During school, I was one of the last people chosen to be on a sports team. I didn’t enjoy group sports at all, but I liked to walk or run, sometimes with someone else and sometimes alone. I am not a born athlete. I have to work hard physically to complete an ultramarathon, but mentally I am at home in the woods.
For the Cloudsplitter 100km, we traveled to Norton, Virginia, a town that the mayor called “the smallest town in Virginia” during our pre-race meeting the night before our 8 am start. The race started and finished at the Farmer’s Market in Norton. The course went through the streets of Norton for just over a mile. Then, we entered trails at the base of Stone Mountain whose peak, High Knob, is just over 4,000 feet up in elevation. The trails up to High Knob are steep and go between giant rock formations, not far from Flag Rock overlook where there’s a statue of the Wood Booger, what the locals call the Sasquatch or Big Foot legend. We didn’t see the statue on our summit to High Knob, but that didn’t mean the Wood Booger wasn’t out there.
Runners chose between four race distances (25 km, 50 km, 100 km, and 100 miles). Interestingly, the 100 km distance was actually longer and measured 113 km from start to finish. The other race distances were exactly what they said they were. Only the 100km distance was more. Of course, I was running the 100 km distance.
I chose the Cloudsplitter after completing the Dark Sky 50 at Big South Fork in May of this year. I loved the Dark Sky race and was ready to go a step farther toward my race dream goal, which I’m not ready to share just yet. I was looking for an ultramarathon that was 90%+ trails. I don’t enjoy running on pavement very much at all. I avoid it if possible and make only a few exceptions. I also needed to know if I could handle the elevation of mountain ultras. I live in middle TN which is like a big bowl, and the elevation is no comparison to the mountains. I also wanted to go past 50 miles so that I would know if the distance through the night was something I could accomplish and would enjoy. The Cloudsplitter fit my needs, and I messaged my friend Bryan to find out if he wanted to try it out with me.
Bryan and I had met at the Bell Ringer 50kmlast December, and we ran most of that race together. We tried to meet again for the Dark Sky 50 miler but never saw one another.
This time, B and I met at the race start. My family was with me. B’s girlfriend and his race pacer, Alex, accompanied him. Everyone was all a-buzz with the news that KM, the world record holder in 100 mile race wins was there to run the 100 miler. Everyone wondered if KM, at 51-years old, would break the course record, set the previous year by a 22-year old. (Note: I was completely clueless about KM, as I don’t follow the news or watch tv. I would have had no idea who they were talking about if my husband hadn’t told me the day before. I didn’t even know the race was a Mont Blanc qualifier until B told me that it was. I didn’t even know what Mont Blanc was until after May of this year. I really purely run because I think the trails seem cool to experience😂).
The race contained two out and back portions with the central hub located at High Knob. We ran through the town, up to High Knob on trails, then into Jefferson National Forest to Edith Gap, on to Bark Camp Lake, through to Little Stony parking area, where we turned around at an aid station there and took the same trails back to High Knob. The second out and back went from High Knob to Sentry Road on to Devil’s Fork Gate to Devil’s Fork Loop and back to High Knob via the same route. My first goal was to make it back to High Knob aid station by 10 pm, when I would refuel, change clothes, and then head back out for the second out and back of the course which I hoped to complete by dawn or early morning. Finally, the last leg was from High Knob back down the mountain to Norton, which I hoped to complete by noon the next day.
Here’s what happened: We headed out of Norton at 8 am on Saturday morning. B and I caught up on his recent events, which included a trip to Disney that he and his girlfriend took that week. They drove from Orlando, picked up his pacer on the way, and made it to Norton the night before. B’s radio blasted out Fusion as we ran through the streets and took to the trails up the mountain. We talked to the other runners along the way up to High Knob.
I met R, a 100-mile runner in sandals. He told us about some of his epic adventures. I liked him immediately, but somewhere along the way, we got separated. I didn’t plug in my earbuds or play music until we passed through the High Knob aid station, though I did try but they kept falling out or the phone wasn’t actually playing the music. It took me awhile to get the music and earbud working together (I never really got both of them going, and I finally gave up on the earbuds altogether and left my phone playing music quietly in the front pocket of my vest…of course, this was much later in the middle of the night…I turned it up sometimes when alone and needed.)
