Wednesday, June 03, 2015

Crewing a 100-miler

A few months ago my friend Paul posted a message that he would be coming to Georgia to do the Cruel Jewel 100 mile race and asked if anyone would be interested in pacing or crewing for him. Immediately I jumped on board! The race was only going to be a few hours from Charlotte and I've been following more trail runner blogs and Facebook groups, so I figured this would be a great way to step into this culture without having to do all the training myself. Originally he asked if I wanted to pace with him for any of the race, but after he finished a 100k in February at a faster pace than I've been doing my half marathons, I felt I would be a little out of my league, so I told him I would crew with his wife, Carrie, instead.

Friday morning was a early wake-up and I left the house at 6:45am for the almost 4-hour drive to Vogel State Park in Blairsville, GA. The race didn't start until noon, so even though I didn't make it quite when the rest of the group did, I did get there around 10:30 and had plenty of time to catch up with old friends and meet some new ones!

After we saw everyone head out, we had a little bit of time to kill because the first aid station we were allowed at was around mile 20, so we shuffled all of our gear into one vehicle (a monster truck that I was fortunate not to have to drive!) and headed on our way to find the next aid station. The good news was that I had pretty good cell phone coverage throughout our trip, so I was able to plug our locations into my phone to figure out directions to our next remote location. 

The first aid station was on the side of a road and we didn't really notice that we passed it until we also passed a church that had a few large vehicles in the parking lot. When we got to a T in the road, we realized that the church parking lot must have been the right place and turned around to head back. We parked in the church parking lot and hiked up the road a ways to where the aid station was down the hill on the side of the road. We got  there in plenty of time to talk with some of the other crews who were supporting runners on the course and get all the gear set up before our runners came in about 4 hours after the race started. 

After the first aid station, we had two more quick ones, about 5 miles apart and then we had a long break so we planned to head into town to grab some food. We had some time to kill, so we headed to our next aid station to make sure we knew where we were going and then went into town to a local Pizza Hut. It was about 9pm on a Friday night and that's the only place besides fast food that would could find open! It was definitely a locals hangout where everyone seemed to know everyone else. 

After dinner, we rearranged our gear in the truck and went to pick up another person who was going to pace Paul, hopefully from the halfway point back to the finish line (50-ish miles). We planned to pick him up at 11:00pm and then head back to the aid station, about 25 minutes away, giving us 30-45 minutes before his earliest expected arrival time. Unfortunately, we got a little lost at the estate the person was staying at - we ended up at the horse stables and spent some time waiting outside the main hall there before we realized we weren't at a house. Of course, our 15 minutes early turned into "we need to find you now" pretty quickly when we realized we weren't at the right place. Cell phone reception was also very spotty and our texts were missing each other and even phone calls weren't going through, but eventually we found the right road and got to the house. 

Soon enough we were able to get back on the road and head to the aid station. As we made our way to the turnaround point, we saw our runners making their way up the dirt road about half a mile from the checkpoint. Apparently they had sped up a ton in the section of the race that was on the road and we were now scrambling to get parked and get all of the supplies ready in the few minutes we had before he came into the aid station. With two of us, we were able to get everything ready with just a few minutes' wait. After this close encounter, we went straight to the next aid station which was about 20 miles later in the race so that we could finally get a few hours of sleep. This was also around the time that I realized that I forgot to pack my sleeping pad, so I just took my sleeping bag and blanket to the bed of the truck and slept under the stars. I woke up after an hour and panicked a little bit when I couldn't see the stars anymore... it took me a little bit of time for me to realize that I couldn't see the stars because there was cloud cover, not because hours had passed. I got another hour of sleep and then my alarm went off to make sure we got up and wouldn't miss our runners again. We woke up in time to see the second and third place men come through and shortly thereafter our runners came through, still going strong. After that short nap, we had 3 more quick aid stations, including one that had a bonfire and disco light.

We got another quick cat nap of 20-30 minutes around 6:00am at aid station #17 and then headed off-roading to get to aid station #19. This aid station was only open on the return trip for the crews and for good reason! It was up a virtually one-way dirt road with lots of grading and major ruts in the road - this was one time I was really glad we were in a truck (and that I wasn't driving)! When we got to the aid station, we were told by the volunteers who were working there that the section up to this station of the trail was the toughest part of the course and that everyone would be slowing down coming into that aid station. I got another few hours of sleep in the back of the truck and then we saw the second place guy come through, followed about 25 minutes later by our group (#1 female, Ange on the left with her pacer and #3 male, Paul on the right).


After we said our goodbyes at the aid station, we took our time making our way back down the dirt road and back to Vogel State Park for the finish line. We knew we would have some time to kill at the park and I got to clean up a bit, change clothes and hang out with all of Paul's family that came up from Atlanta for the race. We all cheered when the second-place guy came through the finish area and knew that it should only be another 30-or-so minutes before we saw our runners - a mere 27 hours after they started their journey.

Overall, this was a really cool experience for me. In some ways, it's just like running a relay race - little to no sleep, a lot of hurry-up-and-wait, the goofiness that comes from having only 5 hours of sleep and dealing with people in all states of happiness, agony, exhaustion and elation. Paul and Ange did almost all of their training runs together in San Diego and while they didn't have intentions of trying to stay together through the race, all of their training allowed them to stick with each other until the very end. I got to meet a lot of great people throughout the course of the weekend and it's amazing to see people push themselves beyond what most people think is absolutely crazy, especially with an elevation profile like this...

As I mentioned, Carrie and I didn't get much sleep, so we were quite slap happy at times, which lead to some good quotes from the race, including:

When trying to make sure we were still on the right road
"There's a blinky"
"or a solidy" 
... well, it wasn't actually blinking anymore

When the San Diego folks heard a bullfrog at one of the overnight aid stations and I was trying to explain what it was...
"is that a goose?"
"no, it's a frog"
"a goose frog?"

and the most accurate statement of the weekend
"A watched hill never produces runners"

Thank you to Paul for inviting me and Carrie for letting me crew with her - I can't imagine doing that by myself! 

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