Ever heard of the Rim to River 100-mile ultramarathon?
Pennsylvania runner Emily Flinn had never even heard of it when she was a new mom.
Even running a 26.2-mile marathon seemed like a big, scary, challenge.
So how does an average runner go from a casual four-mile jog when it's convenient to ultramarathon finisher?
You're about to find out.
Raise your hand if you once considered running a marathon unthinkable, something you would never dream of doing.
Now raise your hand if you have surpassed your self-proclaimed expectations and have since run a marathon.
Or an ultramarathon.
Or a 100-mile trail race.
Hand raised? I guarantee you’re not alone.
Because somewhere along your journey as a runner, as you flirted with the idea of running longer, farther, maybe marathon distance, perhaps in response to the doubts in your head, another little voice whispered, “but at the end are smiles.”
You can do it...
Because at the end are smiles...
You knew it would be fun at times, running and training for a long distance race, yet downright miserable at other times.
You knew, too, that those are the experiences most worth living, right? The ones that make you cry a little, or a lot, the ones that force you to dig deeper, to discover what you can do when pushed to the edge.
Because most of the time, at the end of the day, at the end of an unthinkably long race, are the smiles that you pursued.
This is a story about one runner’s pursuit of those smiles at the end.
- A Trail Runner
“I thought that a marathon was crazy,” says Emily, who began running nine years ago after the birth of her first son.
2021 Rim to River 100, held on Nov. 6, 2021
When Emily's 9-year-old son learned that she was going to run the Rim to River 100, he had a hard time wrapping his mind around the challenge.
Run 100 miles? Is that even possible? To try and make sense of his mom's big goal, he wrote a poem about it...
The Rim to River 100Poem by Carter Flinn, age 9
A bad, bad, and more bad run
This is obviously no fun
Running through hills and water
This is a race that obvious(ly) will slaughter
But at the end is smiles
Your happiness couldn’t even be put into piles
But now the race is done
Let’s have some couch fun!
Two years ago, those living within a three-hour radius of West Virginia’s New River Gorge, a mecca of rock climbing, white water boating, hiking and mountain biking, were elated to learn that their very own favorite WV gem would be host to an ultramarathon.
The race’s first year was 2020, and despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it went on without a hitch.
Emily was drawn to the race, held on the first Saturday of November, for its beauty, the quality trails, the time of year (she prefers running races in cooler weather) and proximity to where she lives.
One could arguably call the Rim to River 100 an up-and-coming destination race, especially with the New River Gorge recently given the prestige of a National Park.
The course runs from the cliffs of the New River, down to its banks and back and finishes where it begins at ACE Adventure Resort.
Runners will be:
Emily prepared well for the race. She:
Physically, she was ready.
And because running 100 miles requires mental fortitude, she braced herself for the low points.
She knew they would come.
She knew her body would tell her mind that it was time to quit.
Quitting, however, never crossed her mind, even before toeing the line.
Emily and her husband, Jeremy, departed their home together midday en route to the New River Gorge, on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.
“Jeremy had been traveling a lot, so we hadn't even talked about the specifics of how he would crew for me until we started driving down there.”
It was the first time Jeremy took on the duty of crewing.
They discussed the details.
She gave him a copy of John Vonhof’s Fixing Your Feet: Injury Prevention and Treatments for Athletes.
They arrived at packet pickup, went to check in to their rental for the night and settled in.
Emily ate her favorite pre-race dinner, pasta carbonara, and set out all of her race day essentials (or so she thought).
Emily’s race gear packed and ready to load (Photo/Emily Flinn)
Soon, it was time for bed.
For the three or four nights preceding race day, Emily hadn’t slept well.
So it was with great relief that she fell asleep easily, almost too easily, and early, on the eve of the race.
Yet, it was too good to be true.
At 11 p.m., she shot out of bed in a frenzy.
Realizing she had packed all of her headlamps in her drop bags, which were now in the hands of race officials, she hurried outside to rummage around her vehicle in search of another one.
Light was necessary for the pitch black 6 a.m. start.
Luckily, she found one.
Unluckily, she did not fall back asleep until 2 a.m.
By 4 a.m., she was back up, this time for good.
Four hours of total sleep was all she banked for her upcoming endurance feat.
It was not ideal.
On minimal sleep, she made a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and set off with Jeremy to the start.
Despite embarking upon her longest race to date, she felt calm.
“I wasn’t a ball of jitters.”
Mike Busick, her pacer, met her at the start to see her off. He would see her again at the 50-mile mark with plans to pace her until the end.
With Jeremy crewing and Mike pacing, she would be in good hands.
At 6 a.m., the runners took off.
Her favorite piece of the course was a flat, non-technical section along the New River, the feature that lures many to run the Rim to River in the first place.
“During the day it was nice to run along the river because the leaves are off enough that you can see the river clearly, but they still have good orange colors.”
Emily thoroughly enjoyed the first 50 miles of the race. She ran with a training friend, Brian, plus a couple others whom she befriended. Their company carried her through the first half.
“I was on a really big high, it was so beautiful. Sharing it with those people for that long was pretty amazing.”