Since my husband was with our daughters, I told him not to worry about meeting me at the aid stations where crews were allowed. The week before our trip, we had all watched BIG STONE GAP, and Norton was only about 20 minutes or so from the town of Big Stone Gap. I encouraged Terry to take our girls to see the town where the movie was filmed. I wasn’t expecting to see them during the race, as I was hopeful that they’d go sightseeing. When we reached High Knob, Terry and the girls were waiting for me. Terry refilled my camel pack and water bottle. B’s girlfriend A and A pacer met him there, too. (😂 Team A&A for B).
Then, B and I took off again, but instead of following the race course, we took a small detour and ran up the High Knob tower to see the view, and I was glad that we did. The clouds blanketed Norton that morning and fluffed up to and around us. The views weren’t typically breathtaking, but they were layered and soul satisfying. After a brief video and photos, we went back out on the trail which dropped off the mountain and tumbled into the gorges. I loved this section through fern beds, mossy rocks, and into rhododendron and mountain laurel thickets. The trees changed and the light filtered into the forest to us. We both admired the beauty. We talked about our wonder with nature and how it felt like another world.
Eventually, after hurrying through a section with bees buzzing around us and other runners, we got into a small pack of runners. We ran with the group up to Edith Gap aid station and maybe beyond it. The forest began to change with trails that contained mossy rocks and stones. We walked across some of them. Most everyone used trekking poles from the start of the trails at the beginning. This was the first time I used trekking poles in a race, but I was glad to have them for stabilizing myself. Sometimes, I placed them in one hand and ran, and other times I used them to trek quickly along rocks that I called rocking chairs. At Edith Gap, I refilled my camel pack and filled up my handheld water bottle with Vitargo. I took a Saltstick capsule, and Bryan ate potatoes and a sampling of other foods. There was a big variety of foods and a nice fire at Edith Gap.
We headed for Bark Camp Lake along the Chief Benge Scout Trail. Creeks ran alongside the trail, more thickets, and trails with rock gardens. The wildlife expert said to “stop and smell the roses,” but to me, he meant “stop and smell the rocks,” and some mountains bloom rocks, covered in moss, shiny black, knocking, rocking chair rocks. Oh, the music on the trail. Finally, somewhere along this trail, I plugged in an earbud and DECIBEL by Analog Affair reminded me “From midnight comes the dawn” so I would remember my plan. I chose “chill” music, in its various forms… the main reason is that I knew that I would be taking my time on this ultra and still feel pushed. I really wanted to practice seeing, noticing, photographing, talking, and moving forward on a mountain, and see all of those trail spaces on it within 40 hours or whatever I could stand.
B and I stopped someone from going the wrong way at a fork in the trail. Somewhere in all that KM passed us and we realized it was him after he went by. At Bark Camp, our crews greeted us, along with volunteers. The fire was warm. Refill and change shirts for me. Take advantage of a bathroom at the picnic area.
We were off again on a mainly level trail that was littered with rocks and creek crossings. I was grateful that it had been a dry summer, so the creeks weren’t as slippery as they could have been. We were pretty sure that KM passed us again. I guessed that we crossed over 10 creeks, of varying widths and depths, with rocks of varying sizes up to the size of a large four-wheeler (some people said we crossed over 20 creeks by then, but I didn’t officially count them). People passed us in both directions now, and the shorter two distances were already gone. Everyone on the trail was a 100km or a 100mile runner. “Make them wheels roll,” someone said as we passed. B kept losing half of one of his trekking poles. It would get stuck in the rocks, roots, creek, everywhere. When we reached Little Stony, we refilled, ate, turned around and came back the same way toward Bark Camp Lake. Crossed the same creeks.
“Gee, Baby Ain’t I Good To You,” and yes, I thanked the mountain creeks and rocks for being kind to me.
Back at Bark Camp Lake aid station, Terry insisted that I change shirts again. I questioned him but ultimately, I agreed that as it became dark, I would be colder. B asked Terry for some pliers and he fixed his trekking pole. We refilled, took advantage of the bathroom one more time, and took off. This time, B’s pacer, A, accompanied us. Maybe two miles out of Bark Camp, I was stung suddenly by a bee that I never saw. I cursed the bee but kept going. My inner thigh throbbed about halfway up, where the bee stung me. I was certain that I saw the stinger fall out when I stopped to go to the bathroom.
