Sunrise from Signal Knob, taken in the early miles of the 2014 Reverse Ring.

Keith Knipling

Trying to Beat the Curse

by Samantha Neakrase

I’m pretty sure the Reverse Ring is cursed.

How can you explain my inability to complete a race for the second time when I’ve completed another race on the exact same course, albeit in reverse, five consecutive times, each time several hours under the cutoff?

Sam Neakrase

How can you explain how the trails on which I’ve run 100s of miles in various iterations in addition to the Ring (MMT100, Elizabeth Furnace, MMT training runs, club runs, solo 50ks) foil me over again when they are billed under the name “Reverse Ring”?

When you are dumb enough to keep coming back to the scene of prior epic failures, you’re able to build a colorful picture in your head of the nuances of each failure. How were they similar? What went wrong on that occasion that went right this time? Or vice versa? You can compare the temperature, the precipitation, what you were wearing, who you were running with, what you ate the night before, where you stayed, searching for clues for the next time. And if you’re OCD like me, you will obsess over those clues years later.

My first attempt was in 2018 when I first became eligible after my 2017 Ring finish. I think I went into it assuming I would finish. Why not? I had just run my first Ring in under 24 hours, finished Pinhoti 100 without crew or pacer, and was fit and in the midst of a solid MMT training block. Complacency - assuming that just because you did something hard before you can again - has always spelled trouble for me. It’s easy to forget that the past does not predict the future.

My Facebook memory five years to the day of this year’s Reverse Ring shows me excited and oh so innocent at the start of that year’s Reverse Ring and hamming it up at aid stations with my pink skirt, Houdini, and $1 poncho. But the photos end soon after. Somewhere between Edinburg Gap (mile 22) and Crisman Hollow Road (mile 36) the train went off the rails ending in a magnificent meltdown at Crisman Hollow Road where I refused to continue, yelling (while pointing to the trail) “I am not going down there”!!!

Sam’s 2020 Reverse Ring track

I brought many lessons from 2018 to the current year: it was cold and raining, the leaves were wet and slippery and slowed me down, I didn’t change from skirt to tights at Moreland Gap, all my gloves were wet and I didn’t have extra dry ones, and I was cold and miserable. Even worse, my mind slowly slipped into the black vortex of doom, from which it is almost impossible to extricate oneself. I mean, how is one to voluntarily continue in the dark, cold, rain knowing that after 10 more miles to the next aid station, your reward will be to spend another 26 miles seeing aid only one time? You can only do so if you have the mental fortitude in that moment to know you want to and can finish. And I didn’t have it in 2018.

Sam’s 2020 Reverse Ring splits

I said that this year’s Reverse Ring was my second attempt. Well, I neglected to mention that in 2020 I did run part of Reverse Ring. I needed a 50k training run so decided to run only the first 30 miles of Reverse Ring. I had just returned from a stressful two-week work trip to Austria and Russia and was jet lagged, but I enjoyed the run and ran at a good pace, so much so that Q was trying to convince me to continue, goading me on by telling me I was 3rd female. Feeling great, I sat down in my chair at Moreland Gap, cracked open a beer, and enjoyed transitioning to heckler without any regret. My Facebook post that day said that I looked forward to coming back the next year…. Of course, looking back, I wish I had continued because it was perfect weather - maybe once in a lifetime weather for Reverse Ring - and there was no “next year” (remember the pandemic?)

Sam’s 2023 Reverse Ring track

In any case, even though that was not an official race attempt, I carry some lessons from that run. I remember hustling up Signal Knob passing people and dancing across the rocks (by February 2020 I had run the Ring three times and had a ton more experience on those rocks, and running on them was one of my main strengths). I remember being shocked when Adeline Ntam passed me on top of Signal Knob (wait, she was behind me?) and when Ashley Carr passed me at Woodstock (wait, she was also behind me?). I remember enjoying the rocks and the leaves. I remember enjoying Short Mountain (!!). I remember my legs felt fresh despite my jet lag.

Too bad I couldn’t transport that person to 2023.

