Thunder Rock 100 Mile Race Report – David Pharr

Disclaimer: Race reports often times can seem arrogant and prideful in the accomplishments of the individual. While that may be the nature of the beast, I want you to understand that I am humbled by this accomplishment. I would not have been able to do any of it with out the grace of God, the love and encouragement of my wife, and the countless friends and family that have been there along the way. The purpose of this report is not only to tell you all about the training and running of my first 100 mile race, but to be informational and inspirational. Because who knows? You may want to do one of these one day! While you may not think you can do it, with the proper effort and support you can do great things when you have great help.

“Pulling the Trigger”

It was January 16th and I had been sitting through a short course web conference class for the past 3 hours, but there was something else occupying my mind. Whether or not to sign up for an 100 mile race “in my own backyard.” As far as running has gone 2013 was not my best year. I began 2014 with the Pistol Ultras in Alcoa where I ran the lowest distance of a 50k. It was a wake up call that I was not in the best running shape and this 100 miler may be a pipe dream. I had watched the preview video for the Thunder Rock 100 several times, talked with my best friend about running it, and decided to pull the trigger. Then just like that, with a couple clicks of a computer mouse, I had committed myself to training for and running 100 miles. And so it begins…

Training for ThundoHundo

If you do a google search for a 100 mile training program you will find some. Most of them consist of several months of building up to a long weekend of back to back to back long runs. This type of long weekend simulates what it is like to run with tired legs. While that type of training may be ideal, the schedule of a busy life does not always allow for a 50 to 70 mile weekend of running. I grabbed a piece of paper and planned out what would be the next 16 weeks of my training. There was a half marathon that I wanted to do in February that I wanted to do well on too, so I threw that in the plan also. The training plan would build for three weeks and then have a week of lower mileage. I tried to make at least 50% of my runs on local trails and sought to have 80% of my runs to have some type of hill climbing. A lot of people avoid hills when starting to run, and I used to be one of those people. However if you are going to develop into a stronger runner, then you need to learn to love the climb. Hills not only make you stronger but they also make you faster, without doing the often monotonous speed training or track work. Through out the training I had the opportunity to do some long fun runs with my “training partner” Nathan Judd. Even though he lives on the other side of Tennessee, I ran more miles with him than anyone else. I usually train alone, but when I was in his town or he was in mine, we planned to do as many miles as possible. Two weeks before the race we even went to the Smokies for a Friday afternoon and Saturday putting in several miles and lots of climbing and descent. When the 16 weeks were up, I considered my training at least adequate to finish my first 100. In February I ran 128 miles. In March I stepped it up to 235 miles. April became one of my longest months to date with 310 miles. And in May I had one weekend in the Smokies, then the taper to rest for the longest run of my life on May 16th.

“Are you Ready?” 

This seems to be the favorite question for people to ask someone attempting a long distance in a race, just like the favorite question to a pregnant woman is “How are you feeling?” The reason may be that people do not know what else to ask. Whatever the case, I really did not know the answer to that question. How does one insure that they are “ready” to run 100 miles? I knew I was as ready as I could be, but there were several things that I wasn’t sure how to be ready for. What would it be like to run 1 mile further than my current long of 50 miles, much less 50 miles more? What would it be like to run through an entire night? What would it be like to try to stay awake for over 30 hours? What would my stomach do? Would I have to try to use the restroom in the middle of the woods? What if I twist my ankle? What if I want to quit? What if I don’t finish? With those questions and more in mind, the day of the race approached.

The Day before Thunder

The Thunder Rock 100 is held on a Friday beginning at Noon and the race is cut off Saturday at 6pm. As a preacher, having a race start on Friday instead of Saturday was excellent. That meant I could run the race and not have to take a Sunday off from preaching, that is if I could survive to make it to worship on Sunday. This Friday start, also meant that the pre-race festivities were pushed to Thursday. That afternoon as tried to pack as much as possible for the next days adventure. I needed to have my clothes and gear ready to go. The race allows for drop bags to be placed at certain locations along the race route. I needed to pack these with the supplies that I would need later in the race. I choose to pack 3 drop bags, one for mile 25, one for mile 54/75 and one for mile 83 after crossing the Hiawassee River. I also got my gear ready. I had recently bought an Ultimate Direction pack that I was going to use for the race. While it is usually a “no-no” to use a piece of gear that you have never trained with, I needed a pack to help me carry my water and other supplies that I might need in between aid stations. The night before the race I went to the packet pick up and pre-race meal at Elemental, a restaurant on the North Shore of Chattanooga. I was looking forward to meeting a group of online friends that were in the same enabling running club as I called Run It Fast. The food was interesting, called a Paleo bowl that I had grilled salmon added to, but it was not enough. The RD Randy Whorton talked about what the next day would bring and then the head medical Dr. spoke about all the dangers of running the race and some things to prepare for, one being the cold we were going to experience. Afterwards, because we were still hungry, Nathan and his wife, Melissa, Joshua Holmes and I went to Mellow Mushroom. It is always great to sit and listen to Josh give his sage advice when he is in town and hear of his amazing adventures. I got back home by 9 to finish packing and to get to bed early. Tomorrow was going to be a LONG day in the woods.

