The Last Great Race (Part 1) - 2019 Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run

6/02/2019 08:39:00 PM

Beautiful country roads through the rolling hills of Virginia.
After five race lotteries and five months of training, my big summer of running multiple 100 mile races, the six oldest of them over the course of fourteen weeks to be exact, was finally underway. It all started when I finally made it into the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run after entering the race lottery for five consecutive years. Initially, I was just stoked to have made it into States, but then my buddy Paul Morris asked the all important question: "So are you doing the Slam?".
It was a very valid question. After all, it is highly unlikely that I'll get back into Western States any time soon, so if I was ever going to attempt the Grand Slam, now was the time to give it a shot. But just because you want to do something doesn't mean you get to. After all, the Grand Slam consists of running four of the five oldest 100 mile races in the US over the course of fourteen weeks and all but one of them require participants to enter a lottery to win an entry. After gaining entry into Western States and after deciding to attempt the Grand Slam (lottery gods willing) I immediately signed up for the Old Dominion 100, the only race not yet requiring entry via a lottery system. Next, I made sure to enter the Vermont 100, Leadville 100 and Wasatch 100 lotteries.
In order to complete the Slam, I just needed to get lucky enough to win entries in two of these three lotteries. As I was awaiting the different lottery results to be announced, I started to do some research on the Grand Slam to find out how others have prepared for this challenge. In the process, I found out about another intriguing challenge, the "Last Great Race", running the six oldest 100 mile races in the US over the same 14 weeks. This challenge included running and finishing all five Grand Slam races plus completing Angeles Crest 100, which is sandwiched between the Vermont 100 and the Leadville 100 races. By default, it also includes the "Western Slam", which consists of Western States, Angeles Crest, Leadville Trail and Wasatch Front. Three Slams over the course of one summer, what could possibly go wrong:-)
The exact image I pictured in my head before I came here.
Ultimately, it took a lot of help from Lady Fortuna and a couple of helpful friends and race directors to even allow me to attempt this challenge. Next, I needed to start planning out logistics. Six race locations across the US, none of them within driving distance meant booking 6 different flights, at least six different accommodations (point to point races like WS and AC requiring multiple bookings) and six rental car reservations and the earlier I'd lock them down, the cheaper it would be. It definitely helped my budget that I had collected enough frequent flyer miles to pay for at least 3 of the trips.
A beautiful country church along the course.
Next, I started to check with my friends and training buddies to see who was interested to share in the adventure, i.e. either crew or pace or do both at one of the races. As everyone knows, it is always more fun to share adventures with friends and family rather than going solo. That said, I've run at least half of my 100 mile races to date without any crew or pacers and am very comfortable running solo while utilizing drop bags at different check points. After checking with everyone's schedules, I was stoked to see that I would have either one of my friends or my wife along for at least four out of the six events.  
Plenty of vert and technical trails.
Finally, I had to put together a training plan. Since I wasn't training for a single goal race but rather a series of 100 mile races over a short period of time, the main focus of my training would be on consistent running and trying to "beat up" my body with volume to get used to running six back to back 100s over the summer. I opted for a five months build up, where I focused on slowly increasing mileage in three week training blocks followed by a down week with my peak mileage hitting 100 miles about four weeks out from the first race of the summer. In addition, I upped my weekly core & weight training sessions to three. I also tried to focus more on running rather than training for vert with my only "speed training" being various trail half marathon to 50K distance races thrown in for good measure. When it was all said and done, I had racked up more than 150,000' of vertical gain and 1500 miles of running in the five months leading up to the first race in the challenge, the Old Dominion 100 Mile Cross Country Run on June 1, 2019 in Woodstock, Virginia.
Some single track.
