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Driving along route 58 into Norton there was a large stone sign recently constructed it seemed welcoming the visitors to the smallest incorporated city in Virginia. The area had been in a drought, sapping the trees of their would-be fall colors to a more muted brown, but there were some patches of fall foliage about. And boy could you see around. The town was nestled in a sort of valley with one main street lining the local businesses surrounding by towering rolling mountains that seemed endless.

Check in was at the farmers market, kind of a unique little building along the right side of main street, an open shelter but heated nonetheless. Maybe it housed many cars in its past, but today, and for the weekend, it would become the start and finish of the Cloudsplitter 100, the 100k, the 50k, and 25k distances…all to take runners up to the challenge of tackling technical single track and rugged old mountain wilderness trails through the Jefferson National forest of Appalachia. It was a footrace, one no one would soon forget, and warm memories forged despite the looming forecast.

Despite the drought, the day of the race was shadowed with a real chance of much needed showers and cooler temperatures, but not so cold it would hinder the athletes. The athletes who had taken most of 2019 to dedicate to not only finishing the Cloudsplitter, but excelling perhaps! Team BU celebrated their coming together Friday evening at a new cidery on main street.

Chelsea of Arizona, the challenges of having moved and not sure she would enjoy ultras, was there to brave her first 50k. Then there was Heather who was there doing the distance with Chelsea, but no stranger to the 50k and up, struggled with consistency in training. A familiar face was also there, Ginger, who was constantly stepping out of her comfort zone this year, signed up for the 50k as well. Richard, or Rich for short, was there in hopes to find the finish after work life presented issues for what was supposed to be his first ultra, 50k out in Golden, Colorado, extending his training another few months out.

Hoping to grind out a 100k finish was Kathryn. She quietly sat at the table and enjoyed the conversations at the end. Trevor, young and spry, was about to take on the adventure of his life: the 100 miler. Not having gone past an ultra before this year, and not past 40 mile prior, this was going to prove to be true life experience, there, along with his mother and dear younger sister. Steph was in for another 100 miler here in Norton, but since facing injury over the summer and struggling to get in the training, she had questions of what would happened out there. Ileana from North Carolina, but actually from far off Romania originally, was there for support and maybe pacing a few miles. Always smiling, she joined the other end of the table that night. Scott wedged himself in the center of the long table with his own mother, as the group shared dinner. It was a warm 70 something degrees out, sunny, and the sun set on what was a very nice day in the Virginia mountains.

Heather, Kathryn, Trevor, Rich, Chelsea in the back from left to right. Ginger and Steph in front.

Saturday race morning was controlled chaos as usual as the farmers market filled up comfortably with folks from around the world ready to roll up the mountain the best way they knew how. Being a traditional southern town, there was a short prayer before the old era musket shot off, resonating in the ear of the team inside the building. Several members of the team took off down the paved path in front of them, maybe not knowing they were in such close residence to their teammates. It was tunnel vision as the mountain loomed, the skies gray and overcast threatening rain, yet held back for the time being.

Chelsea truly having the time of her life. Her first 50k ultra marathon is being written down step by step with a grin.

The road rose steadily at first, then more quickly to meet the trail off of Legion park, where runners soon found out the wooden bridges were covered in morning dew making them slick as wet glass. Into the forest the runners rose even more, and more and more. The real climbing had begun as rapidly as the race had started. Pulses radiated in the temples as the fastest maintainable pace was determined. The ground was surprisingly moist, not too covered in rocks and roots…manageable. Dead leaves were rustled up, rocks dislodged as they tumbled down the mountainside, breathing became labored. Winds were still. Clouds surrounded everyone, shrouding bodies in misty air, faces dripping sweat every other step. This was truly Cloudsplitter.

Trevor is just beginning his journey.

The first steep climb released as it gave a final push up to a paved section that would last none too long before pouring them out onto double track, back into a steady climb where they would peak at High Knob Tower, 4000 feet above sea level. This is pretty darn high for the east coast! High Knob was where everyone got a taste of their first aid station on course. Helpful locals banned together to help these strangers out. Chelsea, Rich, Heather, all reaching the top in top spirits, taking in a few good breaths before leaving it all behind before heading out on one of the most gnarly sections of the course. Kathryn would keep a steady pace throughout, and very surly going strong. Trevor was also in, keeping up with the best. Steph and Ginger taking things a bit easier but determinedly.

Photo credit: Explore Norton, VA.

It was hard to tell, but the climbing was over and released the runners into a downhill section of rock fields, massive overgrowth and trees, and stream crossings. But the streams were not to be dealt with, for the drought had dried them up to the very core. What was a wide double track trail was now a narrow passageway through deep woods. The clouds started to rise up, but with the rise, the rain began to fall. Here and there, one could feel it, but the tree canopy provided a right amount of protection!

Rich finely displaying the humid air laying over him.

