Last weekend I took part in the Iron Horse 100 located in Florahome, Florida – a 4×25 mile loop event on a mix of paved Rail Trail and forest service roads. Training since last October’s 24 The Hard Way had been geared towards another crack at the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas, but after chatting through various options over the Christmas break with Ally, I decided to mix things up and enter the Iron Horse 100 instead. This would also give Ally the opportunity to enter the Iron Horse 100km which takes place at the same time and on the same course as the 100 miler. Sorted!
Training through January went well – 354 predominantly MAF miles, with the high week capping out at 86 miles and no runs longer than 20. I also raced twice – a local 5K on New Year’s Day (2nd place overall in 17:29), and a 10 Miler early in January where I just managed to dip under 60 minutes to once again finish in 2nd place. After logging one final 20 miler 6 days before the race, I allowed myself the luxury of a nice little taper with just 4 runs of 4 miles each to keep the legs ticking over.
We flew down to Jacksonville via Charlotte early on Friday morning, picked up the rental car then drove the 60-odd miles to the host hotel in Palatka who were kind enough to offer an early check-in. Lunch was plain and simple at the local Subway and after picking up race day supplies at the nearby Publix, it was time to take a much needed nap before the 5:30pm pre-race brief at the start/finish line.
So far, so good, right? Well, nothing ever goes 100% smooth, and it was a bit frustrating to be met with a flat front passenger-side tire as we were about to leave for the pre-race brief. Thankfully there was a gas station right next to the hotel where I was able to inflate the flat and check for any nails/screws etc. Nothing seemed amiss, so off we set on the 13 mile drive to the Florahome start line where we met up with good friend Andy O’Brien and his 2-person crew, Janet Choi and Lucas Moten. Packet pickup was short and sweet, and the pre-race brief pretty much covered the same information that was detailed on the Iron Horse Endurance Runs website. I think the only change may have been the removal of a minor aid/water station due to flooded forest service roads. No biggie, as we would still be able to hit Aid Station 2 three times per loop – plenty of opportunity to refill bottles and take advantage of any nutrition needs.
Thankfully, the dodgy tire was still inflated after the race brief wrapped up, but as we headed back to the hotel I decided to install the emergency donut wheel “just in case”. The last thing I wanted to do on race morning was deal with another flat tire. It was a bit more challenging removing the wheel nuts than I hoped for, but finally the deed was done and we were able to head out for dinner (my traditional burger and fries) and a much-needed beer. Back at the hotel, there was plenty of time for a last minute gear check before hitting the hay and drifting into a deep, uninterrupted sleep.
Race morning is always a bit of a mixed bag – nervousness as you realize the enormity of the task ahead, but also relief that finally race day is upon you. Miles have been logged, gear/supplies prepared, so nothing left to do except execute the game plan. Speaking of game plans, and without really knowing the severity of the course, I wasn’t exactly sure what to shoot for, but here are a few thoughts I had in the weeks leading up to the race:
- I desperately wanted to avenge the DNF at last year’s Rocky Raccoon 100, where mental weakness got the better of me. There was really no reason to quit and it’s bugged me nearly every day for the last 12 months.
- Sub-24 hours seemed like a strong possibility on the “flat and fast” course, although to achieve this I really needed to respect the distance. 100 miles is still 100 miles, and a LOT can happen as I found out last year.
- Sub-16 hours would be pretty sweet, as would sub-15:26 which would be a new 100 mile PR.
- Sub-15 hours would be a dream come true, but to achieve this I would need to average 9 minute miles for the entire race.
After much deliberation I decided to start out between 8:40 and 9:00/mile for the first 25 mile loop, hopefully bank a bit of time, then re-evaluate and go from there. Temps at the start were a little chilly for standing around but almost perfect for running. I decided to go with the Topo Athletic Magnifly on my feet, coupled with a pair of my favorite Trail 2.0 Injinji socks. The trusty Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts would hold enough Tailwind Nutrition for each 25 mile loop and up top I went for a two-layer Patagonia approach – a long-sleeve Merino baselayer underneath my super comfortable Tailwind Trailblazer Capilene tee. The versatile Injinji Buff finished off the apparel choice with the Ultimate Direction Handy 20 wrapping up the starting gear. It would be my first time starting a 100 miler with a handheld, but with aid stations aplenty, I figured there was no real need for a hydration vest.
