This was the inaugural year for the Death Before DNF series put on by race director Matthew Hammersmith and it was AWESOME. With nearly 7,000 ft of total climb throughout the course, it took me nine hours and five minutes to complete one twenty-five-ish mile loop. There were times I had to use both hands to scramble up the mountain. There were no official course markings and the trails were hard to follow in places. BUT, as hard as this race was, I’m coming back for more next year because “challenges are what make life interesting”1.
The lead-up to this race was enough to scare off the majority of people who signed up. Out of 160 registered, only 35 toed the starting line. Facebook posts to the race page included an RSVP for the number of coffins to be made and a clear message from the race director that most would fail. Even the race names intimated the intensity of the course – one loop to complete the “DNS Marathon2”, two loops for the “Drop down to 50”, and four loops of full on crazy for the “Death before DNF 100”. The website also warned of a set of challenges to be completed at the one and only aid station on the course and this was a source of worry for me, especially since breaking my wrist. Going into it, I could only hope that the challenges wouldn’t include climbing rope, doing pushups or anything of that sort.
The race takes place entirely on designated trails that are decently well traveled but the course was not marked in any way specific to the race – no fancy tape, no arrows – just trail names and a good old fashioned map. I’ll admit it was actually quite fun sitting down the night before the race to study and memorize the route. I changed the home screen of my phone to a picture of the directions and my emergency contact info and felt pretty clever for it (hey, it wasn’t a bad idea!).
Runners started in small groups in ten minute increments from 6:00 until 7:40 A.M., assigned in groups from slowest to fastest3. I was slated to start with the 7:30 group despite my usual middle-of-the-pack status and was happy to get a little extra sleep. After a breakfast of champions (a brownie, a piece of bacon, a boiled egg and a steamed potato in case you were wondering), my father-in-law drove me to the start and helped get me situated. The race director gave me my bib number which was a piece of a dollar bill with the number 3 handwritten on it. He called three of us to the campfire for the 7:30 start time and told us when to go. We had about a third of a mile to run to get from the Briar Bottom campground to the Mount Mitchell trail and then 3.7 miles of non-stop, rooted and rocky uphill climbing. Scott, Lauren and I hiked the majority of this climb but the guy who finished the hundred miler, Drew, apparently ran up it. I could not be more impressed. We passed some people in the “ruck division” who were doing the loop with 40-60lb packs. And some of you think I’m crazy!
I spent the first 10 or so miles with Lauren, one of only two finishers of the hundred miler and had a great time talking with her. I enjoyed running with her but couldn’t keep up! She also has a three year old son and a job and can still finish a crazy race like this one. I have mad respect for her and I’m glad I got to run with her for the time I did.
After taking an hour and a half to go just four miles, we took a right on Buncombe and were rewarded with a long and very gradual downhill with plenty of wild blueberries and blackberries. I probably ate about two cups of blackberries on the course just grabbing some here and there while on the move. I saw some bear poop that showed that the bear and I had similar tastes. Some people on the course actually got to see the bear but I must have been too busy shoving food in my face to notice. Parts of this section were stupid muddy, parts were overgrown, and some sections were only wide enough for one foot in front of the other running. I caught myself thinking about the poor horses that had to traverse this trail and then thought, “Wait a sec, what about us poor people!” Still, it was enjoyable and we had some terrific views. At one point we came out on a bald and missed the sharp switchback to the right. After wandering around in the grass for a short bit and Lauren getting stung by a bee, we found our way. We caught up to another runner, Tim Shelnut, and we all ran together for awhile, debating which way to go and talking about running stuff. Lauren and Tim seemed to be gaining speed while I did not so I told them I’d see them later. Not a quarter mile later, I got to a confusing trail intersection and had no clue which way to go and my two awesome navigators nowhere in sight. I decided to go left, which ended up being the correct decision, and just a few hundred feet later came across a downed tree on the path. I went around it and saw no clear trail (I found out later that the trail followed the direction of the tree, straight up the hillside and to the left). I followed some crushed undergrowth and foot prints which led to another downed tree. This was not good. I heard some cracking down below which I assumed was another runner so I just walked through the woods in that general direction. Then I saw a building that looked like it might have been part of the Carolina Hemlocks campground where the aid station was and headed that way, it ended up being a house. I soon hit a trail and followed it a decent ways but started running into spider webs. Not a good sign. I decided to see it through anyway and ran into a road, as expected, but not Colbert Ridge Road. Things weren’t adding up so I looked on my phone’s map and found that I was close to the aid station. I got there just before Tim and Lauren so I clearly cut some of the course on accident – hopefully less than a ¼ mile. Bummer.
I saw my in-laws and my adorable kiddos near the aid station and stopped by for some mid-race hugs. My sons were eating brownies that they had helped their Mimi make the night before and offered me bites in between delicious bites of watermelon (I wouldn’t normally recommend the combo but was too hungry to care). I told them I’d have to keep going and Linden looked surprised and a little sad and said, “Ok, one more hug!” Then he changed his mind and said he needed three hugs, like his age. I couldn’t resist. Who cares about a few added seconds when you can get sweet memories instead!