We followed B and A until we couldn’t find a marker in a deserted and abandoned parking lot. We noticed lights from what looked like a log house. We all said that we hadn’t noticed a house earlier. The woman runner was positive there wasn’t a house. I remembered the abandoned parking area, but not a house. We split up and searched for a marker. After a couple of minutes, I found a streamer hanging from a tree and then a reflective marker. I shouted for everyone and we took off again, B and A led the way on the climb back to High Knob, and we were passed by several 100 mile runners headed back down the trail for their second out and back.
There, at High Knob, my family ran toward me, happily greeting me. I refilled, climbed in our car to get warm in the heat and changed clothes. I had already decided that I would eat chicken noodle soup in the night. I haven’t eaten land animals in about two and a half years. I do eat seafood, fish, eggs, and dairy products on a regular basis. I knew the choices of warm soup foods would be potato soup or chicken broth/soup, and I had already made up my mind to make an exception. Sugars usually bother my stomach when I run, and potatoes especially feel like a chunk of coal in my belly. I was ready for the chicken soup, and I ate about four cups of it. I was warm and felt replenished.
B texted me and said that he and A were going to sleep for a little while in his girlfriend A’s car. He didn’t know if he would continue or not, but he was going to sleep first.
I decided to go forward. If I stopped or slept, I would get stiff. When I fall asleep, I usually do so for a long time. I don’t like short naps. I was hesitant about continuing. I considered dropping down to 50km and just heading back down the mountain to the finish in Norton, but I reasoned that I was already over 50km and I might as well take my time and hike the remainder even if I used the full forty hour time limit. My daughter Zoe begged me to continue. I couldn’t believe that she was so encouraging. Both of my daughters told me that I could do it. Terry said that I could do it.
I went to the aid station and asked about the trail ahead, refilled everything, kissed Terry and our daughters, and took off. First, I headed down a paved road listening to WILD NIGHT by Van Morrison, “wild night is calling” then onto a gravel road, Sentry Road. Light sticks lined one side of the road and were dropped every thirty to fifty feet or so.
The sky was incredibly magical. Expansive as I ploughed over the ridgeline, hiking, not running, listening and giving music to the night of the forest. The mountain falling away to either side. Trees rotating up and away from the ridgeline, pointed forms, limbs reaching as webbings while holding the webbing of spiders and nests. My own form striding across to the sounds of Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald’s UNDER A BLANKET OF BLUE “Covered with heaven above. Just you and I beneath the stars, wrapped in the the arms of sweet romance, the night is ours.” I loved being in the night on the trail, with the forest, knowing that so many people were out here, sprinkled into the landscape with me that I was just fine to enjoy it. KM passed me again, and he was headed to the last aid station before the finish. Or at least I thought it was him.
I was enthralled with the forest itself, as if it is a being all its own, so “I’ll always always keep the memory of…” THEY CAN’T TAKE THAT AWAY FROM ME. “We may never meet again on the bumpy road…” I strode on toward Devil’s Fork Loop that contained The Devil’s Bathtub.
Before that though, I had to find the turn off Sentry Road. The full moon continuously looked like the lights of an aid station in the distance. It kept fooling me. I texted B and told him about the roads, feeling certain that he would continue if he knew the conditions ahead. He texted back that he was waking up A and they were heading out in about five minutes.
I felt the chicken noodle soup wearing thin, and the wind whipped across the peaks. I saw red beady eyes in the forest and made noises. Woo woo!! I passed a few runners. More red beady eyes with silhouettes that resembled bear?😂 I made noise, woo woo! Then, I thought that I saw something that truly scared me to the point that I ran—a skunk! I slowed down to a hike and turned up the music again, “Waitin for the bus all day…” and I was feeling pretty good that I hadn’t been sprayed by a skunk by the time I asked for broth at Sentry Road aid station.
The fire as we approached each aid station was a beacon. I waited to smell it every time, knowing we were close. I needed those moments to recharge. Taking four and five cups of broth, sometimes standing by the fire, then saying thank you and taking off again.