At 7am sharp I wished Ally good luck, then we were off and running along the paved Rail Trail to the first 1.75 mile turnaround point. It was good to chat with Andy and the early miles passed quickly. After crossing the start/finish line (Mile 3.5 and Aid Station 1) there was another 2 miles of Rail Trail to Holloway Road before making the turn onto the powerline easement which was a sandy mix of runnable trail dotted with a few roots. This section was just under 2 miles long with the only dodgy bit being a large puddle of water where it was best to scramble through some brush rather than saturate the shoes and socks.
At the end of the powerline easement we were greeted by an enthusiastic bunch of volunteers and crew folks at Aid Station 2. From here we headed north-east along East-V Road for the 6-ish mile “lollipop” section of the course on service roads through the Etoniah Creek State Forest. The service road was a mix of sandy, gravelly, fairly runnable terrain. There were a few puddles to squeeze past, but nothing too challenging, although the pace was noticeably slower than on the paved Rail Trail. Again, the miles passed quickly chatting to Andy and before long we were back at Aid Station 2 where I topped off my handheld and mixed in a 2 scoop baggie of Tailwind. Andy took time to strip off some clothes, so I decided to head out alone along West-V Road for the almost 4 mile trek to the Fieldhouse Road Aid Station and the next turnaround point.
Halfway along West-V Road the race leaders were already on their way back. With 3 events taking place at the same time, it was a bit confusing figuring out who was in the 50 Mile, 100km and 100 Mile races, although I guess you could get a decent idea from the pace they were running. I did know Taryn Lynn Olmstead, who we met just before the race started, was leading the Women’s 50 miler, but everyone else was a bit of a mystery. A mile or so later I reached the well-stocked Aid Station, shouted out my race number and grabbed a quick cup of water before heading back down Fieldhouse Road. Terrain was pretty similar to the earlier “lollipop” section and there were a couple of gently rolling sections which nicely broke up the monotony of flatness.
Back at Aid Station 2 it was time to top up the handheld with Tailwind, before setting off along the powerline easement and paved Rail Trail back to the start/finish. Effort level to this point was comfortable and aside from my usual weak left glute rearing its ugly head from time to time, everything felt fine and it was nice to complete the first 25 mile loop (25.25 according to the Garmin) in good spirits and in a decent time. It had warmed up enough to leave my Injinji Buff and gloves at our makeshift vehicle aid station, and after grabbing a new handheld of premixed Tailwind and a few extra baggies of Tailwind powder, it was time to get going again.
25 mile split – 3:35.
Not surprisingly, the second loop was more challenging – both physically and mentally. My left glute seemed to be getting weaker and weaker (I popped a couple of Tylenol at Aid Station 2 to help numb the ache), and mentally I was already thinking about the 70+ miles still left to run. My thought process kinda went like this for the next 4 or 5 miles: I wonder if maybe Ultras are not for me any more. I’ve run a few 100s, including two of the classics – Western States and Leadville, and logged some decent mileage at several 24 hour events. Do I really need this any more? What else is there to prove? I genuinely enjoy training for Ultras, but these races are tough on both the body and the mind. Maybe I should go back to the shorter stuff and be satisfied with that?
Being totally honest, quitting after 2 loops/50 miles became a distinct possibility. I could easily cut my losses, then crew for Ally in the latter half of her 100km. Yeah, that’ll work. People will understand. Then, as I ran past the deserted Red Camp on the “lollipop” section, I replayed Rocky last year and all the frustration I’ve dealt with since the dreaded DNF. Quitting now would just add to that frustration and likely finish me off in the wacky world of Ultrarunning. I had no reason to quit, but every reason to continue.
Oddly enough, fellow Brit and super-talented Ultrarunner Ian Sharman posted the following wise words after his own Rocky Raccoon 100 this past weekend. It sums up exactly what I experienced at Iron Horse, and I’m just glad I was able to shake the weakness and continue.
When everything aches and you can choose to quit, remind yourself that if the only reason you want to stop is weakness then that’s not a good enough reason.
