Rock Creek’s Thunder Rock 100 Mile Trail Race
0-25 (Start to Reliance)
We began by crossing a long bridge across the Ocoee River with ACDC’s Thunderstruck blaring through the speakers. That was the perfect way to start the race. I made sure to start out very conservatively and to keep myself from getting caught up in the adrenaline at the start. The trail immediately started a climb, which was indicative of what would be upcoming all day. I felt very good for the first 5 miles and ran with a college buddy, Paddy Flanagan, for this stretch. It did begin to hail on us a couple of times in the first stretch. This made it actually kind of cold for a bit, but other than that, the weather was perfect for the start. Any more would have been too much. I came into the first aid station at Thunder Rock (mile 5) and had a quick refill before heading back out onto the trail.
I believe we were on the Benton McKaye for the next stretch. Again, this was a significant climb. I think it was after this climb that I decided to go ahead and push ahead for a bit. I met some interesting people along the way. I ran with a 17 year old girl for a bit, and she said it was her 4th attempt at a 100. It was fun talking to her, and I tried to give her some advice I wish I would have heard when I was her age. She was far ahead of her years. We reached the top of this climbing section probably somewhere around 15 miles in. There was an aid station here with some boy scouts who were playing. (I ran with a guy later who said one of the scouts hit him with a rock).
We had some muddy downhill for quite a while. I consider myself a strong downhill runner, and I really hit this section hard. It was downhill most of the way to mile 25, so I was able to pick back up on some of the time I lost on the climbing coming into 25 where I again met my crew. I rolled in there close to 4:30 pm I think. Just looking at the numbers, this was 1.5 hours ahead of 24 hour pace; however, they had taken into account inclines and things at various stretches, so the actual cutoff was at 6:00pm I think. Apparently, I was only 1.5 hours ahead of the actual cutoff. Either way, I was feeling pretty good for the most part. My legs were starting to feel a little tired which concerned me some, but mentally, I was strong and ready to keep going.
25-50 (Reliance to Servilla)
After Reliance, we ran across a bridge that crossed the Hiwassee. I saw Dawson Wheeler in a golf cart who commented on my Hokas. We ran east for a while following the Ocoee. We started off on a trail that was somewhat technical, and it eventually opened up onto the pavement for a long stretch. It was beating me up quite a bit, and I was really glad to come into the next aid station (Powerhouse at mile 32 I believe). The workers made sure we all had our headlamps. I didn’t stop long and headed out for the next stretch. This was the most difficult part of the whole course from what I can remember. There were two very steep technical climbs through this section. I bonked pretty hard for a while on these.
I simply couldn’t keep my heart rate down because of how steep the climbs and switchbacks were. Then, the trail would take a steep descent, but it would be too technical for me to make up any time on it. The only thing I could do was to keep moving forward. As I topped the second climb, some guys were walking back onto the trail from a small trail outcrop that was at an overlook. They told me to make sure to take the time to look at it. I was glad I did. I took a few minutes to sit down and to remember why I do trail running. I’m not sure how high the cliff I had been climbing was, but it had a beautiful overlook of the Hiwassee cutting through the gorge. To the right, the sun was starting to set. I took a picture, but it didn’t capture it (as most pictures usually don’t). I said a prayer of thanks to God for allowing me the ability to do this run and to see the things I saw, and then I began pressing on.
My anti-bonk was short-lived as I began to descend steeply and technically back into the gorge. At the bottom of the gorge, I heard a couple of voices behind me. I was about to cross a stream when I heard one of them curse behind me. I turned around to see someone fall off a large rock into the creek. I started freaking out telling them what I saw. They started freaking out looking for the guy around the rock. We couldn’t find him anywhere. This was my first hallucination of the day. The trail began climbing again for a very long time until it finally opened up to the aid station at Coker Falls.
