Posted by: pointlenana | December 2, 2017

Conquer The Castle Then Take The Crooked Road

A few months ago…

HQ: “Hi, this is the fraud department at Race Registration headquarters.”

Me: “Uh, oookaaay…”

HQ: “We’re calling because we detected suspicious activity on your account.”

Me: “That doesn’t sound good.”

HQ: “We’ll get it sorted out.  Our records show that you recently signed up for the Conquer The Castle 100k – is that correct?”

Me: “Yes”

HQ: “Ok, the reason we’re calling is that someone just signed up in your name for the Crooked Road 24 Hour race.  That starts less than a week after Conquer The Castle.  No one in their right mind would sign up to do a 24 hour race that soon after a 100k.”

Me: “Yes, that’s true.”

HQ: “Oh good!  I’m glad we called.  So that wasn’t you who signed up for Crooked Road?”

Me: “Well… yeah, that was me who signed up.”

HQ: (silence)

Me: “You must talk to Sean Nakamura just about every week.”

HQ: “Yeah, we’ve become quite close – he invited us over for Thanksgiving.”

Me: “Van Phan?”

HQ: “She’s on speed dial.”

These were meant to be fun runs.  I started Conquer The Castle a year ago at the beginning of a trip to see family, but it was harder than I expected and the trip schedule was tight so I DNF’d at 75k to avoid screwing up the family part by showing up after not sleeping all night.  This year, I scheduled the same family trip with another CtC attempt at the beginning, but I gave myself more time to finish and recover after the race before travel from the race (in Cleveland) to family in KY.  Then I realized that I could stay back east for a couple extra days after the family visit and do another race – pick up another state in the world’s least ambitious 50-state attempt, run a cool trail somewhere, and/or try something new.  There weren’t many options actually – I think I found 5 within reasonable distance of my family.  I settled on the Crooked Road 24 Hour race in Virginia, mostly because I’d never done a 24 hour event and it seemed interesting after watching various friends do amazing things (American AG record – Bob Hearn, running for a national team at Worlds – Yvonne Naughton, etc.) in 24 hour races.  I was contemplating signing up for a 24 hour next year (since cancelled) near Janet’s family in CA and I figured CR24 would give me a chance to try it out in a no goals/no risk situation and see if I enjoyed running hamster wheel loops.

Conquer The Castle

This is one of those really creative big runs located in a fairly small park – a really twisty loop repeated 4 times.  Although it’s advertised as a 100k, Jim Van Orman (the winner this year and last year) just measured the loop with a wheel and the loop was closer to 27k than 25k.  So it’s more like a 108k/67 mile race than 100k/62 miles.

CtC Route

Just follow the twisty Yellow Brick Road, except it is much more likely to be six inches of dried yellow leaves hiding roots that like to grab feet.  The North Chagrin Reservation (just east of Cleveland) is not much bigger than 2 miles by 1 miles, but each lap is 16+ miles. 

Last year I ran the first loop ahead of Jim Van Orman – not a very smart approach since I knew he was a lot faster than me.  But the race starts at noon and I knew it would get dark towards the end of the second loop so I wanted to cover some ground.  It went fine and I eventually eased back.  There were lots of leaves on the course and I went down hard a few times during the second lap when my feet collided with hidden roots.


My friend Beth took some pictures of the course after last year’s race.  Really well-marked, and (but?) the race director Eddie does his best to maximize the number of the leaves on the trail to give us the the best experience.  He did a better job with leaves last year than this year though – this year the trail was bare in spots.


Here, the trail is obvious – who needs flagging when you’ve got disturbed leaves to mark the way?

After that it was fine until the third lap when I tripped over a grain of sand on a downhill behind Squires Castle – I went down hard again but this time kept going down until the friction of my face sliding against rocks slowed me.  When I got up it was clear I was bleeding, and when I got a band aid at the next aid station they told me “you might want someone to look at that – you might need stitches”.  I continued and planned to finish but as I finished the 3rd lap I realized I was on track to finish early in the morning and might have to go to the ER after that – dropping and being awake for family made more more sense than continuing.  I think I was in 4th place when I dropped.  Luckily the doctor friend I was staying with was still awake when I arrived back at their house – she consulted with Janet, we collectively decided stitches might be more trouble than benefit, and my friend patched me up well enough so I didn’t end up with a scar.  (Thanks Beth and Dan!)


