Brian Zembower (E2 Athlete) Yeti 100
Yeti 100 Race Experience.
Starting a new year off in another new location (middle Georgia) I decided that I wanted 2017 to be a year that I got back to distance running and explored my abilities more. I registered for the Yeti 100 as a long-term goal, a goal that I knew scared me and would force me to train smarter than I ever had previously. Fast forward nine months, after lots of miles and a couple shorter and successful races I arrived in Abingdon on Wednesday September 27th, 2 days before race day. After arriving I got my things settled in my hotel then headed to Alvarado Station to get a short run in and some fresh air. After a light four miles and some stretching, I headed down to Damascus where I bummed around town in the gorgeous weather in an attempt to keep my mind occupied and nerves at bay. Before turning in, I got a text message from one of my two pacers who stated that he would be calling soon. Shortly after my phone rang my pacer told me that he was not going to be able to pace me due to his doctor’s orders related to an established medical problem. This being the second pacer of mine to drop out, I had already reached out on social media previously. Following the phone call, I quickly messaged my back up plan, a local runner, Cory Forrester, who had expressed that he could help me out. He confirmed that he would be able to pace me from Alvarado to White Top for a total of around 26 miles. Cory and I planned to meet up the next day so that I could fill him in on the game plan. (Even though we both knew that in a 100 miler the game plan can and often does go out the window) With the race being nearly 24 hours away, I had solidified my two pacers both of whom I’d never met before, let alone run with.
Thursday came. After a light 2 mile run on the trail in Abingdon, my plan for the day was to ensure everything was set for the next morning, race day. I had everything I needed and took time to prep a “go to” fuel of mine for longer distance races, avocado burritos with fresh ground sea salt. Knowing that operating at a lower heart rate over a long period of time would be burning significant amounts of fat I have found avocado to be a great fuel which is palatable when kept on ice. I wrapped up six of them individually with tin foil and placed them in the fridge. The day dragged on. As my mind raced I just wanted it to be race day. I kept thinking all I desired was to meet my parents (my badass race crew) to talk logistics, attend packet pick up / pre-race meeting and get to bed so race day would be there faster.
Following packet pick up I returned to my hotel and lay down to sleep. Normally nerves would have me up most of the night but this night I was able to sleep soundly. I woke up at my usual 4 AM, had a cup of coffee and a piece of toast with peanut butter. My parents arrived at 5 AM to take me up to white top. When we arrived at White Top Station it was still pitch black. We were quite early so I simply took this time to relax, keep my eyes closed and talk to my parents about possible scenarios. As I sat there in silence in the back of my parent’s car, I repeated two sayings in my head that would run through my mind many times throughout my race. Those were, “Run Your Race” and “Run With Gratitude”. I’ve come to learn that if I run with gratitude, gratitude towards my support system, my coach, the race volunteers, the RD, the beauty of the course etc. that as much as certain things can hurt it’s hard for me to run pissed off; if I’m are continuously thankful it makes the effort put forward so fulfilling. When start time approached, I got out of the car, making my way towards the front of the crowd for the sendoff. As 7 AM hit Jason asked the individuals in the front, “Are y’all ready to go?”. A resounding “Yes” was uttered by numerous people, to which he said “Well what the hell are ya waiting for, GO.” With the exception of two or three individuals, everyone started into their modestly paced jog shuffle. I can only imagine that spectators new to the ultra community must have found the lack of haste quite odd compared to the marathons/track and field events that they have seen.
