This is a race that quite frankly has never really been on my radar. The course is a local legend for being a notorious 5 loop beat down. This year with my friend Alex, I signed up to do it. Since I was doing Lavaredo in June, this seemed like the perfect “training” race. Sure why not? This is ultra running. We do stupid things.
As fate would have it, not long after committing and signing up for the race, the Covid 19 Coronavirus Pandemic started to spiral. I dare say a year none of us will forget. When my “A” race in Italy was cancelled, I was left with Double Top still on my calendar. Most every ultra runner had at least one or more of their races cancelled, and short of doing a virtual race or run, the races came to a screeching halt.
Along with Alex, one of my other close running partners, Sherri and I had all been training on the Double Top course. The State park was still open so we continued to go each week, seeing very small crowds and literally no one on the remote and difficult sections we were on. Each week as the Pandemic got more and more serious, more shut downs and shelter in place orders, we waited for this race to be cancelled as well. With the park still open, and the support of the rangers there, the race became a “virtual” option. Who would do this difficult of a 100 miler with no support, no aid, virtually no help.
Alex, Sherri and I would talk each week as we were out there of the pros, the cons and the feasibility of actually doing the race. The social climate was also escalating with people very opposed to the race not being out right cancelled. So let me just say a few things here. Our race entries were all rolled over to 2021. We were in no way pressured or even encouraged to attempt this. I personally have looked at all sides of this debate; you can’t really distance yourselves, it’s irresponsible, you would put that community at risk by going there, you could endanger the whole emergency and medical system if something happened to you. The list goes on. I’m not wanting to debate either side of this. I looked at it very seriously. Two weeks before, the three of us decided we were NOT doing it, and then the week before we completely flipped. It’s hard to say what tipped the whole thing. One big factor was the course was going to be marked that weekend (the original race date of April 17, 2020) while we had until the end of May to complete the race as a virtual in possibly a less controversial atmosphere. Frankly, I think for me it was the idea that I loved being in the mountains. The 3 weeks prior when we would go there, it felt like the one thing that made the whole Pandemic life we’d been living, seem to fade away. Mentally it was a God send! The parks were open and we were not breaking any laws. Another idea that helped tip the scales for me was, what else do I have to do besides sitting in my house. Lots of people are out on the streets running “virtual” races on roads, and that didn’t seem the thing for me. I felt like I had a higher risk of spreading the virus or catching it by going to my local grocery store. It might not be the right decision for everyone, but for us it seemed to be.
So we made our plan for an 8:00am start on Friday morning. Alex and I were both running the 100 miler and Sherri was signed up for the 100K, but for fear of missing out, Sherri reached out to race director and decided she was going to attempt the 100 miler with us. It would be here first. It would’ve also been her first 100K for that matter but you know the whole “Go Big or Go Home” motto, ultra runners seems to embrace that like no other!
Our plan was for each of us to drop a car at what would have been an AS location, a couple that you would hit twice during each loop and also a water drop at another. We would each have a cooler stocked with Coke and Ginger Ale and snacks for all of us. We had our own bottled water as to not add any risk in sharing. We would pack “drop bags” of sorts to put in each other’s vehicles such as extra clothes, shoes, jackets, personal fuel, etc. We picked what we thought was the right location for our “main” aid station because of bathrooms being there, and we added a Jet Boil to that location to make hot broth or coffee if needed. We felt we had it pretty well thought through. For Alex and me, this wasn’t our first rodeo at a 100 miler. For Sherri, well you don’t know what you don’t know and we all figure some things out as we go. She knew she was in good hands, we would all stay together and take care of one another. We also didn’t want to involve anyone else in our attempt by asking for crew or pacers, although as soon as I told my husband we were doing it, he immediately said he was coming up the second day to do some miles with us. He had been up there with us on past training weekends, and was also looking for some revenge on the “big” climb of the course.
So there you go. We had our plan set in place. I had a little more time during the week to work on details since Sherri and Alex were both still working from home full time. I created our aid station chart, added encouraging messages to the sides of my water jugs, I made us race bibs, as we decided to call it the Double Top Covid 100. I even created some encouraging messages for us to get at the end of each loop by putting them in little Easter Eggs with some candy treats as well. Even with all the planning, my biggest concern I voiced was my fear of getting in enough calories. Let’s be clear, this is not an easy race course. There’s 28,000 feet of gain and you do it in 5 repeated loops. I hate loop races and try to avoid them. I knew we would have to eat and take in calories but we would not have the selection of aid station spreads that are ready to grab and go. If we didn’t stay on top of calories from the start, we would not be able to handle the brutal climbs in this race as the miles went on.
So with our plans laid out, we checked in with the Race Marshall of sorts and who was also a good friend of mine, Brad. He had spent several days carefully putting signs up marking the turns on the course. We were required to check in and be “officially” started by Brad and text him after completing each loop. We got a quick start photo with a few brief instructions and were off.
