The OSS/CIA run was named for the Office of Strategic Services, which was the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency. As history would state, the military operatives who birthed the OSS trained on the trails in Prince William Forest Park, so we were to run in their boot steps. In keeping with the clandestine nature of the OSS and the CIA, the race was themed to be a “covert” event; a test of one’s ability to perform and compete relatively unseen in the wilderness. Even the tech shirt said “No one knows where you are…just run!”
After staying with friends in nearby Fort Lee, VA, I made my way to the PWFP in the late afternoon on race day. The race directors—Alex H and Alex P—were on top of things and had me checked in no time even though check-in was not due to start for over an hour. With that to-do off my mind, I had plenty of time to relax, check, re-check, and check again my gear and my drop bags, and meet some other racers and volunteers. Phyllis (also Charlotte area based) was there just as early as me. She and I were part of the same online trail running group, but this was the first time we had met in person. It was good to see a familiar face, even if it was only by a thumbnail profile picture. We met up with Michael—also a member of our Charlotte-based group—and his friend Lauren shortly before the trail briefing. One volunteer was kind enough to snap a picture of our Charlotte contingent.
|CLT people before the race. From left: me, Phyllis, and Michael.|
Once everyone was checked in, the Alex’s rounded up the pack for the short but informative trail briefing. One of the park rangers went over some safety regulations and park rules, and then Alex H informed us that the CIA made it explicitly clear that they are in no way connected to this event…just in case we were wondering. He also reminded us that we were taking on a risky ultra, so we should look out for ourselves and each other. Alex P went over the course map, of which we all received a copy in our race packet. The course consisted of two giant loops over the same path, with the second loop adding an extra out-and-back section to bring the mileage to 50. Once the short and sweet briefing was over, we had forty minutes to ready ourselves.
I donned a Nathan hydration backpack with HEED in the bladder and GU gels and ginger chews in the front strap pockets. In my right hand was a 22oz Nathan handheld bottle with regular water and more gels in the strap pocket. In my left hand was an LED knuckle light, which left my hand free to grasp. On my head was a Petzl LED headlamp with a rear-facing red strobe on the back side of the band. My RaceReady shorts had pockets full of Clif Bars, Stinger Waffles, and more gels. Having trained with all these items, everything felt secure and accessible. On my feet were a pair of Montrail Rogue Flys.
The Alex’s gathered us at the trailhead for the start, so when Alex P gave the signal, all 70 of us flooded the single track at once. The pack lined out after a couple hundred meters, and I guessed I was near the 20th position. I fell in behind two runners named Mary and Sean (whose birthday was on race day) and found their pace very comfortable. Michael settled in behind me and Phyllis formed up behind him. Another runner named Pat joined the back of our informal, six-person pace group. Mary was an effective pace keeper. Our running pace stayed consistently in the high 9 min/miles, and we walked all of the uphills from the first half mile on. Overall, we were setting an initial pace for a 10 hour finish, which was a goal for which we all seemed to be aiming. The first hour went by very quickly. The six of us made for very sociable company, and the first five miles of trail were very run-able.
The footing became more rugged after the first hour. Several large rock outcroppings and stair like climbs and descents brought our reasonable running pace to a slow, calculated walk. I affected my best East European interrogator voice and said “we have ways of making you walk!” All agreed that THAT should have been the slogan for the race. Nearly seven miles into the race, Mary stopped abruptly to cough up a wasp(!) she had swallowed by accident. Sean stopped to pat her on the back, but they both insisted we continue on. I took over the lead spot in our pace pack. I checked my watch regularly to make sure I was keeping the same conservative pace we had established so far. Soon after, Michael and the rest of the pack faded behind me on a long, easy downhill. There was still some light in the twilight sky, but visibility was dropping fast. I reached back and turned on my red strobe so that the pack behind me could spot me from afar. 10 minutes later, the trail crossed Mawavi Road, on which we were to run a mile-long out-and-back round trip before continuing on our original trail. The half mile to the aid station at the top of Mawavi was a slope containing 300 feet of vertical gain. I walked nearly the whole thing, seeing the race leaders pass me on their way down. The volunteers at the Mawavi aid station hole-punched my bib, refilled my water bottle, and sent me on my way. I glided back down the hill, seeing another dozen or so runners on their way up.