The Race Shirt and Buckle
The Race Shirt and Buckle

Thunderstruck!

Friday 8:00am-11:59am—I tried to sleep in as long as possible. The race didn’t start until noon and the cut off was 30 hours. So I was committed in my mind to being out there until then, so I wanted the rest. My family and I left the house by 9am, full packed for the fun filled day. We had to drop our daughter off at preschool first and then my wife and the boys were going to accompany me to the race start. The drive from Chattanooga to the Cherokee National Forest is only about an hour. I wanted to be there in plenty of time to drop my bags off and take care of some pre-race necessities.

The race is set in the Cherokee National Forest. It is a very remote part of East TN in Polk County. However its remoteness is second to its beauty. The race start was at the Ocoee Whitewater Center that was built and used for the 1996 Olympics. The Ocoee is still heavily used by rafters and kayakers for it’s world class rapids. We were going to use the Center’s parking lot and the bridge to cross to the other side. After a brief thundershower, the RD called the racers to the start. Final hugs, goodbyes, and high-fives were given before the clock would strike 12.

RIF before the race
RIF before the race

Friday 12:00pm-5:00pm (Mile 1-25)

AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” blared over the loud speakers. 200 runners began to cross the Ocoee River by the Olympic Bridge. Perhaps we were all having some of the same thoughts, especially those of us who had never completed or even attempted an 100 miler before. I was thinking about the daunting task I had began, how that I could be on this course for the next 30 hours, how that it was going to be hard and difficult. However, I must keep a positive yet realistic mind. Endurance running is many times much more mental than physical. I had to keep my mind right the entire time.

After crossing the bridge the the single track trail turned left to make the first ascent of the day. I started the race near the back of the pack. This has its positive and negative effects. Positively, it lets you start out slow. There is no reason to sprint the first miles of an 100. It also can be motivating to move up the field by passing people. Negatively, it can be very frustrating not being able to run freely because there are so many people bottle necked on the trail. Trains of people develop on the trail. The head of the train is the person running the fastest in that group, the rest of the train is either happy to run behind the leader, or is striving to find a way to move up in the train to be the new leader or run up to the back of another train. I got caught in 3 trains during the first 6 miles, each progressively faster and less frustrating. The second train I came across had a familiar face in it. I saw Joshua Holmes, RIF #1, trying to fight through the train too. There is where I meet another runner Franklin and the three of us talked about what the day may have in hold for us. As a trio we moved through the second train and then through a third train, until it was just the three of us running on the single track making our way to the first aid station. The trail ended into the Thunder Rock campground and we turned right on to a bridge that would take us back over the Ocoee. I had been running for an hour and had drank half of each of my water bottles. So I filled one bottle with the other and then filled the empty one with new water. Once we started the next hike I would add my Tailwind to it. Leaving the aid station I got to see my family for the last time before heading into the woods again. Lukas was giving hi-fives, Linkoln was smiling, and Amber gave me a kiss as I passed by. I would not see her again until 10:30pm at mile 50.