Aid station moments were when I turned off my music and talked to people, asked them about the trail, told them about my experience, listened to aid station volunteers tell their own stories about other runners or the trail. This is the stuff of a great story. A book, I thought, and headed out again, hiking. Everyone was wondering if KM was going set the course record. I knew more stories about him were coming along the trail.
I walked again, down an old logging road that I described later as “quite nice” but I was slow and sluggish, wondering what was coming next.
Approaching the Devil’s Fork Loop, of course SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL was on my mind, and I found myself sounding it out, woo woo! just like being at the concert and hearing fans catcall the Devil all the way out of the stadium. I passed runners coming out of the Devil’s section.
My music picked up and carried me a little faster as I got to the Fork. I started to see a headlamp ahead and was happy about it. The stories about the bathtub had a rhythm that made you want to pair up with someone. Nightmares on Wax mixed up some DEEP DOWN as I partnered with another runner and made the fork into the loop. I met T and followed him as the loop went round and round and round and across and across and across giant rock gardens in every part that we thought might be the Devil’s Bathtub. I felt as if I was going down the drain at one point, only to climb a little ways out of it. We climbed over plenty of trees in the dark and balanced on the edge of the tub, in the dark, in the deepest gorge on the race, in the dark. My cell service was out and I couldn’t warn B about the state of the bathtub. I worried about it. T said that B was going to be pissed with me and laughed. We crossed many many creeks. I moved the music up and down, really relying on the music when we didn’t have the light to help us and appreciate the nature around us. Yes, we wore headlamps. For both of us, it was our first ultramarathon through the night on the trail. For both of us, it was our first run past 50 miles and the highest elevation ranges and fluctuations. Needless to say, it was an experience beyond what either of us was expecting as we both discussed while trying to navigate the trail, find the direction, and not fall onto a rock and break an ankle, or leg. We got truly lost off the course only once and not very far. We returned and were careful not to lose sight of the markers.
T sounded perplexed by the trail. “How would they even get someone out of here if they broke their leg?” I suggested that paramedics could drop down on lines from a helicopter if a life and death situation were to occur. I’m not sure T took comfort in that scenario. We both took comfort in the fact that the creeks were mostly dry. T asked something like, “How do we even explain to someone what this is like?” And then he continued, “I couldn’t bring my kids on this hike. I don’t even think I would do this hike with my wife. It’s that difficult.” I agreed. I wouldn’t do this Devil’s Fork Loop hike with my family even if they parked at the parking area, which T and I both thought we would see at any. moment.
However, the Devil’s Loop still felt never ending and slow slow slow until we finally! heard the generator from the aid station at Devil’s Fork Parking lot. I happily said, “I smell exhaust.” We both thought it was funny that I was happy over the smell of exhaust when we signed up for this nature experience. Down the stairs to the aid station. Still going down.
More broth! Hit me again with the broth! That’s what I felt like at the aid station. I got my second headlamp out of my drop bag as my first had begun to dim in the last mile. T decided to steal away and get a ride with his friends. He told the aid station volunteer that he was dropping out. I got the scoop on the trail ahead and was also informed about KM when he came through the Devil’s Gate earlier. Even though I never asked about him, everyone told me about him. Led Zeppelin’s HOW MANY MORE TIMES rocked me on out of the Devil’s Fork aid station, where I had been warned about the steep grade on the climb out that would go on for about two miles, maybe two and a half.
And of course a trip around the Devil’s place wouldn’t be complete without The Stones again on the way out, “I’m the man on the mountain that says, ‘Come on up,’” and I had a fresh water bottle of food, a full camelback and LOVING CUP was perfect as I climbed up, up, up. “What a beautiful buzz,” and I laughed thinking about being stung so early and continuing. “Nitty. Gritty.”
I had to dig in to get up and out of there, Gramatik TALK THAT SLANG clapped and I kept up my mantra, hiking and forward. Moving with rhythm. Moving. Noticing. Red beady eyes. Bear? Could I be sure? “Ohh” “wooo,” “woowoo!” scurrying to one side and the other. Shit! Who’s there? I jumped to the side. Really? No one answered, but I could swear that was a person. MFer. Nightmares on Wax FLIP YA LID just making me wonder a little bit, and shake my head, go forward. Whistle. Whistle. Head bob. Whistle and head bob. The forest is beautiful. Head on and don’t even think about Wood Boogers.