That was last year.  This year, I just wanted to finish – I suspected I was still tired from Moab 240 a month before, and I had the really-poor-judgment 24 hour race to do a week later.

I did start with Jim Van Orman – I introduced myself and we talked a little about the Santa Barbara 100 we had both signed up for last year.  But I let him go after about 5 minutes and settled into a steady pace.


That’s me in the red/gray hat, smart enough this year to start (just) behind Jim Van Orman in blue with the black hat.  Photo: Stu Siegfried (thanks!)

There’s not a ton to say about the race.  There were fewer leaves in spots than last year, so it was easier to stay upright.  I didn’t push on the downhill behind Squires Castle, so I finished without an ugly cut under my eye.  The volunteers were as amazing this year as they were last year – I had mistakenly assumed that non-west-coast people would somehow not be awesome ultra community, but they are at least as awesome as west coast people.  I managed the cold better – last year I was pretty cold but this year tights and a sweater layer kept me comfortable during the last 2 laps.  I had fun running for a while with a guy named Tyler who was doing his first run longer than 50k.  During the 3rd or 4th lap it snowed very lightly for a little while – that was really pretty in the light of my headlamp.


Tyler and me.  Photo: Stu Siegfried.

I did learn something – in the really rooty sections it’s much less trippy to run lifting feet up high than to walk carefully, since I tripped hard and often when I was walking but generally was fine when I ran.  It’s so hard to do though, knowing that a running trip is more likely to end in a fall, and as legs get tired.


Carefully noting the roots ahead.  Photo: Stu Siegfried.

I finished just before 3am, in about 15 hours, 8th out of 20. (And second 40+ male finisher, behind Jim Van Orman who won overall.)  I hung out at the finish for a few hours, mostly to avoid waking my friends up in the middle of the night.

I did get a Sir Runsalot finishers medal for my efforts.  This is probably my favorite race medal – it’s handmade by the race director.  All finishers get one, so you can get one for as little as 25k/16 miles.  Between last year and this year, I had to run 175+k to get mine.


Sir Runsalot

Crooked Road 24 Hour

This was supposed to be a no-risk fun run.  I always need to set a goal for any run I do though – I’m just wired that way.  For Crooked Road the obvious goal was running 100 miles in less than 24 hours – I’d never done that before.  I got myself in trouble though by looking at past results for the race – the winning distance for the past few years has been slightly more than 100 miles.  If it was reasonable for me to run 100 miles in 24 hours, it was almost as reasonable to think I could win the race.  There are not many races where I have a non-0% chance of winning, and at the age of 55 it’s not likely this is going to change for the better.  Over the space of a few days my goal went from “fun race” to win the race – it seemed a shame to pass the opportunity by, even though I would probably still be recovering from Moab and would definitely be fatigued from a 100k a week before.  That took away some of the lightheartedness.

I looked at the entrants list in UltraSignup to assess the competition.  A few former race winners, a handful of people who had the experience to do well, and some faster (and often younger) people who hadn’t run farther than 50k/50 miles.  Looking at past results for the race, the 3 best distances were 139 miles (several years ago), 122 miles and 110 miles.  After considering a few possible distance goals, I finally settled on pacing for 125 miles.  All the data I had indicated that would likely be enough to win.  125 might or might not be realistic, but probably would get me far enough into the race that I could adjust or give up as needed.

My friend Bob Hearn (who has set the American men’s 50-54 age group record twice in the past couple years) uses an even pacing strategy – figure out how many miles you want to run, start at that pace, and try to finish at the pace.  I had a chance to talk to Courtney Dewaulter after Moab – she holds the American women’s 24 hour record – and she also said even pacing is the way to go.  The laps at Crooked Road are a bit less than 1.2 miles – I did some math and decided I’d aim for 13 minute laps, which would get me about 125 miles depending upon things like bathroom breaks.  Bob was kind enough to look over my plan, and told me that if I was running too fast in the beginning to compensate by walking more.