The trio crossed Hwy 64 onto the trail. That would be the last road we would see until mile 25. We were now on the Benton McKaye Trail for the next few miles. The BMT is actually a 300 mile trail that was named after the man that came up with the idea for the Appalachian Trail. As soon as we started the BMT we started another steep ascent. We would be at least gradually climbing for the next 8 miles until we reached the top of Brock Mountain and descended to the next aid station at Deep Gap. As we started to make the climb the sky opened up  and with it came lighting, thunder, rain, and hail! This storm would last for the next hour at least and at times would be heavy rain. This rain caused the trails to be in very sloppy conditions for the entire day. The three of us continued to pass people along the trail through the deep woods. Then I fell for the first time of the day. I tripped over a root or rock or something and landed on my right shoulder up against a fern covered embankment. I quickly popped back to my feet and began running again. Franklin was moving on and I wouldn’t see him again until Coker Falls at mile 40. Josh was well ahead now too but I would see him again at the next aid station. Because I so quickly recovered from my fall, I did not do a full evaluation of my condition until I was down the trail another .20 of a mile. That is when I realized I had cut my left pinky just a little bit and it was bleeding, it wasn’t a big deal. But I also realized, I had lost a water bottle out of my back….that was a BIG DEAL. So I turned around and went back down the trail like a salmon going against the current of runners that I had just passed earlier. Thankfully I found it in the ferns just a short time later, to turn around again and fight a new train that had formed in front  of me. The BMT runs through the Big Frog Wilderness Area for a short section before going to Brock Mountain, unfortunately any athletic event is prohibited in “Wilderness Areas.” So this meant there was a section that had been “bushwacked” just for us so we could skirt the wilderness area. This section was basically a mudslide down to the trail…I slide on my butt several times trying to grab trees to slow me down on slide. The rain continued and hailed every so often as the trail meandered up to Brock Mtn where I came across Joshua again. He was kind enough to take a picture of me running behind him.

Photo by my personal race photographer Joshua Holmes
Photo by my personal race photographer Joshua Holmes

The two of us ran to the top of Brock and then started our descent. With in no time we were at the 2nd Aid Station at Deep Gap (mile 15). This aid station was run by a boy scout or cub scout troop. I refilled both of my bottles and didn’t see anything appetizing to eat, but I did pull out a couple of peanut butter sandwiches to eat sometime between here and the next aid station 10 miles away. This section was some of the lushes and prettiest of the course. The trail was single track and steep in spots. It would have been more runnable if it wasn’t so wet and muddy. Thankfully the rain had stopped and would not start again till tomorrow at almost noon. Josh moved on ahead of me and I played leap frog with a couple guys who were from Vermont. One guy had long bushy hair, the other had long bushy beard but was bald…I guess together it all evened out. Also during this section is a trail along Lost Creek, this too was so beautiful. The wide creek running beside you and a canopy of trees above you, an amazing area save the sloppy trails that could suck the shoes off your feet. After Lost Creek there is a steep switch backing climb and descent into the Reliance, TN.

I had run almost a full marathon. I had been on the trail for 5 hours, yet I was only 1/4 of the way done. Coming into the Reliance Aid Station, I first ran through a campground where a lot of crew  groups were waiting for their runners. As I ran through them, there was lots of clapping and cowbells and cheers. It kind of got to me, about what I was trying to accomplish today. I refilled my bottles, and found my drop bag that I switched out with the bag I had in my pack and I started running again.

5:01pm—10:30pm (Miles 25-50)

Leaving Reliance, the next 7 miles were not my favorite. There was a lot of pavement involved and frankly I was getting tired. The course goes over the Hiawassee River and then follows a trail/road along the Hiawassee until it eventually dead ends into the Powerhouse Aid station. While on this section, there was one little part of trail that connected various parking lots for the river. I was behind a fellow for a while and then had just got in front of him when we came to one of these parking lots. There was one car parked there. An older couple along with a young girl about the age of 7 or so sitting on a picnic table. As I approached them the girl looked towards me and yelled, “Daddy!” She jumped to her feet and ran past me to the man behind me and jumped into his arms. It was a sweet moment and made me think of my family. I wouldn’t see my little girl till Sunday, but I was looking forward to seeing Amber at the Coker Falls crew access, where we had planned to meet at 8:05pm. Once I got to the Powerhouse Aid station, I must have looked pretty tired. One of the volunteers there asked me a if I was okay…then about 30 seconds later she asked again. As I was filling my bottles and looking for some caffeine, she asked for the third time saying, “Are you sure you are okay? This next section is tough.” I felt tired but I was ready for the next section, I had run this section on a training run a couple months earlier. I got past the TVA parking area and then on to a beautiful and technical single track trail that followed the water but also had two steep abrupt climbs and descents. During my training run I had gotten loss on this trail. I followed it to the point where I had lost the trail earlier and….yep….I lost the trail again. It leads down to the creek and then just stops. I pulled myself up to the bank and fought through some trees and undergrowth looking for a flag or a trail or a person. I decided I would go back towards the place where I lost it and wait for someone when I saw 4 other runners jumping over the creek upon large boulders to the other side where there was a flag….So that is how the trail goes, across the creek! I continued on this section watching the sun go down and watching my watch. I wanted to be there at the right time for Amber, it looked like I was going to be there almost exactly on time. Josh also caught up to me on the ascent to Coker Falls and passed me. Evidently I had passed him while he stopped for nature. We came to the falls on our left and the aid stain was just ahead. I am sure the Falls were beautiful, but I was wanting to get to the crew access by 8:05pm. At the Coker Falls Aid Station, I refilled bottles, and drank some coke. Josh was there and sat down looking tired. Also there was Franklin, who I hadn’t seen since like mile 7. The trio was short lived though when Franklin said that he was dropping due to knee pain. I was upset for him, but also prayed that I wouldn’t hurt something out here either.

