John Calabrese

Calabrese Corner: The Reverse Ring

My confidence was on a big time high going into the 2024 Reverse Ring. I had just finished the TWOT 100, and my body was feeling great. I definitely was not cocky, though. Last year I screwed myself badly, and it cost me a finish. I slipped on a log on a stream crossing (pretty much the only stream crossing on the course). I was just tired, and because of the fall and getting soaked, I dropped at Camp Roosevelt. I don’t even like telling this story anymore because the more I do it just angers me, so I really wanted to channel that energy into a finish to correct the mistake.

Race Morning
6 am is a rough start time for a race like this, so for me I have to bring my A game. I woke up at 2:30 am and hung out with my girlfriend, Denise. I had my stuff very well organized and she helped me get ready and out the door. My goal was to get there with 45 minutes to spare. But as I was driving there I desperately had to go to a bathroom, so I luckily found a 7-Eleven that was open, and the whole “process” didn’t add much time. When I got to the start I had to move quick because I only had about 15 minutes to prep. I filled my bottles, took off additional layers, and got on trail shoes. I only got to the start with about 6 minutes to spare — it was tight.

Daisy Weill and Jesse Fuller gave the pre-race safety brief, snapped a picture, and off we went. I was so happy I made it and got everything done, but it had been super stressful for me. I wasn’t sure who to hang with initially until I saw Erin Altemos. I usually start with him and hang until I have to slow down. It usually works because he helps me beat all the cutoffs before he drops me.

A gorgeous sunrise during the opening miles on Signal Knob 📸 Luc Claessens

Erin and I talked a lot about HBOs The Wire, OZ, We Own This City, and a lot of Baltimore Ravens and sports. It’s always good to talk to Erin, he’s a good hang out there. We ran with another Baltimore runner, Ashley Carr. Ashley was in a unique situation for this race because she had to take care of her baby at the aid stations. Her plan was to stop at Camp Roosevelt because it would be too difficult to get the baby up to “the best aid station in Ultra Running” - Sarah Smith’s Milford Gap in the middle of the east ridge section.

The weather was very strange. I was wearing shorts and a long sleeve, but swapped to a T-shirt at times while the temperature fluctuated. Erin said rain was in the forecast, but that forecast was all over the map when I checked throughout the week. I packed a few different items only thing I was really lacking was cold weather gear but I really was banking on it not getting cold out.

A beautiful morning on the orange trail, here at the top of the steep climb up from Powell’s Fort Camp 📸 Stephen Cooper

Aid Station 1
Erin and Kathleen Cusick were there, and Ashley was taking care of her kiddo. The volunteers at Woodstock Tower Aid gave us a crazy amount of food. I didn’t feel bad yet, but they definitely helped lift my spirits. I ate a lot of pancakes and bacon here. Then I headed back out with Erin.

Tough Stretch
I started slowing up here a lot, and Erin went ahead. I remember being alone a good bit during this section on Powell’s Mountain. That was until I caught up with Kathleen. She was having some major issues with her foot. She went ahead after a while, and I went pretty slow through here. It was frustrating, and I remember not wanting to quit, but just feeling pretty aggravated.

Aid Station 2
Erin was ahead, but Kathleen was still there when I pulled in to the Edinburg Gap Aid station. Just like at aid station 1, there was a crazy amount of food and support. I didn’t stay a crazy long time, but I did enough while here to brush off that previous stretch.

Edinburg Gap volunteer Charlene Howard, dishing out the hot grub 📸 Jamie Greenawalt

Things Get Rough
I called Denise after the air station because I had service and told her I was having issues. It started raining. Temps were holding; it wasn’t cold but I worried about being wet for a long time. I took this section across Short Mountain slow; I didn’t push anything.

It started snowing a little bit — nothing crazy but some flurries. I caught Kathleen in the snow on Short, and ran with her for a while. It was really cool to spend some miles with her, as I usually never get a chance since I am way too slow normally to keep up with her. But in this instance, due to her foot issues I got the chance and it was nice to get to know her better! This is when Ashley and John Hord caught up with us. We all ran together. When we got to a road crossing Kathleen took the forest service road and broke off. I ran into the aid station with Ashley and John.

