I had the great privilege of running the Crooked Road 24-hour race in southwestern Virginia. This race gets its name from a rich local music tradition in the area. The Crooked Road ties together 19 counties and more than 50 towns where heritage music is celebrated year round.
I had never run a race in the South. When Ultracentric in Texas was abruptly canceled, and all the registration fees pocketed by a “crooked RD”, I turned my attention to Crooked Rd 24-hours and was pleasantly delighted with the entire experience. I highly recommend this race. With fixed-time races like this, the objective is to run as many miles as you can during 24 hours.
The venue was at Waid Park in the small town of Rocky Mount, Virginia. The course was a 1.18-mile loop of wonderful finely crushed gravel, and no pavement. It is generally flat but does have a rolling section of mild ups and downs to help the legs stay alive. It gives views of Pigg River along the way and circles around a large grassy recreation area which allows you to see other runners across the way.
There is plenty of room for tents or course-side chairs and tables. You can even crew right from your car as the course passes by just a few feet away. The heated bathroom turned out to be one of the greatest features. It was a perfect setup for a 24-hour race.
My training had gone well recently with some long Saturday runs of 66 miles and 37 miles in the two weeks leading up to the race. I love very long runs and I knew my legs were in good shape to go a long distance. The furthest I have run in 24 hours was 117.8 miles, which actually was a split during a 48-hour race. That was five years ago and now 58 years old, I knew I probably couldn’t match that, but would try. I looked at the entrants list and concluded that if all went well, I could compete for one of the top five spots. 146 runners would show up to run.
I flew in a day early and just took in the nearby communities and rested. I was quickly impressed by all the friendly people I ran into. Southern hospitality is not just a saying, it is true and I experienced it at every turn. The race supplied a first-rate aid station. But for these timed events, I like to set up my own personal station which consisted of a cheap camp chair and a small plastic table.
The big worry was the weather. First, there were the fires in the South spreading huge areas of smoke. Thankfully this area wasn’t too smoky, more like a mild smog. The biggest worry was of a cold front that would hit the area around noon during the race. No rain was forecast but it looked like the wind could be terrible. I took precautions by staking down my little table with bungee cords and tent stakes. I should have also staked down my chair. As I checked in, I was surprised to get personal attention from the race director, Ricky Scott, who walked with me and made sure I understood the course layout. Other runners came up to me, so friendly, and wanted to get to know me.
The next morning, at 8:00 a.m. after an inspiring prayer and beautiful singing of the National Anthem, 146 runners were away. I started near the front and immediately two guys took off very fast in front. I had no desires to attempt to keep up with those two and settled in among the top five runners and stayed there the entire race.
All went very well for the early miles and exactly according to my plan and pacing goals. My first mile over 9:00 pace was mile seven. My first mile more over 10:00 was mile 13. With my long experiences doing these type of races, I know that an important strategy is to limit the number of times that you stop at your aid station. If you stop every lap, your distance in the end is greatly affected. So my strategy for at least the first 50 miles was to only stop every five laps, or about six miles. I would carry a bottle of diluted Ensure with me and have a few things in my pockets.
I watched the weather closely. By 10:00 a.m. it was still sunny and getting warm. That really worried me because I knew that I would crumble in warm humidity. I’m used to dry desert air. I was relieved when it started to cloud up as the cold front started to arrive. A nice breeze helped, but later in the afternoon that turned into strong wind gusts causing tents and canopies to start flying around. A heavy bag on my chair wasn’t enough, it kept blowing over.
I started to observe the competition. First, there was a runner who would run much of the loop at 8:00 pace or faster. But he would stop after every loop. I would always catch up and pass and he would race by me every loop. I knew that strategy just wouldn’t hold up. Sure enough, later on that fast pace continued, but he would also need long walking stretches as he completed each loop. I knew that any runner that needed long walking stretches would not end up competing, so I didn’t worry about him and eventually caught up and passed him.
Another runner I observed was Lisa Georgis from Pennsylvania. We ran near each other for miles and miles. Her consistent running pace without walking was truly impressive and I believed she was doing it right and had a good chance to win. Once I noticed her ability, it helped motivate me and I tried to keep up. We were on the same lap for miles. She stopped at her crew tent after nearly every lap so I would catch up, but half way through the next lap she would pass me. The pattern continued over and over again.
I kept a pretty consistent running pace with no walking. I would purposely speed up on the mild uphills and the downhills to take a break from the flat running motion, but I wanted to run nearly every step, even if it would be slow jogging later on. For me, running is much easier on my feet than walking and faster than my power walk. I probably ran all but a total of two miles of this race.