Leaving Coker falls I climbed a large hill on a dirt road till I got to the crew access. I saw Melissa Judd and the rest of the Judd Crew, but I didn’t see Amer. Melissa said that she saw her and that she was parking the car. So Melissa went to go look for her while I sat down in a camp chair they had for Nathan. It was the first time I had sat down all race.  I had run over 8hrs and 40 miles. The seat felt good but I didn’t need to be there long. I fixed my bag and put on my headlamp because it was getting dark. I wanted to get going but before that I wanted to find Amber. So I started walking up another hill where all the crew was parked. I started yelling, “Amber Pharr!!!! Amber Pharr!!!” as I walked along the long row of parked crew vehicles. I never found her there and Melissa came back down the hill saying she couldn’t find her either. I was a little worried, but wouldn’t worry too much more unless I missed her at the next cress access at Servilla Church (Mile 50). 

The next 10 miles was going to be mostly car restricted dirt roads. The sky was clear and it got dark quickly. I had my headlamp that supposedly would last for 6 hours. I had a cheap back up too, but didn’t want to use it. So instead I would just run by the moon light when I could and only turn the lamp on steep downhills or at crossroads. My plan worked well and made the night an enjoyable game for this part. The moon was very bright and for one entire down hill section there was a big truck behind me with very bright lights. I used his light to guide my way for at least a mile down the hill. The roads eventually lead to the next aid station called Manning Cabin. I don’t know what its called that, I didn’t see a cabin, nor did I see Peyton Manning. This was the first aid station where I started to get cold. I had my bottles filled up and I had some hot cocoa and my first cup of coffee of the night. I am not a big coffee drinking. I usually have like one or maybe two cups a week. This night I would have about 10 little cups full. As I left the aid station, I was getting cold. In fact I started to shiver as I ran away. I was wearing the same short sleeve shirt I had started with, the same one that had been in the rain, hail, and 46 miles of sweat. I had a long sleeve shirt in my pack and I had a pull over and gloves waiting for me at Iron Gap, 9 miles away. I decided that I would try to warm up while running and then change shirts at Servilla Church where hopefully Amber would be waiting on me. The dirt roads of Polk County turned to paved and we came to some houses and eventually an intersection where a volunteer was pointing me right, where I would see my one woman crew. As I climbed the hill to Servilla Church parking lot at about mile 50, a fireman asked me what my name and address was. I assume he was checking to see if I was okay. I told him and he gave me a high five. I then saw Amber up ahead and hurried to the chair he had for me. She told me she had some trouble getting to the first rendezvous point, but would tell me the whole story later, let’s just say she doesn’t do well on small curvy dirt roads with steep embankments on the side. It was wonderful to see her and a great moral booster. The last time she had seen me after fifty miles I was a mess, this time I was tired but resilient and ready to take on the next 50. I changed shirts and filled my bottles up. A kiss and hug good bye lead me to taking steps I had never taken before and miles I had never conquered.