Touch-less, Self-supported, and Self-reporting
It was a little chilly to start with but the sun came out soon and with all the climbing you warmed up quickly. The 20 or so mile loop starts with five miles before getting back to our first car for aid. We would pass one of our cars just 2.5 miles into the loop but we planned not to stop there each loop to try and avoid extra time stopping if not needed. Five miles went quick and back to our first official aid but we were all mostly good and kept moving. The next 7.5 mile section of the course is considered the most brutal. It’s not really bad until the final 2.5 miles, up until then it’s some of the prettiest parts of the course with waterfalls, spring flowers in bloom and more gently rolling hills. Of course by the time you get to round three, four and five of those gently rolling hills, they are mountainous climbs, filled with rocks and it’s endless. Let’s don’t get ahead of ourselves just yet. Loop one was amazingly beautiful, the weather could not be better and the only plan was to enjoy the day and adventure ahead. The beginning of a 100- mile race is always mentally tough. It’s hard sometimes to wrap your head around no matter how many times you’ve done it. The plan is always to focus on just get to the next aid station. We make it to the top of the big powerline climb in a pace probably faster than most of our training runs. I was leading the way and feeling great and hadn’t really realized I probably took that a bit too fast. Sherri and I happily sat on a rock at the top waiting on Alex who it seemed was struggling a little more that day. On previous training runs we were all together on our climbs. I told Sherri I was sure he would bounce back. He was experienced and some days you start out slower. We dropped from there to our next car aid station, made a quick stop and continued on.
From there you head a couple miles towards the park entrance which would normally be an aid station and where we had dropped water. It’s also where during the first two loops you are required to do an out and back on a connector trail to the Pinhoti Trail (hence at one time the race was called Double Tap, as you tap the Pinhoti twice). It’s nearly a mile down, and yes back up again with some steeper sections. It’s a happy moment when you have finished this section after the second loop and know you don’t have to do it again. That section can be a little warmer during the day so we thought a water drop there would be nice to have. Turns out we all were happy each loop to get to that water stash.
After that out and back, it’s another 5ish miles to complete the loop. Finally, a nice downhill section that is another incredibly beautiful part of the course. A long stretch of it follows a waterfall, has more flowers in bloom and is not nearly as rocky as other sections until you hit the bottom of the falls. Towards the end of the section to the finish of the loop it’s a lot of very rocky climbing. The final push is a section they call the “Switchbacks from Hell”. On the first loop they don’t seem so hellish but eventually they are from the devil himself.
We complete the first loop, try to quickly get what we need and head off for loop 2. Once we are through the next section and back to another car aid we are feeling a little more confident with nearly 1/4 of the race complete. One step at a time. During this section it became increasing more noticeable to Sherri and me that Alex was struggling. I was certain he’d recover and be climbing like the champ he is, but it was taking him a little longer to get there. At some point during this section he told us we could leave him. I assured him we weren’t going to leave him. We were in this together, we needed each other to do it, we were a team. In a regular race if I was with someone who was seriously struggling and told me to go, it would be different. It seemed sort of like hiking the Appalachian Trail (not that I have done that), but you wouldn’t just leave one person behind. The huge Powerline Climb was at the end of the section, Sherri and I knew at the top as we waited on Alex that it wasn’t looking good. We were getting very chilled waiting on him as the cooler weather towards evening set in. When Alex did get to us, he broke the news that he was dropping. I was crushed honestly but not surprised. We had talked about this race, trained for it and planned to do it together. Alex had even done the 100K last year with success, so this was a huge blow. We also knew deep down this was probably a smart decision. It’s a course that only gets harder and harder, and he would drop out now and continue to help us as our crew. We had come to realize by this point, that a crew would be really helpful. Every time we would come into one of our car aid stations, everyone is digging through bags, getting things here and there, trying to remember everything and if it was even at that location. After getting head lamps and warm clothes for the night, Sherri and I were headed towards the entrance and then our final down and back to the Pinhoti tap. We were moving quickly and eager to get that little section over with.
Second Climb Done!
Because there were very few runners out there and we were all spaced out because of our starting times, we only saw other runners maybe a couple of times. One would be at the bottom of the out and back. We got down there and back out as quickly as we could move, and on to finishing loop 2. It’s dark now but we are feeling confident with Alex taking good care of us and helping us to manage the details. It felt sort of exciting heading into loop 3 when you know you are almost half way there. The next stop when we see Alex, he gives us the weather update. We knew rain was expected over night and had hoped those chances would clear out, but instead Alex convinces us to put our rain jackets in our packs. It proves to be an extremely important decision we probably would not have made had we not had him helping us at this point. Along with rain that is headed in, the wind has picked up. When you are hot a breeze feels nice, but when the wind is blowing hard and you can hear the trees hitting each other up high, you get a little nervous to say the least. Soon enough we are down on the lower section of the course and headed over towards the big powerline climb again when it begins to rain. It started slowly and we were quick to put our jackets on. We both put them on over our packs but mine won’t zip up if I cover my pack. The rain itself was very cold but it didn’t feel that cold out. I stayed warm and we both just kept moving. The rain got very heavy at times but when we got to the big climb it wasn’t a huge issue that we thought it might be with water running down it.