Anyway, back to the race. The rest of the second loop was fairly uneventful – my glute ache seemed to subside and generally I was chugging along nicely with no real issues. It was great to see Ally early on in the loop, even if she didn’t look thrilled to be out there. In fairness, she was just going through a low patch, and every time we saw each other later in the race, she was positive, upbeat and making great progress. With fairly big gaps between runners the “lollipop” section was quite lonely, but the miles ticked by surprisingly quickly and before long I found myself back at Aid Station 2. On the Fieldhouse Road out-and-back it was reassuring to see I’d gained ground on several of the runners who’d started off really fast on the first loop. I still didn’t know who was running what race, but with nearly 60 miles still to run, it didn’t really matter. I topped off with Tailwind again at Aid Station 2 and made my way along the sandy easement back to the start/finish.
50 mile split – 7:2X
It was still fairly early in the afternoon, but I decided to grab my UltrAspire Waistlamp just in case it got dark towards the end of the third loop. The lamp is super comfortable and to be honest I didn’t even realize I was wearing it for the next 25 miles. I also grabbed more Tailwind baggies and took several seconds to apply Bodyglide to a few potentially troublesome spots. Better safe than sorry, right?
The third loop started off well and for some reason there appeared to be many more runners out on the course. I love races where there are out-and-back sections – I get a boost from cheering on other runners and it definitely helps the miles pass by quicker. About an hour into the loop I felt a few spots of rain – no real surprise as the weather forecast called for a 40% chance of precipitation later in the day. On the “lollipop” section the spots turned to light rain and by the time I got back to Aid Station 2 it was pretty torrential. Thankfully I was still moving at a decent clip and wasn’t cold at all, although by this point everyone seemed to be wearing rain jackets or were bundled up in trash bags. As I topped up my handheld once again, the guy at the aid station assured me the rain would blow through in less than an hour, so with that positive thought firmly in my mind, I headed north along West-V Road to the distant Aid Station 3.
With no letup in the weather, the guys at Fieldhouse Road were quite concerned for me in my shorts and shirt, and understandably tried to get me hooked up with a trash bag to help keep me warm. I was drenched but definitely not cold, and after assuring them I’d be grabbing a jacket when I made it back to the start/finish, they wished me well, and reluctantly sent me on my way. Darkness closed in on the way back to the powerline easement, but there was enough light to see and I didn’t need to use my waistlamp, although I did switch it on a few times just to see if it made a difference. It didn’t. Janet (Andy’s crew) was waiting at Mile 73 – she told me I was looking good and snapped a quick pic to send to my daughter Shannon who was desperate for race updates. The next 2 miles on the paved Rail Trail were a nice chance to stretch the legs and quicken the pace a bit, and mentally I reminded myself of what I needed to grab when I got back to the start/finish and our makeshift aid station at the car.
75 mile split – 11:30.
The aid station folks were kind enough to fill my handheld whilst I grabbed my Salomon Bonatti WP Jacket, Tailwind Buff, Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp and more Tailwind powder. I also changed shirts and it was SO nice to have something warm and dry next to my skin instead of the soaked Patagonia shirts. I headed out for the fourth and final 3.5 mile out-and-back section in good spirits, but soon decided to change out of my Patagonia shorts into CW-X Compression shorts when I got back to the start/finish line. It cost me another couple of minutes to get changed, but I figured it was a good time investment and my legs would thank me for it later on.
The rest of the race is quite a blur to be honest. The weather was downright nasty for the remaining miles and it was just a question of slogging along the sandy/muddy trail, which by now I’d broken down into the smallest, most manageable chunks possible. The rain and cold reminded me of last year’s swamp-like conditions at the 24 hour race at Sandy Bottom Nature Park, and I took heart that that was in fact one of my better race performances. I guess I do pretty well when the going gets rough.
I saw Andy and pacer Lucas along the “lollipop” section – they were heading back to Aid Station 2; I was still on my way out to tackle the slippy/sloppy 6 miles. Somewhere on the “out” section of the service road I remember getting passed by a pickup truck, and was so tempted to jump in the back and get a ride to wherever he was going. I still had 16 miles to run and was in desperation mode I think. The “lollipop” took forever this time, but as I approached Aid Station 2 for the penultimate time, I knew I’d be good for the final 12 miles.
West-V Road was a real slog on this last loop. Visibility was difficult with the combination of driving rain and cold breath in front of the headlamp. I sloshed through the mud and somehow managed to stay upright; the only thing keeping me going was the promise of seeing other headlamps and eventually the Fieldhouse Road Aid Station. Somewhere along this section I caught Andy (on his third loop) with pacer Lucas. Both were drenched but in good spirits and I took the opportunity to walk alongside them and end the misery of running for just a minute or two. The company would have been nice for the remainder of the loop, but I needed to get going and end this thing as soon as possible.