Moving feet fast through the small boulder and rock field, this section lasted forever (more so 3/4 of a mile in reality). Ankles found themselves needing more support, and the brain needed to focus in on it. Steph caught up to Ginger, who was tip-toeing around the ankle biters. This section was an out and back, meaning everyone should see each other! Steph soon was passed in the opposite direction by Rich, as they exchanged a brief sweaty and humid hug with smile a rock field wide. Running up behind Rich was Chelsea with an equally big smile on her face you couldn’t soon wipe off with any amount of rain. This was past the half way point for them already!

It was business as usual for Ginger!

If you were not physically tired, you would surely get mentally tired. Truly Cloudsplitter used your whole body. Some of the stream crossings, though dry, procured deep ravines, though small, that were very steep. The journey out to Edith’s Gap was a long one, one that would take nearly 8 miles of dedicated focus, and equal focus heading back. Edith’s Gap, out in the middle of the woods, was a great place. Friendly faces scattered across the small area offering food and drink not offered at other aid stations. Christmas light lined their camp, making merry of the gloomy day. But it was in and out. The 100k and 100 mile racers would continue on, out to Bark Camp Lake, that section way more hilly, but less technical. One more massive descent and the trail spits you out into massive rhododendron groves weaving the runners past the mountain lake off to the right.

From Bark Camp Lake, a wide open area where crew could meet their runners, it was off to the endless stream crossing segment of the trail. The rocks in the dry creek beds were like the wet backs of lizards, slimy and a bit slick. With caution on the minds of everyone, one step at a time was the new mantra. Kathryn flew back from the next aid station, Little Stony, run by a local lady who took care of her few runners that would make it there. The tooth pick flossers were a nice touch, Little Stony. Eventually, Steph would make it there, steady and easy going as she had tripped once and was soon feeling the fatigue the distance was presenting already. Trevor was out having at it, tackling the stream crossings, agile, using his age to his advantage…excited to see his sister again at the next crew station.

By this point, Chelsea and Heather were both flying back down the mountainside of which they came. One right behind the other, they hit the pavement, which signaled the last mile or so of the course. At the same time, Rich was somewhere lost. Brought to tears, he fought his way down the mountain anyway, and finding his way to the finish line where he let his emotions of finish out. Still soaked from head to toe from a mixture of high humidity and rain and sweat concoction, he accepted his medal in the confines of the farmers market.

Sweeping their fields, Chelsea and Heather conquer the 50k.

In to the finish Chelsea came with her big smile plastered now to her face as she was soon presented a hand quilted prize and a medal for her efforts. She had just placed first female of the 50k, her first 50k! Hot on her toes was Heather, bringing herself a 2nd place finish. The team had killed it with the 50k, and the rest of the team would head into the night. Ginger got her finish and a solid training run heading into the winter months. But what of Trevor, Kathryn, and Steph? For Kathryn, it meant a hard and long evening, but she managed to get back to High Knob from the rough out and back before nightfall. The sun broke out of its confines and shone on the runners left on course as the final light of day.

Kathryn focused for the evening.

The course would now take her downhill for a good stretch on an old gravel road, pitted with dried wash outs from rain long since passed. Her quads held her, as she entered the Devil’s Fork loop…at night. One of the most scenic places, but also one of the more difficult places. As the loop fell more than it rose, when it did rise, it was in the most brutal of ways: steep, narrow, and covered in an assortment of various sized rocks, none that you would want to trust more than you could throw it.

But Kathryn navigated her way like a champ, wasting no time as she entered the Devil’s Fork Parking aid station. Upon leaving, she had the climb of climbs in front of her. A solid block of nearly 10 miles of steady climbing in fact. The grind was on. First the steep section climbing out of Devil’s Fork, the old decrepit fire road littered with washouts and large granite rocks, covered in newly fallen dead leaves, making footing more difficult. It would feel like an eternity, but the course then gave way to a less steep grade, double track, and grassy road. With still no reprieve, Kathryn ends up at the Devil’s Fork Gate aid station run by the local boy scout troop. Past this is the gravel road leading back up to High Knob Tower, the final visit and it really was all downhill from there for the most part!

Kathryn had at some point joined in as a hitchhiker with another athlete. Two dudes, one participant and one pacer, were out in the woods. Those who knew the way, knew the course. She was determined to keep up and follow along. Company in ultras is a great thing. They would share more than a dozen miles, maybe two dozen, together through the evening.

If there was a place to be at night, this “road” was it. While Kathryn was destroying her 100k, which was really 69 miles in total, Steph dropped off Ileana after having her as a bright and cheery pacer as the sun trickled below the ever-changing horizons. Steph then picked up pacer Sonja who had been with her through thick and thin in ultras…for better or for worse. They slowly made their way back to Bark Camp Lake a final time.

Ileana and Sonja, crew and pacers, friends and saviors.

The 100k course just does one out and back to Little Stony, the one branch of the course, and comes back to High Knob to go out to the Devil’s Fork Loop. For the 100 miler, the course doubles back to Bark Camp Lake, not out to Little Stony, a second time before heading down for two loops at Devil’s Fork.