After Conquer The Castle, I traveled on to Kentucky, had a nice visit with family, then drove through West Virginia to Rocky Mount in Virginia where Crooked Road is held.


Gratuitous picture of West Virginia because the state is pretty.  I went into a Starbucks there wearing a bright yellow Asics rainjacket.  All the guys I saw had camo jackets on.  Which one of these is not like the other?

I had assumed the path was basically flat.  It is basically flat relative to mountain trails, but when I walked the path the day before the race I noticed some ups and downs.  Not a lot – maybe 50 feet of climbing per loop, but multiplied by ~100 loops it’s a lot more climbing than a 24 hour track event.  I decided it was a good thing though – a little more variety for my muscles.  As if I had a choice.

The race eventually started (just like this blog post eventually gets around to talking about the race), and had 3 phases:

Phase 1:  Everyone Runs Away From Me

I started at my 13 minutes/lap pace, which was meant to be running at 10:30/mile with 1 minute of walking per lap.  Except that I quickly found out I couldn’t run slow enough.  Instead of 10:30 it was high 9’s or on a really good lap maybe 10:05.  I was also walking faster than I had estimated – maybe 15 minutes/mile instead of 18.  As a result, all my early laps were more like 12:20 than 13:00.  I made my walk breaks longer, and gradually settled on splitting the walking into three sections – up the one notable hill early in the loop, again on the back stretch, and just after the aid station.  I tried to slow down the running.  Still, it wasn’t until my 24th lap (close to 30 miles into the race) that I finally completed a lap slower than 13:00 (13:02).

In the meantime, the entire race passed me, lapped me, and in some cases lapped me several times.  There were a couple young guys up front flying along – I figured that either they were planning on finishing early or would eventually implode.  One that had me worried was Davy Crockett – he won last year, has an impressive race resume, and was several laps ahead of me after a few hours.  I knew some of the other people ahead had won the race before too.


Working my way backwards – I’m in the green jacket/white cap towards the back.  Photo: Matt Ross (thanks!)

(My Davy Crockett story:  When I ran my first 100 – Cascade Crest – a few years back, I was about 25 miles into the race and wanting to get to the next aid station.  I heard very faint music ahead and decided it must be the aid station.  I ran for a while, and I could still barely hear the music.  The aid station didn’t come.  More running, more faint music, and no aid station.  I traveled 3 or 4 miles – how is it possible to hear music that far ahead in the mountains? – and finally arrived at the aid station, where there was noise and music.  I left the aid station, and soon after started hearing the music again, louder this time.  Shortly after, I caught up to a runner – who was singing.  I looked at the splits afterwards to figure out who had led me on: Davy Crockett.)

It was unsettling to want to win and yet move backwards in the pack that quickly and consistently for hours on end.  I had to tell myself repeatedly that the others were running too fast (probably) and would eventually come back to me.  The timekeepers at the start/finish had a big screen tv displaying interim results.  Mostly it just showed people’s lap times as they came through.  One time a few hours into the race it had a leaderboard with the top ~30 people – I glanced at it but realized I wasn’t anywhere close to those people.   I decided not to look at the screen for a long time – no useful information for me so it would just be wasted time.

One disadvantage to my start slow/stay slow/finish slow plan was that it made me somewhat antisocial.  Normally, after a few miles in a race I end up with people roughly my speed and there’s a chance to talk. This time, the people who were ahead would move by fairly quickly when they lapped me.  The ones who were on my pace were mostly in no hurry and would stop for a while at the aid station or take longer walking breaks.   Everyone seemed quite friendly (it’s an ultra after all) and I did talk to a few people.  One guy had run a half-marathon race in the morning and was trying to get in at least a marathon at Crooked Road.  Another fast guy who lapped me several times in the early going had some kind of Marines shirt on – I notice those things with our son Wyatt in the Marines.  I happened to sync up on a walking break with the Marine-shirt guy – named John – he’d never run more than 50k (I think) before and was trying to see how far he could get, hopefully 100 miles.  I crossed paths a lot with a friendly blond woman but she was with friends and we never actually traveled together for any length of time.  At some point I met Alan Doss, who was on my short list of possible competitors for the win.  He’d noticed me in the UltraSignup list and remembered that I had done Moab.  We chatted for a bit but then he took off running way faster than I wanted to go.  Mostly I listened to music and let the time pass.