“We went a little bit faster than I wanted. I was hoping to do the first 50 closer to 13:30, and we did the first 50 in 12:45 or so, but that’s OK.”
Even though she moved faster than anticipated, she wouldn’t trade the company she kept for slowing down. The people with whom she shared those miles meant the world to her, and she credits them for the first magical 50 miles.
After Emily picked up Mike to pace her at mile 50, the magic of the first half faded and dissolved in thin air.
A lot of little things began to add up…
First, she began excessively urinating, stopping every half mile to mile. Finally, around mile 85, she realized the issue.
Her hydration mix had frozen and clumped into a large ball and wasn’t getting through the straw of her hydration reservoir. Thus, she was consuming lots of plain water.
Emily was experiencing an imbalance of electrolytes. After drinking some Gnarly, a sports hydration mix, from an aid station, her frequent rest stops ceased.
“I don't get tired during those long races, but I don't get smart. I didn’t even think about taking salt tabs, because I wasn’t sweating.”
She learned a valuable lesson: keep electrolytes in check even in cold weather.
Second, she had to stop around mile 80 for about 25 minutes to deal with blisters.
“I had Jeremy bandage them and did not trust him,” she says with a laugh.
Jeremy, however, took his crew duties seriously, read the entire Fixing Your Feet book that Emily had left for him and repaired her feet.
Her third issue: she developed an aversion to eating and reluctantly accepted food from Jeremy only because she knew that without calories, things would spiral out of control and become far worse than what she was experiencing.
Fourth, the bottoms of her feet became incredibly tender. Every tiny rock she stepped upon left her wincing in pain, like knives stabbing upward into her soles.
Fifth and foremost, compounding her physical troubles were emotional ups and downs that lasted for the majority of the latter half of the race.
Emily was at an all-time low.
Her four hours of sleep caught up with her and attempted to break her down.
She randomly cried, for hours and miles.
But with Jeremy and Mike’s support, her tears were quelled enough to just keep moving forward.
Emily had had enough.
She was over it.
“Hey, do you want to do this again?” Mike asked her around mile 93.
“That's a really stupid question,” she replied.
But she didn’t say no.
At mile 98, she uttered the words no pacer wants to hear: “I’m not running anymore.”
At that, Mike stopped, in disbelief.
“I was getting really grumpy, and Mike was like, ‘I can see the road, it's right there,’ and I could see the road but not where the trail met the road, and I didn't really believe the road was there. I wanted to see where the trail actually met the road. I was done with the stupid trail.”
Of course not.
She just wanted to walk until they hit the pavement, an indication that the end was near.
Finally, after what felt like a never-ending slog, they made it to the road.
As she neared the finish line, her heart swelled and eyes filled, again, with tears, but this time they were tears of joy and relief.
Your happiness couldn’t even be put into piles…
She had accomplished something she never dreamed possible for herself, something her mind was once unable to wrap itself around.
“I had the most amazing people helping and could not have done it without them supporting, encouraging and kicking me on my way. Mike… oh, poor Mike. Thanks to that kind soul, I’m not still crying somewhere on the course!”
“Words can’t really describe the emotions at the end of a 100-miler.”
Based on calculations and predictions from her other ultras and long runs, she told Jeremy to expect her between 29 hours and 31:51, nine minutes under the cut-off.
Emily’s time: 29:36:12.
Her favorite part of the race? Having her sons, whom she thought about every step of the way, at the finish, along with her parents.
And at the end of it all… they smiled.
“After finishing, I just wanted to go home.”
She left with her family, stopped for a Dairy Queen blizzard and headed straight for home.
Perhaps for some low-key, fun, well-deserved lounging on the couch.
“Harlan says he’s going to sign me up for an 800-mile race,” she says, smiling. “I don’t think so!”
Though she won’t be running multi-day ultramarathons anytime soon, she:
You just have to want to do it and put in the effort to train.
With that said, it doesn’t mean every time you toe the line of a 100 that success is guaranteed. In fact that’s the allure of 100s - nothing is guaranteed.
But learning from “failures” or missed goals are critical to future success.
You need to want it badly.
I would be worried if I WASN’T excited or nervous a week or two before the race. It just shows myself how badly I want it.
For mine, I wasn’t anxious but was excited and couldn’t stop thinking about all aspects of the race.
Also, it’s good to have a friend running the same race to share that excitement and those feelings.
At the same time, you have to listen to your body.
If you are feeling overtrained, have tiny pains or “niggles,” do what you need to do to address it, take a couple days off, go for easier runs, have a recovery week… do NOT ignore it.
You have to listen to your body during training (then ignore it during the race when it says you’ve gone far enough).
I personally didn’t want lots of travel mainly for post-race soreness and logistics of having kids and dogs.
What She Wore
Some Things She Ate
Favorite exercise besides running
Bucket list run
The Smokies Challenge Adventure Run (SCAR), a 70-plus mile traverse of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park along the Appalachian Trail
Favorite song for an ultramarathon
Short film about the Rim to River 100 that she recommends