I waited until I hit the single track at the bottom of Mawavi Road before turning on my knuckle light. The next four miles of single track were pleasant to run, and I only saw one or two other runners along the way. Whenever I could, I would keep pace with another runner and pool my light with his in order to conserve the batteries on my headlamp. It was completely dark now, and I started to hear the sounds of nocturnal critters in the distance. I dodged some gnarly spider webs and saw the telltale glint of wolf spiders’ eyes along the side of the trail every few feet. I heard the intermittent cries of foxes and the low honks of water fowl in the nearby creek. Now it was an adventure.
Shortly after the 12 mile mark, I came upon the Oak Ridge aid station, which was the first full service aid station and the site for our drop bags. I handed my bottle to a volunteer to fill with water and I grabbed a pre-mixed dilution of HEED from my drop bag to fill my pack bladder. I also reloaded my gel pockets with a pre-rationed selection I had labeled in one of three sealed plastic bags. The next part of the course was a two-mile loop that would return us to this same aid station, so I left my back pack with my drop bag and continued on with just my handheld bottle. I’m sure the two-mile loop would have been very pleasant to run or hike in the daytime, but since it was a circular means to an end in order to add the proper mileage, it just seemed unproductive and tedious. Also, racers would have to do this loop twice more on their second full course lap. That prospect seemed totally unattractive, but Alex H later said that the purpose of adding the extra loop on the second lap instead of the first was to get in our heads. Great.
I returned to Oak Ridge aid station, picked up my pack, and got back on the main trail. Having stopped at the campground’s facilities along the way, I had given Phyllis a chance to pass me. I caught up to her shortly and we passed some miles together. According to her, Michael was behind and she did not know how he was doing. The Oak Ridge trail spilled out onto Burma Road, a wide gravel road that reminded me of the fire roads at Umstead State Park. We saw a headlamp ahead of us and closed the distance on him. We introduced ourselves to the runner, whose name was Josh, and took a long walk break together up the hill on Burma. I later would find out that Josh and I went to college together and knew many of the same people. Small world. Burma Road allowed us to open our legs and spread out for long stretches, but the short range of our lights made the wide darkness in front of us seem that much more ominous. Near the top of a long ascent, we came across a very zealous volunteer named Gary, who offered encouraging words and directed us to where our next dip into the single track would be.
Josh, Phyllis, and I entered the single track together, but I shortly shot off on a technical downhill. I just couldn’t resist flying down the hills. The next few miles were fairly technical. I fell down a couple of times, and I sank my feet into soft mud once or twice. Before long, I caught up to a couple of European runners: Christophe (French) and Alexander (German). Christophe urged me to pass him, but he and German Alex were keeping a fairly quick pace, so opted to just join them instead. The single track led to a fire road called Pyrite Mine Road, and the three of us settled into a long run/walking climb. Once again, the limited range of our illumination kept us from seeing the top of the hill, so we ran until it got steep, and walked until it got less steep. Christophe lagged behind for a bit, but Alex was very consistent, so I settled in and focused on his efficient German stride.
At the top of Pyrite Mine, we refilled our bottles at an unmanned cooler and ran a couple hundred feet of asphalt before turning on yet another fire road. By our watches, we could tell that we were well past 20 miles of running, and therefore not that far from the next full aid station. The relatively flat fire road made for 8 minute miles with a few short walk breaks. Once we hit our next stretch of single track, we knew we had about 1.5 miles left of our first lap. “Hey, it’s Sunday!” I shouted when I realized it was past midnight. German Alex laughed, but Christophe didn’t seem to care. The single track was very run-able, but it contained a lot of rolling hills leading back to the start/finish/halfway aid station at Telegraph Road. I had started feeling my legs getting tight a few miles back, but the fast pace on the fire roads seemed to loosen everything up. I continued to walk the uphills and blaze down the downhills. Once I saw the lights of Telegraph Road camp site peeking through the darkness, I picked up the pace in order to check in at the halfway mark of the race.