10:31pm- 7:10 am Miles 50-82

The road from Servilla Church is dirt and ascends up to the Aid Station Iron Gap. This was a very strong section for me. Coming off of the high of seeing Amber I ran and power hiked hard all the way up. I ate some sandwiches along the way and passed several others. 4 miles later I got to Iron Gap. I filled the bottles and had some coffee. I grabbed my drop bag and took the running pullover and gloves out. I tied the pullover around my waist and put the gloves on my hands. I was so thankful for those gloves, and that I had packed the thicker gloves. Leaving Iron Gap is the stem of a lollipop section of the course. The climb continues till it goes down hill toward the next Aid Station called Bullet Creek. During this section I started playing a little game with myself. I would leave my head lamp off for all the ascents while I was walking and turn it on low for all the flat and down hill running. Something else that was motivating was using the head lamps of the other runners. I would look off into the dark horizon before me and see a flash of like or a dull glow in the distance. Then I would say to myself, I going to catch ‘em. For the next however long it took I would work hard to catch up to that light. This little game caused me to work hard when I might have relax in the darkness. After catching a few lights, I saw a red blinking light ahead off the side of the dirt road. I could see it for ever and was curious to find out what it was. Once I got close enough and walked over to investigate it closer. It was a sign saying that the Pistol Ultra’s Aid Station at Bullet Creek was only a mile away! That was an amazing sign of hope when I had been moving for 12 hours straight for 60 miles. Once I got to the Aid station it was like a Carnival! There were lights, music, heaters, and all kinds of food! I went straight for the Chocolate milk and m and m’s. I asked for some coffee and sat down for a minute to put on my jacket that had been around my waist. It was getting colder and I knew that once I left the heaters it was going to be tough. At the Aid Station, Joshua was sitting down getting his foot looked at and some moleskin added to cover up a blister. He quickly got up and headed out while I stayed for a few more mins to have another chocolate milk and some more candy. I would see Josh again at the finish festivities but not before.

As soon as I left Bullet Creek, I started the shivers again, but warmed up as I started moving. This dirt road was all part of the “pop” of the lollipop and I was going to have to make two sizable climbs before getting to Starr Mountain at mile 65. I continued to play the headlamp game and was looking forward to seeing Amber at the next aid station. I passed a few more people on this section and kept thinking that the headlamp in front of me would be Josh but it was always someone else. After about 5 miles I approached the Starr Mtn. aid station and Amber was there waiting in the van. She had fallen asleep on and off for a few hours so I was glad she was getting some rest. It was now 2:05 am, I was 10 mins early on my projected time. I sat down for a few minutes to get some coffee and have my bottles filled. I had a couple sandwiches since the last time she saw me and I put some in my pocket for the next section…a very long section.  

I would see Amber again in the morning before the River crossing. The next 10 miles seemed to never end. I was working my way back to Iron Gap and mile 75. The dirt road was not that bad, but we then went to more of single/double track trail. The lights of Etowah off to the right were nice, but I was getting really tired. I hadn’t got passed much during the race, but I started getting passed by some people at this point, it was usually two at a time. Not because there was two racers that close together, but because of the allowed “safety runner” that was with the racer. I decided I needed to eat so I had some more peanut butter sandwiches. I was just so looking forward to the next aid station and to the sun coming up. I had been told by several people that the sun coming up will give me energy. If I could just make it till the sun came up I would feel better. The sunrise would wake me up. This is my goal, the sun rise…but the sun would not rise for a long time. It was during this down time that I started walking more of the flats. My plan had been to power hike the climbs, and run the flats and downhills when possible. To help overcome my urge to walk I would tell myself, run till you can’t and then walk for a 20 seconds. That is exactly what I did. When I started walking I would start counting in my head and sometime audibly 1, 2, 3, 4…20, then I would start to shuffle into a run again. Sometimes I could go for a few minutes before repeating the process, sometimes it was only about 30 seconds. I found myself wishing for a climb so I had an excuse to walk. Sometimes I would evidently forget how to count to 20 and have to try a couple of times. All in all, I made it back to Iron Gap, mile 75. I drank coffee and filled my water bottle. It was sometime between 4 and 5 am and there was not glimmer of sun yet.