That little slice of heaven that is Moreland Gap 📸 Luc Claessens

Aid Station 3: Clean Up On Aisle John
When we arrived at the Moreland Gap Aid, I was soaked and very cold, so I put on pants, a base layer, and a wind breaker. Daisy helped me get my shoes on while I was eating and getting ready. I needed a lot of help here, and I was really happy the volunteers were so cool at Moreland. [Editor’s note: kudos to the perennial Ring/Reverse Ring Moreland Gap crew of Tom Simonds, Bruce Tweedie and Larry Watson!]

A winter wonderland 📸 John Calabrese

Snow started coming down more heavily now. I was really happy I changed clothes when I did. I was alone a lot in this Jawbone and Kerns Mountain section. I was in such shock that we were getting snow that I took pics and FaceTimed my daughter and Denise. Jillian was in shock, and thought I was running far away or something.

Ashley, Nick, and Jamie caught up to me on Kerns, and then we all caught up to John Hord. We took the downhill into the Chrisman Road Aid station pretty fast to save light going into Waterfall.

Keeping it awesome among the flurries at Chrisman Hollow Road 📸 Luc Claessens

Aid Station 4
I probably should have spent less time here, but the volunteers were great and I wanted to keep up on calories. There were some real all stars there, Barry Hauptman, Heather Dougherty, Dan Fogg, Adam Rasmussen, and Keavy Baylor were keeping things awesome with old school rap, explicit lyrics included. Tasty food and lots of laughs! But the whole vibe felt ominous, like the party before the end of the world in Independence Day. But it wasn’t an alien spaceship about to blow me up but a treacherous descent down Waterfall in the slippery and wet snow.

I was very careful going down Waterfall, but right in the beginning my feet slipped out from under me and I immediately fell on my elbow and back. I was extremely worried when it happened, but luckily I was fine. It’s still not totally right as I’m writing this a week later, but I am grateful that it’s not broken or anything. I was going slow and being careful when this happened, so I took it even slower after.

I caught up to Nick Neakrase, while Jamie Greenawalt and John Hord caught us at the bottom of Waterfall.

Jamie Greenawalt, undeterred by the snow

The Infamous Spot
When we started making our up the Big Run section, I saw where I had fallen during the stream crossing last year and told everyone to be careful. I did not put one foot on that log “bridge” this time. I just waded directly through the water. Everyone made it safely past the crossing, and we headed on.

Slow Haul to Camp Roosevelt
So by now it wasn’t really raining or snowing anymore; it just got really cold. I did not pack super heavy coats or anything, so this was going to be an issue. I was going to need to use what I had in my pack, and hope someone had a spare coat. The miles after Roosevelt would be at a slow pace because I would have so much on and I would not be able to run fast enough to regulate my body temperature.

Ashley passed our convoy in this section, and we kept moving. John Hord and Jamie also went ahead.

The Bionic Man
This was the first time all race that I got to run with Nick Neakrase. I went over the plan of attack for this run in my head earlier while talking to Nick, so I knew we would make sense pairing up on the rough miles after Roosevelt.

Bruce Martin and his aid station at Camp Roosevelt 📸 Luc Claessens

Beat the Cutoff at Roosevelt!
Nick and I beat the 10 pm cutoff, and had about 25 minutes if I remember correctly to prep. Camp Roos volunteer Bruce Martin let me borrow a coat. It was so nice of him! If he hadn’t, I would have been in deep trouble. I also put a poncho from my pack on under the coat for additional warmth. I used Hot Hands and ate a bunch of delicious food that volunteer Zach Weinberger made up for us. I remember a lot of soy — it was so delicious. I also had a Black Rifle Coffee. The stretch ahead is rough, and I knew I’d need it.