I arrived seconds behind German Alex. My first lap took 4 hours and 55 minutes, which was right about what I had planned. So far, so good. Many of the volunteers I had met before the race told me that I still looked pretty fresh. Honestly, I was feeling a bit fatigued, but hey, I had just run nearly 25 miles, so that’s okay, right? A lot had happened while I was out on my first loop. Lauren greeted me and informed me that Michael had dropped out of the race with a pulled hamstring. He was hiking to Telegraph now, and was due to arrive sometime after 2am. I felt for him. Mary also greeted me at the aid station. She had dropped out as well and was now an aid station volunteer. Lauren went on to tell me that the RD’s had recorded about as many DNFs already as they had continuing racers. Upon hearing that, my moderate aches and pains didn’t seem so important. German Alex was ready to go, but he admitted that he had gone out too fast and planned to slow down. Christophe was sitting down at a table with a full meal in front of him. He looked pretty beat. I was still in the game. I had another drop bag at this aid station, so I re-equipped, ate some salted potatoes and a Stinger Waffle, and drank a cup of Mountain Dew. I thanked the volunteers and set out once more into the heart of darkness.
Phyllis came into Telegraph seconds after I left. She was looking good, so I cheered her on. I saw many other runners spread out on the trail walking their way in as I was outbound. Most were able to manage a smile or a thumbs-up. A mile later, I caught up with German Alex. “Where’s the Frenchy?” he asked. “He was having a meal,” I responded, “he didn’t look so good.” Christophe eventually would rally and pass me later in the race, but that happened hours later. I don’t really remember when German Alex and I split, but I ran the next few miles on my own in the dark. I looked for small landmarks to remind me of how far into the lap I was, but my memory was a bit fuzzy at 1:30 in the morning. I did remember the treacherous footing that forced my comrades and me to walk during the first lap. I had to be especially careful this time as I was following the same path alone in total darkness. When I reached Mawavi Road, I walked the entire way to the top, and I took my time at the water cooler. One young runner named Ibby I had met before the race was looking in a bad way, but he insisted on continuing. He walked slowly out of the aid station, and I ran my way past him down the hill. I did not expect to see him again.
The miles between Mawavi and Oak Ridge passed almost uneventfully. I remember running most of them, taking scheduled walk breaks, and being serenaded by the same nocturnal fauna as before. I did not see a single runner. I tripped and fell once, and my knuckle light went out. I beat the battery pack with the palm of my hand and it flickered back on, but not as brightly. No good. Luckily, I had my headlamp, and I had a spare knuckle light in my drop bag just a couple of miles away. I stowed the malfunctioning light in the shoulder pocket of my hydration pack and continued on under the headlamp.
Once I reached Oak Ridge, I dropped off my back pack once again and fished the spare knuckle light out of my drop bag. Since I had two two-mile loops before coming back to my drop bag—and to the food table—I sucked down a single GU gel and hit the forest loop. As I said before, I was not looking forward to doing this seemingly pointless loop twice on this go-around, but my spirits lifted when I saw Gary waiting at the trailhead. Gary was as encouraging as ever, and his energy was infectious. He ushered me into the loop and I settled into a sustained run for most of the two mile leg. It seemed to take a lot longer than before, but I was able to pass a couple of other runners along the way. I returned to a cheerful Gary and turned directly onto my next and final two-mile loop. This loop most likely took longer than either of the others, but it felt as if it went by more quickly for want of it being done. I stopped and shook Gary’s hand and told him that he was a great man to have around at 4am! He gave me a “damn right!” and urged me back to Oak Ridge aid station.
I had 11 or 12 miles left, and I already had run over 40. If I was going to drop out, this would be the place to do it. No, I was tired and achy, and my quads were killing me, but I still had a lot of running—or at least walking—left in me. I decided to leave my hydration pack in my drop bag and continue with just my handheld bottle full of HEED, and a half-dozen gels, bars, chews, etc. Now I knew I had to eat some more “real” food. Nothing seemed appetizing. A volunteer handed me a cup of Ramen-style chicken noodle soup. I grimaced and forced it down my gullet, and I instantly realized it was the best meal I had ever had. No hyperbole intended; I cannot remember a more nourishing, delectable meal. The volunteer asked if I wanted another, and I declined so as not to put too much on my stomach for the jostling ride to come. Alex H was at the aid station. He had just gotten a text stating that the winner had crossed the finish line with a time of 8 hours and 42 minutes. Unreal for this course! He offered me some words that were halfway between encouraging and provoking. “I’ll see you at Telegraph,” I said to him in my proudest, most indignant voice.
