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

Keith Knipling

Carl’s Report

by Carl Bligan

(Full disclosure, I typed this up on Microsoft Word and it’s clocked at over 3,000 words, so… brace yourselves. I forgot how wordy I can get sometimes.)

Kevin and Carl at the MMT 100

I normally don’t do race reports. I think the only one I’ve ever done (prior to this) was the one I did post-Wyoming Range, and that was mostly because I had over 39 hours’ worth of material to work with. Also, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Given all of the setbacks and low points that led up to my run at Reverse Ring, I figured it was time to write another.

Truth be told, I’d be perfectly alright if all of 2023 just… didn’t happen. Sure, there were high points (i.e. top 5 at Laurel Highlands, winning Greenbrier 25K, top 20 at Hyner, and a peak-bagging vacation up to the Adirondacks to name a few), but they were largely overshadowed by the cavernous low points. I had 3 DNFs, including both of my “A” races for the year, Eastern States 100 and Hellgate 100K.

And then there’s the massive grey cloud in the sky that was my dad’s diagnosis of central nervous system lymphoma back in March that basically fucked the entire year for the entire Bligan household.

Reverse Ring fell just 2 months after my latest DNF at Hellgate, where I succumbed to knee issues at Floyd’s Field about 24 miles into the race. I wound up taking all of December off from running on trails, instead opting to hop on the treadmill on a semi-regular basis to do uphill hikes at max incline. I even went to an orthopedic specialist, who said it was most likely just an overuse injury, and prescribed physical therapy to strengthen the muscles in my legs that aren’t my quads, which are already fairly well-developed. I never did go to therapy, but I did adopt an at-home workout routine that involved A LOT of squats and deadlifts. By the time February came around, my legs were maybe the most “yoked” they’ve ever been. One last hard test run about 3 weeks before RR where I ran a 3:56 Buzzard Marathon suggested that all systems were go, and that I’d be perfectly capable of getting it done.

So, heading into Reverse Ring, I just needed a successful day. What would I consider successful? Well, it simply meant finishing it and having fun while doing so. I threw out any time expectations heading into the race, trying to convince myself that they were secondary and fun was primary. It also helped that I knew my buddy Paul Jacobs would be on the start list, and therefore I had no shot of winning, and thus the pressure was removed (a bit of foreshadowing). Come race week, I was all stoke, ready to stumble around for 71 miles on my favorite mountain.

I didn’t sleep very well the night before, so when we got to the Signal Knob trailhead around 5:15 AM Saturday, I was in a bit of a haze. Still, I knew what I was there for, and I was excited to finally get back on the trail, and just enjoy the fact that I didn’t have to work, and my only “job” was constant forward progress. After a nice poop in the woods, a good influx of caffeine, and a briefing from RDs Jesse and Daisy, we were off, heading up Signal Knob. I was so glad to be going up it at mile 2 rather than down it at mile 69 (nice).

I was running not far behind Paul for the first half mile or so, but soon let him go, not wanting to expend too much energy that early. He’s just too good. My other buddy Anthony Wolosik kept me honest and on my toes not too far behind me as we crested over the mountain, getting ready to run down the other side on by far the most runnable section of the Ring, the Signal Knob fire road. It felt great to open things up a bit, cranking out a few 7 minute miles on nice, gentle terrain. Barely working. My original plan was to finish off my first bottle of Hyle by the time I got to the Powell’s Fort spring and then refill it so I’d essentially have 3 bottles for the first 14 miles, but the spring was further off the road than I remembered and I didn’t want to waste too much time fucking around trying to bushwhack over to it. Said “oh well” and kept working my way towards aid station 1 at Woodstock Tower.

A few PUDs on the way there, and soon I was greeted by a bunch of smiling volunteers all ready to feed us and get us on our way. Shout out to Jose for the hashbrown! Met up with my dad for the first time, got some fresh bottles from him, a few more gels from my tackle box, and a few Trader Joe’s pickle chips for the road (best chips EVER), and headed on my way again, this time towards Edinburg Gap, AS 2. This was where my race fell apart last year, when I wound up succumbing to knee problems (see a trend?). My knees were still feeling okay at this point, but I had a little bit of pain in my right one. Fuck. The anxiety started getting to me a bit, but I kept pressing on, hoping it would either die down or stay at a 2/10. As luck would have it, it did! Still, not wanting to take too much of a risk, after cresting Waonaze and heading down to the aid station, I switched out of my Merrell Agility Peaks and into my pair of Asics Trabuco Max 2s. The Merrells, while EXTREMELY grippy and stable, were just not soft enough for my liking. Fortunately the Trabucos might just be the most comfortable trail shoes I’ve ever worn, and still have plenty of grip and stability to conquer the Massanutten rocks. Had some more food before leaving Edinburg (shoutout to Charlene for the vegan egg burrito), then started the long climb up to the ironically-named Short Mountain.