Then the aid station with the set of challenges. To prove we had made it to the halfway point, we tore a page out of an anatomy book to show at the finish. I specifically pulled a page about the bones of the wrist. We were also to take a notecard and a pen and fill it front to back with the things we saw and the people we met – time is obviously not of huge importance in this race and it was actually pretty nice that way. Then off I went again, up Colbert Ridge. It’s a 4 mile climb that made us all question our sanity. I chatted with a runner who had helped me open a soda at the aid station and his uphill hiking pace was about the same my usual jog. I heard voices up ahead and found a group of four runners who stopped to sit on a giant rock to enjoy the view. We all complained about Colbert’s Ridge and took pictures.
Then off we went again, most of them much faster hikers then me but stopping to take breaks more often. When we got tired we joked about needing a view so we could have a reason to stop. Several runners were clearly trying not to puke after eating some PB&J at the aid station. Note, while PB&J seems like the perfect running food, I have found that you should only eat it before and after a run but definitely not during. Up and up we went, acting like kids on a road trip repeatedly asking, “Are we there yet?” with some more adult ways of phrasing it like, “Surely we must be getting close now.” At times we were only maintaining a 40 minute mile pace due to the steepness of the trail, navigating the rocks and roots, and sometimes having to straight up climb. One runner and I got into a similar pace and stuck together for the next two hours or so. Rachel had a positive outlook and was wonderful to talk to and exchange stories with. We came across a runner who was slumped up against a tree with his eyes closed. “Are you ok?”, I asked. I had woken the poor guy up but I was worried that he may have passed out or worse. John said he had planned to do the hundred miler but didn’t get in until about 1:45 the night before and was taking a nap on the trail because he was legitimately sleepy.
Eventually we hit the Mountain Crest trail which followed the ridge all the way to Mount Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. We wouldn’t make it quite that far, sadly for me, but we did pass Potato Hill at 6,444 ft (just 400ft shy of the altitude at the summit). We passed several groups of runners resting, enjoying the view, and/or eating their lunch on the trail but we slowly plodded on. I kept thinking I might begin jogging but it seemed like the downhills were too technical to run and the uphills were too steep. Eventually I went for it and wished Rachel a farewell, sad to leave my like-minded friend but on to run my own race. I jogged when I could and went extra slow when I couldn’t.
I hooted and hollered when I hit the Tom’s Gap Connector trail, since this meant the race was almost complete and I’d be returning on familiar trails. This particular trail dropped a thousand feet in less than half a mile so the word steep is kind of an understatement. I didn’t think it was runnable but some guy passed me like it was nothing, reminding me that my downhill running sucks. But there were tons of blackberries so that was nice.
Then a right turn on Buncombe and a sudden and intense rain storm to mix things up. I came across two marines who were trucking along, their hiking pace just about as fast as my slow jog. My little brother is currently at Paris Island training to be a Marine so I asked about boot camp and chatted with them. I remembered that I had a brownie in my pack and offered to share but they didn’t want any for some reason. I got a little burst of energy from the pure deliciousness and ran off for awhile. Later they passed me and I stuck them with for awhile. Then Kelly got some fruit snacks and they took off with resolve. The rain only lasted for fifteen minutes or so but with intensity. I was soaked and I was worried that my waterproof case wouldn’t keep my cellphone dry in the puddle that was my pocket. I put it in a zliploc bag with some brownie crumbs and hoped for the best.
I saw two people going back out for more. I asked Drew if he was doing the 50 and he simply said “hundred?” with such hope and resolve in his voice that I was instantly proud of this guy. He made it by the way, in 37 hours no less and I later learned that this was his first hundred. He stinkin’ won his first hundred and was one of only two finishers. You should probably read his blog here.
Finally I made it back to the gravel road to the finish. I was singing “She’ll be coming round the mountain when she comes” out loud at this point because I was so giddy. I saw my kids playing in the creek and my three year old asked if I wanted to play with him. I told him I’d come right back I just had to finish the race, and finish it I did. I truly felt like I could have gone out for a second loop, but instead I played with my kids in the creek and enjoyed four huge servings of roast, potatoes and gravy afterward, and that was good enough for me!
Of those who started, only two finished the full hundred – Lauren and Drew. Two finished the 50 miler and the rest of us completed just one loop. Two runners ran the loop in the wrong direction and most of us got lost at least a little bit. For the marathon, I came in 6th place as the second place female in 9 hrs and 5 minutes. I could have probably cut thirty minutes from my time with a little more drive and a little less socializing but I wouldn’t have had as much fun. No regrets, just awesome memories.
My in-laws were perfect travel companions for this trip and I cannot thank them enough for feeding me, pampering me and watching my little guys. I’ve said it before, but while you all are making mother-in-law jokes, I’m getting spoiled rotten by mine.
A huge thank you to race director Matthew Hammersmith, for putting on such a great race for the low cost of 26 cents. Donations benefited the Road Warriors Corp, which is basically two awesome runner dudes (one a cancer survivor himself) running across the country to raise money to help individual cancer survivors pay off expensive medical bills. You should definitely donate to this cause.
I’ll end by saying this is probably one of the hardest trail races in the country. What do you all think? What are some of the hardest races you’ve encountered? (Because I want to run them).
Next race on the list: Barkley Fall Classic. Can’t wait.
1) This quote is apparently from Joshua J. Marine, some dude that I can’t find anything else about except that he said this one clever thing.
2) DNS = Did Not Start
3) Start times were based on statistics from ultrasignup, of which I have not run many races