I looked around for my crew, but the aid station workers said all of the crews were at the top of a hill. I went ahead and filled my bottles to save some time once I saw my crew. The sun had just set (right on 24 hour pace), but I had just enough light to get me to the top of the steep hill on the beginning of gravel road. It was roughly a half mile from the aid station to the top of this hill. I was happy to see my crew, and I let them know how hard that stretch was. They said I actually looked like I was in better spirits than most of the people who came out of that part. I think I stayed there about 8 minutes or so before getting up to head off into the night. Almost all of the night running was on gravel road. I met up with a guy named Benj. I ran with him almost the whole way to Servilla (from 40-50). We talked for a long time. He was a very cool guy. I think he said he was 25 (or about to turn 25… his birthday was on Sunday after the race. Happy birthday Benj). He began pushing on ahead right before we got to Servilla. This is where I picked up my safety runner, Alex.
50-75 (Servilla to Iron Gap)
It was nice having a little bit of company after being out in the woods and not knowing anyone. There wasn’t really a whole lot that happened between Servilla and the first stop at Iron Gap (mile 55 I think). There were some stretches of very steep climbing, from 50-75. I really enjoyed getting to the Pistol Ultra aid station at Bullet Creek. I don’t remember the exact mileage, but it was probably close to 61 or 62. Those guys know how to do an aid station. They had all kinds of crazy food. They had heaters blaring. There were Christmas lights everywhere. It was just awesome. It was a good way to wake up in the middle of the night. Alex’s wife, Cherri, was there to take care of everything we needed. I was wondering where my wife, Melissa was, and Cherri told me the roads had made her sick. I found out the next morning, that she had been very, very sick. I’m glad I didn’t know how sick at the time. It would have been a difficult mental barrier to cross.
After getting out of the aid station, we started a pretty major climb. The Pistol Ultra guys had signs on the side of the road with quotes of encouragement, funny one-liners, and things like that to keep the runners’ minds occupied as we climbed this “Heartbreak Hill” as the signs called it. Those signs helped a lot. Did I mention the Pistol Ultra guys know how to do it? (Their ultra is in January. I did it last year, and it was a lot of fun if you don’t mind running on some pavement). We were going to meet our crew again at the next aid station at mile 68, and Alex was going to jump out to take a break before starting to run with me again after the river crossing. That plan disappeared quickly when the crew wasn’t at the next station. It turned out they couldn’t find the station. Alex, by the grace of God, was able to get in touch with Cherri by phone (This was pretty much the only time he had cell phone service, and she just happened to have service at that exact moment, too). He told her to meet us at the river. This locked him into running more than 50k before he would even have the option of stepping out of his safety runner duties because there was no crew access at Iron Gap (the next aid station).
This was a very long 7 mile stretch. Again, it started on gravel road for a long time. Then, it went to single track for a while. This is where the sun started coming up for me. That was pretty cool. We could see Etowah (at least I think it was Etowah) off to the right side of the mountain as we ran. All the lights were on down there, and the light of the sun was just enough that we could see the structures of the city. It was pretty cool. After the single track, we got back onto a gravel road we had already run earlier. It was the stem of a lollipop section of the course. After finishing this stem, we arrived back at Iron Gap for the second time. I really had fun goofing off with the workers there. I was in very good spirits, and their positive attitudes helped bring me up even further.
75-100 (Iron Gap to Finish)
We started down the 8 mile horse trail to the river. This was mostly descending. There were some ups in it as well, but it kept steadily getting lower and lower. Alex and I got to see the view at the horse hitch on the left side of the trail as we headed south. The air was foggy down low, so it made for a pretty cool view of the mountains to our east. This was at roughly mile 78. We continued to move forward toward the river. This was a very long stretch. Every turn seemed like it should be the turn before we got to the campground, but we just kept going. Eventually, we saw our wives walking up the trail towards us. They were really a sight to see. It was also good to see Melissa feeling good again. Because they missed us at one of the aid stations, they were able to get to the river a little earlier to get some sleep. We slowly made our way to their car, and I laid down in the back for about 15 minutes while they refilled all of my gear. I didn’t go to sleep, but it sure felt good to get off my legs for a while.