Short Mountain is so much nicer on fresh legs, and in the other direction. I love the descent into Edinburg, but the descent into Moreland Gap isn’t nearly as nice. Also the PUDs on the ridge started adding up a bit, and I had a bit of a rough patch at this point. Still, I soldiered on, knowing Anthony wasn’t too far behind. The section after crossing Edinburg Gap Road and heading into the aid station was blessedly short and tame, and I was able to get a few cruisy paces heading into AS 3. It was here that I found out that Paul had to drop out due to a knee issue he had suffered a few weeks prior that had flared up during the race. I was massively bummed, especially because I know that he’s capable of doing absolutely incredible things on that mountain. On the bright side, the knowledge that I was now the de facto leader lit a fire under my ass and prompted me to turn on the jets a bit while leaving the aid station. My dad also warned me that it would start raining in a couple hours. What the fuck?! That wasn’t in the forecast! I had been running without a backup jacket in my pack, so I picked up my rabbit waterproof jacket and put it in my pack in case I wound up needing it. Spoiler alert: I did.

The climb off of Moreland Gap Road was blessedly easy, and I even jogged up it a bit. The tots and Impossible sausage patties my dad fried up for me were hitting pretty well at this point. The rain that my dad saw in the forecast wound up being snow, and as the flurries picked up a bit, I wound up putting my jacket on. Good call. Damn was it getting cold at this point. Crested the top of the climb and started the most technical part of the course, the traverse of Kerns Mountain. This is a hard run on fresh legs, and even worse at mile 32. Oh well, at least it wasn’t mile 70 like it is during MMT 100. I did what I could to stay upright and not slip on the massive rocks, jogging every now and then when the trail wasn’t a boulder field. This section is only 6.2 miles but feels like 10. I knew that when I got to Q’s view, I would only have about a mile to go to the aid station at Crisman Hollow Road. Had a nice trail side pee at the vista (far away from the Q’s View rock) and made my way down to AS 4. My dad was there, however he couldn’t help me out at all, as it was technically a “no crew” aid station. Still, I had a number of good running buddies there who took good care of me (shout out to Barry, Heather, Dan, Keavy, and Zach) and got me on my way in no time.

The following section was one of my more dreaded ones of the day. It involved going down Waterfall—a cause for much anxiety—up Big Run, then down the notoriously boggy Duncan Hollow. I got to the top of Waterfall, let out a sigh, than braced for what I was sure would be a hellish descent. 7 rather uneventful minutes later, I was at the bottom, thinking to myself, “Wait… I was worried about THAT?! That was nothing!” Fortunately the snow hadn’t had enough time to accumulate at that point, and the trail was mostly just wet. Sadly, some of my friends who arrived there later in the day had quite a lot less fun (sorry, Nick). The climb up Big Run more than made up for the relative ease with which I descended Waterfall, and was just a bitch slap in the face to me and my tired legs. Cresting the top of the climb at the top of Duncan Hollow, I was met with a winter wonderland, laced with frigid puddles and mud pits. God, I love Duncan Hollow. 6 miles of downhill “delight” between me and the next aid station, the last crewed aid station at Camp Roosevelt.

Joking aside, I do really like the bottom portion of Duncan Hollow where all the creek crossings are. It’s a genuinely nice place to run when you’re not 45 (or 64) miles deep. I managed to come out of there unscathed and arrived at the Camp Roosevelt road crossing, about to head down to the pavilion where the aid station traditionally is during MMT and summer Ring. Fortunately I saw a campfire in the horse lot, and quickly put 2 and 2 together, realizing that the aid station was there instead. Greeted by my dad and my buddies Bruce and Zach, I took a good 8 minutes in the lot to put on another layer, grab my headlamp, and slam some calories before heading into the last 25 mile stretch without crew. Only 2 more climbs from here… right?

Leaving Roosey is a pretty tame climb to be honest, but my legs were just not having it. As much as I wanted to run that gradual ascent, the 3 inches of snow (which were STILL ACCUMULATING despite not even being in the forecast) and physical fatigue just wouldn’t let me. Add onto that the fact that my freshly-changed gloves were already soaked through by the flurries and my body was fighting to warm up, it was just not a fun time. I also managed to get off-course for the first time all day, missing a sharp left hand turn in the section heading up towards Kennedy Peak. I went a good 1/10 of a mile off course, probably cost myself 5 minutes total, but kept my head down to try to preserve whatever lead I still held. I gained the ridge and passed by all my favorite trail haunts that are used by the MMT course: Stephens Trail (FUCK I wish I was just running back down that right now), Habron (not today, Satan!), and Indian Grave (again… not today, Satan!). Seemingly endless PUDs and 11.6 miles later, I finally worked my way down to the last aid station of the day at Milford Gap.

