Saturday, May 26, 2018

Cruel Jewel 100

I signed up for the Cruel Jewel 100 for a few reasons. First, it’s hard race mostly on singletrack with a ton of climbing. Second, it manages to evade the fluff that similar races seem to have such as lotteries, huge costs, required gear -- it’s just tough hundred mile race in the mountains, plain and simple. Third is that I’ve heard plenty about how the East is far gnarlier than us pretentious Coloradoans seem to give it credit for. As bonus, the race gives you UTMB points and qualifies you for the Hardrock 100 lottery too!

"Steampunk Dragon" was the art piece made for the race by a local artist Grant Searcey. So yeah, the t-shirts were pretty cool!

My training was a lot less volume intensive than I usually aim for. Having done (for myself) a lot of very long runs in the past couple months, I was confident that I didn't need to have crazy high mileage. I mostly just maintained myself as a runner and tossed in a few long days at high effort level. This mean that by race week, I was mechanically sound, physically rested and mentally ready for the challenge I signed up for.

Abby and I made our flight to Atlanta by about 30 seconds. I made it first to the gate and breathed "one more behind me", to which the ticket-checker responded "she's got about 45 seconds". We were staying with her parents and some family friends at beautiful lake house in Blue Ridge. The house was luxurious, and a near comical reprieve from what 100 miles in the Blue Ridge mountains would be. Here we were able to prepare my gear, crew bags and food in peace and most importantly, with a fully equipped kitchen.

The joy of collapsible trekking poles before the start

The race start was at noon; unique, but I think it makes a lot of sense. Starting at noon ensures that everyone has to suffer through the night out, even the lead male. I was somewhat on the fence to start with poles (clearly, I was confused), but I made the correct decision to use them the entire time. The gun went off (by that I mean the RD said "go") right at noon and we were off to the races. I held back, as it seemed who would finish well did, besides the leader Andy Pearson, who was on fire start to finish. After a forgettable section of road the climbing began as did the hiking for most, myself included. I don't much like a lot of chatting when I race so my patience was quickly exhausted hiking along in a large group. We rolled through the first water-only aid, I stopped in the bushes (accidentally in full view of some hikers, oops), and fell back further in place -- not that it remotely mattered at this point.

The foretold steepness was upon us. I moved up steadily between little pods of runners, not really chatting much besides with Gavin. When I first got into this silly running stuff, I, by chance, was on Mt Shavano when Gavin finished Nolans 14. I remember shaking his hand and thinking it was the coolest and most inspiring thing I had ever witnessed. He later asked "didn't you try Nolans a while back?", to which I responded "yes, it was glorious disaster. I learned a lot!". Funny how these sort of connections play out in a small community.

I moved up in the field steadily until I was in about 10th or so, as fast I was willing to run at this point. I met Abby at around the 20 mile mark at Skeenah Gap for the first time where I changed out of my 215 gram racers into a burlier shoe along with a fresh pair of socks (fear the humidity!). I was able to see her again at the Wilscot Gap as I followed the infamous Duncan Ridge trail (also known as the Dragon's Back) over endless mountains and knobs. I stayed by myself through this section, doing my best to keep the calories, electrolytes and water coming. It was super convenient that every aid had Tailwind; I probably drank 40 or so bottles total!

Pit stop before the night. Photo by Matthew Farina
At Old Dial Road, Abby prepped me for the coming night with a dry shirt and headlamp. A short descent off of Benton MacKaye Trail put me on the road itself. I've found that by running roads one or two times a week, that it was more than a lot of the other runners I spokes with. So on this next section of road, I was able to move up a couple positions then came into the aid station at Stanley Creek TH tied for 7th. Leaving the aid station, headlamp now on, I was able to build enough of a gap with a consistently strong hiking pace that I was alone for the meandering descent towards Deep Gap. I moved into 6th position just before entering the aid station. Despite feeling good, I made a point to spend some time at Deep Gap to eat my first of many potato floats (boiled potatoes in a cup covered with coke) and confirm the directions for the lollipop loop as I had read about prior confusion. I wasn't too concerned though, I was well prepared with the route on my Suunto should I get confused or miss a turn.

I left the aid alone and wouldn't see a soul along the whole lollipop loop. Despite being (allegedly) 5.4 miles, the distance really seemed to drag on. It felt like ages before I even made the cut across the river and began ascending back up. Staying vigilent for the reflective course marking flags, I just kept my head down and eventually popped out of the loop and back into the Deep Gap aid station.

The next section consisted of a short bit of road running so I packed up my poles and opted for single bottle. I always know that on these road sections you just need to keep running all that you can, as they are the easiest miles you'll get the whole time and a great place to make some time. I moved into 5th place just before the Camp Morganton aid station where I met finally met Abby again. She tended to my feet (gross) while I tended to a burrito and a cold brew coffee. I left the aid in 6th, but quickly reclaimed 5th with my eyes on 4th (who apparently was actually in 2nd, but that's another story).

Consumption as an art form, Abby lurks behind keeping the pipeline full. (Photo Matthew Farina)
I had some more potato floats at Deep Gap and left in 5th place. Shortly after starting my second loop around the Flat Creek Trail the skies suddenly opened up with the fury that had been forecasted. I just barely able to get my coat out in time! I plodded along the now puddled and saturated trail with bullets of rain tickling my hood. There were plenty of folks out on their first lap which gave me some people to chase and keep the monotony at a minimum. I caught up to Gavin at the end of the lap and slowed to chat with him for a couple minutes before pushing on towards my fourth and final pit stop at Deep Gap.