I tried to get a little trot going on the way to the river crossing, but my legs barely worked. My parents were there to see me off across the river, too. It was cool to get some extra encouragement. It felt so good to put my legs in that water. It really did ice them, and they felt almost fresh once I hit the other side. I quickly got some grub at the next aid station (Quinn Springs, mile 83), and then I started the 2,200 foot climb over 3.9 miles up Oswald Dome. This climb was on my mind the entire time I had been running. I couldn’t help but ask myself the entire race, “What is it going to feel like to climb that after 83 miles?” Honestly, the climb wasn’t as bad as I had thought it would be. I’m not saying it was easy, but the thought of doing it on tired legs was much more difficult than the reality of actually doing it. The hardest part of this stretch was that it started to rain on me.
It was probably about 50 degrees if that at the time. I started shivering uncontrollably. Alex was still running with me, and he actually took his shirt off to give it to me. I said no at first, but he said, “It’s already off.” It helped a lot, but I was still cold. Once we got close to the top, I asked him to run ahead and to tell the people at the aid station that I was really cold and had to find a way to warm up. A guy met me before I got to the station, and he led me to a truck. The heat was blazing in the truck, and they had really warm blankets as well. They also gave me a blazing cup of Ramen. It all really hit the spot. The next stretch was about 7 miles, and I honestly think I would have been in big trouble if I wouldn’t have been able to recharge my batteries at that point. I gave myself 8 minutes to get warm, and then I got back out into the cold. Immediately, I felt cold again, but I pushed forward anyway. Alex and I moved pretty quickly for a long time. It was a steady downhill stretch for several miles on more gravel road. The sky started to clear some, and the sun started coming out helping me out significantly.
We got to the final aid station at McCamy Lake (mile 93). My wife was waiting to jump in with me, and Alex got to jump out. That joker ran with me for about 43 miles after doing basically no training. He is sort of a freak of nature. I had heard that this next section of trail was all downhill and was very technical. At first, it was very smooth, and there were little tiny stretches that had some rocks. I thought to myself, “Is this what they were referring to as technical?” It was perfect.
That all changed after a while. We got onto some single track that just kept going up and down, up and down. There were stream crossings and rocks galore. At one point, we climbed up a large hill, and the trail had jagged rocks that made each step a chance of rolling an ankle. On top of that, to the left was a steep cliff. One wrong step, and it could have been a game ender. I intentionally took my good sweet time through this part. I was not risking losing the completion this close to being finished. I had plenty of time in the bank, so I just made it worth it. Finally, I saw a man up ahead standing by a sign, and I knew I was close. Wait! There wasn’t a man by a sign. I looked harder and harder, but he just wasn’t there. This was my second hallucination. Of course, I eventually started hearing voices up ahead, and I knew I was at the end. I came down a hill and banked to the left to cross the line to see my parents and Alex and Cherri there waiting on me. What a course!
Going into this race, I had to make sure to prepare myself mentally. I attempted Pinhoti, and things just didn’t click for me there. My stomach went sour early on at Pinhoti, and I battled that up until around mile 70 before I felt it was getting dangerous to continue. I was afraid I would get stuck on that stretch, and a search party would have to come in after me. I figured out what worked for me nutritionally between Pinhoti and Thunder Rock, and I had absolutely zero vomiting issues this go around thanks to Tailwind Nutrition. If you haven’t heard of it, check it out. It is the real deal.
In preparation for the mental barriers of the race, I wanted to know my “why” as to my motivation for finishing the race. Ultimately, I want my story to inspire others, not even necessarily with running. I am a counselor as a profession, and I work with teenagers with addictions. Many of them don’t even entertain the possibility of staying clean, and many of the ones that want to try don’t think it is even possible. They think they are bound by their circumstances, and because all of their families have been stuck in the cycles of addiction, they are destined to continue in the addictive cycles, too.
I want my message to be this: If I, an average guy, can devote myself to finishing 100 miles, you, the reader, can do anything. You simply have to start telling yourself that you can. Then you can start figuring out how to make it possible. I’m not telling you this will be easy, but it will be possible. You can do anything. This is the message I want my clients to receive from my finishing this race. I don’t really want any recognition other than others being inspired to do what they think is impossible.
Figure out what your goals are, and go get them!
– Nathan Judd (2014 Thunder Rock 100 Mile Finisher)