The race happens around a big lacrosse field in woods, kind of in the middle of nowhere.  Photo: Matt Ross

My plan to start slow no matter what began to make sense about 30 miles in when my legs started feeling way more tired than they should 1/4 of the way into the race.  I figured it was residual fatigue from other races – and expected that – but it reminded me that I needed to be able to keep going at a decent pace for 24 hours, not accumulate a bunch of miles in the early going and then fall apart.  Slow and steady, slow and steady.  I did try to keep going though – very brief slowdowns at the aid station or to get stuff from my drop bag, but otherwise moving forward.

Phase 2 – The Transition

Bob Hearn told me I wanted to be midpack halfway through the race.  I was definitely there, if not further back, about 6 hours in.  As expected, or at least hoped for, things started shifting.  People stopped lapping me so quickly, and after a while stopped lapping at all.  Then I started catching people who had lapped me earlier and even lapped some of them.  The younger guy way out in the front at the beginning seemed to be walking a lot.  I continued on – running in the 10s and walking for 30 seconds/20 seconds/20 seconds in the usual spots around the loop.


Space Needle/Seven Hills Running Shop shirt – representing our great local running store that specializes in trail running.  Photo: Matt Ross

I never figured out my nutrition before the race, partly because I’m lazy and partly because I didn’t have a clear sense for what would be available at the race nor would I have crew supporting me with special concoctions.  I brought a huge pile of Gu and had them out at my drop bag (the RD had brought me a chair I could set my stuff in since I was traveling and wouldn’t have crew).  I used Gu for a couple hours but then started grabbing pb&j’s at the aid station.  In addition to the usual sodas (plus 5 different flavors of Gatorade!), they also had sweet tea so I started drinking that for the calories and caffeine.  This all worked great for a while, but sometime during the afternoon my stomach went a bit off.  I’m told it was the warmest-ever Crooked Road – it wasn’t really warm but it was probably warm enough to cook myself just a little bit.  I started in on the Ginger Ale, hoping it would settle the stomach.  It stayed a little unhappy until well into the night but mostly cooperated.  At some point I grabbed my handheld and filled it with sweet tea, figuring that frequent tiny sips might work better than one or two cups of fluid every 1-2 laps.  I continued to slip some solid calories in – a bite of doughnut, pb&j, oreos, an occasional gel, soup of various flavors (that potato soup was really good!).


The Gatorade selection.

Early in the evening, about 12 hours in, I stopped to look at the leaderboard.  In addition to the screen with recent lap times, they had started writing the leaders by hand on a whiteboard.  The first time I looked, it said I was in 7th place (sorry Bob – not midpack at the halfway point).  The next time – 5th, with the leader just 2 or 3 laps ahead.

I got really sleepy early in the evening.  After shuffling slowly for a lap or two, I finally gave in, dumped my stuff out of the chair, and lay on the ground with my feet/legs up in the chair hoping to doze off for a couple minutes.  I figured a small reset wouldn’t put me much further behind, and might help a lot later.  I lay there for about 10 minutes, maybe dozing for a minute, until I felt cold, and then continued on.  After that I didn’t have a problem with sleepiness.

Around 10pm (14 hours race time), I saw that I was in 3rd, and the hunt was on.  First was a guy named Rick Gray – he hadn’t been on my short list before the race because although he seemed plenty fast and has a long impressive running resume, he had done two long races in the preceding two weeks.  (We will conveniently ignore my CtC 100k at this point in the race report.)  I was pretty sure 2nd was the guy who had run really fast for a long time and then did one lap walking barefoot and then much slower laps after that.  Rick was in a yellow shirt and I started looking for him on the course.  The course is a small loop and big loop, connected by a bridge that we’d run over at the beginning and end of the big loop.  I’d see the yellow shirt come out of the bridge on one lap, and then see if I had gained or lost ground after the next lap.  It looked like I was gaining.