I had been looking forward to this next section in the race, because of my familiarity with it. During a training run Nathan and I had run up this trail, the Coffee Branch Trail and then back down. During the training run I tried to make as many mental notes as possible that I could use during the race. The trail is a horse trail that is wide and has some loose rocks on it. On our training run we flew down the descent at a steady pace. However in the wee hours of the morning and with the trail still sloppy from all the rain, there was not flying down anything. From Iron Gap to the River, it is pretty much all down hill…and for my me it was pretty much the same. This section that I had been looking forward to…stunk. It was miserable. I was past tired. I was sore. I was cold. I was impatient. Where was the sun! The sun was supposed to give me energy. I needed some desperately right now. I splashed and slid down the trail and at one point I fell. I tripped or lost my footing and went face and chest first to the rocky ground below me. I don’t remember it hurting but I do remember my two water bottles flying out of my pack and rolling yards down the trail. I do remember how hard it was to pick them off the ground with out falling over again. More people passed me. Some looked “fresh” others seemed pretty miserable too, but no one was as miserable as I felt. Where was the sun!? I kept thinking I would be at the bottom of the trail at any moment but it just kept going down and I kept going down. I was so tired and so out of it, I had forgotten to do the one thing that could have helped me get back into it…drink! I had left Iron Gap with two bottles full of Tailwind but not almost to the bottom of the trail and I had only had a few sips, stupid! The sun finally started to rise around 6:30 am, but with it came no energy, instead came foggy eyes. It was the weirdest thing. It seemed as if I was wearing glasses and they had fogged up on the lower half. However, in reality my glasses had not fogged up, because I wasn’t wearing glasses! Instead my vision was foggy, anything below straight ahead seemed blurry. This made the already difficult slipper trail even more difficult. After about another mile in the sunrise that did nothing for me, I came out to the Gee Creek campground where I would see Amber again.

I got to Amber and the camp chair and sat down. I told her all about how my life currently sucked. Before the race I had told her one major bit of instructions, “Don’t let me quit.” Thankfully she didn’t even bring that option up. Even though I was sitting but 3 feet from our van that could take me home to a hot shower and a warm bed, quitting was not an option. This was a low…very low in the race, but it would get better. If I stuck with it, it would get better. Before the race in conversation with Josh via messages he told me, during a 100 miler you will have several  highs and lows, the key is don’t let the highs seem too high and don’t let the lows get too low. I currently was fighting that too low part. I had some coke and cookies before walking towards the actual aid station about another half mile away. It was 7:10 am and people were cooking breakfast in the campground. During the walk was when I realized that I had stopped drinking. I downed the two bottles I had in my pack and then asked for more. I downed a third one shortly after that. I sat in the chair at the aid station while Nathan’s parents asked me some questions and asked me to pose for some pictures…I was not in the mood. From my chair I could see the Hiwassee River and Chilowee Mtn in front of me. They were basically the only two things keeping me from my finish. I switched in to some old running shoes that were going to get soaked, and I stood up making my way down into the ice cold Hiwassee.

7:11am – 12:00pm Miles 83 to 100

I had woken up the day before at about this time, and as I descended the rope into the water, I woke up again. The water was cold, slow moving and about mid thigh deep on me. It felt great in a way. The swelling I am sure I experienced over the last 80+ miles was being shocked by the ice bath type effect. About have way across the river, it hit me. I really need to go to the restroom. I had been running for over 19 hours and hadn’t had to #2 once…and now I needed to, and quickly. Thankfully when I got to the other side of the river there were some latrines in the parking lot of the next aid station. I made my way to the boys side and it was locked, occupied. So I went to the female said and the door opened, but no toilet paper…thankfully I had packed wipes. Afterwards I waked the 20 or so yards to the aid station and sat down to wait on amber to bring me a my shoes, fresh socks and a fresh shirt. I wasn’t feeling much better, but life didn’t totally suck at this point. Amber kept reminding me that I was a strong hiker and the 4 miles 2,000+ ft climb was going to be my forte. I refilled my bottles, that I was going to drink this time, and put on some tunes to motivate me up the mountain. The first few steps out of the chair was tough, but I was going to climb it. I had only 17 miles separating me from my first buckle. I fixed my hat down on my head so that I could only see a few feet infront of me. I did not want the continual climb to the top to overwhelm me. I was going to take this mountain 3 yards at a time.

As I started the descent and got into the set of switch backs I came across a runner sitting on the side of the trial. He shielded his eyes with his hands and said something to the effect of, “Don’t look, this is embarrassing.” I don’t know what he meant, and honestly I don’t know if he was even real or not, he may have been a hallucination, cause that was just a strange thing to say. As I climbed I felt strong and stronger. As I was going up the mountain my spirits were rising also. I ended up passing 5 or 6 people by just power hiking. I go to the top and turned let on another dirt road called Oswald’s Dome Road. At this Aid station there were grown men dressed up as giant rabbits and mice. One mouse had a crown on his head, I assume he was their leader. This was not an hallucination, but what they men at the aid station told me was a lie!  

I kid you not...Giant Animals!
I kid you not…Giant Animals!