As the group descended from White Top Station, everyone began to find their pace and some friendly conversations began to pop up intermittently. As several miles clicked off I found myself hovering within the top ten runners. Two extremely fast males took off up front; others around me just seemed to be finding what felt right to them. My game plan for the race was to hold 9 minute miles for as long as possible then figure things out as the day progressed. I told myself that if I saw my pace creep up to 10-11 minute miles that I would not panic, just be cognizant of how things felt and adjust if possible or even if needed. Having a good amount of fuel within my Salomon Sense 5 Vest I did not plan to grab additional aid from my crew until one third of the way through the race at the Abingdon aid station. Descending White Top, I probably went out a little faster than I should have, sometimes clicking off 8:30 miles. Mentally hearing my coach scold me, I tried to tone down my pace; knowing it would be a long day . I cruised past the Taylor’s Valley and Damascus aid stations without any issues. Coming into the Damascus aid station I found that I had worked my way into fourth place behind a gentleman wearing orange who was moving very well. Having worked my way through one soft flask bottle full of coconut water, I handed the empty bottle off to one of my crew members and simply instructed them to refill it and hand it to me at the next aid station. After pulling out of Damascus at the two hours and thirty-minute mark, I put in my Bluetooth wireless headphones and kicked on some music to keep my mind busy until meeting up with my pacers later in the race. As I continued onto Alvarado I found my groove, clicking off miles in the 9-9:10 minute range. The sun was now out in full force and things were starting to heat up a bit. Coming into the Alvarado aid station I quickly handed off my second empty soft flask while picking up a full one, stuffing it into my vest breast pocket. It was at this aid station where I moved into third place. For the seven miles from Alvarado to Abingdon, things fell into place without any complication; my two sayings (Run Your Race and Run With Gratitude) continue to run on repeat in my head as I tapped out my familiar cadence while listening to some tunes. As I approached the Abingdon aid station, I saw first and second place males headed in to opposite direction significantly ahead of me (6 miles/ roughly 1 hour). Normally this would have flustered me but shit, I was third place in my first 100 miler and just said mentally “you do you and let them do them”. I pulled into the Abingdon aid station (33 miles) at 5 hours. While never truly stopping, I grabbed a newly filled soft flask, an avocado burrito, a cliff bar and was on my way. As I headed back down to the Alvarado aid station, I actually started to see people! And for Christ sake it was so nice to see civilization, smiling and high fiving civilization at that! Exchanging shouts of “good job”, “keep it up” and “you’re kickin ass” is what I’m all about and I said one of those to each and every person I saw headed in the opposing direction. I saw that the fourth place male behind me was trailing by roughly 2.5-3 miles. As much as I don’t want to admit it seeing him and lit a fire under my ass, essentially a voice that said “he’s back there and there is a long way to go”
After descending the 7 miles from Abingdon to Alvarado I came into the aid station a bit thirsty and my feet beginning to hurt pretty significantly. It was here that I picked up my first pacer, Cory Forrester. Cory greeted me with an unforgettable smile that crept out from his long brown beard. He then simply stated, “Let’s get you to the top”. As we took off I updated Cory on the pace that I had been able to hold most recently; oddly enough soon after I told him how well I was holding my goal pace, my legs got heavy/feet hurt and I slowed down (a bit embarrassing but eh). Over the course of our 10 mile descent to the Damascus aid station Cory and I were able to exchange good conversation; having never really met one another we had endless of possible topics to talk about. Topics jumped around from work, to family, to travel, to upcoming races; As we made our way to Damascus my paced unfortunately dropped into the high 9 minute miles to low 10 minute miles. The course was absolutely gorgeous; in particular the leaves had started their early change in color and the grass was still green as could be. As Cory and I rolled into Damascus at a 9:50 pace we split up to get our necessary sustenance. At this point I was 50 miles in, my feet were killing me and I had a minor tweak in my right quad. As I grabbed a variety of fuel and swapped out my soft flask, while still walking, I heard that we were gaining on the second place male slightly. I remember hearing this but I also remember not caring whatsoever; with how much my feet were hurting I was thankful for being in third. In the back of my head I was only wishing that I could hold a “cruise control” pace from here on it and hold onto third (without having to increase pace significantly, increasing the likelihood of injury and DNF). Cory and I trotted off; soon after disappearing in the distance Cory spoke up, “I’m not going to sugar coat this man, these next couple miles are going to suck and then the last three are really going to suck. We have a steady incline for a while and the last three miles is where we really hit a bit of a grade”. I acknowledged, trying not to say “fuck!”