On the way back out to Edith’s Gap, the somewhat mid point between High Knob and Bark Camp, Steph and Sonja stumble, quite literally, on a man laying down off the side of the trail. It was Trevor, Steph asking before knowing who it was if they were ok. Steph had promised Trevor if she had found him, that Trevor would be coming with. So there they were. They dragged Trevor, fed him, and talked him through the night; Sonja being the word of the wise the whole time, and the patient human she is. Back and forth through the night they went along. The sun would rise again.

Edith’s Gap Aid Station.

Kathryn was back to High Knob and heading towards the finish in the dark. Although the darkness saturated the night, the full moon help illuminate the air, breaking the complete blackness of night. The miles that had dragged on now would come easier as the mountain pulled her back down, gravity on her side at last. As soon as Kathryn hits the pavement, it seems she is already turning the corner at the main street stop light, as soon as she makes her final right turn to head into the finish at the now glowing farmers market. With the night at her back, Kathryn runs in and is presented also with a quilt. She has done it, and won first female for the 100k! What an exhilarating experience, but now to shower and sleep.

Kathryn and her tour guides getting it done!

Back at High Knob, Steph and Trevor took off down into the depths of what soon would be Devil’s Fork Loop. Trevor dropped off soon after, and Steph headed into a low, running faded, and the sun peeked out over the ridgeline that they had traverses that night painting the sky with oranges and pinks rarely seen in the early morning. The evening had cleared all clouds and splitting the clouds remained a special treat for those running Saturday. Sunday was a new day.

Despite all that was going on, the smiles for Steph never really left.

Round and round the loop they went. Scott cropped up among a giant boulder field left barren by receded waters. Steph left Sonja at this point to head to the aid station. Sonja gave precious details to Coach Scott about Trevor.

A bit freaked out over the low and the overwhelming terrain the loop tossed at her, she requested her husband Rich, who had just finished the 50k half a day prior, to pace her out of the mess. Eagerly he agreed and got ready to head out as she ate her treasured grilled cheese, now a staple of her diet. Up and out they went as the family of Trevor’s waiting anxiously for their boy to appear at the top of the aid station stairs. His sister actually awaited at the creek side outside the station in hope of catching her big brother she loved dearly ahead of schedule.

Pacer Chelsea stepping up to the plate to help Trevor, along with Ginger, for the final 20ish miles! Think about that, after her first 50k, going out to do more. All with heart.

With the two last member of the team battling it out along the parched trails in south west Virginia, the team behind the scenes started to rally. How could they help? They had gotten word via Scott of the situation. Trevor was falling behind and needed support. Chelsea and Ginger accepted this task with gusto. They decided they would head down to meet Trevor at Devil’s Gate and take charge of the situation and help this boy get this done!

While heading up the grind that was the gravel road out of Devil’s Fork, Steph and Rich get passed by Ginger and hear the news. There she receives life saving chapstick which she will forever be grateful for. Neosporn doesn’t work too well as chapstick, even in a pinch. The duo grab up Trevor and begin their own grind with him back up the mountain. Trevor’s mom drives their car up behind while “Country Road, Take me Home” plays loudly and his sister sings with her heart out the window, hair flowing in the breeze as the sun dwindles.

Overlook at High Knob Tower, day 2.
The road back up to High Knob.

At this point, Steph is back at High Knob and passes right by, being told that she is also in first. The little fire in her is lit, and she charges down the mountain with Rich still in hand, refusing to leave her side when push comes to shove. What does running mean after 33 hours, after 90+ miles? She releases the rust in her joints and frees her muscles to begin her run down, racing the remaining light in the sky.

A little lost, a little dark, time runs on. For Trevor, time marches on with each step forward. Forward is progress. Night falls swiftly and temperatures begin to make their way down as well. Two bobbing headlamps appear quickly outside the farmers market as Steph hurtles herself into the farmers market, still slightly in panic about nearly everything unreasonably so, she is greeted by her own family and crew, along with her blanket placing first female for the 100. Tears did not come, but they were there.

Hours pass. No headlamp from Trevor and the gang of strong Team BU girls. The final hour clocks over. The radios at the farmers market from spotters on course call in. He’s coming.

Trevor is done, so what is next?!

In a flash, Trevor is rounding that gas station corner with Chelsea and Ginger by his side, family cheering loudly, and finally but surely entering the farmers market and crossing that 100 mile finish line. 39 hours after starting, it’s over in an instant.

All of Team BU has come together to help each other beyond what they came to do. More bonus miles, more bonus smiles. It takes a team. A strong team that goes through thick and thin, up and down mountains. This team has the biggest heart, as we become ultra over and over again.

Coming together at the end! Team BU! Sonja, Chelsea, Steph, Rich, Trevor, and Ginger.

If you would like to know more about Team BU and being on the team, come check us all out. Season 7 has come to a finish, several finishes, each unique and there isn’t enough time here to tell all the stories in depth, but hopefully the past podcast will paint a good picture of what was and what will be.

Stephanie Dannenberg

Steph has been running really far in really hot, cold, dry, and rainy places. She is the newest coach for Becoming Ultra and contributes on the podcast regularly!