The rain wouldn't relent. Ahead was a moderate ascent and then what I thought would be a short bop over to Weaver Creek. I moved into 4th place on the climb. Ouch, should have checked the elevation profile here as it was actually 1500ft descent to the aid station. On this out and back spur, I measured 2nd and 3rd to be a bit under an hour ahead of me; but 5th, a guy I had passed hours ago had come out of nowhere to just five minutes behind me. I tried to put my head down on the ascent out of the lonely aid station both to catch and hold on. In hindsight, I let my calorie intake waver in this section trying to stay dry (which I failed at, anyways). I made it to Abby at Stanley Creek just as the sky was barely letting go of the darkness. I was getting a bit antsy about placing here, but Abby centered me and forced me to inhale the rest of a coffee, some coke and (homemade!) potato soup.

I dashed out onto the final road section with high hope of holding a steady run. My mentality wavered and my legs followed, my legs were definitely sore but I sort of gave myself a bit too much liberty as I turned up Old Dial Rd. I took a couple walk breaks, but per usual walking doesn't make you feel much better, you just go a lot slower. I plodded along towards Wilscott Gap, beginning to seriously feel some fatigue. I arrived at the aid station with Abby armed and ready to both continue crewing and pace the last 30 or so miles to the finish.

Early morning uphill grind, finally with Abby keeping me engaged (and photographed!)

My pace was pathetic, but Abby got me moving a bit faster. It wasn't until we had moved a few miles to the next aid, Skeenah Gap, and saw 5th place Walter flying up behind me. Something clicked in my brain and I met his pace as best I could. We stayed relatively as a pack of three (myself, Abby and Walter) into Fish Gap. We left simultaneously from the aid, but I just couldn't hang with Walter's pace -- especially on the downhills, my quads just didn't have it anymore.

Grinding out what I could on the uphills just after dawn

I was now running scared, clinging to the back of the top five, I didn't know if 6th was just behind me or an hour back. White Oak Stomp was about a touch over an hour away on the out but Duncan Ridge had no mercy for those returning to it's ground. The ridge is truly natural work of art, masochistically speaking. Whatever you trained on, it's not as steep or barely as steep as this, it's glorious and it takes forever. I had to remember that it was a moment like this why I was here in the first place. Head down and legs churning on the uphills, shuffling what my trashed quads could on the downhills. We arrived at White Oak Stomp to find that I was just over an hour back of 4th (who Walter had already passed) I just needed to hold on a bit longer!

The final and near eternal-feeling mega climb to Coosa Bald

A blurry eyed perspective of the trails winding down to Wolf Creek

The final stretch as I suspected, had grown immensely since I had ran the other way. After a final grunt up Coosa Bald it was long descent to the unmanned Wolf Creek water station. The downhills remained a problem but the new problem was finding strength to run the scattered relative flats in this next section. I'm learning that at the end of these things, it requires seemingly herculean effort to accomplish near anything so you might as well run if it's remotely possible. This is observation made in hindsight as at the time I was less enthusiastic about my abilities. The trail wound up and around seemingly pointlessly to nowhere. I couldn't remember what the beginning (now end) of the course was like, but when we crossed pavement I knew we were close.

Feet from the finish, relieved. (Photo by Matthew Farina)

My downward shuffle scooted me along the final wooded section until the glimmer of Vogel Lake peaked through the trees. Gaining pavement, I knew the end was less than a mile out. I looked behind me to see a woman moving extremely well, I did not want to have to sprint to the finish to stay in front of the lead woman! "I'm not in the race!" she belted out -- thank goodness -- she caught me a few seconds later, just a volunteer heading back to the finish. Still, you always need to finish strong, which in this case mean under 10min/mile pace. I thanked Abby for crewing and pacing as the roaring crowd of 20 spouses, parents and friends tricked into spending their weekend at a 100mi race greeted me into the finish, I could single out the cheers of Abby's parents as well as our Blue Ridge hosts. You really can't top these moments.

Stupid and happy.

Promptly after crossing the line I found a chair, as instinct tends to help you out on these type of finishes. The belt buckle was colossal, you would need a separate belt system simply to hoist and suspend the Cruel Jewel buckle. There truthfully isn't a good way to describe why it's fun to do this, why these moments are unforgettable and practically life changing. It's like asking somebody why a food tastes good, it just does. Maybe someday I'll have a reason, but for now I know I just really like this stuff.

Abby kept me going for 28 hours all by herself! Having to both crew and pace (especially 30 miles of the Dragon's Back) is not to be underestimated!
We spent the rest of the weekend lounging on Blue Ridge Lake and at the lake house itself. It was such a privilege to meet new friends with such a beautiful place to stay while others had to retreat to their soggy tent in the state park. Amazingly, I came out of this thing completely injury free, just very, very sore with a couple blisters on my toes. I didn't know what Georgia was going to deliver with the Cruel Jewel, but I can't have imagined a better taste of the eastern ultra-running scene is all about.


  1. How did you like potato floats?

    1. They were a spur of the moment decision, but they were fantastic. All the ingredients were things I was going to eat anyways, so it just made the most sense to put it all down simultaneously. The taste was a bonus, though :D

  2. Nice write-up. The terrain sounds super gnarly and totally legit. Coming into the race injury free and finishing the race with zero injuries is HUGE, definitely wasn't the case at BBA. Awesome work!