Unfortunately, my stomach suddenly rebelled – I scrambled off to the side and did a quick emptying.  (Maybe it was that baby dill pickle I ate a half mile before?  “Hmmm – I’ll try that.  What could go wrong?”) The next time through the aid station I decided to lie down briefly hoping to complete the reset.  The rain had started by then so I ducked up by the bathrooms and lay on the concrete under the roof for a couple minutes.  That seemed to settle things and I didn’t really have problems after that – probably because it had cooled off.

For someone from Seattle, the rain and cool night wasn’t a problem.  I ran in shorts, a smartwool top, gloves, and arm sleeves.  When I got a little cold, I pulled the sleeves up.  When I got warm I pushed them down.  It was kind of windy but it never rained really hard, and I was pretty comfortable most of the night.  I was still running a fair amount, whereas others were slowing and having to don clothing.


Plugging ahead.  I like how the Seven Hills logo lights up – nice job Phil!

Roughly 16 hours into the race I pulled by Rick Gray in the darkness and took over first place.

Phase 3: Prevent Defense

After Crooked Road, I read a really nice post from Laz Lake (Barkley RD) in a Facebook group called Running Against Time, where he explained how to run a 24 hour race (e.g. “Plan to run for 24 hours.”).

Up until I took the lead, I had executed decently for a 24 hour race.  Keep moving, minimize stops, steady pace.  It wasn’t perfect – stomach issues, stopping for a dirt nap, pacing a little erratic, etc. – but I knew going in that tired legs wouldn’t lead to a huge distance total.  Once I was in the lead though, I abandoned any thought of seeing how far I could go in 24 hours.  I just had to stay ahead of people behind me.  Actually, it was worse than that – I started having fantasies about getting far enough ahead that I could walk the rest of the way or even stop early.  Definitely not channeling Laz Lake.

I moved ahead, roughly on plan.  But I added a little bit to my walking breaks – 4 breaks of 20 seconds each, then 30 seconds each, walk this running section here, and maybe that one too, etc. – and didn’t move quite as quickly through the aid station.  The priority was avoiding any major issue, not maximizing my distance.  The leaderboard was only updated occasionally so most of the time I didn’t have a clear picture of where I was.  I didn’t seem to pass people like Rick – I was definitely looking and hoping to lap them but it wasn’t happening.  But somehow I did lap them (I think they must have stopped somewhere, or dropped out entirely – e.g. Davy Crockett disappeared long before the race was done) and I eventually had a 2 lap (~2.4 mile) lead.

With 4 hours left in the race, I was feeling pretty confident.  I had a long walk break talking with Alan Doss – he said I was running as much as anyone and it looked like I had the win sewn up.  While we were talking and walking, someone in an orange windbreaker trotted by.

With 3 hours left, the orange windbreaker went by again – I watched the person pull away for a bit, and then went “S&^%!  Who is that?”  I ran after the person, skipping walk breaks for close to a mile and running a little faster than I wanted to, just so I could pass the start/finish at the same time as the other person and find out our relative positions.  Good thing.  The people at the start said “Kerry – 85 laps!  Mark – 87 laps!”  Ok, so I was still ahead but this guy Kerry seemed to be pretty strong and not too far back.  I caught him, and we traveled together for a bit and talked.  He said I was too far ahead to catch, and I told him 3 hours was a long time so I was worried.  Somehow my walk break ended before his and I pulled ahead, knowing that I couldn’t be a complete slacker for the rest of the race like I had hoped.

Two more hours passed – one hour to go – and I started feeling confident again.  I could probably walk for the hour and do ~3.6 miles.  Someone would have to run at least 6 miles in that hour to catch me.  Not impossible, but unlikely.  I stopped for a moment at my drop bag and put on my custom Dauwalter/Walmsley shorts, in silent appreciation of two people who’ve inspired me (and because Courtney Dauwalter basically dared me to wear them after I posted a picture on Facebook.)

Taken with Lumia Selfie

The sweet-looking Dauwalter/Walmsley shorts.  I decided not to wear them for the whole race because I was afraid my leg hairs would snag in the holes and tear a big chunk of flesh out of my leg.