Sam’s 2023 Reverse Ring splits

I had sort of given up on coming back to Reverse Ring and signed up for this year’s Reverse Ring a couple of weeks ago because I needed something to replace Tarawera, which I missed when we had to leave New Zealand early to avoid a massive cyclone.

In my mind, I reviewed the details from 2018 and 2020 and made my plan.

The forecast showed it would be cold - colder than prior years - but it would not be wet. No wet slippery leaves to contend with. Good news. Even so, be prepared. Pack multiple gloves, a rain jacket, extra hat, extra layers, and wear the tights. CHECK

Nick wasn’t going to be able to come, so I knew I would be solo, but I’ve done solo before and during my first Ring in 2017 (before Nick was in the picture) I relied on that roving drop bag. Hey, keeping it simple is good. Less time at aid stations. Pack what you need, rely on the food at the aid stations, and keep moving. CHECK

I know the rocks like the back of my hand. I know the sections. I know what it’s like out there. I know not to get psyched out by the slow terrain. I am mentally ready for this because this is my territory. I am mentally ready because I have done all the things I need to do to complete Reverse Ring at one time or another in the past. CHECK

I am motivated to get a finish after not having an official race finish of any distance (other than a timed race) since October 2021. I want the finish. I even want to experience the weird and wonderful pain of running through the night. Bring it on, pain cave.

Sam bundled up for the chilly start line

Standing at the start with the 14 other intrepid runners, I joked with John Calabrese that I was guaranteed a podium finish because Kathleen Cusick and I were the only women in the field. I swear that the moment those words came out of my mouth I feared that I had jinxed myself by assuming I would finish. Remember, complacency is a killer for me. But I shook those thoughts out of my head. Jinxing is not a “thing.”

Following the 2020 playbook, I hustled up Signal Knob passing several people and did my dance over the rocks and headed down the fire road. But something felt different. In 2020 I felt light as a feather like I was having the time of my life. This year, my legs felt heavy. It was an effort to get myself over those rocks.

The rocky Massanutten trails never disappoint

FIRST LESSON: Just because I danced up those rocks in 2020 when I were in peak fitness and 7lbs lighter doesn’t mean I should have done so this year. Sure, make a go of it, but if it doesn’t feel right, SLOW DOWN!

On the fire road I tried to ignore the heaviness in my legs. I was focused on getting past that section and back on the trail and making good time. I was solely focused on getting to Crisman Hollow Road before dark. I needed to buy time so I could feel comfortable doing a lot of walking in the later (and harder) stages of the race. It did not even occur to me at this point in the race that I should be concerned with earlier cutoffs.

John Calabrese caught up with me (yes, I was going too fast if John didn’t catch up with me until 7 miles into a race) and we ran together all the way to Woodstock. Marty Fox caught us a couple of miles before Woodstock and we all ran together.

SECOND LESSON: When your legs are feeling tired 6 miles into a race, DO NOT run with John Calabrese. SLOW DOWN AND RUN AT YOUR OWN PACE. John - I loved hanging with you and chatting, but I should have slowed down.

Sam arrives at Woodstock Tower with Marty Fox

A couple miles before Woodstock I was really feeling the energy level drop. Legs were heavy. Negative thoughts started swirling. Marty, in his great wisdom, without me having said a word, asked if I was getting enough calories. I told him I had eaten a few chews but I didn’t want to take the time to stop and it was hard to eat on the move with my poles. Marty graciously offered to hold them for me so I could eat a few bites while moving.

THIRD LESSON: Why, after all these years, do I still not remember to eat early and often and not wait until I feel that weak feeling take hold? It’s not hard. EAT!!!!

FOURTH LESSON: After dozens of races, including the Ring, MMT, etc. without using my poles, I’ve recently started using them as a sort of crutch or safety blanket to make up for my lack of confidence in my ability to climb. Someone needs to slap me in the face and yell “hosh posh”! Those poles slow me down because I start leaning on them and zoning out instead of relying on my actual body, and I cannot eat and run while holding them. STOP USING POLES UNLESS YOU ARE IN DIRE NEED LATER IN THE RACE!