MILF Pizza! 📸 Jamie Greenawalt

This is where I need to pay homage to Sarah and her merry band of bandits. Milford Gap at Reverse Ring is the single best aid station in ultra running. I’ve had the privilege of participating in the MILFy shenanigans at Milford Gap during the summer edition of the Ring, but that’s early on and runners typically don’t need too much other than fluids and maybe some chips. At Reverse Ring, though, Sarah and company go absolutely all out. They hike in a canopy, firewood, untold amounts of booze (mostly for themselves, but also for whoever wishes to participate), and even build a fucking PIZZA OVEN out of rocks on top of a mountain. So fucking cool. Sadly when I got there, they weren’t expecting anybody for a few more hours so the only pizza they had already made was with real cheese and not the dairy-free kind. Still, I had been dreaming of that damn pizza all day, so I made an exception. Damn was it good. And sorry to Andy for stealing his pizza! Sarah also whipped me up a baked potato with vegan cheese and butter, which also hit the spot sooooooo good. Lastly, Keith Dunn hooked me up with a cup of coffee (I was starting to fall asleep on my feet), which lit a massive fire under my ass. I refilled on fluids, and was off for the last 13.5 miles to the finish!

I was dreading the last section the most. Being familiar with the layout of the eastern ridge, I know how annoying the endless rocky PUDs get. Add onto that yet another 1000 foot climb out of Veach Gap that looks WAY steeper on paper than it is in real life, and I was in full butthole-clench mode. Fortunately, the descent into and climb out of Veach Gap were blessedly tame. Almost pleasant. Not too steep, and I was even able to run a good portion of the lower areas on the climb. It got steeper at the top, but never what I would call “brutal.” When I got to the top of the climb, there was a group of guys huddled around a campfire on top of the ridge.

Our conversation went as follows:
Them: “Hey, you good?”
Me: “Yeah, good enough.”
Them: “Whatcha doing?”
Me: “I’m running the loop, I’m 64 miles in right now.”
Them: “Alright, have fun!”
Me: “Yup, y’all have a good night.”

I’m pretty sure they were actually there. Reports from other runners indicate that to be the case.

The trail conditions really started going to shit after the climb out of Veach. Before it was just snow covering portions of the trail between the rocks. At this point, there was now a layer of frost covering the rocks (oh yeah, did I mention the fucking ROCKS?!), which made it damn near impossible to stay upright at times. I definitely went down a few times and hyperflexed my quads each time, but fortunately nothing too bad happened. Legs, just get me to Shawl Gap and I’m home free…

Finally… Shawl Gap! The last big descent. 2.5 miles down to Elizabeth Furnace. I’m almost done with this shit. No crying yet, wait til you can literally see the parking lot for the tears to start coming. I forgot how much that descent sucks. The descent down Tuscarora on the other side of the valley is GORGEOUS, but this one just blew all the dicks. Of course it didn’t help that I was at mile 69 (nice) and running in the dark at this point. I also managed another brief off-trail excursion, again missing a sharp turn and continuing down the old mining trail that cuts straight up the mountain instead of switching back endlessly. This only added a couple minutes, but still, I wanted to make sure I had the win in the bag. Dropping down past the pavilion and through the field, I knew I was home. Less than a mile to go. One last little 200 foot climb off of Fort Valley Road and a right turn to stay on orange, and I was cruising on in to the finish. Rounding the corner and heading back into the parking lot at Signal Knob, I stopped my watch, reading 15 hours and 41 minutes, good enough for 1st overall. Tears in my eyes, I gave my dad a bear hug and made haste to the heated tent to try to warm up and regale the amazing volunteers with my war stories. Thank you to Ivory Lira for the hearty bowls of vegan chili which warmed my bones and brought me back to life!


After hanging around at the finish line to make sure we saw Bradley (2nd overall) and Anthony (3rd overall), we headed back to home base to try to catch up on some much needed sleep. Sadly I sleep like shit after these things and only got 4 hours or so of broken, restless sleep, but we still made it back to the finish line early the next morning to catch our friends Jamie (lone female finisher!), Nick, and John earn their epic finishes. And naturally, we headed to Adroit Theory on the way home to celebrate and replenish our carb stores.

And that’s all she wrote! Many shoutouts to all of the aforementioned volunteers for giving their weekend to help us run 71 miles over a pile of rocks. Another shoutout to co-RDs Daisy Weill and Jesse Fuller for putting on a fantastic run in their Reverse Ring debut! Also need to do a quick shout-out to the title sponsor USWE for providing me with 71 miles of bounce-free comfort in my trusty Pace 8L, which kept everything I needed in reach and in blissful comfort (well, my upper body at least). #uswefamily #nodancingmonkey #uswerunusa The absolute biggest shoutout goes to my dad, who crewed me all day despite the fact that he had just finished up his 12th round of chemo the day prior. I don’t know what I would do without him. I say this all the time, but it’s true: he’s the best dude I know.

If you read all of this… sorry. But I hope you got some entertainment out of it, and I’ll see you on the trails!

Last updated March 6, 2024