I walked along chatting with two people who were talking about their friend Kerry who was having a great race.  “No kidding – he’s had me running scared for the past two hours!”  As we were talking, someone flew past and they said “way to go Kerry!”.  Uh-oh.  I bolted again and caught Kerry.  We had a really nice lap together, talking (among other things) about old age and dementia – my visit to KY was in part to see my dad who might have recognized me this time.  I suggested to Kerry that we might be far enough ahead that we could walk a final victory lap together, stop 30 minutes early, and still finish 1 and 2.  We checked carefully at the start/finish, seemed to have enough of a lead, and walked around the course one last time.  At about 23:35 we declared ourselves done.  114+ miles for me, 112- miles for Kerry.


Kerry and me, during our victory lap.  Photo: Matt Ross


Are we done?  (Note the Dauwalter/Walmsley shorts…) Photo: Matt Ross



Kerry and I checking very carefully to see if we could finally stop.  Photo: Matt Ross

This is probably the only race where I’ve had had official duties during the awards ceremony.  Because the Crooked Road is a country music scenic route in the area, the winners’ trophies are a small banjo (the second time you win you get a fiddle).  I finally met the friendly blond woman – Cindy Barbour who won the woman’s race, set a VA state AG record for 24 hours, and finished 5th overall.  I was somewhat relieved to hear that Cindy had stopped a little early too because her lead was big enough and she was past 100 miles.  I thanked RD Ricky Scott and every volunteer I could find for a really-well run race.  By the time I packed up my stuff and was ready to leave, the place was empty except for the last few volunteers loading stuff in trucks.


Cindy and I modeling with our bling.  Photo: Matt Ross


The 10 100+ mile finishers, including one who wasn’t quite ready to get vertical again.  Photo: Matt Ross

I’m really happy with the win, but Most Impressive Race definitely goes to Kerry Alexander.  He’d never run more than 50 miles before, has a really busy life and probably can’t train like I do, and probably didn’t have American AG record holders advising him.  He ran a really smart race, and until I talked him into quitting early, was on track to finish just as his fuel tank was reaching empty.  Well done!

Kudos to everyone who was out there.  Ricky Scott sent this out recently: “Some interesting items to note, not only did we have 10 folks go over 100 miles, but we had 48 do at least 100k, 76 do at least 50 miles and 117 go beyond the marathon distance. That’s over 90% of those that started!”

And thank you to Ricky, the timing folks at Kilted Timing, and all the volunteers – you were all awesome!  As I’ve said before, this is actually a team sport and all the non-runners play a huge role in getting people to the finish.


Ricky and his team put on a really nice event.  Photo: Matt Ross

Some other thanks:

  • Beth and Dan, for hosting me again in Cleveland.
  • my sister Lisa and Charles for a nice stay (and successful recovery) in Kentucky
  • Bob Hearn for the advice and confidence (after the race I saw a post in Running Against Time where Bob predicted before the race that I’d win)
  • Janet for being there as always, and for letting me go visit my dad just a few days after the memorial service for her dad.

This isn’t race-related, but my streak of unlikely celebrity runner sightings after races continues…  I’ve run into Lauren Fleshman on a plane after Janet and I volunteered at Western States, Shalane Flanagan at the airport after San Diego 100, and Jenn Shelton during/after CIM last year.  This time I was walking through Seatac after arriving back from Virginia, looked at someone in the terminal, and had to ask: “Are you Seth Swanson?”  (2nd at Western States when I ran it, 4th at UTMB that same year).  Yep.

Taken with Lumia Selfie

As a friend says, photos or it didn’t happen.  Seth Swanson is, of course, a really nice guy. 







  1. More great races for you. Two thoughts:
    1. You are basically Close Personal Friends with Courtney! So jealous, she seems so neat.
    2. 5 flavors of Gatorade?? I love it.

  2. Wow, nice write-up! I’ve never run a race longer than 26.3 (Sehgahunda), but you’ve got me thinking……I know the Chagrin River well, BTW. Enjoy the day!

  3. Awesome Mark, inspiring as always!

  4. […] Full race report and more photos at: […]

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