We arrived at Woodstock. The one good thing I had done before Woodstock was stop to take a salt tablet. I had felt the beginnings of cramping on my shin muscles and knew from past experience to just stop and take the salt tablet. I had also packed pickle shots in my drop bag so I downed one of those at the aid station. I had some broth, grabbed another pack of chews, and drank some coke (another lesson from past races is that I get super tired and I have to drink copious amounts of coke).

The lightest of snowfalls decorated the morning trail across Powells Mountain

I made a good choice by letting Marty and John run off without me (in full Richard Dreyfus mode, I told John “Don’t wait for me!” - points for those who know the movie reference). Although I loved their company and it was a nice distraction to talk to them, I needed to slow down before I blew up. I also hate feeling like I’m holding other people up, so I’m usually more relaxed if I’m on my own. Even so, although I was now able to move at a more sustainable pace, I found my legs continued to be so heavy that it was an effort to pick them up over the rocks. And that feeling of not making any progress, even though I should know that that’s just how things are, was getting to me. I was using a running style that I use in the last 20 or miles at the Ring. I run a few steps, then fast walk a few steps, and then repeat this over and over. This allows me to keep going at a decent pace without actually having to run continuously. But, I was doing this now, barely a half marathon into the race.

FIFTH LESSON: Despite saying over and over and over that I need to do strength training I am fessing up here for all to see. I HAVE NOT DONE SO AND THAT IS REALLY BAD. Ok I said it. I am really going to try. I need my legs and butt and hips and core to help me, not hinder me. Oh, and those poles. If I didn’t have them, I think my body would have moved much more freely and easily, but instead they became unwieldy sticks I had to carry.

The beauty of having run these trails so many times is that you know the familiar signs that you are getting close to the next aid station. The curse of it is that you know the familiar signs and when you do not see them, and continue not to see them, and still don’t see them, you get REALLY mad. You start cursing the rocks. You start cursing the trail. You wonder how anyone can enjoy such monotony and call it “beauty.” Basically, you turn into a monster.

I had checked my pace chart which shows “unofficial” cutoffs at the aid stations - the time by which you need to arrive to know you will make the actual cutoffs. I had started doing mental calculations to see if I could make it from Edinburg Gap to Moreland Gap (mile 30) by the 4pm cutoff. From past experience, I knew that it could take me three or more hours to get over Short Mountain depending on whether it is dark, how tired I am, etc. and I was not feeling spry. I began to worry not only about not making the cutoff but about being that person who makes the volunteers wait and wait for you when you knew you were never going to make it. However, my pace chart said I could still be ok if I got to Edinburg by 1:16pm and I was certain to get there before then.

I was glad when I finally got to the familiar descent into Edinburg. Oh hooray, downhill rocks! Those are my favorite! (I’m actually serious.) Oh, but wait, I had neglected to tell you about THE SNOW! Beautiful snow which, oh by the way, made the leaves and rocks a little slippery. My lack of confidence, tired legs, and fear of the wet leaves after my 2018 episode made me pick my way slowly down the trail instead of flying down in wild abandon. It was a bummer not to be able to enjoy the downhill and take advantage of one my strengths. However, seeing the aid station boosted my mood. It was 1pm. Still viable to make it to Moreland Gap by 4pm, even if it would be tight.

I knew I wanted to put on a good face and smile for Alex, Bur, and Charlene. I didn’t want to disappoint them by being a Debbie Downer. So, I had the most glorious grilled cheese and avocado rice and broth. Mmmm. Such great food and such great people. But, oh the horror on their faces when I opened up my pack to fill my bladder (my first refill so far) to find… almost full bladder!!! Yikes. So, I didn’t eat for the first 10 miles and barely drank for the first 22 miles? Not great.

Sam reloading her bladder at Edinburg ahead of her climb up Short Mountain

SIXTH LESSON: Why oh why do I not learn. People have told me over and over and over and over (and over and over) to drink more. At my first Ring, I arrived at Camp Roosevelt with a half full bladder!!! I remember Dan Aghdam chastising me and telling me I needed to drink more. No wonder I was lethargic and in a bad mood. I was dehydrated. And those Tailwind calories in my pack? Useless if I wasn’t drinking.