In the final week leading up to race weekend, I only focused on selecting my race day nutrition, gear choices and packing my drop bags and putting the final touches on my pace chart (cheat sheet) that would provide some general guidance for me throughout the race.
This beautiful but steep descent beat up my quads.
My Friday morning flight to Dulles, VA departed Huntsville, AL at 5:30AM and I was thankful that my better half was kind enough to get up even earlier than usual to take me to the airport before she had to get ready for work. I had already packed and tagged a total of 7 drop bags inside my giant duffel that contained anything ranging from zip log bags with gels and drink powder to spare trail shoes and socks and tape, sunscreen and bug spray. The latter proved to be the most important item as horse flies do not take pity on a runner having slowed to 13 min per mile pace 70 miles into the race.
I arrived in Dulles Airport around 11AM, picked up my rental car, stopped by a local Whole Foods (to ensure vegan food options during race weekend) and then drove 90 minutes to Woodstock, VA the start and finish location of the Old Dominion 100. I had enough time to check into my AirBnB conveniently located a short 3 min drive from the county fairground, before heading to said fairground for race check-in and the mandatory pre-race briefing.
When I arrived at the race HQ for my check-in, I did not recognize any of the other runners. In fact, I've seen more familiar faces while running races in Europe. However, that would change the following day, when I got to meet, run and share stories with nearly a third of all starters as we made our way through Fort Valley and the Massanutten Mountains in our efforts to complete the Old Dominion 100 Miler in under 24 hours to earn a silver buckle or 28 hours for an official finish.
Lots of runnable country roads.
Just after placing my drop bags at the appropriate drop off spots along the wall and before the 5PM mandatory pre-race briefing started, I managed to find Sean Nakamura, the only other nutter attempting the Last Great Race who also happens to be a fellow Altra Team Red athlete, so I could introduce myself. Sean and I would attempt to only be the 38th and 39th runner in 30+ years to complete this challenge. The pre-race briefing included not only an extremely helpful walkthrough of the race course and its markings (easing my initial fears for the potential of getting lost on a course with quite a few course overlaps and intersections), but also an awesome overview of the race history by its founder Pat Botts.
By 8PM I was back at my AirBnB eating Vegetable Fried Rice and laying out my final pieces of ear before trying to get some sleep prior to my 2:45AM wakeup call for a 4AM race start. I arrived at the fairgrounds 30 minutes ahead of the start for race day check-in and for some last minute pics. True to its old school vibe and low key feel, we took off unceremoniously at 4AM sharp. We would be led around the horse race track for one loop to the sounds of "Chariots of Fire" before we followed a police car through the town of Woodstock and headed towards the first major ascent of the race.
I had lined up in the final third of runners as my goal was to be conservative from the start and run entirely by feel. Sub 22 would be great, but a sub 24 hour finish was the main goal. I did not want to leave Virginia without a buckle:-) However, I had to make sure not to chase any particular time goals other than an official finish, since I had 5 more 100 milers to finish in the next 14 weeks. That would be my overarching mantra throughout the day. Don't chase any times, just keep it steady and continue to move. Thankfully, I fell in with an awesome group of runners until we hit the first 50K mark. Rebecca, Walt, Jacob and I kept each other entertained and made the miles fly by. Each of them had some amazing stories to share and I can't wait for our paths to cross gain.
The halfway mark.
As is the hallmark of running a 100 mile ultra marathon, things are bound to go wrong. The trick is to deal with them and not let anything throw you off your path or ultimate goal, which is to cross the finish line. Running 100 miles is 90% mental and 10% physical. Well, I received my first curve ball no more than 6miles into the race, when my GPS watch decided to fail. The battery was fully charged, the latest software and firmware loaded, yet the screen froze up on some type of reboot screen. I was never able to resolve it as Suunto only allows hard resets via a computer, so I was basically SOL in the middle of the woods. After carrying this brick on my wrist for another few hours, I finally opted to leave it in one of my drop bags. After just 6 miles, I was running "naked". While I had planned to run by feel, I had planned to use the watch to remind me when to eat, when to drink and when to take salt. Just eating or drinking when I feel like it just does not work for me in a 100 mile race. 

