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Ultra running with Jen – Running at night

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Over Easter weekend I participated in the Chocolate Bunny Run. It’s an annual event put on by the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club (VHTRC) and part of the MMT Training Academy. Over the years it has changed as the course changes, going from a 50k, to 32-25 miles, to now being called just a ‘run’ at a distance of around 26 miles. The intent is to cover a good portion of the course at night that you will most likely encounter during the race. The CB allows you to do that with fresh legs and sound mind and body.

We gathered in a parking lot off Route 211, which is near mile 90 of the MMT course, preparing for a 7pm start. I was late to arrive, taking off about 5 minutes after the main group, but took my time getting everything ready. I was using this run to put the finishing touches on my nutrition and wanted to make sure I had everything in order regarding nutrition and hydration, clothing for any changes in weather, and lighting. I checked in with the organizer, rattling off the course markers and turns letting them know that I knew the course even though I didn’t carry a turn sheet, and took off up the white Connector trail.

I’ve been on this section once before, which was the start of the Waterfall Trail 50k back in January For MMT, this is miles 90-96. Instead of turning up Waterfall, I stay on the orange trail to the right up Duncan Hollow Trail for 2.1 miles to Scothorn. This section after the Connector I was on for Reverse Ring, so I’ve had plenty of exposure. But before getting there, I took a second to hit the restroom, allowing another late-start runner to get ahead of me. This was perfect as I had someone to sight off of until I caught up with the back of the back. That happened not long after picking up the orange trail. Even this early I felt slowed down by their pace, walking way more than I’d like to, especially since daylight was precious and I wanted to cover as much ground as possible before having to resort to headlamps. Luckily I was able to pass and scoot my way up Duncan Hollow, which can be a stream if it has been raining, but we were in luck and had a fairly dry ascent up to the Scothorn (yellow) Trail.

It was getting darker and I had two runners ahead of me who had already turned their lamps on, so I followed them over the rocks until we got to a clearing, when I finally turned my handheld light on. A runner bolted by me on the down hill section, which I’m still tentative on, and made my way down the fire road for 1.5 miles until it met up with Crisman Hollow Road. The last time I was on this section was at MMT in 2013, day 2 of the race in the early afternoon. I didn’t bother to look for blazes on the trees, and only hoped there were no turns that I had to look out for. I just listened for the water to signal I was close to the road.

It was another 1.5 miles until reaching the turn up Jawbone. For the race, this road takes you to Gap II aid station – named II since you go through there once before at mile 70. I enjoyed the road section to get in some road miles. I was happy to have my iPod back – fully charged – to help keep me in the zone. Not long after hoping on the road that it started raining – pouring for a few minutes. I forgot to pack a light jacket, but stopped to put on some arm warmers that I did have stuffed in my pack. The rain didn’t last long, but I kept them on just in case for later in the night.

I was able to catch up with a few runners and we pulled each other up to the top of Jawbone, me keeping track of the number of switchbacks noting the number to get to the top. One thing that’s pretty cool about running night is seeing the lights of the other runners ahead of you. Sometimes that can be good and bad in seeing not only how far you have to go to get to the top, but seeing HOW FAR YOU HAVE TO GO! That’s why I keep my eyes down and just push on.

The other runners paused at the top and I moved on. I couldn’t tell if the lights following me were their headlamps or from the town in the distance. I couldn’t tell if the lights in front of me were from other runners or the stars. I just kept moving. I knew this was a long section and tried not to get discouraged, but just listened to my music to keep up with my hydration and tried to remember the twists and turns of the trail in the darkness.

Finally hitting Crisman Hollow Road and about 2 miles of road section to aid at Visitors Center. Grabbed some water, Coke, french fries, and not much more before the next 3.5 miles up to Bird Knob.

This is a tough climb and will be tough during the race as it’s mile 78 of the run. It just feels relentless. The aid at the top will be a welcome sight. I played leap frog with a few runners before latching on with one when we reached the top at Big Mountain Road and chatted during the mile run to the next trail. This was his first time on the course, so I talked him through a few sections and made sure we didn’t miss the turn onto the pink trail. This southern half of the course I ran during Waterfall 50k, so it was nothing new. I enjoy it, but I’m not sure how much I’ll be saying that on race day. He was a strong runner and my knees were bothering me and slowing me down a bit, but it was good to have him there to keep me moving at a good clip rather than slowing down to a walk. He helped me power up the last small incline on our way to the Orange trail, catching up with another couple runners for the final 2 miles back to the parking lot.

We got in just before 2am. The weather held up after the brief showers, and it was pleasantly warm most of the night. Typical for the ‘nuttens. However, anything can happen race day.

All in all, a great last run before the big show.