I was listening to MUY TRANQUILO when I saw two red beady eyes and a definite bear form very close to the trail in front of me. A big bear. The only one I’m certain about, but they seem to appear for me and have quite often this year (I saw 4 in one day this summer, really, in broad daylight, and one was licking bark on trees, probably eating bugs and/or sap, and trying to get away from me…bear show up for me). I made disco owl noises again and the bear sprinted across the trail and down into the forest. Definitely one bear😉.
I was waiting for the aid station when the moon started playing tricks on me in the distance again, but I knew that I was getting close after I passed the fork in the loop. Straight ahead I made it back to Sentry Road.
I drank broth. They told me that KM had finished. A 100miler and his pacer who were sitting at the fire asked me about the state of the bathtub. I told them that the daylight would be better for them because it was a challenge in the dark. I refilled everything, took a Saltstick, drank more broth, and felt amazing as I headed back to High Knob as dawn approached.
I passed 100 mile runners coming my way, ready for the Devil’s Fork. They asked me how it was, how far was the next aid station, and I encouraged them all and let them know what to expect. Good things: the aid station was close, the road was nice, the loop was tough but dry and light when they got there.
About halfway up Sentry Road, I turned off my headlamp. I soaked in the beauty, the spaciousness, the feeling of being alive in that moment in that place and it was sublime. I passed R who I’d met early on and his feet still looked good in the sandals. I wished him well.
Up one of the last hills on Sentry Rd, G caught up to me. I met him at a few aid stations and at least once on the trail, but it was those times when I was either talking to someone else or leaving or being in my own headspace as happens, so we finally talked as we approached High Knob. I learned that G was a born athlete and had been a runner since high school. I thought he was probably 60 years old. We didn’t discuss age though. We talked about who we are, little bits of information telling stories that were in our hearts. G was a great companion up to High Knob. He gave me plenty of useful advice by talking about his own life from his experience. It wasn’t an intentional, let me give you advice type of conversation. It was by being present that I learned from his stories.
At High Knob, G’s wife met him. Terry drove up just as we were approaching the aid station. I told G that I’d see him at the end or rather, “Good luck” and “nice to have met you” because I knew that G would beat me in to the finish. He was an experienced 100 miler and was ready to finish this run. I was in the newness of the experience and I both wanted to play it safe and savor it. And, that’s what I did.
I ate again, took advantage of the portajohn, hugged Terry, and then headed out for the final leg of the trek. I messaged my best friend Jennie, my friend Lisa, and my mom.
I turned up the music and took my time. By then, my IT band was hurting on a leg that I had hurt during a fall about two weeks previously. Of course, the leg wasn’t ever injured to the point of needing medical help. I ran a half marathon and 10 milers almost daily for weeks after the fall, but the elevation coupled with the length of the race inflamed it. I focused on one step at a time and the music. TRANQUILO by Gramatik was playing so I allowed myself to be a kid skipping down the mountain at times in the loops, down stone stairs, “Jumping off the porch like Mom’s not home…” threading along the mountain, “run with the feeling of being alive” and enjoying KINGS OF SUMMER by ayokay and Quinn XCII.
This descent was tangible inside every part of me and I thought about the footfalls, the miles before, the books I was writing, how I wasn’t even hungry, how I was still cold, the many footfalls before my own on the mountain, the power of earth to create, and how I love to create. I wanted to ride bikes across the Netherlands with Terry. I wanted to do that very soon. “LOVE IS HERE TO STAY not for a year but ever and a day…” again Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong serenaded me and sang the feelings of my heart.
That IT band kept telling me to take it slow so I did. I thought that I was close to the base of the mountain only to have another layer reveal itself. Layer upon layer down, over a dam, and down down down again. Two runners passed me and one said, “when does this race ever end?” Down, down, down, and still going. Big Mama was even singing BALL AND CHAIN. “My Love holds on like a ball chain.” I was talking to the mountain by then. I was so ready to go. 99 PROBLEMS by Hugo was reminding me to keep it going, “make the Devil change his mind,” and I was definitely happy that I wasn’t at the Devil’s Bathtub right then, and then there it was, the road! Pavement to lead me back in to Norton.