The rain had stopped by the time we were back to the car and Alex, where we both got changed into some dry clothes. Sherri’s jacket turned out not to be waterproof and she was soaked. We were hoping the rain was gone for good but the update from Alex was there would be more coming. Alex quickly got Sherri a poncho to use, I gave her an extra jacket for a layer under and we were off again. Seven miles or so and this loop would be done, we were more than half way now. The wind however was not going away and some of the ridges we moved across were getting a little scary. We were thankful when we once again dropped down into a lower section and eventually the wind let up a bit, but the rain came back just as Alex had forecast. It was towards the end of the night and early in the morning. I could feel that Sherri was struggling and also knew she hadn’t been eating well more recently. Just before we started up the long climbs towards the end of the loop I told her she had to eat, and when I told her she knew I wasn’t taking a “no” on that. When it leveled out briefly, I told her that when we finished the loop she would need to take some time and do a reset. Before I could really get into what that meant, she immediately said, “Trena, I love you, but….” I wasn’t totally surprised. While we hadn’t spoken a word of it, I could feel her struggle and saw it in her face. She and Alex had already discussed apparently that she might not be able to finish this, and her knees were now bothering her so bad, she knew it was time for her to tap out. We already knew my husband was coming up, and would be there shortly after we finished the loop. He could do at least 12.5 miles with me, and Sherri said Alex would pace me the last loop. I wasn’t worried about that part, I just hated to see it end for her. Sherri ran the final short section to get an official first 100K finish!
Waiting for Ed to show up gave us time to get my watch and phone charged up, another set of dry clothes on and warmed up a bit. It was now much colder out, and I needed a jacket back on to get going. It was exciting to see Ed and spend some miles with him. It also happened to be our 28th Anniversary and we even stopped and took a photo at one of the prettiest views on the course. The rain was gone and the fog was starting to roll out. Ed had never paced me before in a race even though I’d done a lot of training miles with him. For me this was some of my favorite miles in the “race” as he encouraged me and assured me I was doing great and moving well.
When Ed and I finally hit the big powerline climb I knew he was wanting a little revenge himself from a few weeks back when he went up it for the first time. I told him not to wait on me during the climb, I would see him at the top. Just knowing he was ahead of me and after this climb, I only had one more of them to do, I powered my way up. From there it was a short drop back to Alex and Sherri crewing us. This was the point Ed was jumping out, even though he was willing to go further, 13-15 miles is his sweet spot and I knew I could do another 7 to finish the loop up. I was surprised when Alex was ready with his running gear on and ready to pace. It was a quick switch, grabbing what I needed, fast goodbye and back on the trail with Alex, who was now a whole new person. He had gotten some sleep, eaten and was moving extremely well as we powered to finish up the loop.
Alex and I discussed the aid station plan before we got there. I wanted to finally change my socks, get something to drink, get head lamps, grab my phone charger and I wanted some sweets for my pack. Skittles and Oreo’s and we were off to get this thing done. As we checked off each section just knowing it was the last time to do it, made it seem bearable. My feet were beyond sore after over 80 miles of rocks and climbs, but I knew that was temporary. It was dark just as we got to the bottom of the powerline climb so we put our lights on and got a snack. Up we went. Seemed like an impossible task but again just one step at a time with Alex encouraging me the whole way. Back to Sherri for the final time before the finish, and off to get it done. In my head I’m counting off the miles. Once we get over to the park entrance and our water stop I asked Alex to lead the way. I’m feeling like I’m moving so slow and think it would help if he leads and I can push my pace off him. When he asks if I want to run some, I quickly agree and we were off running until we hit the bottom and I was about tapped out myself. My climbing legs were almost gone and I felt like I had very little in the tank left. I forced myself to try and stay up with Alex, and the finish was my only focus. It was a bittersweet finish because I really wanted to complete it with Alex, and he had felt so great the last loop and a half with me. Alex will be back next year for his finish, and Sherri and I will be with him to see that he does!
Double Top Covid 100, touch-less, self-supported, and self-reporting race was over. It was a journey and an adventure. Many lessons learned for sure. Taking care of yourself for 100 miles with no “real” aid stations is tough, I won’t ever take one for granted again in a race, nor will I ever fail to thank the volunteers. It’s often the little things they do for you that you don’t realize how helpful it is. Trails are best shared with friends although sometimes your best laid plans don’t go as you’d like, but we can adjust and adapt. And sometimes the toughest climbs come with the greatest rewards!