|The 48 starters of the 2015 edition of The Ring. At least I'm not the only crazy person. Photo courtesy VHTRC.|
I was having a great season of running leading up to the Ring. Coming off a strong spring, a successful 100 miler in early summer, and several 50ks in August had me in shape and confident. This was important because The Ring is not your typical fat-ass event and not to be taken lightly. Some people kind of pencil it in as training for other events but I wisely did not have anything major scheduled for almost 2 months after.
I spent the night in nearby Front Royal to try and get as much sleep as possible. The Ring starts promptly at 7:00 a.m. from the Signal Knob Parking lot where the runners circle up, provide our entry fee in the form of aid station supplies, and make last minute preparations. Though I always plan to start out slow, I started out even slower than I would have liked getting caught behind a train of runners. Coming up the first climb over the Elizabeth Furnace recreation area things spaced out a bit but there was still plenty of group conversation. This was the first of many steep, rocky climbs. I chatted with a nice fellow from Ohio. He said he had DNFed the Ring previously, and was just trying to get ahead of the clock and then just "hang on" after the half-way mark. I suggested a more conservative strategy this time which hopefully he took to heart.
As I started to space out from some of the runners I caught up with my good friend Andrew Simpson. He has been a good training partner for years now and we more or less agreed to run most of the daytime portion of the race together.
|Early on, looking east at the twisting Shenandoah river with the|
Shenandoah mountains in view. Photo courtesy Tammy Wonning.
Participants are allowed 1 sturdy drop-bag which is carted around the course to most of the aid stations. I stored the typical supplies in mine, some of which would not be needed: sunscreen, bug spray, gels, nutrition bars, spare clothing, batteries, a headlamp, and bodyglide. I heard stories about terrible bugs along the trail including relentless horseflies so I packed a safari hat with bug netting to protect my face and neck; to my delight it was not needed.
Passing Duncan Knob we had some runable, fairly flat sections, before the gradual ascent up Middle Mountain. The climbs here weren't too tough, but it was the warmest part of the day and we were on a jeep trail that let plenty of sunlight in. Here I was feeling hot and walking continued to tempt me. My friend Andrew was really helpful here, pulling me along while the day wasn't even half done.
Navigating The Ring sounds straightforward but it can be anything but. "Stay on Orange" is all you need to know; the trail is one massive loop that utilizes orange tree blazes. However, many of the blazes are warn off, hard to differentiate from other red or yellow trails in the area, and do not always adhere to the typical double markings for turns. You would be wise to carry a map & compass, approaching every intersection ready for a critical decision. We had a few spots that required a little exploring of potential options before we could be confident we were indeed on orange.
|This pretty much sums up the terrain. Rocks, rock, and more rocks. Navigate however you see fit.|
The toughest challenge of the day came about 50 kilometers into the Ring. The steep hike up to Crisman Hollow was almost 1,000 feet in 3/4 of a mile. It was tough to even keep hiking at a constant pace. I was sweating bullets during the typical Virginia humidity, and ran out of fluids about half-way up. I knew a major aid station was coming so I just tried to keep a clear head.
The Crisman Hollow aid station came at a critical time for me. I was hungry, thirsty, and in dire need of a break. We ran into the eventual women's winner, my friend and training partner Angela Russel. She departed shortly after our arrival. Andrew also left before I did, feeling strong as ever. I had a pacer waiting for me at mile 40 and welcomed a little alone time. The next section was not very significant, just more ups and downs on the rocky trails of the Massanutten Mountains.
I had told my pacer, Rick Bennet, to expect me around 5:30 p.m. with a best case scenario of five sharp and a worst case scenario of around 7:00 p.m. To my surprise and enjoyment I arrived at a timely quarter after five. I hate having a pacer or crew member wait around for hours just due to poor judgement on the part of their runner so hopefully hitting the nail on the head time-wise will encourage him to pace me again in the future.
After meeting Rick at Edinburg Gap and refueling we headed off. Still with plenty of light but a bit cooler out now in the evening hours. I really had no idea of my current placing, I think I was in the top 10 and only had one female in front of me; most entrants would agree that the goal at the Ring is just to finish. I was cautiously optimistic heading on.
|Looking out over Fort Valley as we close in on Sunset.|
|Sometimes you just have to stop, collect |
yourself, and figure out your next steps.
When I am feeling really down in a race I just try to tell myself that its better to feel bad now and good later. With almost 20 miles to go I really hoped it was true today. Short Mountain finally topped out and we had some more ridge running before the next descent down to Woodstock.
The Woodstock Aid Station was pivotal. To my surprise several of my good friends were all huddling up here. Enrique, Misha, Eryn, and Snipes were all manning this spot. Most of the day I had been eating cold or packaged food, but the foods at this stop were a Godsend; hot miso soup, chocolate cake, and avocado burritos were on the menu here. Enough dirt and moisture had accumulated in my socks that I decided to change. While it can be a waste of time it most certainly was not here. Re-energized finally, I headed back out into the woods for one last major climb and descent toward Powells Fort.
I don't really remember much about this section, other than that I was finally feeling better in the cooler night air and was looking forward to the last section. Not just for getting to finish, but I have run and hiked the Signal Knob area many times and its nice to be on familiar terrain.
|Its not a real Ultra without night running!|
At the top of this hill there is a small detour to the Signal Knob overlook, and since its an orange marked part of the course you need to follow the trail out there. Its an honor system section that would be easy to skip but I'm sure no one wants to cheat themselves. Out of weird Ultra paranoia I still checked back over my shoulder to make sure the 2 runners behind me were going out there.
The traverse from Signal Knob to Menaka Peak and on to Richardson Knob is extremely rocky and slow going. I didn't even mind this, being so close to the finish, and I realized from hiking in the area so many times that the last 2 miles would be a runable downhill. Leaving the rockiest parts I came upon my friend Andrew from earlier in the day. I enthusiastically suggested we all band together and push the last couple miles in but his legs were shot and he was just trying to get down the mountain. I trudged on, catching an edge a few times that made me wisely back off the pace. Less than a mile to go!
|My pacer and I - Finally a reason to smile.|
I was very pleased to discover that I had come in 6th of the original 48 starters, and 27 eventual finishers in roughly 19 and a half hours. Angela Russell had won the women's field 25 minutes ahead of me, being so close to the women's winner felt awesome. The men's winner, Danny Mowers, came in almost 5 hours before me with an inhuman performance. In an act of true Ultra class, Danny was still hanging out at the finish when I came in. Andrew came in a few minutes behind me where we could all commiserate. All that was left was to eat some food and pass out in our cars until daylight. I don't think I've ever been that sore and incoherent the day following a race, not even a 100 miler. However, that didn't stop myself and a few other runners and volunteers from visiting a beer garden in nearby Washington D.C. that evening, drowning our sorrows with 1-liter mugs of German brews.
The Ring is odd. Bottom line is that its miserable, but people keep coming back for it. Finishing the Ring (clockwise direction) is the only way to be eligible to run the Reverse Ring, the same trail run counterclockwise every February. Will I be running the Reverse and gaining true membership to the "Fellowship of the Ring"? You bet. But not until I forget about the standard edition.
Race: The Ring
Date: Sept. 5th, 2015
Finish Time: 19 hours 34 minutes
Distance: 71 miles
Gain/loss: 15,600 ft