However, while I would normally have lost it and spent hours being frustrated with this situation, I quickly acknowledged this as being something outside my control and that there are things a lot worse than equipment failure. At least my body was working without any noticeable physical issues, which was a win. And with that, I moved on. At least I had my little aid station and pace chart, so I could verify my pace at each aid station after asking for the time. I would also keep an eye on my nutrition by tracking my expected time between aid stations and ensuring that I would drink one or two bottles of fluids between each check point as well as eat the appropriate amount of gels. Thankfully, runners around me would always be willing to share the time of day with me as well, so I could keep an eye on my nutrition that way as well. All in all, running naked had no negative affect on my race or my race performance.

After 50K, our little running group of 4 split up as we left the aid station at different times. We would not see each other again until the next day during the awards breakfast. From hereon out I would run the next 20 miles more or less solo. Speaking of solo, I cannot thank the amazing volunteers enough. As a solo runner, I was relying solely on my drop bags for support and the volunteers at each aid station were just incredibly helpful with getting your stuff and getting you fueled and back out on the course in no time. More than one volunteer had to spray me down with both layers of sunscreen and bug spray on more than one occasion.
Some of the tamer four wheeler trail.
Around mile 50, I fell in with yet another small group of runners for a brief period of time before we would stretch out again and I was left running alongside local runner Raymond Rogers, who'd finished this race a couple of times before. He was great company and we ended up basically running the entire second half of this race together. His knowledge of the course and split times from previous years provided valuable info as we made our way along the course. I was also glad to have another human being around when I finally had my very first bear encounter around mile 65 or so, a black bear mama with her cub climbing in a tree adjacent to our trail. This was definitely the most excitement I had all day. While I did manage to capture the encounter on video, the photo I grabbed barely distinguishes the two bears.

After that rush of adrenaline of having to wait out the two bears before continuing on, I out my focus back on the task at hand, arriving at mile 75 before dark as I had made the rookie mistake of not carrying a small backup torch in my pack. Either way, it as great motivation to just keep moving to beat the dark before my next drop bag. Raymond and I made it in time. I also finally changed out of my Altra Duo road shoes after 75 miles of running and into my Altra Timp 1.5 trail shoes as I was told the next 13 miles would be rather technical, especially considering that we would be covering much of it in the dark. It turned out to be a good choice, but because it as so dry, road shoes would have been fine, too.

I restocked my pack and off we went to tackle the final 25 miles. Again, I'm grateful for Raymond's company over the next few hours as I have the tendency to get quite sleepy in the wee hours of the night and his company and conversation kept me awake and moving. Again, his trail knowledge also made for a much better experience as he always knew exactly what to expect in what lay ahead. 
My first black bear encounter.
After we completed the final climb, Raymond finally took his feet off the brakes and flew down the long descent towards Woodstock. I was quite a bit more conservative on the descent, especially on the first mile. However, once it started to drizzle with lightning and thunder in the distance, I decided to push just a little bit to avoid any surprise thunderstorms. After all, I was within reach of a sub 24 hour finish and I wanted to avoid any risk of jeopardizing that. I caught up to Raymond again just before Woodstock and we stayed together until about a mile to the finish, when I opted to walk it in rather than keep pushing. I'm not proud of that, but I knew I had 24 hours in the bag and I had much more races remaining for the summer. When it was all said and done, I crossed the finish line after one final loop around the horse track in 23 hours 9 minutes and 1 second. Raymond had waited at the finish and after quick high fives, we both took off to get some sleep.
I had set my alarm for 8:30AM the next morning as I did not want to miss the 9AM awards breakfast. I only got about 4 hours of sleep, but I was right awake. It was great to see everyone again after the race and hear how each other's races unfolded. I was stoked to receive my OD100 silver buckle along with 37 other runners. Another 22 runners received their official OD100 finisher awards, completing what turned out to be the highest or second highest finisher rate in the history of the race. It was a warm day as expected, but what surprised me the most were the climbs. There were steep climb and technical climbs and steep descents. Granted, there was also a lot of runnable terrain, but my legs and especially my quads felt this race way more than I would have expected. 