The run in to the aid station was awesome – colored glow sticks made the trail feel like an airport runway, and the music blasting from the canopies was a welcome change from the sound of rain and wet, sticky footsteps. The volunteers were awesome and full of chat, with the lady pouring out the coffee telling me I was doing awesome for being on my third loop. As I chugged my coffee (best coffee ever!) and devoured a handful of potato chips, I managed to blurt out it was in fact my fourth and final loop, to which they had great delight in telling me I was the first 100 Miler to come through on the last loop. It might sound odd, but I’d almost forgotten about the race. I was concentrating so much on the weather and the trail and the conditions that finishing the 100 miles was my only focus. With 8-ish miles to go, I left the aid station and headed for home.
By this time my Garmin 235 had well and truly died, so at Aid Station 2 with 4 miles to go, I asked the soup guy the time. From what I recall he told me it was 10:16pm, which left me 44 minutes to break 16 hours. It’s funny really – no one in the world would care if I ran 15:55, 16:00 or 16:05, but those last 4 miles I ran like a man possessed. All I wanted was a sub-16 and I ran as if my life depended on it. The powerline easement was a mess; visibility was bad and I nearly went down several times. Miraculously I avoided a spill and kept on moving though. Eventually I reached Holloway Road and nearly slipped on the sand at the last right turn of the race, but with just 2.25 miles of paved trail to go, somehow managed to find another gear. The rain lashed down into my face, stinging my eyes, but there was no stopping me now. Finally the blurry red digits of the finish clock came into view, and with Ally popping out from underneath an aid station canopy to cheer me on, I sprinted to the line – 15:52:XX….which, as noted above, really means nothing to anyone except me.
Moments later, Race Director Chris Rodatz appeared and presented me with a stunning 1st Male Finisher Buckle, bottle of red wine and Altra Running gift card. The buckle makes all the pain and suffering worth it, and I’m sure the wine will go down a treat too. I thanked Chris for putting on a fantastic event, before hitting the food tent to grab a much-needed burger and hot coffee before heading back to the hotel for a hot shower and dry clothes. Mission accomplished. I’m still an Ultrarunner.
- Topo Athletic Magnifly
- Injinji TRAIL 2.0 Socks
- Patagonia Strider Pro Shorts
- Garmin Forerunner 235
- UltrAspire Lumen 170
- Black Diamond ReVolt Headlamp
- Patagonia Longsleeve Merino Daily Tee
- Patagonia Tailwind Tech Tee
- Mandarin Tailwind Nutrition
- Raspberry Buzz Caffeinated Tailwind Nutrition
- Ultimate Direction Handy 20
- Salomon Bonatti WP Jacket
- Tailwind Nutrition Buff
- CW-X Compression Shorts
- Injinji Buff
- Congrats to Ally for finishing her first official 100km race and earning her first Ultra buckle. I’m sure there will be many more to come!
- Congrats to Andy for gutting out another 100 mile finish in really miserable conditions. Thanks also for allowing us to crash your Iron Horse 100 party!
- Thanks to Janet and Lucas for their support on the course throughout the day. Thanks also to Janet for the photos featured on this blog post.
- As always, Tailwind Nutrition kept me fueled all day long with zero stomach issues and consistent energy levels. For some reason the caffeinated Raspberry Buzz didn’t provide quite provide the spark it did at last year’s 24 The Hard Way. Maybe I need to up the strength of the mix slightly when conditions get rough? No matter, 2 cups of coke and one of coffee helped in the latter stages of the race.
- The combination of Topo Athletic Magnifly shoes and Injinji TRAIL 2.0 socks kept my feet happy all day long. No sock changes required despite the miserable trail conditions for the 2nd half of the race.
- Can’t speak highly enough of the Salomon Bonatti WP Jacket. Basically, the lightweight, waterproof jacket saved my race. On the last loop when the temperature continued to drop and the rain continued to fall, the jacket kept me warm and amazingly dry. The Bonatti is probably the most functional piece of kit I own and a great investment for future training and racing. Highly recommended!
- Thanks to Race Director Chris Rodatz, Medical Director Chris Roman and all the aid station volunteers and crew who gave up their weekends to put on and support the event.