to a decent running pace. Soon enough I turned off the road and pushed up the final little kicker hill into the campground. From there it’s down a little trail, across a high single log bridge (thankfully, there’s one handrail or I might have taken a DNF right there), and around the field into the flood lights at the finish line.

I enjoyed a handshake from the RD and the warm congratulations of my crew. There were so many feelings and thoughts swirling around at that moment, but most of all it was relief, joy, gratitude, exhaustion, and an urgent need to pile on layers before the chills set in.

19403790_10213940134964011_1884058611_oThe numbers: 23:41:31. 19th place. The last sub-24 hour finisher. Per GPS: 101.4 miles, with 20,315 ft of gain.

I couldn’t sleep much that morning. I soaked in the tub, sipped on a beer, laid uncomfortably in bed, and sobbed, several times. I have run a bunch of long, hard races, including some that I was unsure I could finish or that have pushed me to exhaustion. But I have never felt so overwhelmed after a finish. I don’t know that I could put those feelings into words. I don’t really want to try. But from where I am now, a month and a half out, I have some thoughts on how this one feels different. I had finally faced up to a challenge that had scared and inspired me for years, I had made a plan to get it done, I had stuck to it, and it had worked. That in itself is immensely gratifying. I rarely plan and execute that well, even at distances I am comfortable with. But at this distance it also felt transformative. I was governed by caution in this attempt, I will be pushed by confidence in my next. I am not about to get cocky. I know that there are a million things that could have gone wrong in this race, but didn’t. I know I won’t get that lucky every time, especially if I push to run faster. But I know now that I am capable and how to get it done. I am not afraid of 100 miles anymore.

19251192_10213940133883984_1797057615_n

This race was an amazing personal experience for me, and so many people helped to make it possible. I can’t thank Dan and Amy enough for building their vacation around the race and being there to help me out. They were a perfect support crew, and I owe them, big league. Huge thanks to my Dad for being there to help as well. It is always such a lift to have family there for events like this, and I feel so lucky that he takes pride in seeing me out there. And I am grateful to Ron for coming down and filming, helping out with the support. Ron’s been there for so many of my big races over the years, and he knows better than most how I run them. It was reassuring to have him there, and I feel honored that he came down to film this one. I am extremely grateful to #TrailsRoc, both as an organization that thought I was worth backing, and as a community of runners whose cheers buoyed me in training and in the race and whose congratulations kept making me tear up afterwards. The race organization and the volunteers were amazing, and I really appreciate the work and time it takes. They put on a flawless race. And of course, I owe the biggest thanks to my wife, who puts up with all the hours I spend training and thinking about these things and who took care of our two young kids while I was playing in the mountains. None of this would have been possible without her.