The varied terrain and beautiful countryside along with the old school vibe and low key feel definitely make this one race that must be on everyone's bucket list. There is a reason this race has been around for more than 40 years. It is truly a gem and anyone not toeing the line is doing themselves a disservice. You want to know about the history of ultrarunning and what it is all about? This race is it, so come check it out. I promise, you will not regret it.

UPDATE - Gear and Drop Bag Choices
Since I would be running entirely solo, without crew or safety runner, my drop bags and gear selection would be key to minimize issues related to either fuel or running gear. Old Dominion 100 allows drop bags at 9 of its 24 aid stations. Runners would hit two of the aid stations with drop bag access twice, so I only needed to prepare 7 drop bags in total. I made use of all of them as it would allow me to spread out my fuel along the course and minimize the weight I had to carry. I would calculate 1 Spring Energy gel for every 45 minutes of running, 1 1/2 scoops of Gu Brew Roctane for a 16oz bottle per hour and 2 Scaps per hour. I spread a total of 32 vegan Spring Energy gels and 25 zip lock bags of Roctane powder across all 7 drop bags. I ended up not using all of it, but it provided all the nutrition I needed for 23 hours of running along with one banana and half a veggie burger.

I also strategically placed spare trail shoes, spare shirts and shorts, socks, buff, bug spray (very important to combat horse flies) and sunscreen as well as precut tape (for hotspot/blister treatment). I also put a LEDlenser MH10 (600 lumen) headlamp in my 75 mile drop bag, which worked out perfectly. I also placed some hand bottles in one of the drop bags in case I got too hot in my Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra 5 vest in the humid and hot Virginia summer.

Finally, I carried an iPod Shuffle and placed another in one of my drop bags. On a side note, I have yet to actually use my iPods during a race, but I like the idea of having music there to get me through some lonely rough patches. FYI, iPods in general are a hot commodity these days as they are no longer produced or even sold by Apple. It is even rarer to find iPod Shuffles that have been waterproofed. If you live and train in the hot and humid southeast, then you know why. I've burned through multiple iPods back in the day, before I realized that my sweat was literally destroying them, because they aren't waterproof as is.

I started the race in a fresh pair of Altra Duo road shoes paired with merino wool CEP compression socks and didn't change into a pair of Altra Timp 1.5 trail shoes until mile 75. I probably could have finished the race in the Duos due to the dry conditions. Both shoe choices combined with CEP socks worked perfectly. I chose Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts and an Altra Singlet 2.0. I always pre-tape my heels with KT tape and I use a thin paper tape inside my big toes and balls of my feet. This combo has worked great for me for two years now with only minor hot spot issues even in constant 24 hour downpours. I reapplied sunscreen and bug spray regularly, but thankfully I never needed to use my extra tape (for blister treatment), ginger candy (for upset stomach) or Benadryl (for allergic reactions to insect stings). I used my Petzl Reactik (300 lumen) for the first 2 hours of the race due to the 4AM race start before dropping it in one of my drop bags.

Overall, all of my gear and nutrition choices worked out perfectly. I used less than I packed, but better safe than sorry. Worth mentioning, the only thing that failed on race day was my most expensive piece of gear, my (former) Suunto 9 Baro. Less than one hour into the race, it went blank and I wasn't able to reset it in the field. Apparently, Suunto watches can only be reset when connected to a computer (#SUUNTOFAIL). Finally, I used Squirrel's Nut Butter for the important bits and reapplied a few times during the day. I used to swear my 2Toms, but the Squirrel's sticks are a lot less messy, are a more natural product and are also easier to wash off your hands.

*I have no financial incentive to share the product links, I am merely sharing them for the benefit of anyone who wants to look for or check out a specific product mentioned in my gear list. Feel free to hit me up in the comments or via other means, if you have further questions.

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3 comments

  1. Thank you for the excellent article & beautiful pictures which were even more impressive on a full screen monitor. I DNF'D OD in the late 80's. Now at 60 you have inspired me to try again next year. Finish old business.... Thanks again ... Aldo

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    1. Aldo, I'm glad to see you enjoyed the report and pictures. You are correct, I think it may be time for you to go back and take care of unfinished business:-)

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