The single track of the Oak Ridge trail was one long blur. The uphills seemed longer, and the downhills seemed more treacherous and more painful. My quads were trashed. It hurt to run the downhills, but it also hurt to walk them, so I ran them. Every time I came to a technical descent, I reached down into my more primal self and flew down the hill yelling and screaming at the top of my lungs, punctuating the shouts with sharp, uninhibited profanity. I had come to grips with the fact that the pain was not going to go away from this point on. If I let it stop me, I would get nowhere and still be hurting. If I embraced it and accepted it, I could learn to separate my pain from my progress. There was no longer a question of “if.” I was going to finish this motherf****r. All I had to do was keep moving forward, and the miles would take care of themselves. Now I just had to work on chipping away at my pace.
Burma Road once again gave me a chance to open up my legs. I ran short distances and walked in between. While my walk breaks were frequent, I kept an efficient hiking pace—near 15 minute miles—so my overall pace was not deteriorating too dramatically. I saw a glimmer of light through the trees on the horizon. Dawn was approaching. My spirits lifted another peg. The single track between Burma and Pyrite Mine contained more stubbed toes and more painful downhills. I was finding it hard to summon the energy to run after each walk break. I was unquestionably bonked, but I was still in a clear and sound state of mind, so while my muscle glycogen was depleted, I at least knew my blood sugar was alright. My pace was at the mercy of my metabolism, but I could still will myself forward. I set small, manageable goals, like running until I reached the next trail blaze, or allowing myself to walk for the next three minutes, etc. I forced myself to eat, even though nothing seemed palatable.
It was fully light outside by the time I reached Pyrite Mine Road. While I enjoyed seeing my surroundings in the daylight, I was a little disheartened to see the entirety of the hill ahead of me. I walked. I ran a few steps here and there, but mostly I walked. Someone—probably Gary—had left a water cooler at the top of Pyrite Mine Road. I stopped to top off my bottle and took out my trail map. According to my watch, I had run over 50 miles. I found my location on the map and gauged the remaining distance according to the map scale. Two, maybe three more miles left…great. I crumpled the small map in my fist and left it on top of the water cooler. The only way through was through.
There was a little more than a mile of fire road before I hit the single track again. I had clocked some near marathon-pace times on this stretch with German Alex on the first lap. Now, I was happy to hit 10-minute miles between walk breaks. Phyllis caught up to me shortly before the trailhead to the single track. Although she said she wasn’t feeling too well, she looked no different than the last time I had seen her 25 miles earlier. I waved her on as I was sure she had more run left in her than I.
In the full daylight, I could really appreciate the beauty of the trails in Prince William Forest Park. The last stretch had some rolling hills, but the surface was agreeable. The last mile was interminably long. Before climbing what I thought had to be one of the last hills, I glanced behind me. There was German Alex, 50 feet away, waving at me while walking. I smiled and turned to face forward to see a glint of reflected light through the trees. Yes, I was seeing the cars in the parking lot right before the finish line. German Alex must have seen it at the same time, because he immediately broke into a run. I was not going to be passed in the final 300 meters of a 50 mile race! All of the pain and agony evaporated away, and I broke into a sprint. Everyone in the clearing dropped what they were doing and cheered as I emerged from the trail with Alex hot on my heels. Rarely does anyone see a head-to-head duel like this at the end of an ultra marathon. I could hear the German closing in on me, but I dared not look for him. I strode through the finish line at 11 hours, 21 minutes, and 8 seconds, exactly one second ahead of Alexander. I immediately turned around and Alex and I through our arms around each other like long lost comrades. By far, this was the best finish I have ever experienced to any race.
|My climactic sprint to the finish. The Euro-blur behind me is German Alex. Photo courtesy of Michael Vance.|
The race was a brutal battle of attrition. Out of 71 starters, there were only 29 finishers! With a more than 60% DNF rate, the OSS/CIA 50 makes even the Boogie seem welcoming. Phyllis finished a few minutes ahead of me and took 2nd place in the female division, 11th overall. I finished 13th overall, which more than satisfied me considering just finishing this race was an admirable feat for experienced ultra runners. More than one fellow participant stated that this race was the toughest 50 they had ever run. I say again: boy, did I pick one!
I have to give major props to Alex P and Alex H, the race directors. This truly was an awesome event that was rewarding in countless ways. I also must send a shout out to Gary, Lauren, Mary, Michael, Dave S, and several other volunteers (some of whom were DNF’d racers) who kept my engine running. Big congratulations and thanks go to Phyllis and German Alex for pushing me in the final stages of the race. With this milestone in the books, I think I may see a 100-miler in the not-too-distant future.
|This is what I look like after running 53 miles.|