. As we ascended to Taylor’s Valley my paced felt acceptable, in retrospect my splits dropped almost by another minute! Pace was now hoovering around 10:50/mile. I was running and that is all that mattered to me. On this ascent we took several walk breaks which were nice respites that allowed me to gather my thoughts and continue to stay positive. During numerous of these walk breaks, Cory, who was leading 10-15 yards ahead of me, would look back past me ensuring that no one was gaining on us. After some time, this began freaking me out. I expressed this to him and we both got a good laugh out of it. As we made our way through the Taylor’s Valley aid station, Cory and I both refueled. All of the aid stations supplied a great variety of fuel to meet the needs of most individual’s (Fireball Whiskey included at some). At this particular aid station, I got a pickle, a hand full of bacon, a swig of ginger ale and a square of peanut butter and jelly. The bacon I took “to go”. I walked with the bacon in my hand as I washed down the other grub, continuing to move quickly past aid stations and kept putting one foot in front of another as I had planned. As enticing as the aid station was, we pressed on with minimal time lost; we continued at our previous pace towards White Top Station. About half way to the peak both Cory and I were depleted of fluids and in need of some water. Cory, being the local, knew the community members along the trail. Being opportunistic, Cory jogged off the trail instructing me to follow. He found a began filling his bottle up at an outdoor spigot. He instructed me to do the same as I obeyed with haste. As the 63-mile mark hit, I felt the increased grade but did not allow my pace to falter. About two miles from White Top Station we saw the leader and second place runner pass us going in the opposite direction. In good competitor fashion they both expressed their encouragement as they tapped out a solid pace in the opposite direction as they descended. “Run your race”, “Run with gratitude” echoed through my head. Cory and I pushed on to the top. A mile out from the aid station I reminded Cory that he needed to pass his pacer bib off to David at the turn around; he acknowledged, as he began to unhook the safety pins from his shorts while still in stride. As we approached the White Top aid station, I told Cory what I wanted for fuel; he then sprinted ahead to exchange his bib and relay the “menu selections” to my parents. I grabbed two avocado burritos, a large swig of protein chocolate milk, a refilled soft flask, a Clif bar and a canned iced espresso. I grabbed, I turned and kept moving; now in the opposite direction. I remember once again hearing in the background that we were gaining on the second place runner, who expressed he was cramping at the White Top aid station. I once again disregarded, “Run Your Race” “Run With Gratitude”.
My pacer for the final third of the race was David Hale. He would take me the last 33 miles. There was still a good amount of daylight present as Cory and I reached the White Top aid station around 6 pm (11 hours into the race). David and I also had never truly met before running together in the race, so once again there was no lack of possible conversation topics. As we descended from White Top Station I began to perk up a little; with both the downhill and caffeine helping my now heavy legs and extremely hurting feet. As we progressed towards Taylor’s Valley it began to get dark. Fellow runners who were ascending towards White Top began beaming at us one by one with their headlamps. What really gave me a boost of energy were all of the positive vibes I got from people going in the opposite direction. Having met a lot of the other Yeti runners previously, a lot of people yelled out my name with enthusiasm! This became almost comical to David as we heard my name shouted out one after another, all while we could see anyone’s face due to the darkness of the Creeper Trail. As we rolled into the Taylor’s Valley aid station we donned our headlamps and refueled. We then trotted along towards Damascus where the party had no doubt begun; the 50-mile runners had earned a good time, I hoped to soon see and hear runners enjoying music and beverages. David and I later came into the Damascus aid station after averaging a 10:00/mile 17 miles. I grabbed another iced espresso double shot and some minor fuel. We were told with excitement that we were only 10 minutes behind the second place male. Once again this did not phase me nor get me excited. I had no intention of blowing up in an attempt to catch the second-place runner. “Run Your Race” echoed in my head.
I took off at a fast walk while drinking my iced coffee and getting some additional calories in me; David had found the boiled potatoes at the aid station and stayed behind for a little while. As I continued to walk and allow for a little digestion, David caught up to me; our next goal was to make it to Alvarado Station in a timely manner, we began our cadence. About 2 miles outside of town we ran past a family sitting in their back yard around a bon fire. It was Cory Forrester! (my first pacer); he and his family made it down from White Top and were waiting to cheer me on! Cory relayed that we were 9 minutes and thirty seconds behind the second placed male and that he was looking like he was having some major problems. I acknowledged but continued on. With exception of our headlamps, the trail was pitch black. I was no longer hungry, my feet had probably never hurt so badly and my legs were respectably heavy but felt OK. During our 10 mile journey towards the Alvarado aid station we took a couple of walk breaks and had some good conversation.