After running so many 100-milers, I can predict pretty closely what my pace will be and construct a pace chart to try to keep me on my goals. After 30 miles, it was eerie how close I was to my goal.
But finally at about mile 32, I needed to take a long 10-minute bathroom break (at 1:10 p.m.) so I fell a lap behind Lisa. Catching up took quite a while, probably about 15 miles, but was accomplished by simply not stopping each lap.
I reached the marathon mark at about 4:15 and the 50K mark at about 5:15 which is typical for me on pretty flat 24-hour courses.
One service that the volunteers provided that I greatly appreciated was to call out to me every time I finished a lap, telling me what lap I finished and later on how many miles I was at. They were always so enthusiastic and helped keep me cheerful in even during the low times.
Around mile 44 the standings started to be posted. I noticed that I was in 5th place, but less than one lap behind the leader at that time, Lisa. The fast guys had faded and there were no elite runners in the field. I started to think that I could have a chance winning this, at least in the top three. But it was all very close, the top ten runners within four miles of each other.
I reached the 50-mile mark at 9:05. I always say, it is a good race when you hit the 50-mile mark before dark. I turned my light on around mile 52.
By about mile 54, the standings had shuffled a bit. A young runner in pigtails, Sarah Siekman had been running strongly, was now in 1st place, a lap ahead of me and Lisa. I tried to match her pace, but she now had a pacer with her and was running very fast. I was now in 3rd place and the other men continued to fade for some reason. At mile 58 Sarah had lapped me again, Lisa had fallen behind me by another lap, and two men were running better. I was in 4th place. But despite her lead, Sarah soon started to take some very long breaks after reaching 68 miles.
With the dark, the temperature fell and the wind really picked up. At times the gusts seemed to be about 40 mph. The wind direction would constantly shift and the worst section was right after crossing the start/finish line. A very cold headwind would slam me nearly each time in that section. But I still ran in shorts for the next few hours. When the wind was at my back it still felt warm and I was still sweating. I knew if I put on warm layers, I would sweat more and it would cause me to stop running as much. So, as long as I didn’t feel too chilled I ran on. By about 9:00 p.m. a lady runner looked at me in surprise and said: “You are in shorts!”
Me and my green light made the circles around the course during the night. There were now only a handful of runners still actually running. Almost everyone else was all bundled up and walking. At 10:00 p.m., I finally decided to dress more warmly. First I sat in my car with the heat on, found the clothes I wanted and drank some warm soup I had in a thermos. I then took some tights with me to the warm large bathroom, put them on, and cleaned my feet. My stop was about 20 minutes.
The warm change was good as the wind became terrible. At the far end of the course, I came upon a runner clearing some pretty large tree limbs that had fallen on the trail. For the rest of the night when a huge gust would come, I would shine my light up into the trees to see if branches would start falling down. It was somewhat scary.
After about 15 hours of running, at 11:00 p.m. I was at about mile 72 and in 2nd place. Aaron Ellison had pressed ahead by a couple laps, Lisa was now nearly two laps behind me. The standings near the top shifted often because everyone was taking longer stops. (I didn’t realize it, but Aaron had stopped for good at 73 miles and I would soon be in 1st place).
Stops became more frequent. I wasn’t eating enough so needed to stop briefly nearly each lap to force myself to eat something. Because of the cold, I now used my car at times to get out of the frigid wind for even a couple minutes. Other times I would head to the aid station, grab a couple cookies and wash it down with a cup of Gingerale. During the night they brought out pizza and later warm grilled cheese sandwiches that were heavenly and helped my stomach feel happy again.
I’m always asked if running in mile-circles gets boring. I’m never bored during these fixed time races. My mind is always involved in doing something. One thing I like to do is analyze my pace in my head and figure out how far ahead I am from the 24-hour cutoff pace for 100 miles. In order to reach 100 miles in 24 hours, I needed to average 14:24-minute miles. There is an imaginary line chasing me all the time and I needed to stay ahead of the line. GPS watches can display how far ahead or behind you are of that line. By around mile 70, I was three hours ahead of that cutoff pace. That meant if I simply went 14:24 pace for the rest of the race I would reach 100 miles in 21 hours, which was my goal. I was still doing very well.