I passed flowers and stopped to take a picture. Walking, I enjoyed the sun warming me. I soaked in those last few minutes and walked into Norton. As I crossed the bridge, I decided to run. As cheesy as it seemed on one level, and very appropriate on another, Voodoo Child played right on cue, and I laughed at the synchronicity of life as I turned the last corner. I laughed looking to my right toward the mountains. I saluted them and continued running until I saw my family waiting for me at the turn off the road and into the parking lot of the farmer’s market. I crossed the finish line at 11:17 on Sunday and got my medal, hugged my family.
I took off the tracking strips that were pinned to my pants and gave them to the race director. A woman was talking with two other runners. She said that a local experienced hiker had died in the Devil’s Bathtub back in the spring, that he had fallen, lost his footing, and broken his neck instantly. I was glad that I didn’t know that before my trek through the bathtub, but I shivered thinking that I had sort of known it and had gone slowly through it.
My family and I took pictures, communicated with family and friends, and headed back to the hotel.
I worried immediately about B. I texted him and found out that he was at the last aid station back at High Knob. He was going to finish. A was still pacing him.
I didn’t have one blister. I made it to the finish before my goal of noon on Sunday. I had one tiny chafed place on my lower back from the last pair of pants I wore. I was proud that my training, nutrition, and gear worked perfectly for my goals in particular and that I didn’t get sidetracked by any other goals. I planned my book and know where I’m headed. I was sore and stiff, but I could walk and climb stairs. B texted that he made it. We were both proud of finishing a tough distance and elevation gain.
My legs did swell for a short time as we traveled back and the next day. I took a walk the next day and the day after that. I only had one muscle cramp that really hurt. I taught my yoga class three days later and it felt great.
I know this moment in my life will inform much more in the future. For now, I am writing, resting, practicing yoga, and planning new adventures. I am also feeling immense gratitude for the race organizers, the community of Norton, the volunteers, my family as my crew and cheerleaders, my friends who cheered, the people I met along the way, B and his crew A&A, and the mountain itself.
Partial Playlist (set to shuffle):
“Decibel” by Analog Affair
“Make Them Wheels Roll” by Safia
“Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
“Wild Night” by Van Morrison
“Under a Blanket of Blue” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
“Waitin’ for the Bus” by ZZ Top
“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones
“Deep Down” by Nightmares on Wax
“How Many More Times” by Led Zeppelin
“Loving Cup” by The Rolling Stones
“Talk That Slang” by Gramatik
“Flip Ya Lid” by Nightmares on Wax
“Muy Tranquilo” by Gramatik
“Tranquilo” by Gramatik
“Kings of Summer” by ayokay and Quinn XCII
“Love is Here to Stay” by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong
“Ball and Chain” by Big Mama Thornton
“99 Problems” by Hugo
“Voodoo Child” by Jimi Hendrix
I’m definitely not a sponsored runner, but for what it’s worth, these are products that worked for me: Altra Trail shoes, Saltstick Caps Plus and Saltstick Chews for electrolytes and vitamins about 10-15 total, Squirrel Nut Butter anti-chafe stick applied liberally all over feet to neck pretty much, CEP compression socks worn through many runs, Swiftwick socks with holes and worn through many runs, Nathan bladder and tubing for my camelback, Vitargo fruit punch vegan muscle food, Black Diamond trekking poles, Northface gloves, various ball caps, cheap stretchy gloves with the thumb and pointer finger cut out, old Underarmor clothes I’ve worn through a lot of runs. I always carry a small Mojo bag, and this one was gifted by my Terry, and among other things contained a small rose quartz angel, a couple of small wild turkey feathers, a rock with a flower-shaped fossil creating an opening in the center….
**Notes: Series of events and who said what is to the best of my memory. I do read newspapers every day, so though tv is not in my life on a regular basis, I am informed about my world (it’s possible to skip tv and be more informed). Placement on course descriptions is approximate. Definitely edited for clarification a dozen times.