They said, “It’s all down hill from here.” And, “This will be your fastest trail half marathon!” It was true that I had just 13 miles left, what was not true is that it was all down hill or that it was fast!

I ran strong down the road for a few miles and then the road started climbing. Up ahead I saw a guy in the woods equating up and down. He was about 6 ft tall and wearing a red and blue shirt. He would pop up and look around then squat back down. As I got closer, I realized that he was an hallucination. The all down hill from here part, kept climbing. So much so that I thought I had missed my turn off the road. So I pulled out my phone and turned on the GPS to see what road I was on…it was the right road, but it kept going up. Near the top of the massive hill I saw two guys that looked like they were falling apart. They walked swaying and pigeon toed. They were having a low point, but I was currently in a high. I ran past them and soon was at the McCamy Lake Aid station and saw Amber.

What a difference 9 miles makes! The last time I saw Amber I was miserable but determined. Now as I sat in the chair I was pumped and ready to finish this thing strong. The aid station worker said that “it’s all down hill” and that “it’s less than 6 miles to the finish.” He too lied. From the McCamy Lake Campground the trail was wide, smooth, gradual down hill, and awesome. I thought I am going to kill this! I have 1hr and 45 mins to run less than 6 miles to break 24 hours. THIS IS AWESOME!!! Then the trail turned to the left past Benton Falls. And with it came a steep down and up section that was completely unrunnable. There was roots and rocks. At one time there was steep switchbacks going down that had a even steeper embankment off to the left. The trail itself was so narrow that calling it single track made it seem wide, it was more like half-track. I had to use trees to keep my balance. The trail seemed to go on for ever. I had been running, well more like struggling down hill, for more than an hour by myself when I finally came to a clearing, there was a Ranger there with his ATV. Behind me was the two guys that seemed so miserable only 9 mile earlier. The ranger told us to turn right on this grass road/trail and I asked how much further. I assumed he would say a short distance. But instead he said 1.5 miles. This section was much more runnable and I ran as fast as I could. Evidently I had gone so slow on the technical part that even more people caught up to me. We were now all running in a train about 6 bodies long and I was the caboose. We got to a trail head marker that said we still had .7 to the finish. As we approached the end, we could all sense the 24 hours coming to an end and we all shot to a sprint. I call it a sprint because it was the fastest we could possibly move…but we probably were just running at a moderate pace. Down the hill to the left we could hear cheers and cowbells. I ran across the line and looked at the clock behind me, 24:00:15.

The Finish! 24:00:15

The Finish! 24:00:15

The Aftermath

I was beyond overwhelmed in completed my first 100 miler right at 24 hours. I hugged my wife that was there waiting on me in the now cold rain and we made our way to the van where we would drive to the finish line festivities. I was sore and tired, but I had completed something that a few years ago I had never even heard of!

There are so many people that I need to thank that made this possible. I thank God for enabling me with the ability and health to run and enjoy his nature. I thank my wife for her relentless encouragement and help through so much. The opportunity to see her face alone was what would get me through the lowest of lows in the race. I thank my friends that support me and cheer me on. I thank Run It Fast for being the enabling group of crazies that push me to push my limits. I thank my father who signed me up for my first race, the Art Fest 5k in Knoxville when I was like 11 years old and who would have me run 2 miles to begin and end every summer always reminding me that if I ever run enough that I would actually enjoy it, I certainly enjoy it now. I guess I should even thank my grandmother who taught me how to “nun.” (It’s a long story)

It was my race, but I needed all of them and more to make it happen.

I learned a lot during that 24 hours and 100 miles. And I look forward to learning more when I try 100 miles again!

David Pharr (2014 Thunder Rock 100 Miler Finisher)
RIF #185

RELATED: Nathan Judd’s Thunder Rock 100 Mile Race Report

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- who has written 1051 posts on Run It Fast®.

Joshua Holmes has completed 197 marathons/ultramarathons while running 100+ miles 43 including races such as the Badwater 135, Western States 100, The Last Annual Vol State 500K (3x). His favorite races to date are the Vol State 500K, Badwater 135, Barkley Fall Classic, Catalina Eco Marathon, Chimera 100, Across The Years, Savage Gulf Trail Marathon, Strolling Jim 40 Miler, Tunnel Hill 100, RUTS, EC100 and the Flying Monkey Marathon in his home state of Tennessee. Follow @bayou Follow @joshuaholmes on Instagram

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