Moving On
John Hord stopped at Roosevelt, and Jamie headed out with her pacer Larry Tumblin. I initially tried to keep up with the two of them, but Nick’s pace was much more comfortable at the time, especially with the extra layers I now had on, so I said bye to them and made the trek with Nick.

It was getting cold, but it was pretty (the climb up to Kennedy Peak) 📸 Quatro Hubbard

This stretch here is probably the hardest of the Reverse Ring for me. For anyone reading this who doesn’t know me, I really struggle with sleep deprivation or just sleeping in general. This part was rough! I remember just stumbling around, trying to joke around with Nick, bringing up just about anything to keep awareness so I wouldn’t kick into rocks or anything.

THE Best Aid Station in ALL of Ultra Running!
Sarah Smith, Keith Dunn, and Olivier Leblond all know how runners who get to their Milford Gap Aid station are feeling, and also know how rough it’s about to get over the remaining miles to the finish. Because of this, and their Amazing Food, they have to be the best aid station in all of ultra running. I’ve run many brutal races and I will debate with anyone who wants to say otherwise.

Pizza by the fire, at Sarah’s famous MILF Aid Station 📸 Jamie Greenawalt

They know exactly how to prop up people to get out of there and finish the remainder of the Reverse. There’s no dropping here! They give you delicious freshly made wood-fired pizza, coffee, soda, as well as some great conversation; and then off you go. If you find yourself here it’s a real odd feeling. You’re happy, but also very aware of what’s about to go down until the end.

The Long Walk
Nick and I trudged along. I was literally sleep walking. Nick got on me here and I do not blame him — I was out of it. I slammed a can of cold brew I had in my pack for emergency and moved on. Until that caffeine kicked in I was in a bad way. Nick and I got to a point where we both needed to take a minute to have a full stop bathroom break and gear swap, and just an overall reset. I’m surprised I didn’t have to sleep, but I was okay. Doing all of this got me back to normal, as did knowing we were about to have sunlight.

Sunrise, Day Two! 📸 John Calabrese

Final Push
This is my favorite part of the Reverse Ring. These final few miles can drag and feel never ending, but if you are on this last bit while the sun is rising you get some truly beautiful views. As much as you are whining internally (and externally), you are happy to be up here.

Nick and I kept moving to the end. It felt like it would never stop but we got to the finish line in the Signal Knob parking lot, and were greeted by the finish line volunteers. We took pictures and sat down. We joked around while they fed us delicious food and coffee. A big thank you to Ivory!!

The Master of The Ring! 📸 John Calabrese

Catching Up
I found out Erin Altemos had to drop at Chrisman. I totally get it as the weather was bad. Also found out Carl Bligan won. Carl was super cool, hanging out with us at the finish. He’s such a great guy. I was really happy he got this finish and this win, after a rough 2023 dealing with injury.

The Reverse Ring Is Hard!
If you want to finish hard races you have to surround yourself with the people who will do what needs to be done. There are situations where people are killing it, and then you find out later they drop; it’s kind of unbelievable when you get that news.

I am an average ultra runner, at best, but what gets me through races like this are the people out there. The volunteers on the Reverse Ring are top-notch human beings. They will give you a coat off of their kid, make you a pizza, tie your shoes. They want you to Get It Done.

The people I ran with on this one gave me the motivation I needed to finish. Nick wasn’t even walking a few years ago and now has an artificial knee. He never complained or waffled the entire race. The dude is a rock. Ashley was taking care of her kid the whole race, but still crushing it. Jamie is so positive and a good person, maybe the most calming to run with in ultra running. I know as stressed and crazy as I get she’s always a calming force, and I was glad to spend miles with her on this one.

If you struggle in the Reverse Ring look at the people out there and feed off the motivation. You have to really want it to get this one done.

Congratulations to everyone that stepped up to make this such a great race, especially Daisy and Jesse for taking on RD responsibilities.

I’m doing TWOT 200 next year, but I hope somehow I’m able to do this one, too. Hopefully my body can take it, because I love this race so much! I always love being out there with my friends.