At somewhere about 8 miles in, we started to see a light in the distance. This light seemed to go on, then go off; get a little closer towards us, then get a little further away from us. We noticed this light during one of our walk breaks. With the trail being open and many other people riding their bikes on it regularly we thought it was simply someone on their bike late at night. As we continued to walk for 2 more minutes this light persisted its mysterious ways. Eventually I distinctly remember saying, “Fuck it, let’s go find out what the hell this is.” After 5 minutes of a solid pace we came up on the light. It was a pacer on the side of the trail; he was standing over his runner on the side of the trail. We asked if everyone was ok, the pacer responded that everyone was fine, His runner was throwing up and not feeling well. David and I continued on at our current pace. Two to three minutes had passed in silence until I finally asked “ Was that the second placed runner?” (having not asked or assumed earlier in an attempt not to jinx myself.) David replied, “Yep”. I then resounded, “Well we aren’t going to stop fucking running from here to the finish”. Two miles later we approached the Alvarado aid station. As my crew saw that it was David and I in second as we came out of the woods they yelled and cheered. I continued through the aid station only grabbing an iced espresso; I was no longer hungry and knew that I just needed to get to the finish. We pressed on, beginning the last 7 miles to the finish.
As David and I continued to run out of the Alvarado aid station, we made it about ¾ of a mile when David spoke up. “Brian, I need to throw up, keep going.” Oddly enough this did not phase me; all I knew was that I need to keep my cadence going as a solid run pace and second place would be mine. Not knowing how long David would take, I simply thought “Ok catch up to me in a bit”. David bolted for the side of the trail as I continued on. Alone in the dark woods with only my thoughts and the view pegged by my headlamp to keep me occupied. Less than 7 miles to the finish (although I thought less at the time). As I ran all that I could think about was “where is that damn golf course? Having run this trail several times in the past I knew that when you see an adjacent golf course that you are roughly 1.5 miles from the trailhead. This must have been the longest 7 miles of my life but eventually I saw the damn golf course. I picked up my pace, knowing that I could soon collapse if I so desired. I rounded the final bend, seeing the finish line lights in the distance. I saw my mother and father at the finish line cheering. As I crossed the finish line I gave hugs to my mother, my father and Jason the race director. I then stood about somewhat wobbly before finding a nearby chair. I sat down and began to tell the tale of the last third of the race; thirty minutes after finishing David came through the finish. We greeted him with encouragement then exchanged stories. Second place, 17:10 and proud of it. I took pictures with my newly acquired buckles and plaque. We lingered around for a short while to see if the third-place finisher would come through. We then took off for our hotel for a shower and much needed respite. The experience of my first 100 Mile race was over and I couldn’t be happier with how it went.
Race Information Bullets
• Race surface: hard pack/crushed limestone/cinder (non technical)
• Gorgeous views of rolling southern Virginia Hills
• 141 trestle crossings (47 each way)
• Aid Stations: well stocked with a great variety of food
• Lodging: plenty of surrounding hotels/hostels/cabins to suite all preferences
• Race Swag: Shirt, Hat, Stickers, Vinyl Record (additional shirts/hats/sweat shirts available for purchase)
• Finishers: Belt buckle (handmade, quality, badass)
• Food Consumed
o 3 x GU gel
o 4 x 17 oz. soft flask of coconut water
o 3 x 16 oz. Powerade/Gatorade
o 1 x peanut butter Lara Bar
o 4 x avocado burritos with sea salt
o 1 x peanut butter Clif Bar
o ½ Organic Pop Tart
o ½ Banana
o ½ Lemonade Rockstar Energy Drink
o 3 x Iced Double Shot Espresso
o 2 handfuls of bacon
o 1 x Bison Epic Bar
o ¼ can Canada Dry Ginger ale
o 1 .5 x 16 oz. Powerbar Protein Chocolate Milk
o 2 x swig of Pickle Juice
o 1 bite of pickle