I left Edinburg without hesitation. I knew I needed to continue this race until I was pulled. There would be no dropping out because I was cold, tired, scared, [insert DNF adjective of choice.] But I’m a realist. I had 3 hours to cover 8 miles over some of the gnarliest terrain and a section that just messes with my mind. And I was starting to get cold.

Climbing up onto the ridge, my legs continued to feel heavy. My run/shuffle/fast walk strategy was not having the desired effect. I kept stopping to catch my breath. I continued to snack on my mini Oreos and chips to keep the calories coming. (Though still not really drinking much.) I was now also keeping a close eye on the mileage on my watch and the time. I would look at my watch and say, ok I’ve gone 3 miles since Edinburg, I’ve got 5 miles to go and I know at least the last mile of the section is runnable. And it’s 2:15pm. Ok. Keep going.” Every 10 minutes, I would do the same math.

Because the trees were bare there were no leaves to block the wind. On top of the ridge it was cold and windy. I was shivering. And my feet, which had been wet since the fire road section, were numb with cold. I know that in the past I have neglected to fix being cold because I didn’t want to waste time stopping. Luckily, at the last minute before the race started, I had packed a warmer set of clothes in my pack: hat (I was wearing only a warm head band at the start), my warmer pair of gloves (I was wearing a thinner pair at the start), and a warm rain jacket (I was wearing my Houdini at the start). In some sort of miraculous forethought, I had also put hand warmers in my pack. I would usually say putting those things in my pack is overkill, but I put ALL of those things on. To recap, I was wearing a hat, a buff, a short-sleeved shirt, arm warmers, a Houdini, and waterproof jacket, tights, two pairs of gloves with arm warmers. The only thing I couldn’t warm up was my wet, cold feet. However, it took me three stops to rummage around for something to stay warm, put it on, keep going, and then realize I was still cold, and then rummage around some more, then futz with my gloves, then this and that additional futzing.

Tracy and Freyja, waiting for Sam at Moreland Gap

Despite all this extra gear I was STILL cold and shivering. My drop bag only had one additional pair of gloves and a change of shirt, plus an additional thin layer, so I started worrying how I would deal with 10+ hours overnight in the cold if I was shivering already. Well, for better or worse I didn’t have to find out.

By 3:30pm I knew it was over. I had 30 mins until the cutoff but I knew I had maybe 2 miles to go. Again, knowing the section, I know that once you head down hill you have a million rocks ahead of you and once you get to the road you still have a mile to the aid station. I was tempted to just hike and enjoy the scenery. I had taken some moments in that section to simply stare at the horizon, but I also didn’t want folks waiting around in the cold for me. So, I pressed on. I reached the road after 4pm. I had heard a dog barking for some time and I swore it was Freyja (I knew Tracy was at the aid station). The dog barking felt like a mirage in the desert, but was the light at the end of the tunnel.

SEVENTH LESSON: I needed to stop just once and figure out what I needed to do instead of stopping multiple times fussing with gear and getting frustrated. I shouldn’t have been troubleshooting like this on the fly trying to figure stuff out. I should have had a plan. I knew it was going to be below freezing. And I should have packed better backup layers in my drop bag. If I had made it to Moreland Gap by 4pm I would have needed something to bolster what I was wearing, or risk getting even colder.

Short Mountain and its infamous rocks

EIGHTH LESSON: My tolerance for cold has decreased as my tolerance for heat has increased. I hate hate hate being cold. I should stop signing up for races between November and March and use that time to get physically and mentally ready to begin hard training in the spring.

Will I come back to the Reverse Ring? Some races I’ve DNF’d and I honestly don’t care if I go back. But it’s hard to imagine not coming back to the Reverse Ring (despite the cold). I still need the sticker. I still need to experience the unique horror of the last 26 miles. I still need to experience the ridge top pizza oven at Milford Gap. I still need to beat the curse.

If you’re part of the weird tribe who gets this whole Fellowship nonsense and the allure of the orange trail, you understand how it feels impossible for me to continue my journey as an ultra runner and VHTRC member without trying to finish Reverse Ring, no matter how many times I have to fail to get there.

So, I’ll take my colorful mental photo of Reverse Ring - with the new brush strokes from 2023 - and I will come back to see what’s in store for me next.

Last updated March 2, 2023