RUNNING: Iron Mountain Trail Run 2013

This race is the first one during which I listened to music. I’ve often been down on folks wearing ear buds on the trail – preaching the purity of nature as the best song available. Well, I chucked that pretension and loaded up my Nano, which, embarrassingly, I’ve just learned to use last month.

My goal for the 2013 Iron Mountain 50-miler in Damascus, VA was to slow down so I could finish fast. Last year I burst from the start gates and maintained a 6:30 pace for the first 5-miles. Of course this came back to bite me as I slogged, unhappily, through later miles. I wanted to do the first 5 this year in nothing faster than 8’s. When I hit that first aid station at HWY 58 (Straight Branch) I’d averaged 8:05. Off to a good start thanks to Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Final Cut.

The next four miles of repeating Black Sabbath (their title album and Paranoid) put me on single-track and included 1700 feet of climbing. The footing on this portion represents the race well. I landed at mile 9 (FSR 90) at 1:36 and continued to roll. My goal was to finish both water bottles between aid stations and once again, I nailed it.

At about mile 10 I put in Metallica’s And Justice for All. I immediately realized it was too early for that – it made my stomach churn and I quickly ended the first track and replaced it with Explosions in the Sky’s The Earth is not a Cold, Dead Place. Perfect.Over the next 12 miles through Skull’s Gap then onto Hurricane Gap, I zoned out while listening to mellow music. Sigur Ros’ Valtari did the job of keeping me relaxed and tuned-in to the trail. The few times I felt twinges of muscle chatter or thought too much about the miles to come I’d simply concentrate on breathing. Deep and full inhales to fill and the chest and belly, then long gradual exhales. Without fail, just a few of these took away my problems. Breathing is cool.

During the long and steep downhill leaving Hurricane Gap (mile 22) I opened up my stride and put some distance between me and the folks behind me. This was foolish. At the bottom of the grade the trail narrowed and my energy waned. Within fifteen minutes I was passed by five or six runners who obviously ran that hill conservatively. This was the only point in the race where I felt crappy – and thank God it only lasted ten minutes or so. Quick – back to Black Sabbath!

High highs and low lows are part of the ultra game. Best a runner can do is expect them and then treat them with respect. As a yoga teacher I often remind students that the mind and body are one. Long runs make me think otherwise. So many times I’ve facilitated loaded conversations between my body and my mind. “Ok calf, you’re not cramping. You hear me? You are NOT cramping!”

Rowland Creek aid station at mile 29 was my favorite station this year for the same reason it was last year. Watermelon. I always crave this calorie-deficient picnic food in the middle of an ultra slog even when I should be eating energy-rich options on the race’s buffet tables. Fortunately I had packed enough Clif Shots to keep me moving forward. I ate with abandon and chucked the rinds in the forest.

I arrived back at Hurricane Gap (mile 32) at 5:35. Not a bad 50k-ish time for mid-race. I was on-track to not only beat last year’s time (9:40), but also, quite possibly, nail a sub 9:00 (which was my silent goal). The sky started getting dark, the air cooled significantly, and I couldn’t tell if the falling drops came from the trees or from a budding storm. At nearly one o’clock I could have worn a headlamp. The canopied trails reminded me of a foggy sunset. If I could just get past the big hill to come before the rain…if only.

I made it back to Skull’s Gap (mile 37) 40-minutes ahead of last year’s time. The rain started pouring and the uphill grind for the next four miles or so quickly became precarious. I was literally ‘running’ through an increasingly large waterfall, hoping that my foot strike didn’t encounter an ankle-twisting cobble or root. I slipped dozens of times and felt a strange sense of pride each time I caught my body before it crashed to the earth. Little things were mattering a lot at this point. The quiet hum of The XX serenaded me through this leg, and perfectly so.

Harder and harder the rain came down. The footing was ridiculously bad, the mud was at least ankle deep. Each step was effortful and I could feel it starting to wear on my hips and thighs/quads. I was still running, but my pace had slowed considerably, as had any thoughts of a sub-9. I got passed by 20-nothings left and right as The XX kept on crooning. Just as well, this race was me against me. Such selfish competition inspires my forward movement.

The lack of excitement awaiting me at mile 43 (FSR 90) was a bummer. One of the aid station volunteers said, “You wouldn’t believe how hard it’s been coming down! It’s been like a river or something around here!” Seriously? You are standing here under this tarp with a table-full of snacks at your disposal. It just took me more than two hours to go 7 miles in that river and I’m out of food. Put a sock in it! (but thanks for being out here)

Seven miles to go and all on a downhill that is touted on the website as being “dangerous.” In fact it says, “If you feel that steep, rocky, muddy, and potentially dangerous trails do not make for a good race course, good luck at a different race with terrain that suits your preferences.” I usually excel on the downhill and often keep it tucked away as my secret weapon. Not today. In these final 7-miles I slipped and actually fell three times, fortunately missing any sharp edges and only sustaining mere scrapes and a coating of mud (AKA ‘trail love’). More and more spry runners cruised by me as I blamed my slowed pace on my shoes. The Brooks Pure Flow is not a trail running shoe and has pretty horrible traction. Yeah, it was the shoes fault!

One mile to go as the trail petered out and fed us into a neighborhood. Last year that this point a kid was trying to hawk crawdads to us weary zombies. I guess the rain kept him inside this year. Smart kid.

One final bridge crossing before hanging a sharp right before the final 100-meter stretch to the Finish Line Gazebo. Cheering crowds waiting for ‘their’ runners inspired one final shot of adrenaline before I cruised into the finish, bettering my 2012 time by 20 minutes. Under the circumstances, and for the sake of adventure and adversity, I’d say it was a pretty good day to run 50-miles. And a good training run for Mountain Masochist in two months.

Thanks for reading.





  1. you are one messy dude!

    I like the thoughts about running with music. The first two times I did the 50 miler, I waited to plug in until Skulls Gap and welcomed the juice I got during the final 13. I recall listening to Dick Gaughins Westlin’ Winds going through a real misty section along the ridge – music has power.

    That strategy worked for me at Big Horn too (the first time). I plugged in around 34 after a long climb and randomly landed on Yes’s Revealing Science of God, which helped me along another long climb up a forest service road that crested on a ridge and dumped us back into single-track…and the view was incredible.

    As a musician, I often run listening to tunes I want to learn on the flute and small pipes, and a lot of that traditional Scots and Irish stuff can be hypnotic.

    Anyway…I like and partly understand what you’re saying about music. I didn’t listen to tunes during the 16er…there was enough in my head for that distance.

    Glad you had a great race…and, yep, the conditions were pretty nasty…but I do like that mountain range and appreciate the vibe of this venue…./squonk

    1. Right on Squonk! Thanks for reading. I’m still on the fence about the trade-off for music, but for now it’s getting me through some long miles. Ride the wave you are on, right…


  2. Running the IMTR 50 this year. Thanks for sharing your experience. I beat the t -storms last year (ran the 30). Sounds like you all had quite an adventure on the trails during, after the rain. Congrats on your race.

    1. I wish you the best out there! I love that race and am a little bummed I didn’t get it on my calendar this year again. Thanks for checking out the blog!

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