At about 1:00 a.m. I reached 81 miles after running for 17 hours. I was thrilled to see that in the standings I was now listed in 1st place. Lisa was four laps behind, probably taking shelter from the terrible wind. You would think that the adrenaline would really fire me up, but after the next lap I was suffering so much that I had to again stop and recover at my car for about six minutes. My average pace was suffering and because of my stops my pace average had slowed to about 17:00-minute pace. That imaginary line was catching up, I was now only 2.5 hours ahead of the 100-mile cutoff pace. I realized that I still needed to run 15 more laps to reach 100 miles and that now seemed so very far.
During the wee hours of the morning, the course emptied out of runners. On the big loop I would look across the large field and at times only count seven runners. It looked like I was the only one still running. As the night went on, I would have to stop at the bathroom about every three laps and it was so nice and warm that I would pause to sit for a couple minutes in a chair someone brought in, and rest my head on the baby changing table. People would come in, see me, and ask if I was OK. I was generally fine, but just so sleepy and tired. The frigid wind on my eyes made them so tired. Ski goggles would have helped.
At mile 87, at around 3 a.m., I was now in second place. Tony Mccormick had started to run faster and eventually lapped me. Lisa was running much better a lap behind me. I felt fairly confident that I could at least finish in 2nd place, a great accomplishment in these conditions. But my average pace was slowing even more to 17:30-minute miles with stops. I was now just two hours ahead of the 100-mile cutoff. My hopes for a good 100-mile time and more than 110 miles for 24 hours was now gone, and instead I just started to worry if I could even make it to 100 miles in time. I struggled to do simple math in my sleepy mind, but knew that if I walked from this point on at 20:00 pace, I still would go further than 100 miles by 24-hours.
At around mile 91 was a pretty bad low point. I was now running in four layers, two shirts, a fleece jacket, and a wind breaker. I was generally staying warm but the wind was so brutal, at times blowing me off the trail. Waves of drowsiness would hit me and I would start weaving around more. But I ran on, doing very little walking. I continued to pass the few slow walkers still on the course over and over again. I stopped for about ten minutes in my car to escape the wind, drink soup, rest, and recover. Determined, I pushed myself back into the storm. The stop greatly helped and I started to run much better.
The start/finish line was still staffed by very enthusiastic volunteers who now recognized my green light each time and called out “Davy!” as I approached each time. That always cheered me up. One time I looked up to the sky and pleaded out loud for the sun to appear. I knew that my energy would greatly return once it became light again. Sure enough, at about 6:30 a.m. the sky started to brighten. At mile 97 I pushed through the pain and started to truly run, clocking 12-minute miles again. I was still in 2nd place a couple laps behind Tony. Lisa was a lap behind and spectators could see that she was continually running very closely to Laurie Matecki. The women’s championship was going to go down to the wire. The next runner, Robert Weller was far behind, four laps down.
On my GPS, I reached the 100-mile mark at about 22:45. The course was carefully measured but it was pretty impossible to run on the shortest route possible. Detours to the bathroom and car also added many feet. My GPS signal also got confused in the bathroom.
At about the 23-hour mark, I was puzzled when I thought I saw Tony, the leader, in the parking lot getting his picture taken with a 100-mile belt buckle. I wasn’t positive, but it looked like he quit after reaching 100 miles! (He had planned to stop early in order to get to work on time and reached 101.18 miles). This uncertain realization that I could claim the overall win pumped new energy into my legs.
I reached the official 100-mile mark in about 23:15. It was my 85th 100-mile finish and my 11th for 2016. My legs now felt great as I could push the pace to 10-minute mile pace. I wanted to complete two more laps over 100 miles and it was nice to discover that they were going to measure partial laps. I received a tongue depressor with my name on it, and when the air horn sounded, put it down on the trail.
I officially covered 103.356 miles. I now knew that I was the overall winner for this epic wind race. Lisa Georgis came in 2nd a lap behind, and was the women’s champion with 102.109 miles.
The race director Ricky Scott greeted me as I returned to the aid station and congratulated me on my run. Yes, somehow the old man won. With all the rough weather conditions, only four runners went more than 100 miles.
A quick awards ceremony was held and I was awarded a beautiful mini banjo trophy which also honored the Crooked Road music heritage. It was nice to win a race again, the last one was the Happy Jack 24-hour run, a small race in Laramie, Wyoming, in 2013.
I felt fine at the finish with only a little soreness. My feet ended up in good shape with just one minor blister that I never noticed. I ran in Altra Olympus and they performed well for me. It was discouraging to think about all the stops I made during the night, but I can work on correcting that for the upcoming Across the Years 24-hours.
Ricky Scott and the rest of the Crooked Road 24 race staff put on a first-rate event and I highly recommend it. They gave great attention to detail and did everything possible to help the runners to succeed. I hope that I can return again someday.